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An Ocean of Calm in Chicago

Anthony Vagnoni

While the rest of the industry rocks with tumult,
it’s business as usual at Big Deahl in Chicago

The senior creative team of Mike Ward and Gail Offen and their producer, producer Phyllis Shook, all from Doner in Southfield, have worked together numerous times in the past.  When they come to Chicago to shoot with tabletop director
David Deahl, co-founder and principal at Big Deahl Productions, Shook makes it sound like a break from their routine. “You know, a producer’s job is to anticipate problems,” she says.   “But when I work with David, I actually sleep at night.”

The trio has collaborated with the master on quite a few jobs, and all are struck by his intensity, his obsessive attention to detail, his creative vision and above all his sense of calm and confidence.  “It just permeates the set, and inspires confidence in everyone around him,” says Offen.  “He surrounds himself with good people and is totally focused. You know it’s going to get done and it’s going to look great.”

Deahl has come to this outward sense of calm by dint of talent and experience.  He started early, shooting stills in his late teens, one of which found its way into the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.  He landed in Chicago to apprentice in photography, setting up his own one-man studio in 1972.  Four years later, he was joined by Rosemary, who has been his partner now for 33 years.  She started as his rep and studio manager, running the business side of the operation.  It’s a model relationship that’s endured to this day, with Rosemary handling all bids and production contracts, and David concentrating on production. 

After a dozen years shooting stills for every major agency and brand, he moved into directing, and now has two decades’ work of tricks and insights to rely on. His client base is international—basically, if it’s something you eat or drink, there’s a good chance Deahl has shot it.

He and Rosemary work out of a large, contemporary studio in Chicago that boasts three stages, a full-up professional kitchen and amenities that are hard to find these days.  “It’s a huge advantage for us,” says Rosemary.  “For example, a job with lots of rigging—we have the luxury of testing for a few days to work things out, and that might not be represented in the bid.”

The facilities are as much a part of the studio’s overall appeal as is David’s legendary fixation on problem-solving and creating visual twists.  Rosemary notes that they often shooti on multiple stages at the same time, at times shooting a spot’s live action portion on one stage—occassionaly with other live action directors and production companies handling the shoot—while David is shooting the food on a different stage. On other jobs, David has shot both the live action and the food.  And to top it off, they have a relationship with a Chicago-based still photographer, who often comes in to shoot print work on one stage while TV is being shot on another. 

“It’s more of a cost benefit for clients,” she says.  “We have all these facilities, and if you need them, they’re here.  It’s harder for agency and client people to travel from shoot to shoot and be out of their offices for so many weeks per year.  Working this way, they have control over a seamless look between film and print.  Likewise, the key client executives can oversee both print and broadcast at the same time.  We work this way when the creative teams are different, and even if two separate agencies are involved.” That’s how it is with regular client Subway, she notes, which has a different shops handling TV and print.

The benefit of helping to integrate a brand’s look between advertising media goes beyond just production efficiency, David points out.  Increasingly, in today’s parity marketplace, the look itself has become critical. 

“Every brand wants its own visual identity, and we go to great lengths to deliver that,” he says.  “Often we’re not talking about a major overhaul—they don’t want to change that much—they just want something that’s fresh but instantly recognizable and familiar to viewers.”

He approaches this with a variety of tricks, many of which have become almost proprietary information for his advertiser clients.  Suffice to say, he employs a combination of traditional filmic techniques and technology, designed to provide brands with a look they can own—at least until their competition starts to copy it, Rosemary adds.

“We approach this by giving our agency clients detailed presentations and scene descriptions, explaining how things are going to look and how we’re going to accomplish them,” explains David.  “At times we’ve been asked to do storyboards, too—they just tell us what their scene objectives are and we design the shots.  You can often have more input on what a spot is going to finally look like in tabletop than you can in traditional live action.”

Of course, much of this depends on his team, and Shook is impressed with the people he works with, particularly the stylists and other crafts people.  They collaborate with the director whether he’s shooting tabletop or live action, which he often does to better control both aspects of a spot’s visuals. 

Indeed, the director’s ability to shoot both live action and food gives him an added edge in closing jobs, Rosemary reports.  Their business has been steady despite the slowdown, Rosemary reports—while board flow is off, they’re still booking about the same level of work, including several jobs a year that are either shot overseas or are produced in Chicago for international clients. 

David, meanwhile, gets to focus on the issues that are of most importance to him—perfecting new looks, juggling the maze of technological issues facing the tabletop discipline, working closely with editors and digital artists (he prides himself on the quality of elements he delivers to post houses for the omnipresent compositing work seen in almost all spots these days) and patiently explaining to clients, both on the marketer and the agency side, just what the transition to HD is going to mean for their work.

“What’s important about this, and what’s kept us going all these years, is that we adapt,” Rosemary sums up.  As motion control gave way to CGI, as visual trends shifted from opulence to sensible value, as agency budgets got squeezed and clients asked for more for less, the Deahls have endured.  “We figure out what the market needs at any particular time, and that’s what we offer.” 

It’s enough to make a producer sleep like a baby.

 Chapter 1: Ocean of Calm in Chicago       Chapter 2: Science in the Service of Art       Chapter 3: Next Generation       Chapter 4: The Reel