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An Illuminating Experience

What was it like to be part of the University's "Discovery is Illumination" commercials? Legacy provides a backstage pass.

by Erin Peterson

Musician Eamonn McLain, '11 B.F.A., has played for plenty of audiences over the years, but he admits that his performance for the University's "Discovery is Illumination" commercial campaign was unlike anything he'd ever done before. McLain, the expressive cellist who appears in three of the four television commercials, headed to the Northrop Memorial Auditorium lawn late one summer evening to play for an audience he would never see—and who would never hear a note of his performance.

Filming for the U's newest TV and
print advertisements ran late into
the night on Northrop Mall. In the
wee hours, production assistant
Philip Kelley snapped this cell-
phone shot of cellist Eamonn
McLain, '11 B.F.A.

As part of its ongoing "Driven to Discover" campaign, the University created a series of commercials to illustrate how investment in the U of M fuels the economy and gives the state a bright future. Olson, a Minneapolis advertising agency, showcased the illumination theme by developing ads that literally had U students and others shining lights in the darkness.

Lighting Up the Stage

McLain says if you saw him in the commercial and then saw him playing with his current band, Lucy Michelle and the Velvet Lapelles, you might not recognize him. "On the stage, you're basically just worried about sounding good," he says. "But in a commercial, you're worried about your appearance."

That's one of the reasons behind the vigor that punctuates his three-second appearance. "I'm not usually that enthusiastic when I play, but it was important to convey musical energy visually." The shot's directors, who hadn't yet settled on a song to accompany the shots, had him bow a tune that was unrelated to the final selection, Cloud Cult's "There's So Much Energy in Us."

Music and visual art have always been passions for McLain. With the help of several scholarships, such as the Zelda and Max Berman Scholarship and the Warren C. Locke Post Office American Legion Post No. 540 Scholarship, he was able to piece together the funding he needed to earn a degree in visual arts. When he's not playing music, he works as an artist's assistant. In the past year, he's helped create murals outside the St. Paul Farmer's Market and in Uptown, and has worked on a glass installation at Harvard.

Sparking an Interest in Science

Danielle Berg, a fifth-year graduate student working on a Ph.D. in astrophysics, appears in one of the commercials as a lab-coated scientist peering through a circular window at bright particles crashing together. While the finished commercial makes the world she sees look spectacularly bright and exciting, she says the filming was a bit less dramatic.

"It was a pretty bare-bones set," she says. "I just walked up to a wooden board with a hole in it. There were screens in the background to mark where they would be putting in special effects."

While she admits that the commercial doesn't exactly reflect her daily reality—she doesn't wear a lab coat, and particles are too small to be seen with the naked eye—she appreciates the larger aim of the commercial. "For the general public, it's really important to spark people's interest in science," she says. "So I think it's great that they took that route."

In the finished television ad, fifth-year graduate
student Danielle Berg looks like she's watching
bright particles crashing together through an
illuminated window. In real life, she was looking
through a wooden board with a hole in it, with a
screen in the background marked for special effects.

Thanks to support from the Russell J. Penrose Astronomy Fellowship and the Edward P. Ney Graduate Studies Fellowship, Berg has made the most of her time at the University. Though a typical Ph.D. program in astrophysics takes six years, she combined a little luck (clear skies just when her research needed them) with a smart, focused approach to wrap up the program in five. She hopes to snare a job teaching and doing research after she finishes this year.

In the end, both McLain and Berg say they were glad to be part of a commercial that highlighted, in brief and beautiful ways, the remarkable work being done at the University. "I had no idea what to expect," says McLain. "But it was pretty cool, and it did a great job getting out the notion that there are great things going on at the U."

Erin Peterson is a freelance writer in Minneapolis.

Missed the commercials? Check them out at