AGENCIES: SELLING CREATIVE
Selling is tougher today than ever. Not only are TV audiences more distracted than ever by more competing media — and more able to dodge commercial messages — they are also more frugal in their spending.
So what do you do? If you’re a marketer, you’ve got to grab your intended consumer with something special. Humor? Jaw-dropping effects? A good story, well told? Or is it some combination of the above? Some editors find that a spot can be so effects heavy that the VFX house winds up taking responsibility for the edit. Or a storytelling editor may find himself in charge of editing a spot — and discover that it’s really one long visual effect.
Post talked to commercial editors and executive producers from around the country and the UK to see how they worked to win over audiences and how they worked with the agencies that devise the creative roadmap.
David Henegar, an editor at Butcher in Santa Monica (www.butcheredit.com), has worked on a number of high-end spots for Lexus and one of the most recent, Deep Snow, proved to be an unusual mixture of concept, story and VFX.
Deep Snow’s story is that of a man driving to work in a new Lexus sedan — not an SUV, mind you — after an unusually heavy snowfall. So heavy that you’d expect a typical sedan to lose traction. So heavy the car passes a telephone line worker, who’s way up a pole, seen at shoulder level. So high… the Lexus drives up a snow drift onto the roof of the man’s office building and parks on its helipad.
Carl Rinsch of RSA directed the :30 for agency Team One. To capture the spot’s opening vistas of vast, mountainous fields of snow, Rinsch’s production team flew to New Zealand and then captured many 35mm shots of the region’s rugged, snow-covered environs from a helicopter. Again, this was high-end work. Rinsch also lensed numerous shots of the Lexus on the move.
Back in LA, Digital Domain was signed on to take all the footage and add banks of snow — not just around the roadway, but seemingly drifting up to residential homes’ roofs and, finally, up the sides of tall, CG buildings.
So where’s Henegar’s story? Well, we have a man driving to work. The roads are not plowed. But his Lexus still transports him speedily along a highway; then into a suburban residential neighborhood; and then into the city. No one else is on the road, but this is not a disaster film. Henegar makes sure we see the lineman up on the pole; the homey chimney smoke wafting upward in the residential area; the driver’s drily comical adherence to traffic signals, even though the streets are deserted and the accumulated snow puts the overhead traffic lights at about seven feet high. The final gag comes when our hero gets out of his car atop the helipad and the VO tells us that Lexus is putting an end to snow days.
Henegar is a veteran Avid user who has recently been using more Apple Final Cut. The Lexus commercials he’s worked on, he says, are “all highly creative work from Team One who specializes in work that I think is not so heavily dependent upon special effects as it is the idea itself. They concentrate on the creativity first and then worry about how to execute it later.”
To Henegar, a great spot, with or without special visual effects, began with a great idea, edited traditionally.
However, he adds, “This world is changing a lot and we’re expected, as editors, to know an awful lot more about effects and how to pull commercials back together from tons and tons of plates and greenscreens.”
What’s changing today, Henegar says, is that fewer production people may believe that “the editing is still what moves people. When I get a project, whether it’s a highly creative, VFX-heavy spot or not, I think it’s really important to cut it and to get the pacing and the music and the sound and the timing all correct first. You move somebody and you captivate their attention first and then let the effects company and everybody else [work on] what you’ve done.”
Henegar says there are production companies that will hire a VFX company and let them edit their spot, taking the whole project from start to finish. This MO can leave a spot feeling a little “cold and heartless because it really hasn’t been thought out editorially.”
Henegar says he has “built a fantastic relationship” with so many clients that he’s able to work with them to “get the cut right first.”
Car commercials, he says, “have to be cut a certain way in order to make you feel something, to make your heart race a little bit and get excited about a car.” On another Lexus spot, the ambitious Pop-up, featuring a real Lexus in a giant pop-up book, Henagar had to perform a rough cut for the client entirely in After Effects.
“As an editor, I wasn’t using any editing software to do the commercial,” he says. “It all had to be composited in After Effects. We’ve had to adapt as editors and change the way we work because the directors are changing the way things look and clients are wanting more.” That spot ultimately received over 100 layers, composited over four or five weeks of VFX work.
Henegar adds, “We have become such an effects-heavy society, with films the way they are, it’s, ‘Who can outdo the next person?’”
Avid editor Christophe Williams works at Whitehouse Post in London and gets to cut some very intricate commercials. But it’s likely that no :60 on TV is as intricate as his new spot for Toshiba. It’s called Toshiba Timesculpture, and at the time of this writing the piece has been viewed on YouTube close to 500,000 times.
Timesculpture was conceived by Hungry Man director Mitch Stratten and, yes, it owes something to the original “bullet time” fight scene in the first Matrix film. The Matrix used many still cameras to capture a heroic fight scene involving two antagonists. Timesculpture has about 12 people running around and performing simple, repetitive actions like bouncing a ball, waving a flag, spewing paint from a can. And the camera moves around them in a circle as they move. Did we say camera? Try 200 Toshiba Gigishot HD cameras arrayed next to each other and shooting from a big, suspended circular rig. There are also about 100 you cannot see above the actors’ heads thanks to Flame rig removal done at The Mill.
“We removed one half of the rig and filmed an empty set,” says Williams, “then rebuilt the rig, took the other half away and filmed the empty set. There’s no CG in it at all, it’s just editing. The post part was stabilizing and matching.”
The point of the spot is to evoke ever-changing, ever-expanding innovation — a Toshiba theme — and apply that to the company’s strides in consumer HD. The cameras shoot 1920x1080 HD in MPEG-4, H.264 format recorded to hard disk at 25fps.
That’s 200 hard drives worth of images. The rushes totaled 107 hours for a :60 spot, or 20-odd TB of data. “We’re in the Guinness Book of World Records because it was the first commercial shoot ever to use 200 cameras,” Williams says.
Another world first here is that the action isn’t frozen, so as you’re going ‘round, the action is going back and fourth — it’s looping. Someone throwing a bucket of paint shows the paint flying out and going back in.
“To work with timecode would be crazy,” Williams says. “We decided to go completely file- and frame-based. At the beginning of each take, all 200 cameras filmed the flash of a bulb and then the action happened. We had to choose, on the set, that very day, what takes I was going to edit with so I had to be on set to make sure the selected takes [of performers’ movements] wouldn’t intersect.”
Williams says that while shooting on-set, they avoided lethal intersections by using an additional camera that shot from overhead. “I used that to mix an overlay to make sure and we had a feed from four camera angles.” He worked on his laptop Avid while on set. “I started building the cut there and then, looping the performances to make sure they didn’t intersect. One particularly tricky move was a performer in yellow who “runs through” the whole set, avoiding all the other performers (who could not be seen at the time). “There’s only one frame window he can run through without hitting anybody — the guys throwing the paint, the lady throwing the paper,” Williams says.
Back in post, the content of all 200 little hard drives was recorded to a DVS Clipster. “From that they made image sequences like JPEGs,” Williams says. “Each camera had its own number and I had 200 folders. Inside each folder I had the shots I wanted — about 13 selected shots from 80 takes. Manually editing that was just colossal.” Out of 107 hours of material there were 28 hours of selects. “I think it was 2.75 million .tif files.”
The team prioritized the processing of the imagery so they would be able to work first with the four master camera angles, essentially north, south, east and west. “I cut the film from one master angle and then repeated it from the other angles to see who was doing what where at what time.” Otherwise Williams wouldn’t know when some new performer was entering the shot.
Then the “camera,” actually one of 200, starts to rotate around the scene and picks up speed in a “step change.” When the step change happens and the camera starts tracking around, and [the performers] carry on their loops, that’s what’s never been done before,” Williams says. “This is where it gets extremely complicated. To build someone actually walking through the set, once you start rotating, and to actually have them go into a loop and carry on, we, with the director, designed this software. It’s like a file management software.
“This [proprietary] software rebuilt the Avid edit. It would go into all the camera folders, take the frame that I used, and create a new folder with all the HD files in it. I would re-import that back into Avid, to check it’s frame-accurate, and re-edit it into my edit so the locked-off camera  is now the moving, rotating camera!”
People remember humor. So do the people who give out awards for commercial campaigns. 89 Edit in New York City works with the Geico Gecko, and without him. They also work with Fred Flintstone, Jed Clampett and that grown-up Cabbage Patch Kid — all are brought to you, in the Martin Agency’s spot-on parody of celebrity-expose television, as yet more evidence of the pecuniary benefits of choosing Geico insurance.
89 Edit recently won an AICE award (Association of Independent Commercial Editors) for best national campaign for their editing of these Geckoless Geico expose parodies. 89 Edit’s Jordan Green, an Avid editor, cut both the Cabbage Patch and the Beverly Hillbillies parodies.
89 Edit’s (www.89edit.com) graphics/VFX sister company, Headlight Design + FX, created the kinetic, we-mean-business, Hard Copy-style opening treatment for TRS: The Reel Scoop, a fictitious show that tracks the foibles of celebrities of yesteryear. Ders Hallgren was the fake open’s designer/animator and Lana Aklilu is Headlight’s head of production. Steve Zourntos was VFX/Flame artist. Besides Flame, Headlight uses Toxik, Combustion, After Effects and Final Cut.
Jed Clampett, we learn from this “show,” did not discover oil on his property as previously believed. Rather, his untold riches were the result of the savings he enjoyed from his Geico insurance. That spot, Beverly Hillbillies fans will note, borrows heavily on the lyrics from the 1960s show’s theme song.
The more lyrics you remember, the funnier the spot is. But that’s because the “expose” of Jed’s finances is described by a sonorous voice-of-doom VO and visualized with clips, freezeframes and stills from the old sitcom, doctored newspaper headlines, newly shot black-and-white Clampett-reenactment footage and even a snippet of a fake modern-day Clampett investigator voicing his suspicions of the “Texas tea” ruse that disguised the real source of Jed’s fortune.
Another icon from many people’s childhood, the Cabbage Patch Kid, here reimagined as a full-size adult plush doll named Ben Winkler, is shown struggling to make a life for himself before becoming a Geico beneficiary.
Putting funny concepts together in a cogent way is serious work and 89’s Jordan Green has experience editing Geico spots starring the Gecko as well as some that do not. (The CG pitch-lizard is created by London’s FrameStore.) “You look at Jordan Green’s style of editorial and it’s very raw, real comedy that’s very editing- and timing-sensitive,” Bob Cagliero, 89 Edit EP says.
“Creatively they were really smart and entertaining and funny,” Cagliero says of the spots. “Collectively, the agency, the director, the editor and our design/effects group really worked hard” to emulate the expose style. Cagliero says director David Gray shot Cabbage “on a lot of different media —35mm, video, camera-phone, all sorts of things. The [team] really worked on making this as a promo for one of these reality/celebrity/investigative shows. It’s got a lot of editing, a lot of stills, a lot of graphics. This was clearly a post-heavy job. We all got together in one room well in advance of the shoot to figure out what form and shape and feel these things were going to take.
“There were a lot of examples [presented] by our design team,” Cagliero says. “We reviewed a lot of similar TV shows and footage and we knew the kind of things we wanted to have in the edit room before they went out and shot it. As the thing took form, during the shoot and during the rough cut, [the agency] spent time making sure things really felt the way they needed to.”
Headlight did the titling and effects on stills such as the Cabbage Patch fake “contract,” again imparting a furtive, investigative feel.
“As we speak we’re cutting a job for the Gecko,” says Cagliero, with Green seated at the Avid. “It’s one of those jobs that doesn’t come along too often that an editor truly gets to sink his teeth into.”
BIG MACS AND OJ
If your television functions, and you’re able to drag yourself away from PBS, you have seen the recent McDonald’s Flowers spot. And you have seen how concept, story, performance and, yes, editing come together in a memorable way.
You have to have all working at high competency to get the effect of this story: a young man visits his romantic interest at her place of business. He’s brought her a beautiful flower as a token of his esteem. She is thrilled that he was so thoughtful and scoops up — his lunch. We watch his face sag and his communication skills falter as his lady friend digs in, extolling the virtues and enjoyableness of a hot Big Mac lunch.
“For me, the key element in a comic spot is the casting,” says Brent Herrington, a veteran editor and partner, with Ken Skaggs, in the Dallas-based editorial/post house 3008. (That’s their address on Ross Avenue, visit: www.3008.com.) “If you have a great concept and bad casting, you come up with a so-so product. If you have a so-so concept and great casting, you can come out with a great product.” Herrington allows that his precept places a lot of responsibility on the director and the agency, given how little editors usually have to say about casting decisions.
“Comic spots are a driving force here, and our mainstay is comedy,” says Herrington, who with Skaggs founded Frames Per Second in 1996 and rebranded themselves as the new-and-improved 3008 last year. About 75 percent of the commercial work done in the Dallas market is comedy, he says, while most of the rest are image-driven campaigns and the remaining 10 percent or so depend on heavy effects. 3008 also does effects- and graphics-driven spots.
“The McDonald’s Flowers spot is a success due to the acting [the male lead] was great in that,” Herrington says. “The director was Jesse Dylan [of FORM], who is a very, very talented director and his expertise and casting is what made that spot.” But the pacing and storytelling responsibilities fall more to Avid editor Herrington, who also works at finding the best, most natural performances. The :30 was a 35mm shoot.
After transferring Flowers footage to Digi Beta, Herrington cut the spot on his Avid Adrenaline. Later, selects were re-transferred at Dallas’s Filmworkers Club and Herrington’s shop then conformed the finished product in Smoke.
Another recent spot Herrington edited — which also received graphics treatment at 3008 — was for Florida Citrus.
It is not funny. There are no actors and there is no acting. Unless you count the handsome-sounding voice of actor Tom Selleck and the seemingly choreographed undulations of the product itself — fresh Florida orange juice.
The Florida Department of Citrus’s orange juice spots are well known for their outdoorsy, sunshiny settings with lush groves and down-home farmer types on camera. Not this time. Imagine veering away from that and taking the whole show off to London, for an all-indoor, all-tabletop, all-Red, slo-mo shoot. This spot, created by the Dallas-based Richards Group, was directed by London-based David Wynn-Jones for production company Hanrahan.
This summer’s FDOC spot is about the product — lush, orange juice flowing out of a pitcher and into a glass in slo-mo. Wynn-Jones is known for gorgeous lighting and high-speed tabletop work and the Texan agency and Floridian client were happy to have him shoot — with a Red camera in his London studio.
Meanwhile, 3008 got DPX files to work with — close to an hour’s worth, which is about average for such a spot.
Although Wynn-Jones’s Red images were excellent, Herrington says, “After we cut the spot we’ll take it over for final transfer and color correction. They import our files into the Spirit at Filmworkers.” When your spot is only one color — orange — “the key is to make it all consistent.” Herrington experienced no glitches working with DPX files born of the Red and says the final product for FDOC is indistinguishable from film.