Visual effects do not change a commercial's story — but they can drastically affect a spot's impact. Then there's the democratized editing landscape: As agencies delve more into DIY cutting, keep telling yourself, "change is good, change is good."
Surely inspired in part by increasingly deft editorial talent and swift NLEs, along with the foreknowledge that just about anything you can imagine can be brought to the screen thanks to strides in VFX techniques, spells one thing for today's agency commercial producers: creative confidence. Still, the tightening screws of deadline and budget pressure, along with the demand for deliverables of every stripe in an effort to capture the wayward consumer, keep agency producers looking to new technology for help.
Post recently spoke with a number of ad agency executives deeply involved in commercial production, editing and VFX.
Stan Prinsen, VP, director of broadcast production at Martin Williams (www. martinwilliams.com) in Minneapolis has an unusually varied professional history that includes legit theater production, agency commercial production at Fallon, and post production management. Today Prinsen is into his second tour of duty at M|W with wide ranging responsibilities. Prinsen has had years to observe technology's steady march in two directions (toward democratization and toward high-end excellence) from both the agency side and the post side of the fence, but he maintains that without "story" you have nothing.
"It's all improved these days, you can do anything," he says, "but that's not necessarily a good thing. You've got to have a great story and a nice script and then see how you can fit technique into it — either in-camera or CG or 2D animation. Too much CG is not a good thing, but if it makes for a better TV spot, I'm definitely in favor of it."
Prinsen and M|W had fun with a multi-spot campaign for Hoover vacuum cleaners. To tell their story (which is one of suction) the campaign uses an imaginative problem/solution approach. Three commercials, set inside an otherwise pristine white house, present three bad problems: hairy, furry, messy dogs run amok; dirty cleats deposit gobs of mud so virulent they seem to regenerate into miniature, warring "mud men" playing rugby; a drop of red wine lands on a white carpet unleashing, in extreme slo-mo close-up, a threatening mushroom cloud of Beaujolais. The threats to cleanliness are represented in a mélange of live action, CG and camera trickery. The answer to all these threats is a different Hoover vacuum cleaner with specialized talents. Deus ex machina style, the familiar Hoover logo sweeps from off camera and literally sucks up the mess. Then the relevant vacuum appears, rendered in CG, to emphasize the Hoover solution. In short, this is a lot of work.
Regarding the dogs, Prinsen says, "We shot them all in-camera, then created new dogs — a little bit of replication, a little bit of touch-up, you've got a whole new dog. CG helped a lot there."
Prinsen's plan was to shoot a small number of manageable dogs and then "take them further in the computer. All the video effects stuff was done at Framestore in New York. Great company; they did an amazing job on all three of these spots." In each case, CG helped to better tell the story of the havoc that pets, kids, mud and spills can wreak on your home. For Hoover's Spill, wine hit the carpet, but so did compressed air shot in HD at super high speed; 35mm was shot, too. "Framestore took all those elements, the wine, the liquid, the droplets and composited them into the explosion you see with CG. Murray Butler was the supervising Flame artist." Regarding Hoover's Mud Men, "we augmented all the in-camera mud and nastiness with digital mud effects." Prinsen says that digital mud was easily added or subtracted from shots as the client requested. "What's called 'rotoscoping' is so easy these days."
As for compositing, "we have an After Effects artist in-house," Prinsen says, "in our own production facility; we play with After Effects and Maya quite a bit. Speaking of 'democratization,' you can get a Smoke, with the license, for under $150,000 and that used to pay for a simple Avid. But the equipment is a very small part of the equation — it's the artist. We want someone who can produce this stuff and tell a story and do great work. I don't care what his tools are, really. I love After Effects, I'm a firm believer in that; we use it for a lot of things." Some AE work is for in-house use, and some goes on-air, such as work for the Minnesota Timberwolves. A recent five-spot job for the NBA franchise included both After Effects and Flame shots. "Strong" local talent that Prinsen calls on for Flame work or editing includes Volt, Crash & Sues, Pixel Farm and Fischer Edit. He has a "flat earth" theory: Local talent today must "compete with Singapore and Australia, and they do a great job of that — they can pick up work anywhere around the world. It's not only fantastic, it's absolutely necessary to stay in business."
There's definitely more confidence in the advertising world today. "I'm a firm believer in 'just do it,'" Prinsen says. "I want producers who believe that anything can be done. It's fun, but still, you have nothing if you don't have a great script." Prinsen is confident, even during the bidding stage, that agency talent can do a great job as long as it's a great script — with the help of tech new and old, digital and in-camera magic.
Richard O'Neill, head of production in TBWA\Chiat\Day's (www.tbwachiat.com) LA office, has accrued 27 noteworthy years of commercial production for the agency and also oversees Venice Beach Editorial, their in-house editing shop. If the name doesn't immediately ring a bell, and you were alive in the 1980s, think in terms of Apple Computer's aptly named Super Bowl commercial, 1984. That Richard O'Neill.
So what's new? "More and more we edit on location," says O'Neill. "It's the ability to bring Final Cut Pro onto the set itself with an editor." And 35mm shoots are no longer so challenging: "The video tap, because it's in color, now looks terrific." This way of working also aids multi-camera location shoots of spots featuring choreography where you must know that different shots of dancers match up before you strike the set.
"I think the portability of the hardware and the ability to have the software on one computer have changed the industry dramatically," O'Neill says.
On a location shoot, the client, the agency, the director, the talent, the crew — are all typically on hand at once. Decision-makers can now determine and agree if they've captured what they need on location before everyone disperses for parts unknown after the shoot ends. "Having the editor there gives them a security blanket," O'Neill says.
And today, if location work must get back quickly for approvals, it can travel online. A recent three-minute "viral" piece shot for a videogame company had only the producer, director and editor on location in the jungles of Peru. "The material was shot on high def tape, transferred into Final Cut Pro, and edited every evening, so they would know what they had," O'Neill says. "They'd then transmit it back to the States so people could look and write notes and get [the notes] back to the jungle. That saved on travel costs for one thing. By having the editor there they pretty much had the whole piece pre-edited" before the team returned to the US. There was a feeling of confidence all around because, while still on the shoot, the production/editing team could acquire more footage as requested by creatives in the States.
O'Neill started his career editing audio tape and film with a razor blade. But, he says, today's NLEs are "so immediate there's very little study of what you actually have." O'Neill is the rare producer who, upon viewing a cut, will ask the editor to show all the takes so he can be sure they have the best one in the cut. Today's creatives sometimes go in and look at a cut and, "since it's there, they'll figure it's done!"
O'Neill says, "What's great about the editorial system today is, because it is much, much more expedited in the digital age, you can make changes relatively simply." Except in the post effects arena!
"Creatives have grown up now with the [confidence] that anything can be done because of special effects," O'Neill says. "Because of that their storylines will incorporate the most outlandish concepts involving visual effects." Most of O'Neill's producers are trained, from assistant producers on up, to understand visual effects and they work directly with outside editors and effects pros.
Recent work for the 2008 Nissan Rogue is a good case. "We did the visual effects with Buf out of Paris," O'Neill says. Directed by Thierry Poiraud of Paranoid US, Marble Maze depicts Nissan's new Rogue, which is designed to handle city streets, deftly negotiating an exaggeratedly deadly maze of monstrous potholes capable of sucking in everything else in the city, including a high-rise rooftop swimming pool.
"This is the most exciting time I've ever been in, says the veteran producer. "To have so much relevant change happening to our industry, you realize you're in a Renaissance that's happening now!"
With 35 years in TV commercial production, Adrian Lichter, head of broadcast production at Vigilante NYC (www.vigilantenyc.com) has seen them come and seen them go. One thing he's seen going is film.
"I'm seeing more and more high definition," he says, "commercials have a lot of reasons to shoot high def. Some directors are shooting three-quarters of their commercials in high def [rather than film]. When commercials are for television, you can't see the difference. I can't." Lichter says it's not just the cost of film stock; he cites film processing, dailies and telecine time as reasons for the changeover. But it's not happening overnight. Asked when HD spots, shot either on film or HD, will finally edge out their traditional 4x3 SD forebears, he says, "I see the tipping point for high def coming in about two years."
Lichter especially appreciates the creativity a light HD handheld camera can afford. If it can record at 24fps, as do many Panasonic cameras he likes, including a democratizing HD model that Vigilante bought for around $3,500, all the better.
Speaking of handy cameras unbridling creativity, Lichter mentions a simple example as a real breakthrough. A production team recently attached a lower-cost high def camera to a car hood, aimed at the driver — an actor in a commercial. The actor then drove around New York City for 20 minutes, acquiring footage of himself driving through urban surroundings. There was no need for greenscreen to accomplish this shot and no film camera crew driving along to change out film canisters every four minutes, etc. Without the new breed of HD cameras, Lichter says, "this would have been impossible. I could not tell it was not film."
He adds that, given the quality he sees, today's HD cameras obviate the need for the 16mm film format.
He especially likes the combination of a lower-cost HD shoot, when conducted by a DP who really knows lighting, with some time well spent in a da Vinci-equipped color correction suite such as those at Nice Shoes or Company 3 in New York. "Color correction right now at television post houses," Lichter says, "is amazing."
As for lower-cost software solutions, Lichter is very impressed with the abilities of today's After Effects artists and people who manipulate images in Apple's Shake within Final Cut Pro. "You can save thousands in After Effects," he says, adding that any average spot calls for "little, small things to re-do — and Shake handles it well and costs nothing." Another trend he cites is outputting finished commercials directly from Avid or from FCP while allowing for a special finishing tweak in a system such as Autodesk Smoke.
Lichter was impressed with recent work at Semerad in NYC where a CG-heavy SD spot was "up-rezed" seamlessly to HD, including expansion to 16x9, via proprietary techniques in use at that shop.
Lichter also anticipates the coming of the 4K Red camera as a real watershed that will change the way movies are made. He spoke recently with a director who works in Canada who "already said today it would be unusual to see a 35mm camera on a set." Thirty-five millimeter shoots are "still great," he says, but the commercial world offers a wide array of expression — and budgets — and now the simple messages can also be low-cost messages.
Based in Durham, NC, the McKinney agency boasts such notable clients as Travelocity, with its English-accented "roaming gnome"; Virgin Mobile, which aims edgy, irreverent messages at a young audience; and, an American icon (for many), Southern Comfort. In addition to many big-ticket advertisers, McKinney (www.mckinney.com) also offered Web visitors this holiday season something unusual — agency producer Ben Eckerson who had volunteered to stay on-camera (on a Webcam) in a 24/7 marathon in a giant inflated snow globe to raise money for charity. For this exercise Eckerson was known as "Snow Globe Boy."
Regina Brizzolara is director, broadcast production at McKinney. Like many in the ad business, Brizzolara is familiar with post production. In fact she worked for Avenue Edit in Chicago from '91 to '94 before moving to NC and McKinney.
Today, advertising is all about reaching consumers wherever they are — not just on the living room couch. "At McKinney, we look at every creative assignment as if it might — or will — live in every media in the world," Brizzolara says. The days of automatically shooting 35mm and transferring selects has changed. Anything McKinney might do today "might end up in the cinema, on cell phones, in Times Square. We look at everything, and that really affects how we go into pre-pro, because of the deliverables."
Doing justice to print advertising requires that McKinney deals with questions of video-to-print resolution. Their answer is planning to have a desired still photographer on the set to capture the look of a spot for print use. "You have your talent, you have your lighting crew," Brizzolara says. "There's an organic, collaborative nature there.
"The other thing that's changed is just the length of the post process," Brizzolara says. "These campaigns have such a longer list of deliverables and a staggered roll-out as you're engaging the consumer over a longer amount of time." For such campaigns access to your inventory of elements and a really talented editor who can work on the fly are key. In the past you would book a top editor, work for 10 days, and then you were done, Brizzolara says.
NLEs have had a major impact on the advertising world and, like many others in this report, McKinney has its own in-house editing division. "We have Avid Adrenaline and Final Cut Pro HD," Brizzolara says. She calls both her full-time editors, Aaron Gurdziel (Avid) and Nick Adcock (FCP) "great." In 2007 they performed nearly 40 percent of the editing, including both SD broadcast work and other deliverables. For HD finishing, McKinney often calls on locals Serious Robots.
"Schedules have shrunk in general," she says. "But we try to allow the editors time to create their version." That includes sharing their cuts with the director and collaborating "all the way through as a creative team."
Like other ad executives, regarding both editing and visual effects, Brizzolara misses "that time to live with stuff and have that extra day. With technology, people expect it faster."
Forrest Maready is McKinney's in-house VFX artist and he is proficient on Maya, After Effects and more. Beside their editing prowess, Adcock is an After Effects artist and Gurdziel specializes in graphics.
Recent work from McKinney includes in-house edits for Virgin Mobile, such as Mona and Nate (on FCP), Quest Communications (Avid) and music tracks for user-generated-content celebrating Southern Comfort (FCP). Maready provided graphic treatments and compositing for the Virgin Mobile spot.
Shorter deadlines, innumerable deliverables and tighter budgets notwithstanding, Brizzolara declares that, with McKinney's in-house talent and reliable service providers, they are "confidently resourceful." But "it requires a real meticulous approach."
Travelers Insurance last year, told us that, if you had their insurance, you could "roll with anything." Fallon (www.fallon.com) and its creatives take a phrase like that and run with it.
In a Travelers :60 with that theme called Snowball, we see a burgeoning, giant wad of street junk, vehicles and living people collect into a painful-looking, ever-enlarging "snowball" mass that careens down a hilly San Francisco street before swerving off the road and out into a park. In the park stands a wedding party. They run, but there is no escape. Ultimately, the mass of victims, vehicles and junk smashes to a halt into a building and we see the individuals shake off their dirt and discomfort, not much the worse for wear.
It takes a very big production such as this to tell us they can roll with it. Visualizing it is a factor of time and budget. The Emmy-nominated Snowball was directed by Dante Areola at MJZ. "It was a huge effects job — 12-plus weeks of visual effects," says Vic Palumbo, Fallon director of production. Weta created the visual effects.
But are big, made-for-TV productions reaching agencies' younger audiences?
"We always factor in the fact that the work is going to be running online," Palumbo says today. At the same time, Fallon is working to streamline the production approach and taking the interactive group "into more of a broadcast model. We have interactive producers who work here and they all report to me — that way it's much more of an integrated model."
Palumbo says, "We have a quality bar we are always trying to get over." So, when a Web-only project comes up, questions about shooting film come up. "The quality is so good at 24p HD that it almost looks like film — especially in a resolution that is not giving you HD quality — like your computer."
Palumbo cites Angus Wall, LA-based editor at Rock, Paper, Scissors, as the exemplar of taking democratizing technology to a new level with David Fincher's Zodiac. "He showed me the Apple Final Cut set-up he has that they put in with the color correction and all the drives. I don't know exactly when we're going to get there, but I believe that is the future of post production and editorial."
He continues, "Especially once cinemas start switching out those projectors for digital cinema, I don't see how studios can continue shooting things on film and making all those prints. All the greatest DPs in the world are artisans and craftsmen and their craft is film. From a generational standpoint you have these kids coming out of film school and art school now and their craft is much more digital and I think that's the wave of the future."
Palumbo cites guerrilla efforts like Microsoft's ESP Billy site — tons of mini-sitcom content created a couple of years back by just two producers from a shop in New York called Honest. He sees the future of post and production lying somewhere between ESP Billy and Zodiac.
Fallon has its own in-house post operation called Assembly Line with "phenomenal" staff editors, along with After Effects artist Matt Craig. The shop has three Avid Adrenalines running on Unity and it turns out about 15 percent of Fallon's work. Assembly Line's fully-loaded Adrenaline is also used to bring in out-of-town editors who can sit in and go to work relatively transparently. Visiting FCP editors can also plug in their laptops, with external FireWire drives, and work at Fallon.
New technologies, Palumbo says, "provide us with the ability to get projects done because of the efficiencies that you gain financially and from a speed and execution standpoint."