DP Barry Parrell Captures Humor for Airheads, Progressive and Delta Dental

A love of lightning and photography sparked a decades-long career

Growing up in small towns in Saskatchewan, Canada, Barry Parrell developed a fascination with weather and lightning when he was a kid. He also loved to take photographs.

"Probably one of the best photographs I ever took was of lightning," Parrell reflects, noting that he was about 14 when he captured the image. "I had built my own tripod out of some scrap wood and rode my bike into a field and took this picture."

Parrell would go on to work at a local TV station threading projectors, and eventually studied filmmaking at Ryerson University in Toronto. After graduation, he joined that TV station's production department, where he made commercials.

He then headed back to Toronto to further his career in cinematography. "I'd done some TV shows and some TV movies, and they were satisfying. But I really wanted to get good at commercials," he reflects. "That's why I went after it. It seemed like a good creative outlet for photographers."

Parrell made a name for himself in the production business in the '90s. And today, the veteran DP still gets a thrill from shooting spots. "I say to people all the time, 'I just happened to like photography and turned it into a really good career.'"

Much of Parrell's work is comedic in nature. Recent credits include a wonderfully weird Airheads campaign. The spots feature a guy who uses his teeny, tiny hands to play the piano, create pottery and pick up Airheads Bites—smaller versions of the candy made for snacking on-the-go.

His reel also includes a series spots for the Progressive starring kooky life-coach Dr. Rick, who counsels homeowners after they morph into their parents.

And Parrell shot a cheeky Christmas-themed campaign starring Rebel Wilson for Afterpay, the financial tech company.

Below, Parrell takes us behind-the-scenes, explains how directors can collaborate more effectively with DPs, and reveals how shows like The Bear can inspire new approaches to shooting ads.

MUSE: Your reel is so much fun because of all the comedic spots.

Barry Parrell: I like working in comedy. I like the directors connected with comedy and the atmosphere on the set. Most commercials are sort of comedic, or have a slight comedic edge to them, and I have worked with a lot of directors who are really into that. Martin Granger—he did the Progressive campaign and the Afterpay campaign. I think I shot maybe his first commercial ever. We're friends, and we're still shooting together.

Let’s talk about some of your recent work, starting with the Granger-directed Progressive campaign featuring Dr. Rick. The "Book Signing" spot feels so real, like we're at a real event.

My approach to shooting a location is to make it as real as possible without artificial lighting. So we shot that in a little bookstore on Vermont Street in Los Angeles. We set up under the skylight and built the whole scene around there. It helps to shoot in a real location. That was a great location.

The Airheads work is so quirky and flat-out weird. The "Massage" spot in particular makes me laugh—seeing those tiny hands massaging the guy's back.

That was a good new director. His name's Riggs [Ruganzu "Riggs" Howard], and we had never met before. But when I read the scripts, I really liked the concept. I thought it was going to potentially be very funny. And what helped us is that the post-production supervisor [Nathan Kane of Parliament] was on site to tell us what we needed to do so they could shrink the hands. He didn't slow down the production at all. He required very little from us other than the basics of the shot for the hands and the way the clothes hung on the wrists and things like that.

Why were you interested in working on the Delta Dental "Photoshoot" spot, where we see the metal band posing for a photographer? What was your approach to shooting that one?

The director was from [London-based production company] Knucklehead. His name was Rob Leggatt. He had a really good concept. We shot so much great footage that day, and it was 90 percent hand-held.

You work a lot, but you can't say yes to every job. It sounds like it all comes down to a good script for you.

Yeah, Airhead is a good example. When you first see that script, you open it up, and it says "Airheads," and you think, "It's kids' candies. I don't know about that." But when you read the script, it's really funny. It's the script that sells it in the end. It’s hard to turn down good work.

What can directors do to get the best work out of you?

It's not 100 percent necessary, but some of the best collaborations I have are with directors who understand cinematography and have an interest in it. They get what I'm talking about, or what we're trying to achieve, because they know the language. It's not absolutely necessary, but it does help. And communication, being open-minded, listening to other people's ideas. That's important from both sides.

I want to emphasize that I've worked with lots of directors who are brand new. I understand it's a learning process for everybody. They are there because they have a strength that other people are recognizing. Cinematography may not be it, but eventually directors take much more interest in it once they start to figure it out.

When you're done with a job, and you see the final spot, do you ever learn something from watching the edit and seeing which shots the editor used, and which ones got left out?

Absolutely. I always ask the directors to send me the rough cuts so I can see where they're at and how we did. And then, of course, I like to see the finals in the end. But, yeah, I benefit a lot from that.

I'm sure when you started out, you were shooting spots on film. Do you ever get to shoot commercials on film these days? Or is it all digital?

It's all digital. But it's funny—I just got a call to possibly do something on film. Do you watch The Bear? That Christmas episode from The Bear is shot on film. Things like that, that are really, really creative, really, really well done, often spur ideas in the commercial industry. So, I wouldn't be surprised if we saw more people asking about shooting on film, and I would love to.

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