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Working the Commercial Set:

Actors Take On 8-Second ScenesBy Roger Armbrust

"Valley Telephone Banking Center. How may I help you?" chimes Lisa Gunn, seated in front of a computer workstation, her shimmering reddish-brown hair crowned by a headphone set. But Gunn isn't really a bank employee trying to aid a customer. She's an actress, working to assume that role with a hot, filtered light baking her feet, a mike hovering just overhead, a Panavision camera recording her slightest move, and an experienced director judging the quality of her work.

The action is taking place this May morning at Silver Cup Studios in Long Island City, just across the East River from Manhattan. Travisano DiGiacomo Films principal-director Ron Travisano is shooting interiors for agency Waring & LaRosa's new Valley National Bank (New Jersey) campaign. In an age when ad firms protect their shoots with the secrecy of Woody Allen guarding his movie titles, both production company and agency were gracious enough to let Back Stage follow three Screen Actors Guild stalwarts--Gunn, L.J. Ganser, and Jessica Moritt Frankston--through their paces. The acting trio also reflected on the professional approach to performing in commercials.

This day, Gunn's hours are actually better than a banker's. She arrives at 8 am, and will be "wrapped"--the jargon for completing a successful shoot--by 12 noon. Ganser and Frankston espouse their dedication by meeting the 6 am call for makeup, and find themselves in front of the camera around 9 am. They'll spend the next couple of hours repeating a scene through 25 or 30 takes.

But the repetition isn't caused by any actor's miscue. Here, the camera rules. Travisano and Barry Markowitz, his director of photography, are refining an intricate dolly shot which opens with the camera peering through a prism at Ganser leaning against a kitchen countertop, tapping away at a calculator. But Travisano's opening shot is so tight, it appears that Ganser is an executive in his office.

The camera moves at a "dutch" angle, as if the viewer's head is cocked to one side. It pulls back to reveal Ganser at "home," the kitchen flooded by soft, "early morning" light, a steaming cup of coffee (actually hot water) between him and the camera. As Ganser jabs the machine's keys with his pencil, Frankston, standing dutifully at her mark just off camera, takes Travisano's cue to walk into and out of frame. She moves to the refrigerator, not in a normal straight line, but at a right angle, so she moves back into frame at the perfect moment. And at a second cue, Ganser steps from the free-standing counter to the wall phone and makes a call. During the scene, the voice-over announcer will let the viewer know that a customer can call Valley National from home, any time.

Neither Ganser nor Frankston speaks during the scene, but under SAG contract, Ganser is considered a principal, and Franston an extra.

Principal Rule

"The basic rule is that if you occupy the foreground of the picture, and you're readily recognizable with the product if someone can say, 'Oh, that's L.J. there!' then you're a principal," explains Ganser, whose history covers eight years of commercials. "You can do principal work without speaking. I've done it many times."

To Travisano, the human element communicates the product message, so the no-line actor carries just as much power as one with a mike. "Without dialogue, an actor can be treated like a prop," Travisano observes. "I hate using actors like props. I do whatever I can to involve the actor in the scene. While I'm watching each take, I try to be like a sculptor chipping away."

Travisano has a museum full of commercial "sculptures." He was a co-founder of the highly successful Della Femina, Travisano & Partners ad agency--with $350 million in billings--before he decided to break away in 1985 and direct. "I started an ad agency when I was too young," he quips, "and began to direct when I was too old."

Don't believe him. With curly grey hair and a bear-like build, he blends experience and a gentle manner to carry a relaxed air throughout the set. While he and Markowitz are fighting the clock's second hand, attempting to capture Ganser and Frankston's moves with the dutching, dollying camera in eight seconds, Travisano is constantly attentive to detail. But he blends direction, and correction, with humor and compliments. "Don't show the kitchen," he sing-songs to Markowitz. Complimenting the crew's creation of hazy morning light, he says, "Good smoke, guys. Nice work." And from time to time he simply breaks into a line from an old song to keep folks loose.

He also knows where the money lies, and continually checks with the seated agency team, art director Rob Schnapp and producer Marcy Haimowitz, and Valley National's John Harris, senior vice-president of marketing, to make sure that they share one vision.

He constantly remarks to the actors about their timing, and reminds them to keep their motions natural. He tells Frankston to "snug" the refrigerator door rather than stand out from it. He compliments Ganser's eyeing the calculator while on the phone, as if his character is memorizing the numbers he wants to discuss with his banker.

Ganser says later, "Ron wanted me to figure from these calculations that I had something I needed to speak to my banker about. I try to bring my life into it and make it real for me. So I acted as if I had extra money in my account and wanted to call my broker. I have a broker, an old friend, so I had him in my mind when I did the scene."

Frankston, who has acted for eight years, says her role as wife felt natural because she's married and has a child--so natural, in fact, that she didn't really think about it. Her concentration was on her mark and Travisano's direction of when and where to move.

By 10:15 am, Travisano gets what he wants. "Perfect!" he insists, then other voices echo his: "You're wrapped!"

Gunn's Turn

The crew immediately turns its attention to the western portion of Studio 10, and the banking center interior consisting of six cubbyholes with computer terminals and headphones. In the background is a huge window framing green landscape scenery. Travisano lights the set softly, for an interior nighttime effect. Extras take to the computers, "answering" calls.

By 10:35, the camera rolls, establishing the banking center, then finds Gunn at her post, brightly responding to a call. She plays the camera, keeping her head toward it. Travisano advises her to look in different directions, and she does.

As Travisano and Markowitz discuss camera movement, the actors sit patiently at their desks, waiting for their next cue to become eight-second bankers. For 22 takes, Gunn's voice doesn't waiver as she repeats her line, then follows Travisano's direction to softly ad lib extra lines as the camera fades.

"Waiting on the set, I try to keep very relaxed, stay quiet," Gunn remarks. "I know a lot of actors like to joke and talk; but I kind of keep quiet and stay within the context of the scene. If I'm waiting a long time, I make sure I drink a lot of water to keep hydrated. It's also easy to fall into pitfalls, because these shoots are well-catered. I really try to watch what I eat."

For their efforts, Gunn and Ganser each pick up $443.25 under SAG's eight-hour working-day contract, according to Waring & LaRosa's talent department. They receive another $15 if they supply their own wardrobes. Frankston, who was hired as an extra with a principal option--meaning Travisano could increase her role if he felt it necessary--gathers in an extra's $240 salary. The principals also receive residuals for each time the spot runs.

The Actors' Avenues

The three actors found commercials through separate avenues. After satisfying his youthful desire to travel, Ganser settled in at Boston University where he received a degree in film and broadcasting, then says he "foundered" in New York until he took the two-year Meisner training program with Kathryn Gately. He acted in out-of-town theatre and cabaret, then returned to Manhattan to perform showcases while searching for an agent. Linking with a smaller agency, he began doing non-union commercials, then got a Pontiac commercial which moved him into regular work.

He credits Joan See at Actors In Advertising with really molding his commercial acting technique. "She opened my eyes to what I was doing wrong. You see yourself on camera and realize that less really is more. The camera's a foot away. You've got to relax, almost like you're lying across the pillow from someone; you can be that quiet and have to be that trusting."

Gunn was attending Philadelphia's Temple University in its graduate theatre program. "I noticed people in class ahead of me who would do industrials, making $350 a day, and I was waiting tables," she said. She approached casting agent Mike Lemmon, and soon landed her first commercial for a Philly department store.

Frankston studied acting in school, "but didn't have the guts to pursue it." So she worked on the editorial staff at Simon and Schuster and other jobs. Then actually "visited" her way into commercials. She went to a shoot to see her husband, who has a video company. "It was a real-people commercial for Marshall Stores." The agency team evidently was impressed by her "realness," and invited her to go shopping at Marshall's. She seems to just keep showing up in the right places. She was a stand-in for Woody Allen's "Husbands And Wives." He saw her, and suddenly was asking her to play a five-minute part.

Some Good Advice

So what advice do these seasoned pros have to offer actors trying to break into commercials?

Ganser: "Take an on-camera commercial class. You've got to see yourself on camera, so spend the money and write it off your taxes. Another thing: Look in the mirror and imagine you're saying a line from a commercial. I pretend I own the company and I've spent 10 years developing a steering wheel, and I'm telling my best buddy. If you can't fool yourself, if you believe yourself, you know you're on the right track.

"Commercials aren't the end-all, but it's a way to save energy if you want to do other kinds of theatical work. Do a couple of commercials a year, you get health insurance. Not a whole lot of people make a living with commercials, but it's good supplemental income."

Frankston: "Classes help. You'll see if you're able to do it, or whether you freeze up in front of the camera. Also, your teacher may have contacts and recommend you if you're really good. Commercials often use types; people see I'm the type, and they offer me work."

Gunn: "Keep getting yourself out there, and just be the best at who you are. You just have to realize that sometimes you fit what these people see as their vision for the product, and sometimes you don't. The more you get out there, the more you'll relax when auditioning and performing, and the better you'll be."

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