These days there are more and more avenues available to reach audiences, and creatives are taking advantage of as many as possible. Want to find a way to literally put the audience into a commercial? Have an idea for a wacky TV series that might not get past the suits at a big network? Looking to take visual storytelling to a new level with the iPad? Currently, it’s all possible.
Vendor Inc. (www.vendorinc.com), a media agnostic ad agency, might have opened its doors in Austin only 15 months ago, but the company is far from a start-up. With four veteran partners, these guys were ready for action once they turned on the lights.
“We all have about 15-20 years experience in the industry, working at big creative agencies,” explains partner Jeff Nixon. “Three of us — myself, Joe Shands and Clark Evans — come from creative directors backgrounds and one of us — James Martin — has a strategic and research background.”
Shands has worked at Weiden Kennedy, Goody Silverstein/SF and most recently Chiat Day, LA; Nixon comes from BBDO; Evans was also at Chiat Day; and James Martin spent his entire career at GSD&M. An impressive pedigree.
Vendor rented space north of downtown Austin and within six months got in on a pitch for HomeAway (www.homeaway.com), a Website where people can list their vacation homes. They obviously impressed, because Vendor won the job, a digital campaign that included a TV spot, Web films and a social media angle. Vendor finished the Prague-based Arri Alexa shoot, with director Rocky Morton, on the first anniversary of their opening.
“The Ministry of Detourism” campaign kicked off during Super Bowl XLV as a traditional commercial called Catch, for which Vendor then created two interactive paths that visitors to HomeAway’s Website could explore.
“For the commercial, we created an umbrella theme for the whole brand,” explains Nixon, “and it’s played out through this secret government agency called The Ministry of Detourism (no one wants to be called a tourist!). The commercial opens as a helicopter, carrying the minister, approaches the secret ministry’s home base. He enters and we see that all kinds of tests are going on. The spot plays out and at the end he leaves in the helicopter.”
That’s the broadcast spot, but Vendor made some changes for the interactive version. One of those tests that Nixon references above is “a gag where a test baby gets catapulted. The user decides whether it goes over a wall, through it, or into it. They can choose which scenario plays out and then take a picture of themselves and put it on the test baby. Then it will spin out the Super Bowl spot with the users starring in it. The user can post it to their Facebook wall or email it to friends.”
Nixon says this was designed to get people to visit homeaway.com, but when they get there they find that’s just the beginning. “We have created a way for homeowners to build their own spot with their home in it; it ends with a house tour.”
Vendor called on hybrid production company B-Reel (www.b-reel.com) to build the interactive experience. “We pick up when the helicopter takes off to leave, except this time the minister is flying to your home, where ever the listing is. It’s going to send a probe down using Google Earth footage and we pull images from the home listing to create the tour. It goes into the listed house and shows off the different rooms. This spot can then be used as a tool for potential renters. You just send them a link to your own Super Bowl spot. Not only is it entertaining, it has a lot of utility for the homeowner.”
The Mill London was called in to add clouds, mist and snow for the exterior scenes (accentuated by matte paintings). They called on Flame and Flare for their work.
John Grover of Cut & Run edited the commercial spot, and Lime Studios in Santa Monica did the audio mix.
“The whole process was a testament to a small group of super talented production partners working together every step of the way. From concept through production,” concludes partner Clark Evans.
While TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras is a not a comedy, Steve Silverman saw the potential for humor and used the beauty pageant storyline as a basis for his satiric Web series, Pretty. The series follows a father and his five-year-old daughter as they prepare and compete in the mother of all kiddie pageants, Miss Star Eyes.
Silverman, a published playwright whose day job is working as a producer at Fox Broadcasting, had always envisioned Pretty (www.prettytheseries.com) as a Web series. “I never thought of it as an independent feature or a broadcast TV show, but I’d love for it to turn into one of those things.”
He acknowledges that getting this show on broadcast television might have been a challenge, especially at the pitch stage. While the story of Michael Champagne, a proud pageant dad who wants to see his young daughter win the Miss Star Eyes pageant, is fairly traditional, the idea that the daughter is played by a 42-year-old actress might be a little, well, different. “I never thought I could get that past somebody, even in script form,” he laughs.
In truth, Silverman likes the freedom that comes with producing this show on his own and on the Web. “I answer to executives all day, and they are fantastic, but with Pretty, I don’t answer to anybody but myself. My co-producers (John Carrozza, Doug Prinzivalli, Barbara Farmer) give me great suggestions, but it all falls on my shoulders, and I kinda love it.”
The second season of the show just ended, and Silverman is up for a third season, but it all comes down to securing financing. Season one was paid for by Silverman and his partner Jim Cannella. “For the second season, we raised money online and used that as a base. If you are willing to pay for a movie, a Broadway show or for your cable, are you willing to pay 10 bucks for a show you love? That is what our viewers did for us, and I feel we delivered them a really great season with lots of surprises and great guest stars (including Knots Landing’s Joan Van Ark). If we could raise the finances, I’d love to do a third season.”
This past season of Pretty was shot with a Canon XL-H1. “We wanted to capture the look of The Office or America’s Next Top Model. In fact, our main DP for 10 of our 12 episodes in both seasons is the DP on America’s Next Top Model — Gretchen Warthen. I hired her, because that’s the look I wanted, an almost perfect, but still kind of dirty look, and documentary style.”
After shooting SD for the first season, Silverman’s editor/post production supervisor Nicole Opyr was ready to take on HD. “We would shoot on a weekend, I’d deliver her tapes and she’d put everything into the Avid Media Composer.”
In terms of the look of the show, Silverman tried to match Toddlers and Tiaras as much as possible. “They do this thing on Toddlers and Tiaras where these people do the confessional talk. They always have them in front of a red or green velvet curtain. We went with the crappiest gold curtain we could find on purpose and we lit it so it would pick up the lights.”
Alex Steen, their audio man, used a standard boom with a DAT that synced into the camera for timecode. “He burned everything to CDs, we then put everything into the Avid and we would work from the camera audio to sync up everything,” explains Silverman. “Once it was synced up and we got a rough cut and locked picture, Nicole cleaned everything up and put in the final audio. Literally 99.9 percent matched perfectly.”
Even with their limited budget, Pretty does use visual effects when the story calls for it. This season, one of the characters was trying to get others to invest in haunted houses. Silverman wanted to shoot in front of one at night but that had its challenges. “It’s very difficult to shoot at night, especially with our very low budget. We don’t have the kind of lights we need to make it look the way we wanted. It’s also hard to ring someone’s bell and say, ‘You have the ugliest house we’ve ever seen. Can we film here?’”
So the solution was to shoot it greenscreen. “We hung one up in the living room of our main set and we lit it. I had the actors play out the scene in front of it repeatedly, and shot from several angles. I then asked our graphic artist, Tara Devlin, to make the haunted house background look cheesy, like ‘After School Special’ cheesy. She built me this beautiful drop-in graphic and Nicole spent hours matching it up. In the end, it came out looking better than I had imagined.”
Even though this show airs online, the post team made a conscious effort to set up the post workflow for Pretty in the same way they would a broadcast TV show. “The turnaround on a Web series is really quick, and there are far fewer hands to do the work, so organization is key,” explains Opyr. “We established a schedule of rough cut, fine cut, locked cut and onlined master. The only difference is that this cuts and notes process was all done in a week per episode.”
Umesh Shukla, founder/ chief creative officer at Auryn (www.auryn.com), a maker of apps for the iPad, has had a life-long interest in telling stories with motion. This led him to a career in visual effects and animation, working at such studios as Disney Feature Animation, DreamWorks Animation and Digital Domain, where he was part of the Oscar-winning VFX team that worked on Titanic.
Working on films was rewarding for Shukla, but he still wanted to take visual storytelling to another level, and that led him to Auryn, which uses its own proprietary technology to create applications such as digital storybooks and a tool that creates the authentic simulation of watercolor painting.
“I come from a graphic design and computer animation background,” explains Shukla. “With that in mind, I thought there was a need for creating technology to allow storytellers to use any and all mediums, just like painters do.”
He offers up illustrators of children’s books as an example, “They’ll paint in watercolor for one story, the next could be in pencil or oil paints, etc. So I wanted to bring the same visual styling flexibility to moving images. With that we launched Auryn.”
The first two iPad apps are digital storybooks that target children four to eight years old — What Does My Teddy Do All Day? and Teddy’s Night. “When we started to make these apps, we knew it was going to be a children’s book application,” explains Shukla. “We are not creating a game or episodic television app; it’s a book app that has all these elements. At one time books were passive entertainment. Now apps are bringing these things together.”
While keeping the soul and story of the book intact, Auryn adds an interactive experience that includes games, puzzles, animations, doodling and audio. For example, What Does My Teddy Bear Do All Day? features a girl with binoculars and users can focus them in on what she is seeing. “You are looking for the teddy and when it pops up you can move it and touch it or then teddy comes and paints the whole screen and you have to wipe it to get on with the story,” describes Shukla.
The kids are also encouraged to explore on their own. “If there are flowers on the wall, you touch them and they become pinwheels,” explains Shukla. “In Teddy’s Night, we have a bathroom sequence where the bath tiles turn into a memory game.” Some books are based on existing stories, and new ones are being created as well.
The company’s newest non-storybook offering is Auryn Ink, a watercolor drawing application for illustrators. Their proprietary technology has allowed them to create applications that “keep currency intact, meaning there is no flicker. It allows us to feed a style-DNA to the system — an image or collection of images— and the software we’ve written is able to capture an artist’s style, and we can apply that style to any other image of our choice.”
Shukla wanted to make sure the technology worked on all platforms, from mobile phones to feature films — that it would withstand the resolution dependency of any format. Auryn also opened an office in India because “we didn’t only want to be a technology company, we wanted to be a content company too,” he says.
When Auryn began, YouTube was just taking off. “We were watching the habits of people change, and watching what was coming next — from Internet-connected TVs to tablet devices and Netbooks,” explains Shukla. “We wanted to make sure our technology was ready to be deployed on any pipeline. There were three areas where we wanted to test the technology: films, digital books and commercials.”
Thanks to these tests, they realized the technology was “best suited to tell children’s stories. We knew our technology shines because you can add interactivity and animation and other things iPad allows you to do. We dropped the other two efforts and moved solely to iPad last year. We are just waiting for Android devices to come out. Galaxy is the only other one out there, and we are looking at that as well.”
While creating its interactive applications, Auryn calls on traditional tools, such as Maya for 3D animation, along with Adobe’s After Effects, Photoshop and Flash.They employ their own rendering technology.
Auryn’s goal is to release one app a month. Next up is Little Mermaid, based on the illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger, a water colorist. They are currently working on Camille and Sun Flowers, an app based on the book by Laurence Anholt.