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‘If it’s a void I’m walking into’: Actors Tobolowsky, Koechner, and the white cyclorama

Filming commercials for tech company Ubiquiti, actors develop their characters while navigating a disorienting, featureless world.

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On set, actor Stephen Tobolowsky rehearses lines to himself between takes. “He’s such a calming presence, without attempting to do anything,” friend and fellow actor David Koechner said. “To know him is to immediately love him. You also want to emulate him. And you also want to suck him dry. I want all of it. You get greedy for more.” Painting by Jordan Essoe © 2024
On set, actor Stephen Tobolowsky rehearses lines to himself between takes. “He’s such a calming presence, without attempting to do anything,” friend and fellow actor David Koechner said. “To know him is to immediately love him. You also want to emulate him. And you also want to suck him dry. I want all of it. You get greedy for more.” Painting by Jordan Essoe © 2024

For a professional actor, performing in a commercial can be as hard as working on a feature film or television show.

“No matter what you’re doing, you’re working with the same magic,” actor David Koechner (Anchorman, The Office) told me. “Even if just on the margin. Even if it’s just a fraction of it.”

For three days last summer, just before the SAG-AFTRA strike began, tech company Ubiquiti brought LA-based actors Stephen Tobolowsky (Groundhog Day, One Day at a Time), Jack Quaid (The Boys, Oppenheimer), Tommy Savas (The Sopranos, The Last Ship), and Koechner to its downtown Portland offices to shoot a series of short commercial spots.

In a barefaced homage to Apple’s radically successful and long-running Get a Mac ad campaign – in which Mac and PC avatars held a polite superiority contest inside a featureless white void – Tobolowsky and Koechner star as the new embodiments of inefficient, out-of-touch technology.

The bit plays into the stereotype of the obliviously incapable older male, portrayed by John Hodgman in the Apple spots, but it’s still funny.

In each ad, they are congenially bested by Quaid, an updated casting of Justin Long’s “Mac” persona. Quaid plays the personification of Ubiquiti’s IT technology UniFi, which is portrayed as confidently and casually running circles around traditional IT gear and practices.

Nested under the branding umbrella Meet UniFi, nine of the spots are available on Ubiquiti’s YouTube channel, with more episodes to come.

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Even though many of us impatiently click past online commercials, Ubiquiti is right to assume ads can be, in some ways, a viewing destination unto themselves. Film trailers testify to this. There is an art to, and compelling apparatus behind, making advertisements that is not cleanly divorced from other kinds of filmmaking – especially when using seasoned actors who take seriously every project they work on.

“There was no goofing off backstage,” Tobolowsky said about the Ubiquiti shoot. “We brought everything we had, all the time. Otherwise, the process doesn’t work at all. And you have no fun.”

Tobolowsky praised Quaid, who often had lengthy mouthfuls of technical jargon to memorize, as being the first to suggest additional rehearsal time during breaks on set.

Tobolowsky contrasted this with how often he’s encountered young actors who procrastinate or get loaded instead of giving every project their energy and time.

“This work requires a lot,” Tobolowsky told me. “It isn’t just a matter of learning the lines. It’s a matter of knowing what the lines mean to you, knowing what you’re saying and why you’re saying it, down to your very core.”

Beyond breaking down the character, an actor must deliberate over, then make sense of, the character’s environment. The physical environment here, again emulating the older Apple ads, presented the players with little more than a bright blank backdrop – a paradoxical place with both interior and exterior attributes.

This disembodied set is called a white cyclorama. Its closest visual corollary is the sky.

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It is a cornerless stage with smooth, curved white walls, lit brightly and evenly to eliminate hard edges and dramatically limit shadows, creating a gentle vertigo and the illusion of unlimited space.

In person, it creates a sublime effect, but staring into it all day is hard on the eyes, which are grasping to focus and squinting from the sheer volume of reflected light.

Also called “infinity curves,” white cycloramas have been used memorably in films such as THX 1138 (1971) and The Matrix (1999) and in popular music videos such as Elvis Costello’s Pump It Up (1978) and Beyoncé’s Single Ladies (2008).

In print and television advertising, the white void is used both for aesthetic minimalism and product isolation, excluding all stray visual associations (though one might argue vast passages of white are associated inseparably with hospitals, bathrooms, and the afterlife).

Apple deserves credit for universalizing this visual not only in its television and web spots (the Get a Mac campaign produced more than 80 ads in the American market alone), but also by institutionalizing white cleanliness as the most recognizable feature of its product and packaging design and brick-and-mortar store architecture.

These days, you’re just as likely to encounter a DIY imitation of the white void on YouTube, with videobloggers framing themselves in front of a white sheet or roll of blank paper, imitating limitless space from a cramped corner in an apartment.

The full-length professional version – with crew, actors, and props constantly moving across it – is trickier. Actors’ shoes are carefully tested to ensure they won’t leave marks. Everyone else must wear socks. Equipment is wheeled gently. And still the floor and walls require constant cleaning.

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Crew must carefully clean the floor of a white cyclorama between each scene. The illusion of infinite space is broken if there is residue or scuff marks from the actors’ shoes, stage props, or camera equipment. Filmmaking usually requires that a lot of its time be spent hiding evidence of itself. With a cyclorama, it is almost a contradiction in terms, because the stage itself is a pretty big tell. Painting by Jordan Essoe © 2024
Crew must carefully clean the floor of a white cyclorama between each scene. The illusion of infinite space is broken if there is residue or scuff marks from the actors’ shoes, stage props, or camera equipment. Filmmaking usually requires that a lot of time be spent hiding evidence of itself. With a cyclorama, it is almost a contradiction in terms, because the stage itself is a pretty big tell. Painting by Jordan Essoe © 2024

“Any scuffs break the illusion that you’re floating in space,” Tobolowsky said.

An illusion that often made it difficult for Tobolowsky to maintain his bearings.

“I’ve never worked on anything like this before. And I wasn’t physically at 100 percent. I had lost part of my hearing from a cold I got from my grandbaby about four months before. In my weakened aural state, I began losing my balance walking on the stage because I couldn’t tell where I was. I couldn’t tell where the wall was and where the floor was.”

In most scenes, limited props provided some anchor for the space, and Tobolowsky was grateful when he had a desk to sit at.

Even when more elaborate set-ups included mock electric-car charging stations and a motorcycle, the white void still occupied most of the visual real estate – meaning everything else that might exist in the characters’ world was left to the actors’ imaginations. Tobolowsky focused on his character’s psychology.

“The important thing you have to do is define for yourself the 24-hour life of the character,” he said. “You have a limited amount of time to express it, but you have to know what it is. What is it that makes my character in this situation feel successful?”

How deep should an actor go for one-minute commercial spots? Do they need to decide what city the characters are in? What their character’s mother is like? What month it is? What temperature it is in the room?

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“You might do yourself a favor by deciding what temperature it is in your character’s world,” Koechner told me, “but it also might not be necessary to the scene. For this type of thing, you don’t want to do anything that can confuse things. Adding stuff doesn’t necessarily help. I ask myself, does it slow down the process or does it heat it up?”

As a narrative space that the characters occupy, the white void of the cyclorama is both there and not there. It is visual shorthand for the unseen, fully realized world and simultaneously a filmmaking artifice that breaks the fourth wall. Anatomically, it is similar to a traditional black box theater, only with the darkness replaced by light.

Complete brightness and complete darkness can be regarded as equivalently empty, but an audience reads the emptiness differently. Darkness communicates withheld secrets and white appears to divulge everything – ironically making it much better at convincingly communicating nothingness.

“To be honest, it’s of no consequence to me,” Koechner said. “When I began doing improvisation, there was nothing on stage but two chairs. So, to me it’s the same. But if it’s a void I’m walking into, if anything, it means more freedom.”

“I just go back to Stanislavski,” Tobolowsky added, referring to the Russian theater actor and director whose ideas form the basis for most modern approaches to acting. “All life exists in the eyes of your partner. When you’re playing with another actor, you can tell if they’re just trying to grasp their next line or if they are there with you completely. Dave is completely there for you all the time. I’m comfortable just looking at my partner on stage and seeing where the scene goes.”

Even if an actor has a broad range, there is often a recognizable expressive thread that forms the basis for their most memorable roles. To varying degree, Ubiquiti tasked Tobolowsky and Koechner with delivering versions of previous performances they are known for, such as Koechner’s characterization of The Office character Todd Packer.

Tobolowsky appears to borrow a little from his Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day and a little from his role as Principal Ball in The Goldbergs (a show where both he and Koechner had recurring roles). But the air of innocence Tobolowsky brings to many of the Meet UniFi scenes is perhaps most reminiscent of his portrayal of Leslie Berkowitz in One Day at a Time.

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As a comic duo, Tobolowsky and Koechner have excellent chemistry that reflects their offstage friendship. They deliver a very funny combination of swagger and helplessness; of idiot and conman.

“We’re both playing variations on the clown theme,” Koechner said. “All of it can be identified through one or a combination of commedia dell’arte characters. The bravado could be the captain, who thinks he’s in charge and everyone around him knows that he’s a fool. Stephen playing more of this naive guy may actually be the professor who’s so brilliant he’s naive.”

(Koechner collects clown figurines and has two life-size commedia dell’arte figures in his office. “People find them jarring, but they’re my favorite things in my house,” he told me.)

“I go back to something I learned from Harold Ramis,” Tobolowsky said. “In every comedy scene, somebody has to be the ‘world’ and someone has to operate outside of the world. For comedy to work, you need both.

“When I’m working opposite Jack, it’s very clear that Jack is the world. Which means my performance could become any one of those commedia dell’arte characters. I could be the braggart. I could be the flimflam man. I could be the jokester. Or the cheapskate. I could pick any one of those I wanted for our scene, because Jack has to be the world – our normal and handsome leading man with the brains – and I get to work against that.

“But when I’m acting opposite Dave,” he continued, “the equation changes. Because Dave comes from a place that is far more unaware – unaware of where he is and what he is doing – and far less appropriate! He is not the world. So, in a scene with Dave, I have to be the world. To put it into archetypal terms we all understand: When I’m with Jack, he has to be Abbott and I can be Costello. When I’m with Dave, I gotta be Abbott and he gets to be Costello.”

“We get to dance,” Koechner said. “Sometimes you only get to do one or two steps. You can’t do a full dance, because it’s required that you have to do the work, too. Pick up your shovel – but at the same time, can I twirl it?”

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He laughed.

“And when you and your scene partner both twirl it together,” he said, “that’s the magic.”

Jack Quaid, Stephen Tobolowsky, and David Koechner perform their scenes with everything they’ve got. “Theater director Ed Kaye-Martin said the important thing about acting is it only works if you bring yourself to the piece – and that means you bring all of yourself,” Tobolowsky said. “You bring your intellect, you bring your emotional life, you bring your imaginative life, and you bring your physical strength and endurance. If you don’t bring it all, it fails.” He laughed. “You can have the best lawn mower in the world, but if you don’t bring the gasoline and pull the cord, the lawn ain’t getting cut.” Painting by Jordan Essoe © 2024
Jack Quaid, Stephen Tobolowsky, and David Koechner perform their scenes with everything they’ve got. “Theater director Ed Kaye-Martin said the important thing about acting is it only works if you bring yourself to the piece – and that means you bring all of yourself,” Tobolowsky said. “You bring your intellect, you bring your emotional life, you bring your imaginative life, and you bring your physical strength and endurance. If you don’t bring it all, it fails.” He laughed. “You can have the best lawn mower in the world, but if you don’t bring the gasoline and pull the cord, the lawn ain’t getting cut.” Painting by Jordan Essoe © 2024

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Jordan Essoe is an award-winning artist who has exhibited internationally. Primarily a painter and performance artist, he has expanded his practice to include film, playwriting, and journalism. His work has been covered by NPR, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle. He was born in Los Angeles County, raised in the California mountains, and currently lives on the central coast of Oregon.
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One Response

  1. I found this fascinating. It’s not often that you get much insight into acting process (versus actors and their lives) in articles about actors, ironically, so kudos to the author. I also thought the artwork worked really well in helping make the author’s point about combining separate spaces in acting, “the world” and “outside of the world,” as it were. Nice touch.

    Great read overall.

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