When Ray Dillman graduated from Ringling College of Art and Design in 1976with a degree in design and illustration, he went on to rise through the ranks of the cutthroat world of advertising by following his heart. After stints as a creative and artistic director for several big-name agencies, he eventually got behind a camera to direct commercials. He leveraged his refined artistic sensibilities—and sensitivities—to create touching moments in which to couch his clients’ products. His heartfelt work would earn him an Emmy Award and make him one of the most highly sought-after directors in the world of advertising. Now a documentarian and filmmaker, he stands as one of the most distinguished Ringling College alumni to have graced its storied campus. In late February, Dillman returned to the Ringling campus to see what was new, and to share some wisdom with students (and SRQ) about how his experience at Ringling College helped shape his career.

SRQ: What was it like growing up as an aspiring artist with military parents?

Dillman:  I was always kind of an emotional kid, and my mother was an emotional, sweet person. But the funny thing is my father was a drill instructor, very strict; I call him The Great Santini. Both grandfathers were in the military, too. But my decision to not join the military, like my three siblings did, wasn’t met with resistance—they just didn’t understand it. They still supported it and paid for my education here, though my dad had a pejorative term for what I was doing. I just always knew art was my thing and I wanted to do something in the creative arena. I spent all my time in high school in the art room. When I came to Ringling, I felt like I found my people. It was the first time ever that I felt like it was where I needed to be. I had such a good time here, and it was one of the most depressing nights of my life when I was about to graduate. I had such good friendships here. I think it makes a huge difference to have that commonality. But, you know, we were such art snobs. My mother liked to joke, “I sent an innocent kid off to art school and got back an art snob.”

SRQ: How did your design and illustration background prepare you for your diverse career?

Dillman:  It pays to know a little about everything. The reason I chose Ringling College over Parsons or Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) or Pratt was that Ringling was a traditional art school first, which gave a good base in painting and drawing and sculpture. When I graduated as a design major, I went into advertising, but I found that foundation really helped me with my work as a creative director where I was judging other people’s work. I also work with a lot of people lately who don’t have that foundation. If you think of Ridley Scott, he was an animator. James Cameron was a draftsman. I still draw storyboards. I cut some of my own material. I’ve done the title sequences for both features my wife directed. Even in crafting a crane, that’s art; you’re dealing with composition. That whole sensibility as a designer comes in handy. 

SRQ: In your television commercial work, you have a knack for finding a way to couch the product or service int a distinctly human moment. Was that a skill you cultivated, or is it something for which you just had a knack? 

Dillman:  I feel like it’s something that’s just in me. The skill of getting it out of an actor and crafting it is almost on autopilot for me. If you watch me direct an actor, it would look like I’m not listening to anyone around me; I’m so absorbed in it. So that, for me, is automatic. Growing up, I witnessed a lot of the emotional breadth of life and was affected by it.  So, being able to get a couple of actors to have an emotional moment and get it to where it rings true, that’s delicious for me.  

SRQ: What was the transition like from television commercials to feature-length films?

Dillman: It would’ve been easier if I was 25! For one thing, the feature film world doesn’t understand that television work is already at their level. [In advertising] I worked with four Academy Award-winning cinematographers, great crews, etc. But the hardest part is getting a production company to trust you with a huge amount of money. Even with commercials, I was spending $225,000 to $275,000 a day. Other than the money, the main difference in film is that you’re always trying to cut 10 minutes out; and, in commercials, it’s just a few seconds. From a storytelling perspective, commercials are like little three-act plays—you have to communicate a really good setup, a nice transition and then a really good payoff. The difference is,o you have 30 seconds to do that in a commercial, whereas, in film, you have an hour and a half.

SRQ: What’s your advice to current students at Ringling College as they prepare for lives outside of a college campus?

Dillman: When I think of my early career, the number one piece of advice is: Don’t stay at something too long that you hate. It’s easy to think it’s going to get better if you’re at an ad agency you don’t like, for example, but keep it moving and take chances. I can think of agencies where I stayed a year or two too long. Another piece of advice is to think beyond the moment. I’m rarely terse with someone because it means a loss of future work. A producer I had years ago, when everything would get dicey, he’d say, “Give me your hand,” and he’d write how much I’d be making on the project. It was snarky, sure, but in the end, you’re not Gaugin painting nudes, you’re trying to sell soap. Lastly, I’d tell students that you’re not going to get work without having work. You just have to make stuff. Write, shoot, film.  SRQ