The abject failure of ALIEN 3 was director David Fincher’s first high-profile disappointment. It nearly made him swear off filmmaking altogether and he publicly even threatened as much— but when the dust settled, Fincher was able to slip back into commercial and music video directing with ease. Working once again in his comfort sphere, Fincher churned out some of his best promotional work between the years 1992 and 1995.
NIKE: “INSTANT KARMA” (1992)
1992 saw sports gear giant Nike commission Fincher for a trio of commercials. The most well-known of these is “INSTANT KARMA”, which mimics the energetic pace of music videos. Fincher’s touch is immediately evident here, with his high-contrast look that incorporates key components of his style like silhouettes and a cold color scheme.
NIKE: “BARKLEY ON BROADWAY” (1992)
Nike’s “BARKELY ON BROADWAY” is shot in black and white, a curious choice for a high-profile spot like this. The central conceit of a theatrical stage show lends itself quite well to Fincher’s talent for imaginative production design and lighting. Like “INSTANT KARMA”, “BARKLEY ON BROADWAY” has taken on something of a cult status, especially because of Charles Barkley’s cheeky persona.
NIKE: “MAGAZINE WARS” (1992)
The third spot, “MAGAZINE WARS”, revolves around the conceit of sports magazine covers in a newsstand coming to life and causing a mess. The idea is heavily reliant on visual effects, which comes naturally to Fincher. While it’s a brilliant idea, it’s one that’s most likely inspired by a similar scene in Gus Van Sant’s feature MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO, which had come out only a year earlier.
NIKE: “BARKLEY OF SEVILLE” (1993)
In 1993, Fincher once again collaborated with NBA superstar Charles Barkley on another spot for Nike called “BARKLEY OF SEVILLE” that makes use of some potent old world imagery that Fincher’s prime influence Stanley Kubrick used so excellently in 1975’s BARRY LYNDON (while also foreshadowing the eerie Illuminati imagery that Kubrick would depict inEYES WIDE SHUT six years later). The piece is textbook Fincher, featuring a dueling orange and blue color palette, theatrical lighting that highlights some excellent production design and casts artful silhouettes.
BUDWEISER: “GINGER OR MARIANNE” (1993)
Also in 1993, Fincher took on two spots for Budweiser beer. The first, “GINGER OR MARIANNE” features young adults playing pool and debating their preferences of old TV character crushes. The pool hall is lit in smoky, desaturated warm tones with high contrast, as per Fincher’s established aesthetic.
BUDWEISER: “CLASSIC ROCK” (1993)
The second Budweiser spot, “CLASSIC ROCK”, features a handful of middle-aged dudes golfing and arguing over their favorite acts. Fincher utilizes the high contrast natural light on the scenic golf course, supplementing it with a subtle gliding camera as it follows the characters. The result is a pretty conventional, but no less well-crafted, piece of advertising.
CHANEL: “THE DIRECTOR” (1993)
(starts at 3:54)
Fincher’s spot for Chanel, called “THE DIRECTOR”, is an excellent example of his “grunge-glam” aesthetic. The piece makes evocative use of its cold, blue color palette and smoky, European urban setting, with the director’s high contrast lighting bouncing off the wet streets and old-world architecture. Fincher’s fondness for revealing the artifice of the shooting process is incorporated into the narrative, as his opening vignette is revealed to be the shoot for a large movie, with the titular director being shown mostly in abstract, silhouette form.
COCA-COLA: “BLADE ROLLER” (1993)
Fincher’s filmography owes a lot to the work of Ridley Scott and his brother, Tony Scott. Ridley’s influence in particular is deeply felt in the fundamental building blocks of Fincher’s aesthetic, and Fincher’s “BLADE ROLLER” spot for Coca-Cola seems to be directly lifted from Ridley’s visionary sci-fi masterpiece BLADE RUNNER (1982). We see a dystopian city of the future, characterized by neon lights and Asian architecture, bathed in perpetual smoke and soaked through to the bone. Fincher’s signature high contrast, cold look plays directly into the BLADE RUNNER style, which the young director builds upon by adding his own flourishes like artful silhouettes and a high-energy camera that screams through the cityscape.“BLADE ROLLER” is one of Fincher’s most well-known commercials, and easily one of his best.
AT&T: “YOU WILL” CAMPAIGN (1993)
It’s not uncommon for advertisers to create entire campaigns with multiple spots centered around a singular idea. In 1993, AT&T wanted to communicate how their technologies were going to be at the forefront of the digital revolution, which would have long-term ramifications for how we live our lives and connect with others. To convey this message, AT&T hired Fincher—a director well known for his fascination with technology—for their “YOU WILL” campaign. The campaign is a series of seven spots that actually predict many of the things that are commonplace today, albeit in a laughably clunky, primitive form that was the 90’s version of “hi-tech”. The spots show us various vignettes of people connecting with others through AT&T’s theoretical future tech: GPS navigation, doctors looking at injuries over video-link, video phone calls, sending faxes over tablets, and more. Fincher’s high contrast, cold palette serves him well with this campaign, further enhancing the appeal of this promising technology that aims to transform our lives. Looking back at these spots over twenty years, it’s easy to laugh at the clunky tech on display, but it’s remarkable how much of it they actually got right.
MADONNA: “BAD GIRL” (1993)
Fincher’s output during this period of his career was heavily weighted with commercials, but he did make a few music videos, one of which was another collaboration with pop diva Madonna for her track “BAD GIRL”. The video incorporates some Hollywood talent in the form of Christopher Walken who plays a silent, watchful guardian angel of sorts and supporting character stalwart Jim Rebhorn, who would later appear in Fincher’s THE GAME four years later. The look of“BAD GIRL” is similar to Fincher’s previous collaborations with Madonna, featuring high contrast lighting, diffused highlights and a smoky, cold color palette. The video is very cinematic, no doubt owing to a large budget afforded by the combined clout of Madonna and Fincher (as well as Walken’s goofy dancing, seen briefly towards the middle).
LEVI’S: “KEEP IT LOOSE” (1993)
The first of several spots that Fincher would take on for jeans-maker Levi’s, “KEEP IT LOOSE” features the director’s iconic blue color palette as a static background, with a variety of actors composited into the scene dancing wildly and expressing themselves in their hilariously baggy 90’s jeans.
LEVI’S: “REASON 259: RIVETS” (1994)
1994 saw several more Levi’s spots put on Fincher’s plate, with “REASON 259: RIVETS” being the standout. The piece features the cold, blue high contrast look Fincher is known for, along with a premise centering around tech—in this instance, a machine that is able to punch a single jeans rivet into someone’s nose as a decorative stud. The spot as it exists online currently can’t be embedded, but you can watch it here.
LEVI’S: “THE RESTAURANT” (1994)
(starts at 6:48)
Fincher’s next Levi’s spot, “THE RESTAURANT”, riffs off the climactic scene of Mike Nichols’ THE GRADUATE (1967) with a young man pounding at a glass window to get the attention of his love interest, who is currently out with another male suitor. Like several of Fincher’s other works, his treatment of color pits the orange of the warm restaurant interior with the cold blue exterior. Diffused highlights and high contrast lighting complete the look for yet another classic Fincher commercial.
LEVI’S: “501 JEANS” (1994)
(starts at 7:19)
Fincher’s last spot for Levi’s done in 1994 doesn’t have an official title that I’m aware of, although it focuses specifically on their 501 style of jeans. Fincher turns the piece into a counterculture anthem, creating several vignettes of young people rebelling against corporate suit culture (a theme he’d explore again—quite viscerally—in 1999’s FIGHT CLUB). Fincher’s interest in architecture is also apparent in the spot’s closing shot, which features Los Angeles’ iconic US Bank Tower, at the time unfinished and under construction.
NIKE: “THE REFEREE” campaign (1994)
Another of Fincher’s most infamous commercial campaigns was for Nike, called “THE REFEREE”. The series features Dennis Hopper as an unhinged NFL referee, who excitedly obsesses over football to the camera in various places. NFL game footage is intercut to match the visceral energy of Hopper’s ranting and raving, with Fincher’s high contrast, cold color palette further accentuating his mania. The campaign even boasts that holy grail of commercials—A Super Bowl spot—which riffs on the famous opening sequence of PATTON (1970). The spots have a small cult following, and while most are still publicly available, a few are extremely hard to find and don’t seem to exist anywhere on the internet.
THE ROLLING STONES: “LOVE IS STRONG” (1994)
Fincher’s video for The Rolling Stones’ “LOVE IS STRONG” is shot in high contrast black and white, featuring grungy bohemian types in a smoky, urban setting. The video shows off Fincher’s natural talent for visual effects, as he composites his actors as giants against various NYC landmarks, using the dwarfed city below them as their own personal playground. It’s a pretty simple concept, but extremely well-executed and staged—a credit to Fincher’s meticulousness.
HONDA: “DEL SOL” (1995)
Fincher’s final spot during this period was for Honda, which parodied the style of James Bond as a secret agent tries to outrace a particularly aggressive helicopter that is pursuing him. With the dynamic camerawork and plentiful helicopter POV aerials, the spot is less James Bond than it is Michael Bay. It also doesn’t really look like Fincher’s handiwork, what with a heavy orange and black color scheme instead of his trademark cold palette.
After the disaster that was ALIEN 3’s production, Fincher publicly stated that he would rather die of cancer than ever make another feature. However, his success in returning to the medium that made him famous served as a refreshing boost of confidence, recharging him to make another run at movies once again and give him the proper launchpad for takeoff.