How to Make An Anti-Commercial with Director John Lynch and Editor Darrin Roberts

In this installment of ‘How Do’ we explore shooting an “anti-commercial,” a product driven video which doesn’t necessarily overstate the brand, with surf filmmaker John Lynch and editor Darrin Roberts. In other words, an anti-commercial uses a bit of charm and story telling to sell a product in use without being too in your face about it.  Both John and Darrin share their thoughts as they explain how they used their film ABROAD as a way to show how PENTAX are making competing DSLR cameras. Hint: These anti-commercials are also a great way to get a project financed in a different way then most are used to.

The short film ABROAD stemmed from two desires: one, PENTAX had commissioned me to make a short film of exotic nature with surfing in it. They wanted show that their DSLR cameras were good enough to make films and compete in the market of other top selling DSLR’s.

The second was my desire to find and tell a compelling story and test my ability to show surfing as a integral part of a story with out it being the story.

What are the key elements that make a good “ANTI COMMERCIAL”?

“Anti-Commercial” is an unofficial term that we loosely threw around when we talked about the nature of the piece, based on Darrin’s experience with similar projects.  It’s a misnomer.  We set out to make a documentary film that tells a good story, regardless of the project’s origins.  Our effort was in doing that job well.  In this case, we agreed that to mention PENTAX and the fact that I’m a photographer was essential to the beginning of the film’s story.  This would create an honest context for the story in the first act.

In a piece like this, the most important quality is honesty.  ABROAD works because it’s honest in nature and we made a conscious effort to keep integrity. Be true to your audience and work from a desire to show them something you believe in.  In the case of ABROAD, we decided that we wanted to express a simple and honest message that was from the heart.

How do you convince a company to sign on for an ‘Anti Commercial’ as apposed to a normal commercial?

This kind of approach is no secret, it’s documentary storytelling, and you have to perceive a willingness in the client for this kind of thing.  If somebody likes that vibe, outline a story and maybe they’ll be willing to listen.  A commercial is flat out selling and branding to you. In ABROAD, I kept the film as non logo-centric as possible.  I had Alex flip his shirt inside out a few times. It’s a documentary film, and even though you can claim Fair Use, we wanted to stay clear of brands and branding in general in order to keep the story at the forefront, not the apparel or the gear of other companies.

PENTAX was willing to give us full creative freedom to tell whatever story we thought was most important and would fit.  The implication is that this camera can shoot a documentary — just like a Canon or a Nikon – Not necessarily selling a particular camera. But at the same time, this work does require the ingenuity and skills of real filmmakers to recognize how to make this kind of thing work. It’s certainly not an amateur’s game.

What did you learn, if anything from this process?

We didn’t necessarily have any revelations during the process.  It’s doc filmmaking, and Darrin and I have experience with that. We had an inkling that if we asked people to participate — that if I could hand a camera to a stranger and get usable footage — that not only would this create friendly human interaction out in the world, but that also it would be a subtle reminder to get out there and get going, get involved. It’s honest. It’s in the story. It’s just there. That’s the point I’m trying to make here.

After we finished, Darrin made this observation that I’ve been doing this life of traveling/shooting/surfing for a long time now.  With each project I grow and realize I have a potential to get into a good story and come back to tell it.  I’d like to think this could be true for anybody reading this.  When I learn that Alex and Eeva “lead by example,” and I communicate this to the audience, then people will pick up on this that they, too, can learn from the example I hope to set.  “When I stepped out from behind the camera and got involved, my whole world opened up.”  And yours can too if you know what to look for out there in the wild.

I will say that one aspect that was unexpected in ABROAD was some of the public response to particular scenes in the film. These comments are on Vimeo if anyone wants to check them out.  For instance, consider the part of the story when the kids were kissing Alex’s hand after he’d given each child a backpack, this action of kissing the hand was a show of respect from children to their elders.  But it looks strange to western eyes.  One out of ninety-nine people might not understand the custom, it’s foreign to them. I shot it and we used it in the movie because that’s how it went down.  It’s been great for us to get feedback and hear the voice of the audience. I’m beginning to really embrace this new era of our work being accessible and having the audience reciprocate back. The truest sense of community. I love the debates it stirs and being able to have the conversations with the audience.

Any last words?

It’s a documentary filmmaking process. This is what we do. You pick up and gain experience with each new endeavor. It’s a lovely way to make a living, see the world, and share that vision — your perception of something extraordinary with the world. I would love to do more of these types of projects with companies that can embrace this style of work.

For more of John’s work, check out

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