|Our world is filled with interactive options, and today’s production, post and graphics companies are embracing all the new content needed for the Web, the iPhone or whatever handheld device you might call your own.
It’s a brave new world that is bringing new revenue streams to studios, whose challenge is to ramp up with new or existing gear to create more cost-efficient workflows that don’t skimp on quality or creativity.
COOKING UP WEBISODES
What better way to build up excitement in your yet-to-be-built restaurant than promoting some of your mouth-watering menu on the Web. And not only is the food featured, the actual chefs from your eatery are pictured preparing the recipes, a la the Food Network.
This is just one of the ways The Taco Truck (www. thetacotruck.com), with help from NYC’s Guerilla FX (www.guerillafx.com), chose to build a following for their upcoming Hoboken, NJ, restaurant.
Guerilla’s partner/creative director, Thor Raxlen, says the client wanted to create brand awareness ahead of their actual brick and mortar restaurant, “and they wanted a completely integrated approach, which I love because it gave us the opportunity to meet with the them and find out what they wanted in terms of branding and what the project could entail.”
Guerilla did it all: they created the Website, designed it, created the blog and banners, wrote the script, shot the live action and posted the Webisodes, which they have dubbed “Cookisodes.”
The Taco Truck will also have an actual truck, with a fully equipped kitchen, driving around, giving away tacos to build interest.”
According to Raxlen, the truck will give Guerilla FX the opportunity to do a “2.0 version” of the Webisodes. “We will put cameras on the truck and interview people who are tasting the food” They are calling it “Tales from the Truck.”
“The online strategy for The Taco Truck and purpose of this site is simple,” adds Guerilla’s digital strategist Darren Himebrook. “The Taco Truck team needed and wanted to start the conversation about themselves and this truck before they started treating Hoboken to their tacos; this was the ideal place to start the conversation about themselves, their food and their truck.”
The live-action footage for the Webisodes were shot with a Red One camera and were directed by Raxlen. For the food photography they hired DP George Motz, who worked the Red One; Linda Peters shot the high-resolution stills.
Because Guerilla FX is a fully integrated company, they are prepared to take projects from concept to completion. “We do production, design, 3D, editorial, post finishing, banner ads and Websites — what I call post-post,” reports Raxlen. “This was a fun project because we could shepherd it all the way through, and when we work that way the projects seem to be more seamless.”
A lot of Guerilla FX ‘s work is like The Taco Truck job. “We get hired just do the effects or finishing, or shooting, but generally speaking we are better suited toward the projects and clients who want an integrated approach,” he explains.
Regardless of how the project will be delivered, Guerilla’s goal is not to be limited by the technology and come up with different ways to tell stories. “It’s a very filmic approach,” describes Raxlen. “We look at a brand, at an idea, try to flesh it out and develop it, asking, ‘How would we get the most out of it?’”
So the challenge for The Taco Truck was to use a filmic approach but with a budget suited for the Web. “We had a very small budget, but we needed to shoot quality food photography, which is an exacting process in and of itself,” explains Raxlen. “At the same time we had to create Webisodes and interviews with key players from The Taco Truck for other PR purposes on the Website.” Guerilla also created a “splashcut,” which will become a banner ad. Raxlen describes this as a :12 to :14 fast-paced clip that could be used as a banner or in an email blast.”
Does Guerilla work differently on projects depending on where they will be viewed? “We do and we don’t,” he says. “The basic rules of filmmaking are the same — you need to tell a story with pictures and audio. You have a certain palette and you use that. The difference with projects like this is you don’t have enough money to throw at problems, so you have to come up with creative solutions that don’t cost a lot of money, but I really try not to limit the thinking about it.”
The idea is create a ton of high-quality assets. “In this case, we are shooting everything we could with every type of equipment,” he says. “Then, back at the shop, we sort it out — we say, ‘Here’s our stills, we can make billboards out of these, here’s some stuff we can create banner ads from’… we combine things and put them together. That’s our toolkit.”
Guerilla developed thetacotruck.com site primarily in Flash, but created the animations in After Effects. The editing of the Red footage was via Final Cut Pro using Kona 3 cards, and it went off without a hitch. Raxlen has heard a lot of stories about the post workflow being difficult with the Red, but he’s found it “integrates beautifully in Final Cut.”
They did all the color correction in-house, first using the Red Cine tool and then After Effects for final color. Footage was then turned into Flash movies and uploaded. There was no mix on this spot because the budget didn’t allow; the audio was done in Final Cut. Raxlen was happy with the way it turned out. “We couldn’t bring in as many tools as a broadcast shoot, but if you look at the food photography, this is beyond broadcast quality. It’s 4K digital; you can project this in a cinema!”
He sums up, “If the scripts are tight and the ideas and design are good, you are going to have a good product. And that has been a key to our success on projects that fall below the broadcast bar.”
TOONING IT UP FOR TRIX
Chicago’s Calabash Animation (www.calabashanimation.com) has completed a series of three Webisodes for Trix Yogurt and General Mills out of Saatchi & Saatchi NY. Viewers are able to access the shows by entering a passcode found on the lids of the product. As part of the same project, Calabash also created a :30 broadcast spot, Trix Toons Theater, that combines live action and animation, and explains how kids can view these mini movies on the Web.
The Webisodes, which vary in length, feature the Trix Rabbit in a series of quirky adventures. One is a superhero spoof called The Trixters (7:35). Another has a western theme and is called Ride ‘Em Up Rabbit (6:49). The third is the Trix the Musical (7:51) about a garage band participating in a Battle of the Bands contest.
The agency provided a script and the voiceover — all the audio, actually — and Calabash edited it as necessary for time and humor. “So we had a little bit of a creative license for those things,” explains executive producer Sean Henry, who worked closely with creative director Wayne Brejcha on the project.
The first thing you notice about the pieces is the style of animation – it’s got a retro feel. “It was kind of an intentional throwback to the old UPA style from the ‘50s,” explains Henry. “And we employed it for a lot of the same reasons they did back then: it was economical. They wanted to economize the style of their characters and try to churn out a lot of material in a short amount of time, so it works its way into the design of the characters and backgrounds and influences the whole style of the times.”
Relating it back to the Trix project, Henry says, “In this case, we have bandwidth issues and some of the same types of concerns they did with schedules and budget. We try to economize, but at the same time find some fun opportunities to play with the design a bit and come up with something that is unique and fun in its own right.”
The Web part of Calabash’s business is new — currently 90 to 95 percent of what they do is broadcast work — but growing, and they have geared up for the opportunity. “We have invested quite heavily in some new equipment for these projects,” reports Henry. “We added about six high-end Macs, several Wacom Cintiq tablets and extra software licenses from Toon Boom for Harmony.
Harmony is what they used for the animation. “We’ve done some work with Flash in that style but we use Toon Boom Harmony for a similar style to Flash, and it can output to Flash as well,” he says. “We have done small amounts of things for the Web for other clients but nothing on this scale.”
Calabash chose Harmony for this project over Flash since they were already using the software for their mainstream animation productions, for everything from ink-and-paint to compositing, explains Henry. “Harmony’s cutout animation tools surpass Flash in many respects, and our animators are already familiar with the workflow. It also offers us the advantage of being able to integrate some of the more economical cut-out and paperless techniques into our traditional animation productions.
Adds Brejcha, “Harmony gives us a wider and more powerful range of tools, and is linked to other suites of Toon Boom, with which we are already familiar. Harmony is vector-based animation software made specifically to assist longer-form storytelling oriented animation. Flash is vector-based software which is heavy on engineering for the interactivity of the animated product, which we did not need for the Webisodes we created.”
With the majority of Calabash’s work being broadcast, how different was it preparing these pieces for the Web? “There are major differences,” says Henry. “One is the budget constraints when working for the Web. That means the style of the animation is going to be a different type of product than what you are producing for broadcast. So you need to find ways to economize where ever possible and not compromise on the quality and the storytelling.” And this is where he sees tools like Flash and Harmony playing a big role.
Henry says that even in production, there are major differences between broadcast and Web work, and he cites cel animation as an example. “We have a detailed system worked out for cel animation, which is a more hand-crafted animation style, whether the drawing is actually done on paper or in the computer — but it requires a great deal of manual labor. The Web work requires less drawing but additional technical skills. We create the characters as articulated puppets that can be re-used in multiple scenes.”
He says that’s one of the big differences with a traditional cel animation project. “You have this big process of clean-up and ink and paint at the back end of the production. With Flash animation the need for that is removed but replaced with a bigger need for set up, character creation and rigging at the beginning of the project.”
One thing that Henry and crew enjoyed was having flexibility with the actual time lengths of each Webisode. “It’s a much longer format than we are used working with for commercials. With a TV spot you have :15 or :30 to make everything fit. With this piece we knew we had seven or so minutes — if it goes over or under, it’s not going to hurt anybody.”
Calabash produced the Webisode in broadcast quality. “We knew that this particular project would be a showpiece and we wanted maximum compatibility so it could be viewed in as many ways as possible,” he explains. “It was designed to be viewed on the Web at the smaller size and with compression, but we also wanted to be able to put it on our video showreel.”
Sums up Brejcha: “That gives the greatest versatility for any future venues in which the material may be shown. It’s easy to get good-looking materials when you smallify large files, but biggifying small files creates problems in the quality of the final image.”
NAVIGATING THE STREETS OF NEW YORK
To help promote its animated film Bolt, Disney called on Encino, CA’s AvatarLabs (www.avatarlabs.com) to create a videogame based on the film for Apple’s iPhone, exploiting the handheld’s “accelerometer” feature which allows users to tilt the device to control the flow and direction of the action.
“Disney wanted to create a game based around the character Rhino — he is the little hamster in a ball who is the film’s comic relief,” explains Avatar’s producer Josh Golsen. “So we set about creating RhinoBall, which is a racing game where you are rolling Rhino through the streets of New York using the accelerometer.
“The goal of the game is to catch up with Bolt and the other characters from the film as quickly as possible avoiding obstacles along the way,” explains Golsen. “And for an additional challenge, we placed little lightning bolts in each of the levels that players can collect for additional point bonuses.”
And as art director Paul Berry points out, the project isn’t just a simple game for the iPhone, RhinoBall features a built-in electronic press kit for the movie. “Essentially, the trailer and some of the videos were spliced inside of it,” he explains. “There are clips from the film in between all the levels that set up the story of the game.”
Golsen says players can watch the film’s trailer and television spot directly in the app to get psyched up for the film. Typically users have to pay a couple of dollars for a trailer from iTunes, but it was a free download by releasing it through the game.
While Disney supplied static assets for Bolt’s characters and some small PNG sequences for looping, AvatarLabs built all of the game’s 3D assets in-house. Berry did the lion’s share of the modeling and texturing work and Kyle Whitacre provided additional textural help. On the development side, Brett Cook and Phil Larson served as the game programmers and Christian Widodo designed the different levels.
“The New York City streets, the buildings, the cars, the obstacles that appear in the game — they were inspired by clips from the film and some concept art we saw, but they were created here,” says Golsen.
While Avatar’s work is almost all interactive — Websites, ad campaigns, viral apps and mobile and browser-based games — this was the first game they designed for the iPhone. “Part of the process was new to us so we had to figure it out as we went,” explains Berry. “With the new device, there are a lot of limitations in terms of memory, so we really had to learn how to optimize our game designs, our models and the programming of the game in general for the iPhone specifically to get it running as efficiently as possible.”
Golsen says the project was a success from all angles — from working with Disney all the way through to the popularity of the game. “It was one of the first applications to promote a movie that came out on the App Store, and as of right now it has been downloaded over 1.2 million times worldwide. And from what we’ve read, the average app up on iTunes gets downloaded just about 4,000 times.” What better way to measure the project’s success!
WEB SPOT, BROADCAST FEEL
Producing and posting online commercials has become a growing part of business at Mechanism Digital (www.mechanismdigital.com), a full-service production company in New York. And the studio recently fine-tuned some of its traditional services for agency Tank Design on a four-minute Web spot promoting the new Norton Online Family software by Symantec. Check it out at www.onlinefamily.norton.com.
While the current plan is for the spot to run only online, Mechanism shot and posted the piece in HD, so Norton could use it for meetings and events where the piece could be displayed on HD screens. “The budget isn’t all that much different to shoot and cut in HD thanks to the reasonable costs of HD equipment and editing systems these days,” reports Mechanism’s in-house director/producer, Ted Keenan. Another benefit to shooting in high def is that Mechanism is essentially future-proofing the piece so it could be used as a broadcast spot — with some edits, of course — somewhere down the line if the client chooses to go that route.
DP Richard Rutkowski shot the piece to tape via a Panasonic HDX-900 camera, and it was edited on Final Cut Pro HD by Gary Hernandez and Brent Hardy. “With the advent of affordable technology and what it can do — Final Cut HD has come a long way — we keep our expenses lower by using that system in our edit suite,” says Keenan.
Another way Mechanism keeps costs down for Web-based projects is by keeping all the post in-house. The only thing they did send out was the audio mix and sound design; they used Mixology in New York. “It fit in the budget so we wanted to give the spot a proper mix and those final finishing touches,” explains Keenan. “We also wanted to give them the option to show it in places other than on the Web and with high-quality audio. Plus the client licensed a Xavier Rudd song for the spot, so it needed to sound great.”
Mechanism often gets involved at the script stage and this project was no exception. According to Keenan, “We received a script written by the client but it was long, about nine minutes. Knowing the budget we had to work with, we tailored the script to the budget by reducing the number of characters and the locations.”
Mechanism re-wrote the script, with the help of freelance commercial copywriter Dana Fabbro, getting it down closer to three minutes and then further tweaked it in collaboration with the client. “We worked on the script and the budget at the same time and discussed elements Norton needed to maintain and others that weren’t essential to the story, and found creative ways to hit their marketing points.” In the end there was three minutes of live action accented by about a minute of graphics,.
Because of the budget, instead of building sets on a stage, Mechanism chose to shoot at Douglas House Inc. in Rockland County, NY. “It’s a real house [the owner still lives there] that’s set up for production — the kitchen cabinets are interchangeable, there are sliding walls, etc. — and that was another way we brought the budget down.” says Keenan.
In addition to the cost differences between broadcast and online work, there is also the benefit of time. “In contrast to doing a :30 spot, we didn’t have those constraints, and that was positive in terms of cutting the story,” he explains. “It could flow the way the editor thought it would work best, and the client, who sat in on the session, didn’t have the restriction of time.”
Mechanism ended up encoding the piece for the Web and delivering it as .SWF and .FLV files on a portable drive.
So with the trend toward online work growing, Mechanism finds itself having to educate some clients to the process a bit.
“Although the budgets for online are much lower, you are still doing all the same work you would for a broadcast spot,” Keenan explains. “So it’s a fine line you walk when explaining those things to the client; their impression is that it’s cheaper because it’s going to be online. You have to really explain the process to them, depending on how much experience they have with online content.”