May 1, 2002

How can post houses hook agencies?

CHICAGO - Veteran creative director Peter Lohmeier, at Leo Burnett/Chicago ( since the 1970s, is quite frank about what post houses must do to attract agencies: do what you do best and do it better than everyone else.

With upwards of $1 million spent on a :30 spot, agencies want to be sure they have the most resourceful producers, original directors and, yes, ingenious post artists working to actualize their concept. Lohmeier keeps a close eye on individual artists with unique and diverse artistic styles. The company is irrelevant, he contends; the individual artist is king in this business.

Since much of Leo Burnett/Chicago's work is on animated spots for clients such as Froot Loops with Toucan Sam and Frosted Flakes with Tony the Tiger, Lohmeier tracks companies (led, of course, by individual artists) specializing in a high-end mix of traditional character animation with 3D enhancements. So it is a matter of finding talented artists who are using the latest technology to pioneer the latest and greatest look to their work. This continual search for talent and technique, says Lohmeier, has helped Leo Burnett create new styles in its animation.

A few years ago, Leo Burnett/Chicago made a major jump from one post house to another. It's not something they normally do. "You just get better work if you work with [the same] people on a day-to-day basis," he says. "I've done the other thing too, where you've hopped around, and it can be very good but there's no loyalty. So if you need them again six months later, they're not available." The agency had worked briefly with Pixar on commercial work before Pixar jumped heavily into feature films,

Leo Burnett/Chicago had long used animation house Duck Soup in Los Angeles to produce its animated spots. But when CG revolutionized the look and process of creating traditional character animation, Leo Burnett/Chicago switched posts houses. "[Duck Soup] started to gear up but that wasn't their specialty," he explains. "I had to find a CG company that was doing feature work, cutting edge things, and bring in another facet - our business - to them."

Three years ago, Lohmeier started talking to his long-time friend George Mendoza, who was a producer at Santa Monica-based post house SimEx Digital Studios (www. Mendoza knew Lohmeier from his days when he worked as a producer at Leo Burnett/LA. When the LA office closed he joined SimEx and has since moved on to work at Walt Disney. At the time, SimEx was not doing much character animation and was primarily a CG and visual effects company. "There were cel animation companies and CG companies, but not many companies that could do both," explains Lohmeier. "We thought of bringing in animation directors to that environment and building up a subunit that could produce high-end animated commercials. The advantage that we had there is the CG element - that's pretty powerful - that we could tie into. We just got together and said, ‘How do we go to the next step?"

Mendoza hired animation director Jean Perramon, who had spearheaded many past Froot Loops spots through Duck Soup, and SimEx delved into character animation with a combination of cel animation and CG. In the past two years, SimEx has produced spots for Froot Loops; Frosted Flakes; Cocoa Puffs out of Saatchi & Saatchi; and a campaign for Walt Disney animating Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Winnie the Pooh, as well the opening two minutes of Disney's feature The Tigger Movie.

While the advent of CG greatly sped up the animation process, Lohmeier says the overall quality suffered as a result. "One of the problems I was seeing," he continues, "was there were CG companies that were doing CG animation but they weren't doing cel animation, which was still the best quality animation because the animators were exceptional in how they treated characters. The only person who's made the transition is [John] Lasseter at Pixar. He was a cel animation director who went into the CG side and brought those sensitivities with him."

SimEx creative director/president Allen Yamashita notes that using cel animation is especially necessary when dealing with branded characters. "These characters date back to the 1960s and you're used to seeing them in a certain way, and that way is cel," says Yamashita. "You can't easily translate them into a CGI world. You can take their world and environment into CGI, but it's very difficult to take the characters there."

ROCKETING CHARACTER ANIMATION In Rocket, a recent :30 Froot Loops spot, Toucan Sam's three nephews build a toy rocket that actually takes off into outer space, dragging Toucan Sam with them as they zig-zag past asteroid froot loops until they head home to eat.

The process started with Perramon making pencil-drawn storyboards, which were then scanned and made into animatics. SimEx's team of cel animators drew the toucan characters, which was enhanced with Toonz' digital ink and paint. The 2D characters were then composited into the 3D environments created in CG. The SimEx team used Alias|Wavefront Maya and Avid's Media Illusion for the CG effects, Adobe Photoshop for the backgrounds and Avid's Media Composer for editing.

Combining traditional cel animation with CG capabilities to earn the Froot Loops account was key in the growth of SimEx in the past few years. "One of the reasons Leo Burnett and Disney come here is because we're a multimedia company," explains Yamashita. "We produce these spots from the initial storyboard to the final product. Most of the work we do is a combination where there will be cel, CGI and live elements all integrated. Once we started doing Froot Loops, we started doing a lot more work with all these different elements combined and SimEx really expanded from that point."