New Age Ads
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 11 (November 2003)

New Age Ads

By Audrey Doyle

Time—specifically, airtime—is money for commercial advertisers. In fact, according to the American Association of Advertising Agencies' latest Television Production Cost Survey, the average price of producing a 30-second national TV commercial is $358,000. Of course, such an expense would be more palatable if companies were assured of a captive audience.

Images courtesy Framestore CFC.

Framestore CFC's recent Johnnie Walker television ad campaign is one example of the increasingly popular concept of image-based advertising, in which a subtle, artistic approach is used in lieu of a strong product push. Recently, this particular proje

To help entice viewers, advertisers are taking a new approach to the hard-sell tack of incorporating strong sales pitches and images of the product being advertised. Rather, they are using a subtler, more sophisticated and artistic style to create commercials that are both interesting and fun to watch.

These image-based commercials, which resemble art films more than traditional advertisements, do not focus on the benefits of a company or product. Often, they don't show the item being advertised until the last few seconds, if at all. Instead, they sell the feeling the advertiser wants viewers to associate with its company. "So if the client is Nike, for example, the commercial doesn't have to show Nike products," explains Randy Roberts, a director at Rhythm & Hues (Los Angeles). "It just needs to ensure that Nike is the first brand that comes to viewers' minds, whether they're shopping for athletic shoes or sweatbands."

This approach is different from traditional product advertising, notes Ed Ulbrich, formerly with ad agency Leo Burnett and now senior vice president of the Commercials and Music Videos division at Digital Domain (Venice, CA). "With product advertising—say, a toothpaste commercial—the product is shown as much as possible," he says. "But with image-based advertising, you're selling a company's brand image, not its product, so the goal is to leave viewers with an emotional attachment to it."

To accomplish this, clients sometimes provide agencies and directors with words or concepts they want associated with their name or wares, and then give the creatives free reign with the design. Other times the client, agency, and director work together to craft a clever, entertaining spot that may star a famous personality. In this approach, viewers are drawn to the action on screen and the product appears only briefly at the end. Yet, it's enough for them to make the required association: If that person uses the item, I want one, too.

Ulbrich is quick to point out that image-based advertising isn't a new concept, but it's becoming more popular, in part because of Hollywood. "Advertisers and consumers alike are getting more visually sophisticated due to the recent increase in large-scale blockbuster visual effects films," he says. Image-based ads also are popular because they provide benefits to both advertisers and viewers. Advertisers like them because they get a commercial that stands out; viewers like them because they don't feel as though they're being inundated with yet another ad.

Visual effects companies, agencies, and directors also are embracing the image-based philosophy, thanks in part to CG technology that enables creatives to more easily realize their artistic visions. "Commercials like these are wonderful to look at," says Ulbrich. "They're visually exciting, and digital technology has a lot to do with that. They're sexier to talk about and work on than traditional product advertising."

"Making these ideas work is a great learning experience for artists," says Andrew Daffy, CGI supervisor at Framestore CFC (London). "Because showing the product isn't essential in today's commercials, the agency can be more creative in its methods, and we find a way of bringing its ideas to fruition."

"We call them 'luxury projects,'" says Kylie Matulick, a creative director at Psyop (New York City). Even though budgets are usually smaller for image-based ads compared to traditional spots, she says directors are willing to work for less money in exchange for the luxury of complete creative control. "It's enjoyable being able to interpret a client's marketing position rather than having it force-fed to us, and we think it makes for a better end product."

Judging by some of today's newest image-based commercials, Matulick is right on the mark. A recent project directed by Daniel Kleinman and created by Framestore CFC for client Johnnie Walker is a good example. Called "Fish," the 60-second spot begins with what looks like a distant school of fish. But as the camera closes in, viewers realize they're seeing thousands of people swimming like fish, some diving into and out of the water like dolphins. As the swimmers approach the shore, one of them stands up, and the words "Take the first step" appear on screen. The person then walks up a beautiful tropical beach, and the words "Keep walking" appear, which dissolve into the words "Johnnie Walker." Until that point, viewers don't know what the commercial is advertising.

Ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty came up with the concept. "You can read into the commercial's meaning in many ways—freedom, enjoyment, evolution, man's first step—making it fun to watch," Daffy says. "And, because advertisers are restricted from showing people drinking alcohol in a commercial, this concept worked especially well for this project."

Images courtesy Framestore CFC.

Framestore CFC's "Mosquito" commercial chronicles the evolution of this insect, and at the very end, the word "Xbox" appears, revealing the true identity of the advertiser.

To create the commercial, Framestore CFC artists combined footage of real swimmers (seen in close-up) with thousands of CG background swimmers generated from a model of a woman they had built in Softimage|XSI for the film Die Another Day. Using Alias Systems' Maya, they tweaked that model to build a small group of characters, each one slightly different from the others. Then, using proprietary crowd replication software, the artists duplicated and animated the group, resulting in thousands of swimmers moving through live-action water, which was shot in Australia. The texturing, lighting, and rendering were accomplished in Maya, and compositing was done in Discreet's inferno. The Framestore CFC team also used inferno to remove the wires and harnesses that were attached to the actual swimmers to pull them out of the water.

Framestore CFC frequently creates effects for image-based commercials. Earlier this year the studio created effects for "Mosquito," a Microsoft Xbox game console advertisement that was completely unrelated to games and computer systems. "It was about the evolution of mosquitoes," Daffy says. "Not until you see the word 'Xbox' at the end do you know what the commercial is advertising." Perhaps because of this novel approach, "Mosquito" won a Silver Award at the annual international Design & Art Direction competition, and received recognition for animation and special effects at this year's LEAF and BTAA Craft Awards.

Image-based ads also worked well for two projects touting Bombay Sapphire gin. In a continuation of its "Sapphire Inspired Films" campaign, Bombay and agency Margeotes Fertitta & Partners selected 10 "director" teams to pitch 60-second commercials touting the theme "Bombay Inspired," that would air on US cable stations. Each group presented concepts based on a simple marketing statement that explained the Bombay Sapphire brand, and, ultimately, the agency chose two: one each from Psyop and Rhythm & Hues.

Image courtesy Rhythm & Hues.

Gin maker Bombay recently commissioned these two ads for its Sapphire Inspired Films campaign. Rhythm & Hues created a conceptual project that was mainly live action, whereas Psyop produced a spot that was nearly all computer-generated within Softimage|XS

"We focused on two descriptions from the agency—'alluring spirit' and 'botanicals'—and used them to guide our approach," says Matulick, who designed and directed the Psyop spot, called "Drift," with creative director Todd Mueller.

The commercial, which resembles traditional Japanese screen paintings, begins with a woman standing on a footbridge in a peaceful garden as music plays softly in the background. The woman blows on a pod of milkweed, and the plumed seeds drift throughout the environment, reaching a man standing outside his home. The man grabs some seeds, and as the camera pulls back, the scene dissolves to a bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin and the words "Sapphire. Inspired."

The woman and man are live action, but the rest of the elements are computer-generated. Matulick and Mueller first designed it by hand, and then transferred the concept to the computer using Adobe Systems' Photoshop and Illustrator. Psyop created the animation in Softimage|XSI, using particles and hand animation for the milkweed; Adobe After Effects to rotoscope the live footage; and Discreet flame for finishing and compositing.

Conversely, the concept from Rhythm & Hues was mostly live action. Called "Big Idea," the commercial features a 30-foot man who performs a vaudevillian pantomime on a stage in front of an audience of normal-size people as a CG question mark hovers over his head. When the man peers into a hole on the stage, the question mark falls into the gap. After he reaches in and pulls out a CG exclamation point, a digital light bulb appears over his head, and he uses the exclamation point to play racquetball against the back of the stage. When the punctuation mark hits the light bulb, the bulb knocks the man to the ground. He then reaches into the hole and pulls out the word "Inspiration."

Rhythm & Hues's Roberts, who directed the surreal spot, conceived the idea after delving into his cache of notebooks, in which he's been recording ideas for years. "One element of the Bombay brand was 'inspiration,'" he says. "In my notebooks, I found a drawing of a giant whose thoughts appeared over his head. I thought, what if he walked viewers through the conceptual process, explaining where ideas come from." Rhythm & Hues provided the live elements and handled the compositing and crowd duplication using inferno, while Gunslinger Digital (Hollywood, CA) created the computer graphics in Maya.

While some image-based ads want viewers to link concepts or feelings with their company or brand, others prefer the association to be with famous personalities. In "23 vs. 39," a recent Gatorade commercial by Digital Domain for director Joe Pytka and agency Element 79 & Partners, basketball legend Michael Jordan plays an action-packed game of one-on-one with a younger version of himself at age 23, when he was with the Chicago Bulls. About 50 seconds into the 60-second spot, the athletes sit down, and the older Jordan takes a swig of Gatorade. Off camera, a voice shouts, "Hey Mike!," to which both answer "What?" Then, a 19-year-old version of the athlete, wearing his University of North Carolina basketball uniform, walks onto the court, asking, "Who's next?" The older Jordan responds by telling his 23-year-old counterpart to "get your young butt out there." The spot ends with the Gatorade logo, and then fades to black.

To create the younger Jordans, the artists—building on technology they developed for effects in the film XXX—produced photorealistic digital replicas of the athlete's head and neck, which they composited over the shoulders of a body double. They began by scanning Jordan's face, both with and without key facial expressions. After converting the Cyberware data into a low-res subdivision "cage," they generated high-res displacement maps, allowing them to recover details such as skin-pore structure and fine creases from the scan information. In addition, they photographed Jordan under polarized light, then combined and modified the photos to produce multiple layers of textures for each model's head. They also scanned the body double's head to obtain a better 3D track for use with the studio's proprietary in-house software, aptly named Track.

Next, the artists used Maya and other proprietary software to re-create a synthetic Jordan at his current age, and produced the younger versions by modifying the polygonal mesh to reverse the effects of aging on the muscle and bone structures. They also altered the textures to remove fine lines and variations in skin tone. For the skin, the group used image-based lighting techniques, creating a solid mathematical light model that produced photoreal skin that also matched the set lighting. Additionally, the team developed a shader, called Intelligent Skin, which mimicked how light scatters when traveling through skin layers. The artists then generated shadows in Pixar Animation Studio's RenderMan, and created CG hair for the older and younger models using in-house software. Finally, they composited the rendered elements using inferno and the studio's Nuke software.

Images courtesy Digital Domain.

Digital Domain created two younger, digital versions of legendary basketball player Michael Jordan for a Gatorade commercial. The digital doubles were created in Maya.

Although the aforementioned commercials appear on television, not all image-based ads are relegated to the small screen. For instance, Rhythm & Hues's Roberts, who is focusing his career on image-based advertising because he enjoys the creative freedom it affords, recently completed a pro bono image-based commercial for Southern California public radio station KCRW-FM. Called "Balance," the 90-second spot, playing at independent Los Angeles movie theaters, features an ethnic mix of musicians, dancers, circus acts, and even an elephant, and is meant to portray the concept that music and dance transcend culture. The performers are presented in six tiers, while the camera slowly moves up the wedding cake-like structure, eventually reaching the top, where a globe with the KCRW logo rotates. It ends with a wide shot of the entire ensemble.

Rhythm & Hues created this multi-image, multi-layered production for a radio station ad that appeared in movie theaters.
Image courtesy Rhythm & Hues.

For this project, which also began as a drawing in Roberts' notebooks, Rhythm & Hues filmed each major group of performers against bluescreen. CG enhancements, including architectural elements and falling rose petals, were made by Moving Pixels (Santa Monica, CA) within Maya, while SOLdesignfx (Venice, CA) composited the elements in flame.

Another recent image-based ad shown in theaters is "Speed Chain," created by Digital Domain for Nike and agency Wieden & Kennedy. Directed by David Fincher, the 60-second piece shows an evolutionary relay race, beginning underwater with a jellyfish, which "hands off" to a sea snake. The snake hands off to a dog, the dog to sprinter Tim Montgomery, Montgomery to a stallion, the stallion to a person riding a turbo-charged motorcycle, and the motorcycle rider to a bullet train. When the train enters a tunnel, viewers see the Nike swoosh and the words "There's more fast out there" set against a black backdrop. The train then blasts out the tunnel and barrels over the camera.

Images courtesy Digital Domain.

Digital Domain crafted a new-age relay race for Nike that featured unique live-action and CG participants, including this 3D jellyfish and bullet train. The ad was shown at movie theaters, not on TV.

According to visual effects supervisor Eric Barba, Digital Domain created the jellyfish and its environment in NewTek's LightWave. The sea snake, which is CG in all but one shot, also was created in LightWave, as was the train. The remaining "racers" are live action.

Meanwhile, all the POVs from the racers' perspectives were created in LightWave using photogeometry techniques Fincher used in the films Fight Club and Panic Room to produce a rough 3D environment based on real set photography so that he could choreograph the camera moves digitally. Color correction and compositing were done in Nuke.

As seen in these examples, image-based ads are enjoying a healthy popularity. As for the future of this cross-pollination of Hollywood and Madison Avenue, Roberts summarizes the general consensus best: "We're optimistic that image-based ads will increase in popularity, but they'll never replace traditional commercials, just like television didn't replace movies. The world just gets bigger, it doesn't get more exclusive."

Audrey Doyle is a contributing editor of Computer Graphics World and freelance writer/editor specializing in computer graphics. She is based in Boston.


Adobe Systems
Alias Systems
Pixar Animation Studio