Artisanal Advertising

To forge emotional connections with consumers, tech brands go for handcrafted effects

To create that human touch in a spot for Xperia, McCann Erickson took over an alleyway in Warsaw, Poland, where it installed 10-foot-high frames designed to look like oversized versions of the tablet’s screen. In the ad, a single tracking shot zooms through each “window” as actors play out real-world versions of familiar digital sequences. For instance, a pair of swordsmen clad in red are seen dicing up oversized, airborne strawberries in a reenactment of the popular video game Fruit Ninja.

To be sure, an ad depicting some guy using yet another tablet would be boring, but the magnitude of the handcrafted Xperia production featuring actors doing somersaults à la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon bring to life what it might actually feel like to use the device. And rather than hiding or digitally erasing the lights, rigging and grips in the background of the shot, the creative team intentionally left them in to emphasize that the stunts were real and that the effects were “practical”—film jargon for physical.

Meanwhile, the Google Play ad had to illustrate an even more abstract concept: how the cloud-computing software streamlines data files across laptops, smartphones and tablets without cables or repeated steps. A metaphoric stand-in for user content, the vanishing and reappearing orange liquid was actually Gatorade and food coloring.

“There are no actual apps or music mixed into that liquid,” jokes Gradman, who helped build the table. For the shoot, he camped out beneath the counter manning the pump, aided by a folding chair and a book to stay comfortable between takes.

An artist with a master’s degree in robotics from the University of Southern California, Gradman helped create the Google spots while at Syyn Labs, a mechanically savvy design collective in Los Angeles. Splitting off from the group this spring, he and three former partners (two of whom also worked on the Google series) reformed as Two Bit Circus, which custom builds installations with technological twists. (Other founding partners include Hector Alvarez, Dan Busby and Brent Bushnell, the son of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese founder Nolan Bushnell.)

The new company’s first project is a functioning prototype of a futuristic entertainment system for retailer Best Buy, along with a reality style video series about making the half-digital, half-physical installation.

“Not only are we seeing increasing demand for practical effects, but we’re also seeing demand for people filming us making practical effects,” says Gradman, explaining that watching real people making cool things is one thing you can’t fake with software.

Of course, overall demand for practical effects isn’t what it once was.

Longtime model maker Don Bies says the amazingly lifelike CGI dinosaurs in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Jurassic Park were a catalyst in the rush toward computer graphics. But for some directors, the retro aesthetics of elaborate sets and models like those in films from the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s can have a certain difficult-to-define appeal.

“There’s a cool factor” in using real props, says Bies. Now owner of White Room Artifacts, the 25-year industry veteran began his career creating mechanical puppets for David Cronenberg’s 1986 film The Fly, then moved to George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic’s now-defunct model shop, where he worked on films such as 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. (To help Nazi-aligned villain Walter Donovan’s body disintegrate in the film’s finale, Bies rigged vacuum lines that sucked a puppet’s eyeballs back into its skull.)

This year, Bies’ company built a Rube Goldberg machine in a suitcase for another Zames-directed spot for Google Play, as well as props for a Comcast ad that featured dollhouse-style miniatures inside TV monitors that actors wore on their heads. (See photos on facing page.) Following a similar concept, his team also created replicas of automobiles that replace actors’ heads in an spot to illustrate the message that its employees really are “The Car People.”

Ad creatives may also be taking a cue from contemporary Hollywood directors. To announce Vizio’s entry into the personal-computing market, agency One/x hired New Deal Studios, the same model shop that built props like a Batmobile for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises and a steam locomotive for Martin Scorcese’s Hugo.

For the Vizio commercial, New Deal constructed a bleak, eight-foot-tall cityscape out of old computers, to frame the competition as dull and dreary, according to One/x creative director Jason Wulfsohn. Using actual parts rather than digital manipulation made the brand’s message more convincing, says Vizio media director Jason Maciel. “We just felt that building out of actual PCs and putting people into this environment made it feel authentic and real,” he explains.

Still, most if not all ads shot to look homey still get a digital finish. In the Vizio spot, for example, live actors were digitally dropped into the made-to-scale set.

There’s no doubt that consumers today expect a more polished look. A recent study of 518 consumers by visual effects software company GenArts found that purchase intent rose 12 percent when subjects were shown a Puma ad with digital burnish compared to one without.

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