coffee cup the size of a pen cap appear to steam? At M5 Studios, a special-effects and puppet company, owner Jamie Hyneman gets some ash and places it in the minimug. Director Stacy Wall angles the shot so that steam seems to rise from the cup for a few seconds.
For this shoot, M5's 10 craftsmen have painstakingly created tiny repro ductions of extreme skier Jonny Moseley, female snowboarder Barrett Christy, snowmobile rider Blair Morgan and motorcycle stuntman "Mad Mike" Jones, each with numerous moving parts, custom-designed outfits and finely detailed faces. M5 also designed snow mobiles, a tiny moose head for a ski lodge and a dim inutive bearskin rug. It's all part of an "Aspen Children's Puppet Theater" motif from Wieden + Kennedy, New York, for four spots promoting ESPN's X Games.
The national campaign, which breaks in mid-December, depicts humorous run-ins between X Games athletes and residents of Aspen, Colo., where the games will take place next month.
M5 has worked on more than 800 commercials for clients such as Hershey's and Levi Strauss & Co., and has also designed action figures and toys. Nestled in the heart of Bay view-Hunters Point, one of San Fran cisco's most industrial neighborhoods, M5 consists of a gigantic warehouse packed with incomplete puppets, aging movie props and metal beams. Wieden first worked with M5 designers six years ago for the celebrated "Lil Penny" Nike campaign, and the puppet of NBA star Anfernee Hardaway now sits in an upstairs office at M5 as a testament to the studio's work.
The "Lil Penny" campaign was created by Wall during his tenure at the shop's Portland, Ore., headquarters. Last year he left his post as co-creative director of the agency's New York office to direct commercials, now through New York-based Epoch Films. So he was a natural choice to direct these spots.
"I liked the scripts from the beginning," he says. "[Wieden] thought I could help with this one because of my experience with Lil Penny. So I wrote a treatment like everyone else and got the job."
As the puppets are filmed, New York-based creative directors Kevin Proudfoot and Wayne Best pace nervously. They say they want the spots to showcase "a clash of cultures" between the wealthy elite who populate Aspen and the more rough-and-tumble X Games demographic.
"It was huge news when they decided to move the games from Vermont to Colorado," says copywriter Proudfoot. "It was the most interesting element we had to work with—that the youth culture is moving to a place some people consider snobby."
In one spot, puppet Jones creates mayhem when he tries to take his cycle up to his hotel room; a lobby man with a thick English accent and an Aspenite businessman provide counterpoints to Mad Mike's antics.
"The fact that it's the X Games makes it edgier than football and hockey," says Best, an art director working on his first X Games campaign.
The crew rehearses a spot in which puppet Moseley is reading in a ski lounge when he's confronted by an "aging siren." It takes several minutes to adjust Moseley's hands so it appears that he's holding a magazine. The attractive older-woman puppet approaches and says, "Are you undressing me with your eyes?" Puppet Moseley looks on as people in the galley laugh.
The M5 staff say the Wieden assignment has been no more complicated than other puppet jobs, except that they were on exceptionally tight deadlines. The shop started working on the project in late October, roughly two weeks before the Nov. 14-15 shoot.
"We've worked on the spiders in Arachnophobia and movies where mechanical pieces were so small you had to pick them up with tweezers," says Hyneman. "What we do is just plain fun, but what makes it hard is the amount of time we have to do it."
Hyneman and his crew worked primarily in a small office reached by a winding staircase and in a sawdust-coated workroom. To expedite the process, the studio hired two freelance artists and stayed on the job around the clock.
Creating the caricatures for the puppets was perhaps the biggest challenge. The craftsmen researched each athlete's appearance and got ideas for their clothing from sponsors. Computers were used for such tasks as downloading photos to make accurate reproductions of outfits and printing out miniature copies of ESPN magazine for the Moseley puppet.
For the puppet of Mad Mike, the craftsmen had to make a biking shirt covered with multicolored panels. They considered sewing it, but that would have allowed only an eighth of an inch for each panel. Instead, they printed out a replica of the shirt and ironed it onto the puppet—much the same way an iron-on T-shirt is made.
"I breathe a sigh of relief when I know it looks right and people are going to dig it," Hyneman says of the process.
At the close of the shoot, the creatives wonder whether they will be able to use the actual athletes' voices in the spots. The special-effects crew at M5, however, has more overarching concerns—namely that digital effects will eventually nudge them out of the marketplace.
"We hope we can continue to do this," Hyneman says. "But sometimes it's hard to stay ahead of technology."