100% Digital Cars Are Up To Speed

by J. Paul Peszko

A high-tech steel machine otherwise known as the Pontiac Grand Am eats up the pavement of "Metal City’s" streets. © General Motors. Images courtesy of Digital Domain (Pontiac).

While the clash between the Old Economy and the New Economy continues on Wall Street, in corporate circles the contrast between old styles and new has reached even greater proportions. With dot-coms springing up faster than you can download the latest browser and brick and mortar retailers quickly trying to learn the clicks of the e-trade, Madison Avenue finds itself embroiled in an old versus new controversy of its own, namely live-action or digital animation. This, too, is an outgrowth of another battle that has been going on for years: film versus videotape.

Though animation of one kind or another has been a mainstay of television commercials since the early days, it had always played second fiddle to live-action. Since a photo-real box of cereal or can of cleanser could hardly dance across a counter, sing a jingle or smile with delight, production houses integrated live-action with animation more out of necessity than choice. But even Tony the Tiger and the Pillsbury Doughboy would be the first to tell you that live-action was where the prestige and big bucks were to be found.

A few years ago, I represented a Denver production company that worked with several live-action directors. One of these was a superstar of soda and beer commercials. After seeing his reel, a prestigious East Coast agency asked for a bid on a dog food commercial. When I called for his availability, he told me quite bluntly, "I don't do dog food." Sorry, Rover. How about washing down those beef chunks with a six pack of Bud?

The Best is Required
Advertising agencies have always craved live-action film directors who could give their products that winning edge -- even if it is dog food. So, when it comes to products that are bought especially for their style and looks, it is no wonder creative executives have fawned over hot niche directors for years. They want the real product, and they want it shot on film with subtle lighting and a riveting style that lends itself to trendy, fast-paced editing usually around a catchy jingle or slogan. There may be an animated logo or a CG starburst, but the product itself has to be one hundred percent photo-real and filmed at its creative best.

A black roadmaster admires her steel kingdom in the commercial spot "Steel Desert." © General Motors. Images courtesy of Digital Domain (Pontiac).

Automobile commercials were a perfect case in point. Until recently, one might have expected electric cars to replace gas-guzzlers before any of the Big Three national ad campaigns ever replaced a real car filmed live with a digital one created on tape. It just wasn't done. Car spots had always featured slick, live shots, fast cutting, awesome backgrounds whether on a butte overlooking the Grand Canyon or on a winding mountainous road bordered by tall pines. Then along came BBD&O in Detroit. They came up with a Plymouth campaign that called for a Neon on a trampoline. Not the easiest location to place a car -- even a subcompact. Enter Digital Domain (D2) of Venice, California. They showed how the spot could be done with a one hundred percent digital Neon.

Although it became a groundbreaking commercial, "Trampoline" was originally conceived and bid as a live-action spot and Terry Windell, a noted car director at A Band Apart, was selected to shoot it. But after exhausting all the possibilities, the creative team could not come up with a relatively uncomplicated, inexpensive way to rig the car to make it bounce up and down on a trampoline.

"It was going to be a long, expensive shoot," states Eric Barba, a visual effects supervisor at Digital Domain. "So, one our other effects supervisors pitched Terry to do it as a CG car. We did some tests to show him we could do it. Then we moved ahead and did the spot."

But ad agencies were still not thinking digital cars. "This was an example of a live-action director having the confidence of the agency already," Barba points out. "The spot was already in his hands."

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