The staff of Jefferson Productions, to most everybody else in the company, was “those weird folks way down the hall, who wave at us when we go home at five.”
JP, as it was called, was what is called in the trade a “production house” that would deliver, on tape or film, whatever a customer needed—within reason.
It evolved in the 60's as an adjunct to WBTV's regular operations, as an additional service that could be sold, using the large staff of engineers and production people, and the WBTV studios, which sat idle some of the time.
The venture was so successful that it soon required it own crew, then soon got its own dedicated, fully-equipped studio in a new wing of the building.
In its first years, for awhile, Jefferson Productions was unique—a full-service video facility, with few like it outside of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. It offered everything needed for a succesful production: set-building, props, actors and talented directors, editors, lighting and camera men, and technicians. All experts in their field.
JP maintained ts original identity—as a producer of recorded programs and commercials, and renter of mobile-unit equipment—for about 20 years. In the late 1980's it changed to producing only sports-related programming. In 2006 Jefferson-Pilot Communications sold out, and what we knew as JP became Lincoln Financial Sports. A year later, it was sold again, and it became Raycom Sports.
Few of the JP-produced commercials were ever seen by employees in other departments of the company, since most were for broadcast in other cities. If a spot did happen to air in the Charlotte market, few would recognize it as having been made at JP.
The team of talented professionals required to make a good commercial is headed up by the Director. There were many of them over the years at JP, including Norman Prevatte, Don McDaniel, Ed Wade, Robert Rogers, Bob Newcomb, Martin Beck, Elmer Hilker, Jerry Wilson and possibly more. Some worked in the film medium, some in videotape, and some in both. We've obtained a reel of 20 or 30 videotaped spots from the early 1980's and chose 11 of them for inclusion in this little trip down memory lane. They are fairly representive of our work in those years. As we come across more, we'll include them.
For the most part, Jefferson Productions customers were advertising agencies from the East and Midwest: New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, Richmond, Charlotte, and anywhere in between.
Those from northern cities had the idea we were, climatically, in the deep South, with sub-tropical foliage. Every year, along about February, they would write commercials they planned to run in the coming Summer. And so they'd head south.
This spot required a green hillside of lush grass and blossoms. Hard to find around here at the end of March, but, as usual, we made do. We found a farm field of young wheat. The plants were only high enough to cover her ankles, so we dug a shallow hole for the actress to stand in, placed some fake flowers in strategic locations, and voilá.
The "u-turn" graphics were added later back at the studio.
JP had plenty of outside resources—freelancers for crew work, food preparation, wardrobe, location scouting, props searching, talent and casting services, etc. But Charlotte came up short in the choreography department. A local dance teacher may have created these dance steps and trained the cast, but it's likely either the New York DFS producer brought his own, or the talented director Martin Beck designed the dance himself.
The male singer/dancer was cast in New York; the chorus girls were area ladies. Dick Taylor plays the milkman. The sound track was recorded in advance in New York; it was all lip-synched.
Props and Sets
For the most part, the only set pieces we kept on the premises from one shoot to another were the walls. These were "flats" that could be reused to create walls, either interior or exterior. They might be permanently faced with panelling or imitation stone or brick, or plain, to be repainted or wallpapered as needed.
But often new items had to be built. We had a marvel of a woodworker, Floyd Grass, who could build anything. Sketch out a diagram on the back of an envelope—he'd build it: kitchen cabinets, boats, desks, ornate furniture, whatever.
The furniture and appliances need for any particular production were usually rented from a very short list of cooperative stores, for a percentage of the retail cost. Smaller set-dressing items items might be borrowed from shops, or, if necessary, purchased.
To create a supermarket, say, we'd "borrow" dozens of cases of grocery items from some wholesaler, and rent the shelving from a firm that specialized in such.
Once, for a bank commercial, we had to borrow 14 new Mercedes-Benz automobiles from a local dealership (what were they thinking?). We drove them across town, arranged them on an open field in two circles to represent the two zeros of a percent sign (%). (We used strips of painted plywood to make the slash mark). The camera was high above on a 60-foot crane. Helluva job moving 14 cars around. In January. In a muddy field. Try it sometime.
Some ads are time-critical, meaning they'll run for only a short time (“contest ends March 22nd!”) and never be seen again. So the client (in this case, General Mills) is never inclined to spend a lot of money on them.
In this spot, in a dream sequence, we see the family rafting on the wild Colorado; enjoying the World Series; skiing the slopes of Aspen; and horseback riding in the Rockies. Impossibly expensive to film—this looks like a job for Mr. Chromakey.
The actors never left the studio. The kitchen scene was the only fully “real” setting. All others were minimum sets in front of a blue screen, a few props, a few extras to fill the stadium “stands,” a rubber raft, a few buckets of water, four horses and some still photos to provide backgrounds.
It probably took a long day to shoot the spot, and a day of editing and adding effects. Of course there were many hours of designing, planning, casting, preparation and setup ahead of shoot day.
All the on-screen talent was local. Fran Taylor is the mother. The soundtrack was recorded in advance in New York.
Very often we'd rent someone's home for a day or longer, to shoot inside or outside. Imagine what the homeowner is in for. A horde of production people (resembling the Vikings in a Capitol One commercial) will invade, filling rooms with lighting and grip equipment—perilously close to your precious antiques; snaking ominus-looking cables across your expensive wooden floors; covering the outside of your windows with sheets of blue gel; parking all manner of vehicles along your section of the street and in your driveway; littering your lawn with huge lights, reflectors; parking a noisy van-size, smoke-belching generator in front of your neighbor's house. Soon there will be half-empty coffee cups all over your downstairs, and your bathroom will...well, never mind.
Would all this be worth $100, $300, or even $500? You decide.
Once we had to find an old suitable-looking barn, and persuade (and pay) the farmer to let us paint on one entire side a huge Red Man Chewing Tobacco ad. To sweeten the deal, we told him that, after the shoot, we'd restore his barn to it's original shade of gray, or whatever color ancient, unpainted barn siding is. Fortunately, afterwards he decided he liked the ad and wanted to leave it on his barn. We breathed a very big sigh of relief. It would have cost thousands to restore it to its original oldness
In the '70's and '80's, practically every TV viewer in the land was acquainted with the Ty-D-Bol man. So pervasive were the spots that, when New York actor Dan Resin, the first to fill the role, died in 2010, this appeared in newspapers nationwide:
WAYNE, N.J. (AP) - Actor Dan Resin, who portrayed the dapper Ty-D-Bol man in the toilet-bowl cleaner's TV commercials, has died at 79.
What a legacy. He appeared in movies and broadway plays (and could have done many other marvelous things, for all we know), but he's remembered mostly for pitching a toilet cleaner 20 years ago.
Mr. Ty-D-Bol's birthplace was in Jefferson Productions' studio; his godfather was Director/Producer Ed Wade. The concept was simple: a tiny man stands in a little boat inside a toilet tank, and tells a housewife about the merits of the bowl cleaner. “Helps clean and deodorize your bowl automatically every time you flush.”
In later incarnations, the actors—and the boats—evolved. WBTV's Dick Taylor was the fourth TDB man, succeeded by Larry Sprinkle (WCNC-TV's weatherman for many years), who did several in the series. In this one Fray Taylor is the housewife.
The “floating fleet” included, over the life of the campaign, a Viking craft, a cabin cruiser, an outboard runabout (above) and a rowboat, all built by JP's Floyd Grass, Ed and Operations Manager George Booker.
The Chromakey blue screen process was used, of course. For realism, the boat sat on a blue-colored-tarp, under which was a large pile of loosely-inflated inner tubes, so that when the actor moved, the boat would wobble “naturally.”
Well-known actors occasionally came to Jefferson Productions to appear in commercials. Usually the agency would arrange and pay for their airfare (first class, of course). We would line up a suite in the finest hotel (of course) and reserve a “car” (Lincoln Town Car or better, of course) to drive them from and to the airport. It's in all their contracts. Some were sweethearts to work with, friendly and accomodating. Some weren't.
Barbara Eden came often, as did Peter Graves and Bill Cosby. Many others were one-time-one-day visitors, and a few spent as much as a week in our studio, such as Jerry Clower, Louis Nye and Jackie Mason.
Actors cast in New York were union, of course, and great care was taken to provide timely meal breaks (to avoid penalties), prevent overtime and, if they were down only for a day, make sure they made that last flight to LaGuardia.
The biggest pain in location shooting for our producers was—lunch. Unlike Hollywood productions, we neither had, nor could afford, catering. Usually lunch meant a run by a production assistant to the nearest barbecue joint. When we'd be miles from town with a carload of good ol' Southern hawg just arriving, one could count on some sweet, demure New York actress to whine, “But I'm a vegetarian.”
As Ed describes this one, “it was all done in the switcher.”
Well, almost. After shooting one complete revolution of a well-lit oversized contact lens, a few live-action scenes and several title cards, it was “just” a matter of matching the lens rotation footage with digital rotation of each of the interior scenes, marrying them together, then assembling them all into a 30-second sequence. Piece of cake.
Videoman Cliff Whitney played a large role in the planning and execution of this project, as he did in so many others.
Digital effects had just arrived in the early '80's; Computer generated images (CGI) and all thatwas way in the future. Physically matching movement of two separate images was practically impossible, which severely limited the “realism” in background keying.
Consider the Ty-D-Bol spot. Notice, in the shots of the actor in the boat, or sitting on the edge of the toilet tank top, that the camera never moves. No zooms or pans. Of course the actor/boat is from one camera, the toilet is from another. To adjust the shot on one would require an exact (physical) adjustment on the other. Nowadays multipe cameras can be locked by computer, so that all movements are in sync.
So the K-Mart Optical spot was something of a JP groundbreaker. Now it can be told: Cliff Whitney reveals that a new piece of computer equipment had just arrived (perhaps on trial) that made all that perfect matching possible.
"the talent" was the term we used to refer to the on- and off-screen actors in a commercial or program. Some was cast in New York, but most was obtained through the Jan Thompson Talent Agency in Charlotte. Jan and her staff had a file of several hundred males and females of all ages and varying degrees of experience.
Casting sessions for spots like this one, with a large cast, would take most of a day, with dozens of actors showing up to be seen by the agency producer. WBTV's Lynne Bradley won the audition for the principal (speaking) role. Fran Taylor and Ellen Gray are among the six “customers.”
For the most part, Jan's stable of talent consisted of people who were not tied down by jobs that would prevent them from taking the time off for auditions and (possibly) acting. Lots of salesmen and housewives.
"The product," always supplied by the agency, is the cars, boxes, cans, or bottles containing the item being advertised. In this case, it was a large number of bolts of fabric.
Sometimes just handling and storing the “stuff” was more of a problem than actually shooting the spot. Once, for a long shoot for a brand of cake mix, an 18-wheeler arrived from General Mills with several ovens, a huge assortment of pans, bowls, utensils, and tons of cake mix. A cadre of GM bakers and decorators flew in to create “perfect” cakes of all shapes and varieties. Our prop room—now their kitchen—was littered for days with their many imperfect creations.
In commercial or movie production, dogs are a different breed of actor, so to speak. In our work, they almost always were from L.A. JP was usually not involved in hiring them, for the agency would arrange for their training to start well before we were awarded the job.
If, say, three dogs were involved, the trainer(s), weeks prior to the shoot, would train about six (two or more of each similar breed) to do whatever was required. Then he would fly the animals to Charlotte (first class, of course). We would recommend suitable lodging. Doggie duplication is necessary, for if the star dog fails to perform, an understudy will.
In almost every animal scene, watch for it: when he completes his task, he'll look off the set at the trainer, watching for his next cue.
Never, never, ever rely on an untrained animal. Once our film unit was stranded for days at a North Georgia location, waiting for an agency-provided “tame” hawk to fly back into camera range. The agency was asked to cover the cost overruns. You could hear the whining for miles.
Another blue screen sensation. Built bedroom and kitchen sets. We shot the actor (Gene Kusterer) in front of the blue screen (except when he walks through the kitchen). The borrowed bus was parked just outside the studio and stocked with several extras, including George Gray.
Nowadays, there's hardly a program, movie or internet video that doesn't use this technique. Only now they mostly prefer green instead of blue. You can even perform magic like this on your home computer.Test spots
This is called a “tabletop” production, in which no actor or set is involved, and the object to be shot fits on a small surface. Seemed simple enough at first. Then questions arose. How do we suck the tea from the “d”, and how do we control the flow rate? How do we refill the vessel? Sometimes we had to figure out the “how” only after we were awarded the job.
Agencies awarded jobs to companies like ours through a bidding process. When there was a commercial to be produced, the agency would invite two or three production houses to bid on it. They'd send us a storyboard, a script or, sometimes, only a verbal description of the commercial.
Usually they'd want the price the next or even the same day. So we'd (too quickly) formulate a firm number based on what we thought it would take. It was not uncommon for the bid request to be bogus; the agency producer having already decided someone else would get the job. He was using us and others as a formality, to see if the awardee's price was within reason.
Price was not the only—sometimes the least—consideration. The reputation of our director, his approach and his ideas for making a good concept into a great spot was of vital importance to the agency. Having previously worked with JP was also a big plus.
Sometime, perhaps weeks, later, production would begin, and then we'd find out whether the details of our bid held up to reality. Once we flew a crew of 10 to Memphis. Upon landing we discovered the bid sheet had included no airline fares. So we'd generously contributed the cost of 10 roundtrip tickets. Too bad. Firm bid.
Another tabletop spot, this one was perhaps JP's most celebrated. It ran on the networks seemingly for months. A plain jar of coffee is seen. A pair of hands come into frame and screw on a percolator top. Then they attach a spout. Then a handle. Then they plug in an electrical cord. The “pot” begins perking and steam rises from the spout. A hand grasps the handle and tips the spout over a cup. Hot steaming coffee comes out.
How'd they do that? Work began on the “how” about three weeks before the shoot. Early on, it was determined that two reservoirs inside the jar would be required. One would hold a coffee-like liquid laced with some chemical, which, upon being introduced to the liquid (laced with a different chemical) in the other reservoir, would immediately produce heat and smoke. But which chemicals? Assistant Producer Janice Crews was dispatched to find out. She consulted a pharmacist at a local drugstore who identified the chemicals needed. He actually sold her a supply.
Director Ed Wade built six mockups until one performed as needed. The tilt of the jar would mix the chemicals sufficiently to produce the smoke.
But wait. Didn't the smoking begin before the jar was tilted? Yes. This was the result of an eye-dropper out of camera range dripping a little hydrochloric acid into the spout. Tricks of the trade.Of course, the production was not as easy as we've made it. A lot of other physical and technical complications had to be overcome, as well.