The Minds Behind SCI FI Channel’s New Look

Steven Mirkin delves into SCI FI Channels flashy new re-branding campaign to find out who comes up with those creative spots.

The success of Steven Spielbergs Taken has spurred SCI FI to back for mini-series. All images © SCI FI Channel.

The success of Steven Spielbergs Taken has spurred SCI FI to back for mini-series. All images © SCI FI Channel.

When most people think of sci-fi fans, the first image that comes to mind is a geek: the obsessed, perpetually adolescent male, playing computer games or arguing online over the minutiae of Star Trek or The Matrix trilogy. But in the wake of Taken, the Steven Spielberg-produced miniseries that gave Universal Televisions SCI FI Channel its highest ratings to date, the decision was made to update and broaden that image.

The result is What If, a Clio-winning re-branding campaign that includes 17 new 10-second IDs, a 90-second narrative spot, Tattoo Man, and a redesign of the channels logo, to be rolled out along with a new line-up of shows.

Tattoos come to life.

Tattoos come to life.

Roger Guillen, acting vp for creative and the in-house creative director of the spots, suggests the intent of the campaign is to shift perception, and move the channel away from its image of being cold and techie, focused on aliens, UFOs, and monsters. The new spots, he says, convey the impression of SCI FI as the channel of imagination, where anything is possibleWe want it to be the vehicle to fuel your imagination.

Each of the 10-second IDs, produced by the channel with the Laimbe-Nairn agency of London, directed by Erick Ifergan with effects by Londons Glassworks, takes an everyday image and makes it fantastical: A cute baby suddenly breathes fire; a womans exhaled breath turns into her dream lover; a woman in a stately sitting room kisses her bug-eyed, big eared, genetically mutated pet; a break dancer spins so fast, he ends up with his head facing backwards. The tag line for each spot is the word if, which then becomes part of the new, stylized SCI FI Channel logo. The idea was to make really fantastical, imaginative little mini movies, Guillen explains, adding the theme that connects them is imagination. They all ask the question, What if?

Redefining pet friendly.

Redefining pet friendly.

For the spots to be on-brand, it was important that the spots be warm, relatable, human and emotional, Guillen adds. You need to be able to watch them and think, yeah, thats cool, but what if and then come up with your own scenario. A few of the IDs, such as Warrior may take their scenarios from movies such as The Matrix or 2001, while Guillen admits that movies were an inspiration for the spots, we didnt specifically want to rip off our favorite movies and do little skits from them. But market research showed many of the channels target audience enjoy sci-fi, even if they didnt identify themselves among the genres fans. They are the kind of people who have PDAs and other gadgets. Theyre not geeks, but they appreciate technology and love visual images. Theyre the kind of people that if you ask them if they liked The Matrix, they say they loved it, and isnt that a sci-fi film?

It was also important to dissuade viewers from the cliché that sci-fi is something of a boys club. Guillen says the channel wanted to target a female audience, a huge demographic that we dont really cater to as much as we should. So some of the IDs (Vapor Lovers, Baby, Pet) were designed to make the channel feel less guy-centric.

Vapor Lover goes for a less guy-centric feel.

Vapor Lover goes for a less guy-centric feel.

Tattoo Man, directed Vaughan Arnell, was also designed with an eye toward appealing to a broader audience. The 90-second branding spot follows a young man from the grocery store to his apartment, where he prepares a lavish, if somewhat unconventional dinner party (pigs head is the main course) where the attendees are his tattoos among them a devil, a snake and a black widow spider who leave his skin and come to three-dimensional life. While the creative team fell in love with the idea of tattoos coming to life, finding the right narrative context was a tougher process.

We didnt want it to be something destructive, Guillen explains. We didnt want it to be what if your tattoos came to life and robbed a bank. The dinner party was an elegant way to bring it across. This guy isnt doing something evil; hes doing something really beautiful.

Tattoo Man holds one of his guests.

Tattoo Man holds one of his guests.

While the IDs and the longer spots utilized different directors and post houses, Guillen describes the production process as being similar. We dont want to dictate what everythings going to be; we want to bring in the best people available and give them an opportunity to put their imagination into these spots.

It was an easy process, Guillen says. Once you have a solid concept you can actually go ahead and start something. The concepts for the spots were worked out and refined in the SCI FI Channels New York office. They were then storyboarded and the boards were sent off to Glassworks London office, which told SCI FI what was needed, and we shot accordingly. The hardest of the IDs to execute was Merge. The original concept had two wrestlers fighting so intensely, they morph into one. But time constraints kept them from perfecting the effect, so in the final edit, you see their arms merging into each other.

Glassworks was tapped to work on the spots partially because, like Lambie-Nairn, the agency that co-produced the spots, they are based in London, making it easier for them to supervise the work. But Guillen says that European post houses deliver different quality of work, a different vibe. Most important was the fact that Glassworks were able to make it photo-realistic and make the effects part of the story and not the big payoff. It was important that the spots were not about the effects, but about the story. The effects just had to convey that story along. This, he says, is in marked contrast to the channels earlier spots, which were all about the effects. Hardcore 3D, hardcore 2D design, they were all eye candy.

Many of the IDs have a twist ending.

Many of the IDs have a twist ending.

The new, softer style of spots was accompanied by the introduction of a new SCI FI Channel logo. The old logo, a rather plain line drawing of the planet Saturn and its rings, played right into the pejorative view of SCI FI, Guillen says. Its a planet, its space, its just what youd expect. But changing the logo completely would be too risky we have a lot of equity in the planet, he says, adding that a lot of our core viewers like the idea of a Saturn logo. To please both constituencies, the channel came up with a stylized rendition of Saturn (its more of an iconographic image than just a ball and a ring): two curved lines that the station compares with the Nike swoosh, that now appears as the station on-screen bug, on the stations Website and in all print ads. Along with new programming including a Battlestar Galactica miniseries premiering in December Guillen says the re-branding has accomplished everything the channel could desire. We are still providing our core audience everything they love about the channel while expanding the channels appeal to people who might not have expected to enjoy it.

Steven Mirkin is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in Variety, The Los Angeles Times, New York Times, New York Post, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly and other publications.

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