It wasn’t too long ago when Internet advertising ranked tiers below broadcast and cable spots. “There was the opinion that doing a Web spot was not as important as doing a broadcast commercial,” says Sean Koriakin, a director with LA’s Iron Claw. “Nowadays, it’s more about what the spot is than where’s it’s going to be shown. Sometimes more time and energy are expended on Web spots and more people see them than they do on TV. Internet advertising will become as important or more important than broadcast in the coming years.”
In a campaign of four Web spots, each approximately :60s, a businessman running on a treadmill in his office serves as a metaphor for how Symantec’s disaster recovery, business continuity and security software keeps business running smoothly.
Does the concept sound a little dull? Not in the creatively quirky hands of agency Godfrey Q & Partners/San Francisco and Iron Claw director Sean Koriakin (http://ironclaw.com). While a straight-laced spokesman talks to the camera about the benefits of using Symantec solutions, the businessman behind him is beset by all manner of metaphorical hazards: men who bring in a wind machine and a fire hose to simulate natural disasters; a stealthy hacker who drops down from the ceiling to perpetrate some cybercrime; a malfunctioning treadmill that ups the runner’s pace and sends sparks flying until a back up system quickly takes over; and a klutzy employee who sets a chain of human errors in motion.
All of the scenarios wind up with the businessman literally flying off the treadmill and crashing into a bookcase on the wall behind him; in the Natural Disaster spot, the wall actually collapses, revealing the stage and a crew member — played by one of the line producers — munching on a sandwich.
Koriakin teamed with the agency to determine how to make the spots “funny and quirky without looking too cartoony,” he says. “We had to contrast the young John Cleese-type spokesman with everything that was going on in the background.”
He notes that Symantec is known for being “a little irreverent and funny,” but the Web campaign “was something new in design and approach” that enabled the software manufacturer to “stay branded but fresh.”
The first day of the two-day shoot was devoted to the stunt work, with Iron Claw VFX supervisor Timothy Ryan on the office set. A ratchet pulled the businessman off the treadmill and crashed him into the bookcase for each scenario. A cable tugged him upwards during the wind effects; rigging suspended the hacker from the ceiling during a greenscreen shoot. The treadmill fight between the hacker and the businessman was done in two takes as they both flew off the machine and crashed into the wall.
“We built 13 bookshelves and used five — we only messed up one take,” Koriakin recalls. “But we smashed up some at the end to capture elements to comp in later; we also shot plates, falling papers and other items separately to comp in.” The scene with the fire hose could only be done once, however, due to all the water clean up involved. “We got almost everything in a single take timed perfectly,” he says. “The shoot couldn’t have gone any better.”
The second shoot day consisted of a greenscreen shoot with the presenters — the Cleese-like Englishman for the English-speaking market, plus Mandarin- and German-speaking presenters for other international markets.
Koriakin shot the spots with an Arri Alexa in Log C and approached the project no differently than had the campaign been for broadcast. “I blocked the end use out of my mind and concentrated on the storytelling,” he says. “I wanted to make the spots as nice, clean and professional as possible. A lot of times Web spots turn into broadcast spots, so we aim for the highest quality product that can live anywhere.”
Since the creative editing was done by Iron Claw editor Danielle White on Apple’s Final Cut Pro, Koriakin was able to see a cut of all the stunt performances 24 hours later. “I brought the cut in for day two” of the shoot when the presenters worked without the set behind them. Afterwards, Koriakin had the flexibility to adjust the background plates, shot as separate elements and seamed together, to fit “the quirky performance of the spokesman,” he explains. Ryan worked with Orlando Costa, Laury Santosa, Tripp Watt and Jihyae Ham, using Adobe After Effects to blend the plates and composite additional elements.
Koriakin says the campaign, which debuted on the Symantec Website just a few weeks ago, is getting “really positive feedback. It’s what everyone was hoping for.”
With a catalog of more than 20 million songs, Rdio has broken new ground as an ad-free music subscription service available on the Web and mobile devices. Last June, it launched a yearlong series of :15 promos heralding a new music offering each week. With the theme “new music inspires new art,” the promos stand on their own as unique animations or mixed-media pieces accompanied by song clips. They play on the Rdio Website and on Vice magazine’s and Pitchfork’s Websites, among others.
“They’re not, strictly speaking, advertising, which is one of the reasons Rdio came to us,” says Andrew Linsk, executive producer at New York City-based production company, Blacklist (www.blacklist.tv), whose artists have done the bulk of the promos. “They knew that our directors often work outside of the advertising context on their own short films and art projects, and that the diversity of styles and techniques that we have access to was well suited to the project.”
Linsk says the campaign has been “the most free and openly creative” he’s done since his music video days. Sometimes Rdio “had us present treatments that our directors wanted to do, then paired the work with the perfect song,” he says. Sometimes Rdio submitted a track, like Dismemberment Plan’s “Daddy Was a Real Good Dancer,” which inspired Dvein, a Barcelona-based animation and live-action studio led by creative directors Carlos Pardo and Teo Guillem, to develop Symbiosis, where a whimsical character dances in an empty swimming pool.
More recently, Rdio has been sending a selection of tracks so directors can choose which one they feel works best with developing visuals. Blacklist acts as the producing entity for the directors on its roster.
Regarded as “kind of rock stars in the world of animation and design,” Dvein has been known for its “complex fluid simulations and photoreal CG,” he notes. But its work for Rdio has taken a more mixed-media and character-based approach that’s “a bit of a departure.”
Their Symbiosis promo for Dismemberment Plan is a lighthearted piece in which the dancing character “controls” the camera using a proprietary tracking technique that puts him “in symbiosis” with the camera, Linsk explains. Dvein’s Sculpture promo for a Haim track is a mixed-media piece that combines a live octopus with a machine and two-headed model to form a sculptural creature combined in post using After Effects.
Holbrooks, the directing team of Tom Brown and Daniel Gray, crafted a rotoscope-style promo for Icona Pop and transformation animation for a Gogol Bordello promo. The partners designed, directed and animated the pieces, with Brown working in New York at Blacklist with a support team of animator/compositors and Gray working remotely from Budapest. The duo employed Adobe Photoshop and After Effects, and Toon Boom on the projects.
Toronto-based Tendril used a multimedia approach on a promo for Bloc Party and created retro-style hand-drawn animation for a Michael Franti piece that had an “appropriately lysergic feel,” says Linsk. They deployed Flash, After Effects, Autodesk’s 3DS Max, Side Effects’ Houdini and The Foundry’s Nuke, with Chaos Group’s V-Ray for rendering.
Upper First, a studio based in Sweden, opted for a full 3D treatment for the Typhoon promo, while Paris-based studio Wizz and the directing team CRCR treated live action, shot with a Canon 5D camera, in post with TVPaint, After Effects and Photoshop for a promo for Pond.
Linsk notes that, “the level of execution on the Rdio work has been extremely high, especially because these are largely personal pieces for our directors and animators. One of our goals was for viewers to see new things upon repeated viewings, so most of the films have been packed with detail.”
He believes “we wouldn’t have had the same degree of creative freedom” if the promos were broadcast on television. “Knowing that these were Internet-only meant that our artists were free to create without fear of having their ideas tamped down. Rdio is a new media company and wouldn’t exist without the Internet. As such, it just makes sense that these films be discovered, shared and commented on online.”
New York City’s Charlex (www.charlex.com) tickles the funny bones of Internet viewers with its clever animated campaign for Jarritos, the Mexican fruit-flavored soda in glass bottles, from GSD&M/Austin for the general market. The three spots feature Day of the Dead-style skeletons, who appear as a hipster shopping in a bodega; a kid in a skate park trying to stick a straw in a pineapple until a Luchador [Mexican wrestling figure] peddling a Jarritos cart comes to his rescue; and glassblowers, who try to out-do each other in their fanciful creations.
Artist Tamra Kohl’s miniatures and dioramas of fanciful skeletons “set the tone” for the Web campaign, says Chrlx director Ryan Dunn. “The agency thought, ‘wouldn’t it be cool if these dioramas came to life?’ They called us, and we began testing both stop-motion and CG techniques in parallel. They wanted the animation to look practically done, but we had a hunch that we’d probably need some way to maintain control of the animation in post production,” something tough to do in full stop motion.
So Chrlx built dollhouse-scale sets for all three spots and shot them on their stage with a Canon 7D camera. The sets’ practical lighting made its way seamlessly to the CG world, where the characters were crafted. Dunn intentionally limited the artists’ CG toolkit “so it would be similar to stop-motion animation,” he says. “I didn’t want a lot of face animation — I wanted to treat them more like traditional head replacements. We created a virtual head replacement toolkit so it wouldn’t look too ‘CG smooth’ when the characters’ eyes blink or mouths move. It was a case of using really expensive tools to achieve a comparatively inexpensive look.”
Those tools included Autodesk Maya for modeling, rigging and animation; Dragonframe software to capture the moving plates from the miniature sets; Pixel Farm’s PFTrack for tracking the characters, glass bottles and graffiti; Nuke for compositing; and After Effects for final color correction. Rendering was done in V-Ray.
A lot of time was spent on the fun task of getting the skeleton actors to perform. “You could tell when a performance was working the same as if you were filming live action,” says Dunn. “The same rules and details apply,” even down to the skeleton dog gnawing on the leg of his owner in the skate park.
The :30 Glassblowers spot shows two workers misbehaving at their furnace, blowing their glass into a Lucha Libre mask, a mariachi accordion and — with as much lung power as a skeleton can muster — a visually impressive low-rider bike — all while they should be blowing Jarritos’ famed glass bottles. According to Dunn, the hardest part of that sequence wasn’t creating the transparent glass forms, but getting their motion to match the stop motion-style CG from one object to the next. “We couldn’t just morph the performance,” he says. “There had to be bumps and imperfections along the way.”
Pineapple is the only spot to feature an exterior set. “We had to create the illusion of a bigger space in the set; with some clever matte painting and by cheating scale with some forced perspective, we pulled it off effectively,” Dunn says.
The spots were released on the Jarritos Website and other Web outlets, and Glassblowers played in cinemas on the Fourth of July weekend. “The venue didn’t affect how we handled the narrative or visuals,” Dunn points out. “We treated them as full-up spots, and the agency wrote them as such. We cut them as :15s and a :30, so they’re ready to go for broadcast should that occur in the future.”
FORD MOTOR COMPANY
An end-to-end native digital advertising company, Modus Operandi (www.modop.com) just created a Halloween-themed Yahoo home page takeover for Ford Motor Company’s Mustang brand and Team Detroit.
With Yahoo’s home page tallying 43 million unique views per day, the Halloween takeover captured the attention of a wide swathe of the driving public. Modus Operandi has worked with Ford Motor Company and its agency Team Detroit before, but this project was noteworthy for all the aspects required to come together in a single unit.
The :06 takeover found a live-action Dr. Frankenstein, shot on greenscreen, tightening the last bolt on the wheel of a Halloween-detailed Mustang, chained in his lab. Ford supplied the CG car model asset, which Modus Operandi optimized and animated. When the vehicle came “Alive!” it revved its engine and peeled out.
After the :06 takeover collapsed, a traditional video banner for Ford appeared at the top of the Yahoo home page, along with an interactive 300x250 companion unit on the right side. When viewers clicked on the 300x250, the Mustang pictured peeled out, ripped across the page and formed a car customizer, which enabled viewers to build their own Mustang with their choice of color, trim and other features.
“The project had so many components that we had different teams working on parallel paths,” explains Modus Operandi’s LA-based co-CEO Miles Dinsmoor; Charles Lee, his CEO partner, manages the Modus office in Panama City, Panama. “There was the live-action shoot; the CG team working with the live-action and CG assets building out the lab, lighting and animating it; and the programming team working on the car customizer code, as well as a ‘Monsterize yourself’ UGC component. We were passing assets back and forth, making sure the customizer had the final render of the Halloween car and that Ford and Team Detroit were up to speed with work in progress.”
Although the core code for the car customizer had been built by Ford and Team Detroit and used in other applications, Modus Operandi had to create the animation to move the Mustang from the 300x250 to its final place on the home page “and have it be pixel perfect as it traveled from place to place,” Dinsmoor says. “Yahoo put the final pieces together, but it was incumbent upon us to deliver each component — video, ford.com car customizer, UGC — fully operational, and we had to create very precise animation to ensure that everything hit the right placement.”
Artists and animators tapped Maya for modeling and animation, and After Effects and Nuke for compositing.
As audiences migrate in greater and greater numbers to digital platforms they’ve become more discerning consumers. “Standard banners are ubiquitous, so you really need to grab their attention with front page takeovers and road block units that synch banners and 300x250s,” says Dinsmoor. “People also want to be more than passive consumers of advertising — you have to give them something to do. The confluence of these trends will lead to a lot more customized, rich experiences in the advertising ecosystem.”
At Modus Operandi, Aaron Sternlicht was creative director, Taylor Greeson director, Shannon Clune account director, Charles Lee executive producer, Hank Strong content producer and Ian Pescod digital producer.
The Power Inside, a six-episode Web series from Intel and Toshiba, is the third collaboration by the two high-tech giants, but the first to take them down a fantastical path. In this series, the planet is threatened by menacing mustachioed insects called Uricks, and only an odd band of young people and a very reluctant hero can save the day.
Agency Pereira & O’Dell teamed with directors Will Speck and Josh Gordon of Furlined on the project. Who better to create the VFX, which bring the hordes of Uricks to life, but Zoic Studios (www.zoicstudios.com), the Culver City, CA, company that knows a thing or two about creature effects?
Zoic was involved early in the development phase of the series, which comprises more than 50 minutes in its entirety. Zoic artists crafted concept art for the Uricks, creatures which had to be able to conceal themselves on victims’ faces (as mustaches for men and bushy eyebrows for women) while remaining insect-like when shaved from their hosts. “We went more for a dark comedy look,” says FX supervisor Ryan McDougal. “The directors didn’t want to go silly or ridiculous.”
Artists used reference footage of desert spiders, crabs and moray eels to endow the Uricks with personality. “They had to do more than just skitter along,” McDougal says. “Desert spiders had an interesting dynamic between fast and slow — very quick actions that were very exacting. They were scary without going too far.”
Maya and Pixologic’s ZBrush were employed to model the Uricks and Maya to animate them. Joe Alter’s Shave and a Haircut fur and hair software handled the creatures’ intricate hairy form; V-Ray was tapped for rendering. Sometimes the actors wore practical mustaches that were replaced with creepy-crawly CG Uricks; sometimes even the un-animated mustaches were CG. The giant queen Urick, which appears in the final episode, was entirely CG.
Zoic also created swarms of Uricks composited in footage of international landmarks to demonstrate the worldwide range of the creatures. A more concentrated swarm appears over LA’s Griffith Observatory in the climactic episode.
McDougal says the swarms of mustachioed insects, which formed “a tornado of hair — a hairnado,” were a challenge to devise because “a horde of hair-covered, flying mustaches just doesn’t play nice in CG.” The directors keyed into the way flocks of starlings move en masse “all knowing where they’re going at the same time” to choreograph the swarms.
Just when viewers think the hero and his friends have dispatched the Uricks and Earth is back to normal, a new menace is revealed; a monster that grows out of a man’s chest hair. “It doesn’t really show too much of itself, but we needed to make something a little different from the Uricks — something humorous and weird,” notes McDougal. Inspired by Medusa and snakes, Zoic grew the man’s chest hair into long coils poised to attack.
Zoic also created the red-eye effect that the Uricks’ victims are stricken with and the dream sequence experienced by the hero. “The red-eye effect started with the idea of contact lenses enhanced in 2D, but that proved to be difficult to coordinate and unnecessarily expensive,” McDougal explains. “So we took it on in post, with Nuke, where we could have a lot more control.”
The dream sequence was shot on greenscreen, and Nuke was used to composite elements such as lens flares and to build a highly dimensional, nebular cosmic world.
Episodes were shot on Arri Alexa using anamorphic lenses, and Zoic finished the series in anamorphic 2K even though episodes were released on the sponsors’ YouTube channels and other YouTube outlets worldwide. “The production value of the series was high, and the directors were always thinking film,” McDougal says. “We don’t treat the Web any differently these days. The series doesn’t have to be limited to the Web,” after all.
The Power Inside, in which the Toshiba Kirabook Ultrabook with Intel Core i5 processor figures prominently, has been well received worldwide.
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA
With public education funding on the ballot last year, the University of California launched its “Onward California” campaign for the entire statewide university system with a robust online presence to reach its targeted audiences. To highlight the many ways the UC system is forward thinking and show how faculty and alumni are making a real impact on people’s daily lives, a series of 30 short, branded documentaries were created by The Department of the 4th Dimension (The D4D) in Los Angeles (www.thed4dcom). The films showcase some of the world’s leading visionaries and researchers who are part of the UC system.
It was the goal of The D4D founder Matt Checkowski to find subjects that viewers would “want to watch as examples of great storytelling as an entry point to the larger message about the UC system.” A shortlist of about 50 people was whittled down to a dozen or so compelling subjects who represent all 10 campuses in the UC system.
“I think higher education has a unique opportunity to be successful with branded content if they’re smart about their message and methods of audience engagement,” he notes. “A truly successful Web film or series begins with choosing the right subject matter and continues after production into developing the niche audiences around that passionate story.”
Indeed, the enthusiasm of Charlie “The Pope of Foam” Bamforth, PhD, professor of brewing science at UC Davis, just bubbles over in his films. And professor of geology at UC Davis, Dawn Sumner, is gleeful as she skims along the surface of Mars in a virtual reality environment comprised from images captured by the Mars Rover.
For this project, Checkowsky had the subjects take viewers on a journey, whether they were in their campus work environments or out in the field. “We wanted this to feel personal, intimate, natural and easy,” he says. A filmmaker who co-created the iconic dream sequences in Minority Report, directed his own feature film and branded content for numerous clients, Checkowski aims to “create an environment where the person on camera feels comfortable to be himself, take a risk and open up.”
He took a small production team on the road, including DP Keith Dunkerley, who served as cinematographer on American Dream, a new feature directed by Academy Award-winning DP Janusz Kaminski. Dunkerley and a second cameraman shot with a pair of Canon C300s. Checkowski says the tight-knit crew looked like “a rock ’n roll road show, with all our gear packed in a van as we headed overnight from Santa Barbara to San Francisco” to visit UC campuses.
Typically, the team spent half a day with the subjects on camera using the talking points Checkowski compiled during voluminous research as starting points. They focused on the stories they expected to tell, but also captured spontaneous “bonus” moments, such as when Steve Vogt, PhD, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, suddenly revolves on the turntable of the giant telescope at Lick Observatory. “Wait — where are you going?” Checkowski asks off camera. “We’re moving to a new star,” says Professor Vogt matter-of-factly. Or when Professor Bamforth holds the perfect glass of beer in the final shot of his episode and Checkowski can’t resist asking if he’s going to drink it?
The D4D editor Leander Rappmann cut the documentaries as well as trailers for the series, which play on the UC’s YouTube channel. The D4D also created the motion graphics for the series.
As the founder of a company dedicated to creating content and integrated media experiences, Checkowski feels strongly that Web content is “not a lesser art form” than broadcast commercials and programming or feature films. “In some ways it’s more powerful because you can plug into very specific audiences and platforms rather than a perceived viewing audience,” he says. “You just have to be conscious of the format you’re working in: When you’re online you need to get viewers involved immediately and end with a hook — you want to leave them with something so they’ll want to watch again or go on to the next episode.”