Artisanal Advertising

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

The mix of live action with digital effects can come off like a commentary on the aesthetics of advertising. A recent Toyota spot from Saatchi & Saatchi London began with the GT86 model, captured live, driving through a digital dystopia straight out of the underworld of Grand Theft Auto. In the spot’s climax, the bright red car bursts through a wall of lights at “the end of the world,” delivering its driver from the nightmare of a computer-generated landscape into—quite literally—the greener pastures of reality.

The point was to illustrate a return to a more classic driving experience, free from the excessive gadgetry of modern cars, says Saatchi creative director Andy Jex.

As the spot’s director Adam Berg relates, the ad tells the story of someone devoid of feeling, escaping from a cold, controlled world. “For that, the CG aspect of it kind of fit the bill perfectly,” says Berg, who recently landed his feature film debut directing Universal’s remake of Cronenberg’s 1983 horror flick Videodrome. (The plot, appropriately, explores the impact of media and technology on the mind.)

Jex insists the Toyota commercial wasn’t intended as a meta critique of advertising itself. Yet it is easy to see it as a commentary on the industry’s increasing dependence on computer gimmickry.

Setting aside whether the reliance on digital spectacle threatens to become a crutch for weak messaging, digital-heavy effects continue to dominate—often to compelling effect. In a recent spot for railroad company Norfolk Southern, agency RP3 conjured a charming, Toy Story-style world in a young boy’s bedroom. After his playthings come alive and jump aboard his chugging steam engine, the voiceover intones: “Wherever our trains go, the economy comes to life.”

Just five years ago, such detailed animation would have been unrealistic under most marketing budgets and timetables.

“CGI-driven jobs are becoming more accessible purely because computers get faster and there’s more and more talent out there,” says Ben Smith, a creative director at top postproduction house The Mill, which worked on the Norfolk Southern commercial. “It all points toward being able to do more in less time, essentially.”

Still, the 60-second Norfolk Southern spot required 1,000 odd man-hours of animation work among six artists. That’s not counting design, compositing and other aspects of the production. Overall, the project took around three months to complete, says Smith—longer than usual due to the intensive nature of conceiving and designing the characters.

“The range of what we’re being asked to do is always expanding,” says CEO Robin Shenfield. He estimates that The Mill gets 90 percent of its revenue from advertising work and employs 700 people—the biggest the company has been since 2002 when it shrunk its division focused on feature films.

Still, Shenfield says, much of the company’s work aims to be photorealistic—or in lay terms, not obviously manipulated. “The whole idea there is to conspire with our clients to give the impression we’ve done absolutely nothing at all,” he explains.

Comparing practical versus digital costs is not easy since production budgets vary widely depending on project size, scope and quality. Given the intensive labor involved in creating digital graphics, it might cost around $200,000 to produce a scene with computers that would cost $50,000 to build by hand, according to estimates. For example, Comcast’s TV monitors cost about $30,000 to build, says Bies. “Let’s put it this way: Plumbers charge a lot more money than we do,” he says. “I wish I made $150 for an hour and a half.”

Expense aside, computer-generated imagery sometimes just falls short.

To promote Unilever’s Axe line of hair products, BBH executive creative director Ari Weiss and his team created a spot featuring two puppets: one a blob of shaggy men’s hair, the other a headless, cleavage-flaunting female torso. The agency enlisted Jim Henson’s Creature Shop of Muppets fame, Weiss says, because it is “notoriously difficult” to create natural-looking locks using computer graphics.

Though handmade effects may be in vogue, Weiss doesn’t necessarily expect the trend to last.

“Creatives are incredibly fickle folks: We like the new toys...and then a new toy comes out,” he says.

So what’s the next big thing? “That’s the million dollar question,” says Weiss.

Maybe better hair.