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The unreal thing By Michael Schrag

To play Michael Jackson as a youngster in a new commercial, Pepsi will use a white boy wearing an Afro wig, his skin darkened slightly through video colorization. The process, sa

Is Pepsi trying to one-up its biggest rival? Or is it just playing catch up? Coca-Cola, after all, explored similar territory last year when R/Greenberg Associates offered up a necromantic array of biologically dead and barely living media icons quaffing 1-calorie Diet Cokes.
There’s always been a tension between genuine commercial creativity and the seductive lure of pupil-dilating special effects. Agencies cheerfully grasp for any chainsaw to cut through the clutter. And in some shops, videotech novelty equals creativity. But instead of treating special effects as a panacea, ad agencies had better recognize that these technologies fundamentally rupture the economics of the industry.
As surely as electronic synthesizers have undermined the market for commercial musicians, the rise of digital video synthesizers will radically rewrite the economics of commercial photography, cinematography, acting and directing. Sure, truly great artistic talents will always be able to command a premium for their services. But the new synth technologies will effectively obliterate the market for middle-tier creative talent. What industry economics did to account side employment in the 1980s, technology will do to both production and creative in the 1990s.
“It’s clear that, more and more, we’re going to be doing things digitally,” asserts Steve Glenn, vice president of Simgraphics, a digital production house in South Pasadena, Calif. “We’re obviously not going to need to be shooting actors as much. By creating synthetic characters, you will be able to create commercials much more cost effectively. Eventually, you’ll be creating a digital ‘backlot’ so that it’s not only cheaper to do once–but cheaper to do again and again.”
While creating believable “vactors” (Glenn’s neologism for “virtual actors”) from digital scratch isn’t yet possible, it’s well within the technology’s grasp inside of a decade. Robert Greenberg, whose New York firm created the Diet Coke f/x, predicts that purely live actors have only five years left.
In the meantime, producers already use these technologies as a cost-effective way to “cheat.” Says Glenn, “You don’t need high-priced actors to go through the motions. Using ‘real-time’ technologies empowers you creatively.”
So you can take the image of a famous actor and digitally edit it onto the actions of a scale-wage nonentity. Already, there are enough Michael Jackson videos to craft any kind of ad without the Gloved One’s actual participation. And soon, digital video synthesis will be cheaper than a good matte.
Consider the changes this technology will bring. Vactors won’t need to be paid residuals. Prima donna art directors will have a hard time justifying a travel budget when a computeer-generated beach on St. Tropez becomes virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. And, as juggling images, sounds and characters becomes as easy as juggling type, production costs will fall and clients will adjust budgets accordingly.
We can already see how Apple Macintoshes and digital typesetting have transformed the economics of prepress, magazine production and direct mail. Only the conceptually impotent and the multimedia morons refuse to grasp that what technology has done to paper it is inevitably going to do to video and film. Given current trends, creating breathtaking 15-second spots should eventually be no more expensive than producing a four-color magazine gatefold.
Of course, these technologies will do more than relentlessly suck the costs out of existing productions. Vactors and then’ digital backdrops will be advertising media in their own right. Ricoh, the large Japanese copier company, has contracts with Simgraphics to turn its Imagio character–a cartoon figure well known in Japan–into a vactor for video walls at trade shows. Dentsu is also looking at the technologies as a medium for trade shows and shopping centers.
According to Glenn, such “digital puppetry” may prove an ideal medium to capture and hold the attention of mall rats and their parents. Because they’re digitized, vactors can be programmed to behave interactively with the target audience. Perhaps we’ll see pre-programmed Michael Jackson vactors–based on the prepubescent Caucasian version–as POP displays at the better convenience stores.
However these technologies are diffused, the simple truth is that creating new realities is becoming easier–and cheaper. When artificial reality becomes less costly to create than reality itself, it’s time for the folks who depend on reality to get nervous.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)