The DOS EQUIS “The Most Interesting Man in the World” ad campaign first began appearing in the United States in 2006. The spots were conceived as a tongue-in-cheek exaggeration of commercials that hope to hook consumers by associating their product with a “cool” spokesperson who is admired or envied by the viewer. Jonathan Goldsmith portrays a character who is ridiculously suave, “lives vicariously through himself,” and avers that he doesn’t even drink beer very often. We see him cliff-diving in Acapulco and splashing down in a space capsule, among many other unlikely adventures, in footage that looks and feels like the right vintage.
The campaign achieved what every marketing mind dreams of: it has become a cultural phenomenon. Not incidentally, U.S. sales of DOS EQUIS beer increased every year from 2006 to 2010, and in Canada, sales tripled in 2008 alone.
From the beginning, Steve Miller has directed the spots for the marketing firm Euro RSCG. He says he immediately sensed the key to the “The Most Interesting Man” character. “My first reaction was that we had to approach this project as if we had unearthed a chest of footage, a little library that served as an incredible account of this dude’s life,” he says. “For me, it almost existed as a physical concept. This documentation’ needed a physicality, as though his friend had grabbed an old 8mm BOLEX and started filming at key moments.
In cinematographer Eric Schmidt, Miller found an accomplice who was more than willing to sign on. “When Steve came to me, he already had an idea that some of these memories or period pieces would be shot on 16mm,” Schmidt recalls. “I connected immediately. I knew right away that not only was it going to be 16mm, but it was going to be with a BOLEX, on EKTACHROME [Film], and cross-processed.
Schmidt brought plenty of experience with unusual film techniques. His resume is stocked with projects that feature fresh, unique textures created using nonstandard cameras, film stocks, and workflows. For a Bruce Springsteen video, Schmidt shot 35mm film and printed to low-contrast print stock, and then telecined off the print. For a Foo Fighters clip that was nominated for an MTV Best Video Award, he achieved “a certain burnt-out richness” by shooting KODAK EKTACHROME 100D Color Reversal Film 5285 with a hand-cranked ARRI IIC and uncoated lenses, sometimes rewinding with a hand over the lens and exposing the same film twice. In 2004, he earned an ASC Award nomination for an episode of Cold Case, a visually bold television series on which he says he used, at one time or another, every KODAK film stock available.
“I think as viewers, we almost feel the equipment that it was shot on, at that time with that kind of light... You can sense the person capturing the image, and you only get that through the use of film.”
“I love manipulating film’s photochemical and mechanical aspects to create evocative images,” he says.
Schmidt enthusiastically threw himself into the DOS EQUIS endeavor. “Eric started showing me test images and saying, ‘Here’s what it might look like if the character was somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico around 1962,’” notes Miller. “He combined old lenses, different film stocks and different pieces of equipment to create very authentic, very genuine tonalities. I think as viewers, we almost feel the equipment that it was shot on, at that time with that kind of light. That was huge for me, and it goes back to the physicality of the concept and the images. You can sense the person capturing the image, and you only get that through the use of film.
Since then Miller and Schmidt have collaborated on all of the “The Most Interesting Man” spots with the exception of a handful shot by Bryan Newman.
“Like most cinematographers, I’ve collected tools over my lifetime, says Schmidt. “For example, I have some bizarre filters I found at the Rose Bowl flea market. My guess is that they went on a GRAFLEX SUPER D Still Camera. Here was a chance to tape those on and see what the results looked like. It’s not often you get the chance to be this inventive on a national campaign. I love making images that are rough around the edges and grainy. We chose the KODAK Emulsion based on the effect we were trying to get.
Another prize Schmidt scored at the Rose Bowl flea market and used on the DOS EQUIS campaign was a Braun Nizo 8mm camera with a “sweet” SCHNEIDER Lens. He has also used a Lomography hand-cranked Super 35 camera purchased for $40 at Urban Outfitters, a 1930s hand-cranked, turret-mount MITCHELL Camera that purportedly belonged to Charlie Chaplin, and the same wind-up BOLEX and MACRO SWITAR Lens that he used as a cinema student at the University of Iowa. He always has B camera operator John Bush, who has been alongside Schmidt for a decade and has become extremely skilled with the unusual camera equipment.
“We pull the cover off the BOLEX Lens and get film streaks, Schmidt explains. “Sometimes there are little scratches, and sometimes the registration is off. When I was in film school, and when I was starting out as a gaffer and electrician in New York, everyone had a BOLEX. They are tricky. You have to compensate for the shutter and for the EKTACHROME [Film]. You need jeweler’s fingers to adjust the lens. You make mistakes, but then you learn — and you realize that you can create arty effects by loading the film wrong or rotating the turret during the shot. We used those effects in music videos, and now they are legitimate storytelling techniques.
Other key members of the team behind the DOS EQUIS campaign include 1st ACs Lila Byall, John Pingry and D.J. Harder, gaffer Ira Boyd, key grip Billy Witherington, and last but not least production designer Brock Houghton. “Brock, Steve and I are really on the same level with our pop art history,” remarks the cinematographer. “Early in the campaign, we’d look at reference material. Brock and Steve gathered a lot of imagery that they felt applied to the character’s history. But now our collaboration has reached the point where we know what the other person is thinking. We’ve become close friends. Every cinema tographer knows that a good working relationship with the production designer is important. And the location manager can put you in the right place, which sometimes is half the battle.
One recent DOS EQUIS commercial was filmed in a Turkish tea room that had been transported in its entirety to a Victorian mansion in Pasadena from its original home as an exhibit at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago.
“Often we are trying to re-create or bring to life a time period — or more accurately, refer to the viewer’s memory of a certain time period,” Schmidt adds. “Any connectivity the viewer has is almost always unconscious, and these images resonate. At first, the agency people on the set would ask if they could see the images back. ‘Maybe tomorrow,’ I’d say with a shrug. By now they are adamant that we shoot on 16mm.
The tagline scenes — in which the “The Most Interesting Man” turns to the camera and states that when he does drink beer, it’s DOS EQUIS, adding the line that has become an Internet meme, “Stay thirsty, my friends” — are filmed in 35mm with KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219. “That part is the glossiest, sweetest and richest 35mm we can make,” reveals Schmidt. “The images there aren’t memories — we want them to be indelible.
The DOS EQUIS campaign has garnered many awards, most recently a 2012 Cannes Lions Silver. Schmidt, whose credits also include spots for Fiat, Cadillac and Miller Genuine Draft, and the features The Mechanic, I Melt with You, Henry Poole is Here and My Sassy Girl, says that the “The Most Interesting Man” spots have given his career a boost, and Miller was nominated for a Director’s Guild of America Award this year based in part on his work on the DOS EQUIS campaign.