|How is the age-old relationship between advertising agencies and post production service providers changing? New technology is obviously helping to crunch deadlines while it also opens creative minds to previously unimagined visual possibilities. But the demon economy is also an actor in this drama — real headlines and real economic figures give substance to the ongoing push to lower budgets and shorten production schedules.
Add to that the splintering of television audiences and the plethora of devices on which they can now communicate and receive their information and entertainment and you’ve got quite a different landscape in the advertising world today compared with even five years ago.
And then there’s the move away from venerated film stock and over to digital acquisition — on anything from a high-end Red camera system to a consumer Canon — often in the name of authenticity (as well as time and budget). Post spoke with some advertising professionals right in the thick of these changing times.
The relationship between agencies and post houses is changing on two levels, says Clare Donald, head of broadcast at Euro RSCG. “Firstly in that technology is forever reaching new levels of complexity, which enable new levels of service and creative excellence. This has meant that post production, rather than [serving merely as] a tag-along at latter stages of production, is more often one of the key factors in production and agencies commence their dialogue at a much earlier stage.”
Donald adds, “Post production, one could argue, is not even an appropriate term — visual effects need to be planned and overseen before budgets and boards are even submitted to clients.”
The second way the agency/post production equation is changing involves “the financial constraints we are all under.” She says, “Clients and agencies are searching to find new ways to make work more transparent and economic. Gone are the days of rate-card budgets. One potential way to ensure cost effectiveness is to centralize work through one post house. This makes for a much closer relationship, although some would argue a potential curb on creativity as different post technicians offer different skills.”
Despite a focus on finances, Donald is not a big proponent of agencies’ bringing in-house some post duties, such as offline editing or perhaps Photoshop work. “The [post] specialists are the people who I would choose to work with on any complex creative job. I would say that, for any broadcast commercials that require more than a simple conform, a better result would be achieved through working with a specialist company with regards to online. Online is a whole different ballgame.”
How profoundly is new technology changing the process and the agency/post services relationship? One huge development is the overall speed of production. “Everything is faster,” Donald says. “Expectations for delivery times have changed. Producers and creatives no longer sit in edit suites for days watching each frame change. We pop in at appropriate moments to assess progress.”
Remote review-and-approval is now common, “but the detail we work to is sometimes hard to appreciate when judging on different monitors. I once had a director trying to judge a [telecine session] from his laptop on the other side of the world. It didn’t work as, of course, the screens were set very differently.
The wonders of VFX can also have their drawbacks, Donald says. “Creatives occasionally abuse the ‘we can do anything’ mantra — there are time and budgetary constraints that need to be taken into account when working with increasingly tight budgets. Good productions discuss and allow for such eventualities during the initial process.”
Digital acquisition — HD and the Red cameras — have made dramatic inroads in commercial production in the UK. “I would say that approximately 50 percent of commercials are now shot digitally,” Donald says. “The Red camera had previously had technical problems — more with the transfer of material than data capture — but these problems seem to be largely resolved and it is an increasingly popular camera. The digital cameras allow for a more direct relationship with post production. More of the material can be transferred and more quickly, changes are easier, moving from one shot to another is faster.
“Photographically there are many people who feel that film gives more depth and subtlety, but as film lenses are used on most digital formats, the difference is diminishing and there are many people who prefer the slightly more defined image that HD provides.”
Creative directors Gavin Milner and Grant Holland have worked together for years as well as on their own on TV campaigns for agencies such as Ground Zero and Ogilvy in Los Angeles, and they now form a team at 180 LA. This agency (www.180LA.com) is the Los Angeles branch of Amsterdam-based 180, a 200-person creative agency with clients like Adidas, Sony, Boost Mobile and Bombay Sapphire.
Milner and Holland were busy throughout 2009 on three campaigns for Adidas. The campaigns might offer six traditional TV :30s but, these days, that work can extrapolate outward to numerous longer and shorter promos for use on the Adidas Website. If you couple the exponential growth of the Internet with the recent down economy, Milner says, viral marketing has become “more than just a force; it’s a necessity now. It’s a faster, more budget-friendly way for me to get my message out there to a lot more people a lot more quickly. We talk around here about pushing information out 24/7/365 — something you wouldn’t be able to do with traditional media.”
Holland concurs, adding that the budgetary constraints that marketers are experiencing could be seen as a good thing for advertising. “A lot of advertisers have half the budget and half the time, yet they still have high expectations, as they should. They still want great work, so we have to be more creative in how we approach the assignments and talk to production companies [who also] have to be more creative.”
One simple answer is the one-stop-shop. Milner and Holland chose to do “everything in one place” on their extended Adidas campaign, using Santa Monica’s Rock Paper Scissors for editing and a52 and Elastic for effects (they are all co-located). “They shot it and did all the special effects,” Holland says, “and they killed it. They did a great job — the line producing, the editing and the visual effects.”
“There are absolutely more tools and more clever ways to get things done than there have ever been before,” Milner says. “The weapons in your arsenal are so varied now. We’re talking to directors [who suggest] we shoot this on the new Canon still camera [5D] that shoots HD. Who’d have ever thought of that a year or two ago? People are a lot more flexible, versatile and open to new solutions. Clients are the same way too, [though] some of it is born of necessity.”
Bringing to life a new Adidas “off court” shoe called Equation called for a different approach to show off the stylish footwear: animation. Milner and Holland used only about :05 of live action in their Lessons in Style spot. “We had [NBA stars] Kevin Garnett and Derrick Rose having a conversation about what it means to be styling off-court,” Holland says. “If KG said, ‘That’s butter,’ the shoe would turn into butter.” Visual effects used to represent the shoe include stop-frame action, animation and “a lot of different styles.” Milner notes that, thanks to today’s liberating technology, you can take a simple idea — a conversation — “and turn that over to Andy Hall and the guys at Elastic and suddenly you’re riding on this crazy, fantastic journey through their imaginations. How fun is that?”
A more conventional promo — if you call doubling and tripling of your onscreen talent via expert compositing traditional — is Adidas’s It’s on Me for We, which A52’s Patrick Murphy directed using the Red camera as well as a high-speed kit. Part of the Adidas “Brotherhood” campaign, this spot features the Chicago Bulls’ Rose bringing the ball down court with six (rather than four) fellow NBA stars moving across an ethereal white set (and wearing Adidas sneakers). The stars’ voiceovers describe their responsibilities (“It’s on me to…”) as slo-mo shots evoke exaggerated hang time and dramatic slam dunks while intricate compositing multiplies up to 24 basketballs heading for the hoop. “It made things so much easier shooting digital,” Milner says. Stefan Gaillot was A52’s Flame artist.
Milner and Holland appreciate the effort and talent RPS’s editing team, featuring Jon Hopp, provided. “Those guys put so many hours into this,” says Holland. “We worked with three or four editors but they killed it. They did everything we asked and [more].”
Milner and Holland will shoot anything from 35mm to Red to Canon 5D. The agency even bought its own Sony HD camera and Holland says they can pitch new concepts to clients with video they shot themselves.
180 LA got a news media boost from their recent tongue-in-cheek spot for Boost Mobile. Even Bill O’Reilly discussed on his show the naughtiness of a Milner/Holland spot with an animated Mrs. Claus cavorting with Frosty the Snowman. (The theme is, if you think this is wrong, paying too much for cell phone services is even worse.) The two CDs are open to lots of media possibilities and the Boost :30 was created in retro stop-motion style — and on a tight budget — by Rohitash Rao at Curious Pictures in NY.
“Without a doubt, all these advances in technology are having an impact on ideas that guys are coming up with,” says Milner. When you see entirely synthetic, fantastic new worlds created in CG in movies, you begin to think, “What’s to stop me from doing that for my clients? And the client is thinking the exact same thing.”
He adds, “The reality of where we are right now is, the onus is on us to figure out how to be clever and get things done. The clients are not asking for less work. And they’re not asking for smaller ideas. The smartest, biggest idea is going to win.”
“People feel that a message is more authentic when it has a more rough feel to it,” says Damon Webster, an executive producer at bi-coastal Bullet (www.bullet.tv) who heads the production shop’s LA office. Webster is a veteran advertising man. As a former head of production at Saatchi & Saatchi, Los Angeles, he oversaw the Toyota account for many years, and prior to joining Bullet, he was a freelance producer with a number of top West Coast agencies.
“With all of the hunger for content on so many different fronts,” Webster says, “and with the budgets getting diminished and the [budget] dollar getting fractured over a variety of screens — just the physical time to do all these things in a very polished form [is prohibitive]. Conversely, the ability to create a good piece of video has been democratized. I think that’s excellent. As everybody in advertising has found out, people don’t want to be talked to. There’s a lot of different ways people can communicate, but it’s still about a conversation.”
A notable Bullet production that went viral — so viral that CNN investigative reporter Anderson Cooper pinched some footage for his news program as if it were news — comprises their World’s Fastest Nudist clips for Zappos Clothing. The videos — which are nothing if not authentic-looking — promote the online footwear retailer’s move into clothing. In a memorable misdirect, New York-based agency Agent 16’s Dave Pachence and Chris Lenox show us a man wearing only sneakers, a fanny pack (two, actually) and a headband as he earnestly braves the traffic and public curiosity of Manhattan — kind of a ‘70s-style streak with occasional dialogue and a snack from a street vendor. The point is to establish a memorable character — and, in the ultimate video, lure him into a Zappos van from which he emerges happily clothed in Zappos’ haberdashery.
A true believer in communicating the right way with a given audience, Webster has been making his own videos for www.photoinduced.com, a site for serious photographers like himself. What he’s brought back to the office from that exercise is, “there are different ways for finishing videos depending on what screen it’s [meant for], who your audience is, and using whatever budget you may have.”
On the big-budget side, Webster has produced many campaigns for major automakers. But even for a client like Land Rover, the terrain may be shifting. One such campaign for the SUV company “had to be, by nature, fairly minimalist and had to be very authentic,” Webster says. He was freelancing with Y&R at the time about 18 months ago. “We shot it all with a VariCam, looking at our dailies on-site through an HD monitor.” The location was a flood-stricken area in Missouri. “We brought a Land Rover to this flooded location and ran it through this flooded area. The water came just about to the hood of the car. For real. It was one of the most authentic demos and I’ve been working in automotive for many years.” In one shot the car passes a street sign and the floodwater almost reaches the bottom of the sign.
There were only two agency people and four crew on this shoot. “The viability of the commercials came from the authenticity of that situation,” Webster says. The Land Rover campaign was called “The Odds” and the client’s outlay was “minimal, for a very authentic spot. We did subsequently shoot some additional spots where we re-created [the adverse driving conditions] and they were much more expensive.”
Webster says, “The whole idea of advertising is to cut through the clutter.” For Zappos and their “nudist” videos, the aim was to create what looked, for all intents and purposes, like user-generated content, or UGC.
Whether a spot’s look is big-budget or UGC, Webster and Bullet often get an editor involved early on a project — and their NY office is housed within spot editing shop Now (www.thenowcorporation.com). Webster likes to access the editor’s thoughts “and see what is possible. That’s a huge advantage for us and for our clients — to have the resources and the speed to get a project done for the right dollar.”
THE MARTIN AGENCY
The Richmond, VA-based Martin Agency has a long, envy-inspiring client list that belies its location in a smaller city. Besides Geico, Martin (www.martinagency.com) serves BF Goodrich, the Discover Card, Hanes, Ping, UPS, Wal-Mart and Pizza Hut, to name just a few. Steve Humble, with the agency for 10 years, is right in the middle of things as head of both broadcast production and a Martin division called BrandFirst Entertainment.
“Connecting with the audience has never been more important than now,” Humble says. “Consumers have more choices now than they’ve ever had before to hear a message — between the fragmented TV industry with all the cable networks, DVRs and computers, information is coming at them all the time and it’s incumbent upon us to create and craft messages that they want to hear and are engaging to them.
In the Martin Agency’s recent Sun Life Financial campaign, shot in HD, the Canadian financial-services company wants to get its name out there as well as emphasize its proud, bailout-free history of success. Here the concept involves two young employees, full of company valor and not a little naivete, attempting to convince well-known institutions such as the State of Florida to rebrand themselves. They urge a tourism executive that the Sunshine State consider a change to “The Sun Life State.” KC and the Sunshine Band are urged to become “KC and the Sun Life Band.”
“We shot commercials, Web video, we also did banners on the Website,” Humble says, “We did everything.”
Humble is another proponent of shooting digital. “There’s the flexibility; you can just continue to roll; there’s more opportunity to get [desirable takes]; there’s the price; you don’t have to take a day for processing; and getting it to the editor — we’re editing more and more literally right on set. It’s much faster and it’s a big advantage.” Humble’s editors use either Final Cut or Avid.
Technology should help make the story better and make telling the story easier.
The Martin Agency specializes in comedy and character-driven campaigns, but they are no strangers to VFX and work with some of the biggest providers around. Framestore has worked with Martin for years on the Geico campaign’s gecko character, including redesigning the little CG critter. “They’ve done a fantastic job of evolving him and really giving him so many human-like [attributes] — how his face works and his hands — it’s really great.” Humble and company will often tape the voice actor’s movements while recording the gecko’s dialogue. “All the little subtleties — as he lifts his shoulder, tilts his head — you can take those cues and it really adds an amazing amount of human emotion.”
Humble agrees with other agency executives Post spoke with regarding the growing popularity of shooting digital. He sees the paradigm “totally flipping” from “film first” to an environment where shooting digital is standard operating procedure. “The quality of digital is amazing. It’s gotten so much better to the point where the average person can’t tell the difference.” Typically the director often has the final say as to acquisition format, but with some clients it’s become understood that their shoots will be digital.
The Martin Agency has its own in-house post facility — Running with Scissors — with five stations running both Avid and Final Cut. They also have a Flame and a Smoke suite. The agency only posts a fraction of their work, but in-house post also helps keep agency staff from being constantly on the road. The agency’s color work is often done by Company 3 — they are connected via fiber to Co3 in New York and LA, and they have a matching calibrated monitor in the Richmond facility. “The great thing,” Humble says about working with Co3 is, “we’re watching the monitor in realtime as he’s doing it.”
For Wal-Mart, Humble and company created A Magical Christmas Wish that involves a special effect — snow in a dusty Iraqi desert where US Troops, including the father of a young boy, are on patrol. Shot in Southern California, the spot uses practical snow on set and digital snow added to the background in post.
LOCAL HERO POST
Especially in this economic climate, when do you see new business come and find you and spur you to expand? Under rarified conditions it can happen and Leandro Marini, head of Local Hero Post in Santa Monica, experienced such a phenomenon. He cites a convergence of good talent and clients joining with the right technology at the right time. The result is a newly opened 10,000-square-foot facility boasting expanded DI services for feature film and — something new and growing — leveraging that DI expertise for commercial work in a broadcast-mastering (TV spots) room.
About five years ago Marini, the company’s senior colorist, hitched his wagon to Assimilate’s Scratch system. He built Local Hero (www.localheropost.com) around a growing need for DI services for lower-budget films and his own skill as a colorist. With the advent of Red cameras Marini developed his own workflow — which he dubbed “post 2.0” — that also benefits commercial producers.
“We are an all-Assimilate facility,” he says, and his three Scratch systems are identical. One Scratch serves in conforming while the other two are used for color grading.
Local Hero’s broadcast suite uses a calibrate-able Panasonic industrial 50-inch plasma screen with 10-bit 4:4:4 for display. The feature-film DI theater projects via a Christie 2K which is set up to emulate digital projection as found in theaters today. Local Hero is a “DCI-centric” shop and Marini believes we will see most theaters turn to digital projection very soon. “We had to develop the tools and pipelines for very rigorous DCI standards and very demanding clients — everything’s got to be realtime 4K,” he says.
Local Hero developed a reputation for deriving a natural, photochemical look from Red images. “We felt, since 90 percent of our clients had chosen the Red format, we had to spend a lot of R&D time to make the Red camera look its best. If you can make Red look good on a 50-foot screen it’s going to look good on a 30-inch television.”
The difference between the work done on the commercials and the features “just comes down to color space and the kind of monitor you’re viewing the material on.”
Marini tells of a high-end client working on a Panasonic promo bringing in funky, consumer-looking footage from a Canon EOS 5D SLR camera. When Marini balked, the executive producer said, “Leo, get on board! Everything is going cheaper and digital — whatever tool does the job. If you’re going to moan about the kind of footage people are coming in with, you’re going to get left behind. You need to have a solution for any format that’s digital,” not just film, Genesis or Red.
An extraordinary advertising job Local Hero recently completed was a multi-purpose broadcast/ promo for Panasonic’s new 103-inch, 3D-capable, plasma television. The production company, Paydirt Pictures, set out to make a three-minute, stereoscopic, 60fps promo in 3K and shot on two Red cameras. A shorter, non-stereo version is ready for TV broadcast as well. To Marini this represents “the complete opposite” of the traditional film workflow. This proved to be one of Local Hero’s most difficult projects but, Marini points out, Scratch is adept at stereo imaging. The piece was finished in the shop’s broadcast suite and the three-minute stereo version currently serves as a marketing device for the 103-inch TV.
Referring to his “post 2.0” initiative, Marini says, “We believe filmmaking is going to be quite different in two years. Every commercial [nearly] and every $50-million-and-under feature is going to be shot digitally on a variety of cameras with a variety of workflows. In commercials and broadcast, it’s going to be even more varied. Digital cameras are the opposite of [film] log.” Despite the massive investments companies have made in traditional DI, post 2.0 is about “losing the attachment” to the world of film log and digital-in/film-out.