I’ve been lucky to see a few TV commercials come together. And as a former Reader’s Digest publication editor, I took part in dozens of professional photo shoots. Truthfully, those days always felt exciting.
Working with sets, props and models seemed pretty Hollywood, even from where I sat, outside the lights, on an overturned bucket, typing on my laptop. Often it was a gripping piece of literary work like “How to Change a Faucet without the Directions” or “Build a Closet Organizer out of a Sheet and Half of Oak Veneer Plywood…in a Weekend.” Truthfully, I liked that writing. I always had this vague notion that I was helping someone, somewhere solve a problem.
But sitting in a director-style chair, on location in Thousand Oaks, California it was clear that nothing could prepare me for the spectacle of national television production. The scale of Locally Laid’s TV spot was nothing short of GRAND – all caps.
We took a dirt road to the ranch surrounded by seemingly unreal foothills, so perfect in their velvety dimples to be an architect’s model. But walking up to the pleasantly faded red barn and water-pumping windmill, I learned that the topography was real, but this quintessential farm was not. The entire ranch was a set, rented by our advertising agency RPA and the production company, Drive Thru Inc, coincidentally from Minneapolis.
There were a dozen or so big trucks filled with props and equipment. They also came with approximately 70 busy professionals, wired to earpieces, an impressive selection of tools swinging off their belts, all walking with a sense of purpose building sets and running cords. Though it was definitely a busy place, it also felt organized. All overheard conversations felt calm, direct and respectful.
But as a owner of a small business startup, all I could see was money being spent – dollar figures appeared in my field of vision as I looked over the rented space, rented trucks, rented props, the incredible food spread put out by craft services, not to mention all professionals from production, advertising and Intuit personal spending a long day out on location. My imaginary invoice totals were enough to make me lightheaded, though I could also blame it on all that sunshine and the rapid influx of Vitamin D after a Duluth winter with 74 days below zero and some 130 inches of snowfall.
Our driver had gotten a bit lost and by the time we’d arrived, we’d just missed the drone shot. This electronically controlled flying machine had been rigged with a GoPro camera and recorded an aerial swoop into the farm. It will be the commercial’s intro.
Now they were onto the chicken shots.
I met LoLa’s stunt doubles, a lovely collection of beautiful birds content in the shade. These were robust, cared for hens whose wrangler Greg, I’m pleased to say, handled them up with the same tender respect we give our girls. No grabbing their legs and carrying them up upside down as traditionally done in the poultry industry. Greg clutched them around the body, keeping wings in as he tucked a hen under his arm, stroking their glossy feathering as he walked.
“You can teach a chicken to do a lot with a clicker and corn,” said Greg, perhaps in his forties (though in California age is really hard to gauge) with rugged, outdoorsy looks. Just a few weeks prior, he’d trained these girls to wear Rastafarian hats, the poultry version being cut from hacky sacks. The headgear wasn’t so much the challenge as much as the strings that tied them on.
“Once they’d made the connection of reward for not shaking the hat off, they tolerated them pretty well,” said Greg. That took about a week of training.
(I wasn’t able to directly photograph Greg because of complex union rules, so I blurred this shot.)
Fortunately, the stunts for this Locally Laid commercial weren’t too tough. A bird standing on the edge of a straw bale, as others pecked at pasture.
The one shot that gave me pause needed a chicken to stretch out her lovely wings. We see this all the time on the farm, it’s a natural behavior, probably akin to humans yawning, but I couldn’t fathom how they’d get a big chicken-y stretch on cue.
“I think you’ll have to give her a little toss to get that shot,” I said to a producer or it might have been one of the assistants to an assistant producer.
“No,” she assured me. “We’ve got trainers on hand.”
There were a lot of takes involving refreshing squirts with water bottles, but no good wing action. About 40 minutes later, I heard over a radio “Can you try tossing the chicken?” and after several attempts in which the bird handily overshot the bale came the gentle request for “more height, less distance please.”
Every few takes, they’d rotate in a fresh bird. Not because the tossing was any hardship (an animal welfare rep was on hand observing all the poultry scenes) but the sun was harsh. It was nearly 90, hot enough to leave a Duluthian and a bird unsteady.
Later, there was a shot inside the white, clapboard farmhouse (also a set) with an egg cracked into a frying pan. It was a real Locally Laid egg from our Northern Minnesota farm. I know this because I brought a dozen in my suitcase wrapped in bubble wrap and a prayer.
When the shot wrapped, the crew let out a victory whoop and I couldn’t help but smile. Although I mostly sat in a chair all day, there was a feeling of accomplishment and some other feeling. Maybe it’s hope. Hope that this commercial, like my old DIY articles, will be instructive to someone, somewhere. That the general public will see the benefit of eggs from hens on pasture. Maybe consumers will look past the cartons of cage-free eggs from chickens who’ve never seen the outside and ask for “pasture-raised” options. This could help producers return to a more pastoral brand of farming and strengthen the sustainable ag movement far beyond Locally Laid.
It’s a lot to ask of a 30-second ad, but if anyone can do it, it would be this talented crew.
As usual, we are humble and grateful birds for all that’s happened to our little egg company. And we couldn’t have been Runner up in the Intuit Small Business Big Game contest without your weeks of daily votes.
The commercial will air in early May.