By Jack Feuer
Published Jan 1, 2008 8:00 AM
As an art director, Brent Thomas '68 co-created Apple Computer's "1984," the spot that introduced the Macintosh during Super Bowl XVIII and is considered one of the most famous ads in history. As a well-known commercial director in the United States, Thomas has shot cars, kids and penguins. But his 2008 job at Green Dot Films, his Santa Monica production company, may be his most personal: UCLA's national NCAA "My Big UCLA Moment" campaign starring six Bruin icons, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar '69, Gary Beban '70 and Dot Richardson '84, among others.
Q. What was the best shoot you've ever been on?:
A. I've done — I counted them the other day — about 2,000, so it's hard to pick the best. Any one where the client patted me on the back and hired me again, those were good shoots. The several that stick out were the big productions where you got the chance to deal with lots of people and zeppelins and elephants and airplanes and things.
See the My Big UCLA Moment campaign.
Q. And the worst?
A. A penguin. It was a job for a maker of handicams, those little video cameras. The notion was a penguin would waddle up to the handicam and there was a snow scene on the cam, and he would peck one of the buttons and suddenly the Caribbean would come up. Simple enough. I call up the animal service company and they give me the name of the penguin guy. He says, 'Yeah, the penguin can do it.' Off I go to shoot the Caribbean stuff. I come back on the day when the penguin has to come out and hit the button. He rushes up, touches the button and waits to get fed. No, no, no, he's got to deliberately walk out. The penguin guy says, 'Well, you didn't tell me that.' 'Yes, I did.' 'No, you didn't.' I was there for 24 hours waiting for the penguin to do it and he never got it, and the spot was killed. I learned a lesson: See it first and be convinced it can be done and then tell the agency I can do it. Until then, all bets are off.
Q. Speaking of small animals, which are the toughest to work with — dogs or kids?
A. Actually, if you really want to know the truth, it's cats. A dog wants to help you. They get that look on their face like, 'I'll do whatever you want, I just don't know what that is.' Cats? Not interested. Kids? It's like shooting wildlife. They just do what they do and you hope it's in focus when they do it.
Q. And Bruins?
A. They were the easiest. The creative team worked with the UCLA administration to select the athletes we would be photographing, and then doggedly conducted extensive interviews with them before we stepped out on the stage on the shoot day. The six we shot for the campaign are all bright, accomplished people. Most of them weren't used to being in front of the camera except for Kareem, so we brought them in as an ensemble so they could hang with each other and see each other go through it. The understanding was you don't have to sell UCLA, it's just about coming up with memorable moments. It was interesting with Kareem, he kind of opened up because he got to talk about something other than being the tallest guy in the room. What really interests him is his intellectual side and here was an opportunity to talk about it.
Q. Working well with your talent, in fact, is one of your signature skills. You're thought of as a people director.
A. Yeah. I would get all the car spots that had an actor in it because the true car guys wouldn't know what to do with them. They know exactly what to do with sheet metal. Eventually, I asked to pursue more of that work. I love working with actors. It's a special treat when you get good ones who can interpret and bring something different and surprise you.
Q. And of course we can't pass up the opportunity to hear your take on the '1984' legend (see below). Was the Apple Super Bowl spot that launched the Macintosh really almost killed by the client?
A. Everybody was terrified. Steve Jobs was very happy with it, but the feeling around Apple was that it was stirring the pot a little too much. We were tweaking the tail of the sleeping giant, which was IBM. Steve told me they showed it to the Apple board before it ran and there was dead silence in the room, and some guy in the back raises his hand and says, 'I vote to fire the agency.' And Jobs says, 'No, I showed it to you because this is what we're doing. Learn to live with it.'
Q. And the rest is, literally, Super Bowl history.
A. I think what made it work was that nothing was going on in the game. And there was nothing going on in the world, so it became this hook for every journalist in town to talk about commercials. [Before then,] we had never really talked about pop culture and commercials as a reflection of American society.
Q. And wasn't ['1984' director] Ridley Scott part of the reason you left the agency business to be a commercial director?
A. I sent the storyboards off to Ridley and he said, 'I am going to shoot exactly this board.' I took that as a validation because if Ridley liked it, I probably had a talent.
Q. Favorite campaign?
A. You know, I love the Apple campaign today. The one with the PC guy and the Mac guy. That's brilliant. They started with that and I've been waiting for them to actually come back around to that.
Q. What's it like being a TV commercial director in a digital world?
A. When I started, I knew exactly what to do. I was the target. But whatever dazzled my eyes back then, it's old now. The cool guy is doing the anti-that. Things I thought were ugly are now beautiful, they have that look. So I'm constantly updating that look and it's a hard thing to do, letting go of things that I held dear. But it's all going to be digital.
Q. Interesting career for a Bruin whose degree is in economics. How'd you end up at Chiat/Day doing advertising?
A. My parents were old school and they said education is fine, but you must learn a trade. My dad made some calls, and I became an apprentice draftsman for an engineering company in Hollywood. So I got into design work. And at UCLA, I shifted to poli sci and I lapped it up. There was a great set of teachers there who were tops in their field. It ignited my imagination and I decided I wanted to be a professor. I said, 'I'll be a graphic designer for a while and build my war chest and take off.' Then the academic end of life receded and I was really getting a thrill out of what I was doing. But I was kind of a bust as a book designer because it had to be very toned down. I was the guy for whom new was never new enough. They said, 'You're in the wrong place. You really need to go into advertising, where there's the shelf life of a french fry.'