A lesson regarding the use of bovines in car spots

11 Oct

As I watched the jittery heifer pace along the makeshift barbed wire fence, something from my past warned me the situation was about to go to hell in a hand basket.

I should have seen it coming. As a kid, I got a crack at Granddad’s prized herd before he sold the rest at auction. I bought two steers, naming the red one with the white face Elton and black-white faced one John. (At the time, I thought Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was the greatest album in the history of album-dom.) My other grandparents ran cattle, too. I spent more of my childhood than I preferred helping count, chase, castrate and doctor cattle. The worst bunch was a herd of steers Dad bought to fatten up for a quick sale. The steers acted like teenagers on spring break the entire time we had them. They occasionally found an escape route from the pasture, and they didn’t make it easy to get them back in. We even raised an orphaned Angus calf in our back yard. With that much animal husbandry experience, I should have been smarter when I was assigned to produce a TV commercial, with cattle as extras, in St. Louis. Yes, in St. Louis.

About twenty years ago, my boss at the ad agency, Glenn Kleier, (now a novelist) had a big idea. Our client in St. Louis, one of the largest car dealerships in the country, was close to selling its twenty thousandth car. Glenn figured twenty thousand cars would roughly equate to forty miles of cars lined end to end. He wanted to make a commercial showing forty miles of cars extending from the Arch in downtown St. Louis.

First, I located on a map the poetically named Clover Bottom, Missouri about forty miles away as the crow flies from downtown St. Louis. Perfect. In the TV spot,  lab-coated “scientists” would measure the precise length of twenty thousand cars as they stretched end to end from the city to the country. The penultimate scene would be the last few cars along the road leading into Clover Bottom, with pastured cattle in the background. The last shot would be an old farmer on his porch watching the guys in lab coats measuring each car. He’d ask his wife, “What the heck are they up to?”  His wife, knitting in her rocking chair, would say, “Oh, about twenty thousand cars.”  I smelled an Emmy.

As with most car spots, I had a tight budget. I couldn’t fake the beginning of the commercial–the line of cars with the Arch in the background–but I could stage the ending somewhere closer to the city than Clover Bottom.

I had worked with a production crew in St. Louis many times (even taking over a shopping mall after hours one night to drive cars through). They never flinched at the sometimes crazy requests I made. This time, I asked their help in finding a “rural” location. Oh, and I needed some cattle, too.

The crew located an old house with some acreage and a small barn. It was actually in a populous St. Louis suburb. But the production company promised they could shoot the scene so that no one would know the difference. Great, I said, but what about the cattle? No problem. One of their guys had a second cousin whose uncle on his Mom’s side owned cattle. He would haul some to us. I didn’t  have the time or budget to fly to St. Louis to scout the location myself, and I  had to trust these guys. They had never let me down before, but they were a video company used to shooting Bud Light commercials. They weren’t cattle wranglers.

I showed up on site early on a Sunday morning. We often shot on Sundays because the dealerships were closed. The client had given us thirty cars and drivers to work with. We would shoot them in various orders in different spots around the city, always framing the camera so that no one could tell they were the same cars. When editing was finished, it would look like we  had twenty thousand cars lined up long the streets of St. Louis.

We started with the most difficult shot–the one with the cattle. The crew had already strung a barbed wire fence along an area behind the house. When the cattle arrived, they would be unloaded in the temporary pen.

While the crew was still setting up, getting cars in position, etc., a pickup pulling a stock trailer arrived with our bovine extras. I was expecting a few docile milk cows. Instead, I got one cranky Hereford heifer, who had just hours before been enjoying a peaceful Sunday brunch of grass alongside  her buddies. Now, she was in the city hawking Buicks and Toyotas.

The heifer’s owner backed up the stock trailer and shooed the heifer into the temporary pen. I was already worried. The success of my spot depended on a juvenile cow that literally had the poop scared out of it. The shot wasn’t ready, but the heifer already looked like she’d had enough.  A mature cow might stay put long enough to get a decent shot. A heifer surrounded by lots of people and strange noises? No way. For most cows, a fence with a couple of strands of barbed wire clipped to metal fence posts is more of a suggestion than an inescapable pen. If a  one-ton heifer wants to be elsewhere, little can be done to stop her. When  it came time to get the first shot, a half-dozen people, perhaps none of them who had ever been around a cow other than in the form of a T-bone, tried to coax our star into position. Instead, the heifer jumped the fence and began a long romp through the neighborhood.

I could either cry, chase the heifer, or try to salvage the shot. While part of the crew chased the heifer, I stayed to save the shoot and my job. The owners of the property had a goat and some chickens. I turned to the goat and said, “You’re on, baby. Don’t let me down.” In addition to the goat, we also tried to shoo the chickens into the shot, but they weren’t interested in fame and glory. The goat,  however, was the perfect sport.

While we were shooting, I had visions of the heifer running across busy roads (which I heard later that it did) and causing wrecks. I could imagine TV news copters capturing footage of The Great Heifer Chase. I also could see myself going to jail for letting a frightened heifer terrorize half of St. Louis.

We completed most of the shots (other than the ones near the Arch) when the head photographer returned from chasing the animal. He had a good coating of cow crap on his pants. The heifer had run far and hadn’t given up easily. Finally, worn out from destroying petunias and leaving cow patties on sidewalks, she had been wrestled back into the trailer and taken  home. A cop had stopped to help, but he was more amused than anything. It beat writing traffic tickets.

By comparison, the shoot near the Arch, which temporarily blocked traffic on one of the busiest streets in the city, went much better. The final product, even with a goat as the stand-in, wasn’t terrible. However, it wasn’t equal to the stress it caused.  The old production rule that warns against working with animals was never more true. Especially ones that outweigh humans.

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2 Responses to “A lesson regarding the use of bovines in car spots”

  1. kittiehoward@gmail.com October 16, 2012 at 1:01 pm #

    What a fun post. Oh but you had me laughing. (Spent my formative years on a farm in Louisiana.) A dear friend produces commercials in NYC. She’s got the stories, too. Hey, how about a behind da scenes book?

    Like

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