Written By: Marie-Claire Rochat | Photography By: Kit Noble
Behind the scenes of famous toy commercials with Dan Driscoll.
It was a thirty-second commercial of a child dipping a crinkle-cut fry into a glob of ketchup that launched Dan Driscoll’s career in the toy commercial industry. That award-winning ad for McCain’s Superfries caught the attention of execs at Mattel who hounded Driscoll’s sales reps and producers until he finally agreed to take on the corporate parent of Barbie, Polly Pocket, and Action Shifters as a client. “Kids are hard to work with,” says Driscoll, “and I resisted it like crazy. But my producer kept kicking me to take it, and I am very glad I did.”
For more than thirty years, Driscoll has produced and directed commercials for some of the world’s most recognizable brands — Puma, Spaulding, Ford and General Mills, to name a few — as well as numerous regional companies and entities including TJ Maxx, The Massachusetts State Lottery and, as he puts it, just about every small bank in New England.
Located in an eight-thousand-square-foot loft in the South End, Driscoll’s September Productions became Boston’s largest production company with eight directors and as many freelance producers and stylists on staff. His jobs took him all over the country to work with everyone from endearing nine-year-olds plucked from casting calls to some of the biggest names in sports, such as Larry Bird, Martina Navratilova and Pele. Today, Driscoll, who is now more or less retired, works out of a studio above the garage of his Nantucket home. It’s cluttered with all the equipment one would expect to see in the workspace of a self-described workaholic who is still very active in the film business.
These days, Driscoll travels to Vancouver twice or three times a year to film blocks of ads for Mattel. While a lot has changed since he launched his company in 1978, making toy commercials remains big business with lots of moving parts. “Everything is carefully scripted and all the details are worked out before we begin to shoot,” says Driscoll. “Overtime for us is thousands of dollars, and we are always on a budget.” The art direction needs to be flawless so that the ad demonstrates exactly what the toy does. “You cannot show the product doing anything that it doesn’t actually do,” he explains. “You have to be careful not to oversell or overpromise.”
And then there is the meticulous image of the toy that gets projected. Take Barbie for instance. “We go nuts if there is one flyaway hair,” says Driscoll. “The doll stylist has to come in and fix the hair; it has to be perfect.” He has worked with the same stylist — who travels the globe full-time making sure that doll’s locks are well-coiffed — for close to eighteen years.
Flyaway hairs aside, in Driscoll’s experience, problems on set usually stem from the talent. Take, for instance, an ad Driscoll was shooting for Spaulding that featured Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Julius “Dr. J” Erving. Bird and Johnson were archrivals and refused to be on the basketball court at the same time — let alone on the same set. The superstars finally agreed to share the spotlight after Erving intervened. When filming an ad for Puma, tennis ace Boris Becker refused the limo hired to transport him from his hotel to the set, demanding a helicopter for the ten-minute trip.
But it is not only adults acting like children that can hold things up: children acting like children are what turn many directors off. “Kids are good for the first three to five takes,” says Driscoll. “After that, they go downhill quickly. The key is to keep the chaos down on the set. Overall, I have been very lucky to get performances out of them. It’s like being a teacher; there’s a lot of psychology to it.”
Driscoll claims that each of his toy commercials may be his last. “My work with them is fading slowly, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that their budget is shrinking,” he says. “We simply can’t do some concepts at the level we are doing it for the budget.” When he does indeed shoot his last toy commercial, Driscoll will stay plenty busy. September Productions is by no means defunct. These days, he creates short films for island nonprofits as well as wedding videos. Looking back on his professional career, he has no regrets. “I am so thankful. I went to work every day and loved what I did. I am ready for what is next.”