Creative: On Location

Earning Their Wings
On a hot, muggy September day in Central Park, a man in a blue-and-white seersucker suit, with a pair of angel’s wings sprouting from his back, sits on a bench in a quiet grass knoll. A portly businessman sits beside him, while schoolboys, shirts hanging over crumpled gray shorts, blazers tossed aside, huddle nearby.
The setting is surreal, even for New York City. The locale is just one of many Manhattan sites executive creative director Michael Patti and senior creative director Don Schneider from BBDO in New York have chosen to film “Guardian Angel,” a new HBO commercial (which broke yesterday during the World Series).
Director Joe Pytka enters the scene, and the cast and crew shift into high gear. Actor John McIntosh’s angel’s wings are fluffed, and Anthony Van Epperson, the businessman, gets another layer of makeup. The director dominates the set. His height and mane of grey hair, coupled with his confidence and crew control, make him an imposing figure. The production crew gathers around the bench. In the background, the boys take their cues. A crew member hides behind the bush, a soccer ball in hand.
When filming begins, the boys simulate a soccer match and the ball is tossed in the direction of the bench. McIntosh flicks the ball away and saves the businessman from a conk on the head. In the commercial, the man repeatedly escapes disaster due to the diligence of his guardian angel, who steers him away from oncoming trucks, covers open manholes and dissuades birds from relieving themselves on him.
The punch line comes when the angel is distracted from his heavenly task by HBO programming, which he spies on a television in a store window. The charge, left unattended, falls victim to an old clichƒ: A piano falls on his head–but it sounds like a harp. The angel, caught goofing on the job, quickly takes off for parts unknown.
Not only are angels “part of our cultural vernacular,” says Schneider, “it’s a great device.” The idea that a person can be taken away from his or her job by any given product could work for every client. “What a great setup for HBO,” he adds. “People will be wishing they thought of it.”
The production crew moves to set up another sequence, while Pytka tosses a football around between takes. Patti wants to ask the director a question about the shot. He turns and smiles at Schneider. “Is it worth getting yelled at?” he asks.
In a word: yes. Tension is a fertile breeding ground for creativity. Patti says Pytka has a “tremendous amount” of creative input, and debates often ensue. “We will discuss, argue, yell, scream right up until shooting,” says Schneider. “There are a lot of sparks flying. We just use that energy on the work.”
“No one gives in easily to any point of view,” Patti admits. “It’s a fragile process. [Pytka] is known to be difficult and so are we.”
After all, Schneider, Patti and Pytka have honed their debating skills in the six years they’ve worked together on various BBDO blue-chip accounts, including Pepsi, Frito-Lay and HBO. To throw another voice into the mix, BBDO chief creative officer Ted Sann helps steer their work.
The foursome were the creative force behind the 1996 HBO ad “Chimps,” featuring Jane Goodall and a group of gorillas with a penchant for reciting movie dialogue. Last year, the spot won the first Emmy for a commercial.
Is the past prologue?
“You try to do your best all the time,” says Pytka. “We want to keep the standard up.” The director likens the HBO work to the photography of Robert Frank, sporting images “shot as the human eye would observe it.
“They have a strange kind of genius,” adds Pytka of the BBDO creative team, whose HBO work he labels “magical” and “fairy tales for adults.”
Who else would cast acting legend George C. Scott as the leader of a band of germs? In a second HBO spot breaking this week, simply titled “Germs,” Scott, dressed in futuristic robes, gives his “troops,” garbed in beige aviator headgear and goggles, a rousing speech. Then in tandem, they jump. And jump again.
Suddenly, an ethereal light shines on them, and the silence is broken by the sounds of little germ cheers.
The camera pulls back to reveal the germs standing on a remote control in a boardroom–where they’ve turned the television to HBO. Their victory, however, is short-lived. A cleaning woman sprays Lysol over the remote. The product choice was obvious, says Regina Ebel, director of television for BBDO. “Everybody knows ‘Lysol kills germs,'” she says.
“Germs are something everyone can relate to,” adds Patti. “The fact that there is this invisible world of germs. The question is: What do germs do all the time?”
The idea for the spot was conceived two years ago while brainstorming for HBO’s ’97 campaign. One of the hurdles was figuring out how to represent the germs.
“It had to be comical, but not at first,” says Patti. “Is it animated? Is it guys in costume?”
They considered using images similar to the sperm in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex. That visual style, coupled with a Patton-esque setup, moved the idea forward. The spot was conceived, but not pitched, with the Oscar winner in mind. Instead, they proposed a “Patton-like” figure, but their first choice was always top of mind. “We’re BBDO, and we were determined to get George C. Scott,” says Ebel.
When presenting the idea for the commercial to Scott, Schneider says he avoided saying the word “germ” as long as possible for fear of alienating him with the concept. But Scott was game, with one proviso–he would not wear a Patton-style military uniform. His instincts were right. The spot is a clever parody, sans military garb.
Plus, HBO could not be happier with the results of the campaign. “These guys came through in an incredible way,” says Eric Kessler, senior vice president of marketing for HBO.
While the cable channel and BBDO have worked together since 1986, it was the ’96 campaign, with the debut of “Chimps,” that marked a new approach to marketing the network. The tag, “It’s not TV. It’s HBO,” was born during this time, when the network was reassessing its advertising.
Prior to “Chimps,” its ads had been mostly product-specific, touting individual programs. Other cable channels had begun to encroach on what was once HBO-dominated territory, and the company was determined to leverage its equity as the granddaddy of cable venues. Entertainment was the key.
According to Andy Russem, senior account director at BBDO who oversees the HBO account, the consumer’s thought process when viewing the advertising should proceed along these lines: “If the ads are entertaining, imagine how good the network is.”
Kessler agrees: “A spot is representative of the entertainment experience you might get watching HBO.” BBDO’s dictum was clear. “We wanted to create water-cooler talk,” says Patti. With that charge, BBDO continues to breathe life into an award-winning series of ads.
In fact, the six previous ads in the campaign, spots such as last year’s “Haircuts” and “Roach Motel,” have garnered awards, including Clios, Lions and an Emmy. “Once you sign off on the boards, [BBDO] is constantly thinking and rethinking every shot, every line and every effect,” says Kessler. “It’s that attention to detail that makes every scene work.”
For this latest crop of ads, the team culled a dozen spots from an initial agency pool of 50 to present to HBO. They narrowed the field to three, then two, keeping the number of spots produced small to have greater impact. “You have your favorites among the ones you’re showing,” says Sann.
“Guardian Angel” made the final cut because of its universality. While “Guardian Angel” and “Germs” boast distinct sensibilities, both utilize special effects and rely on actors Pytka has worked with before. “These were unanimous along the way as killer spots. HBO loved ‘Germs’ from the get-go,” adds Sann.
“It was one of the most fun agency meetings I ever had,” says Kessler of the May presentation. “As they’re presenting, you’re trying to figure out where it’s going. You sit there, and you can’t get the grin off your face.”
BBDO and HBO say the agency is afforded an unusual amount of freedom. That’s because they share similar creative visions. “HBO puts an inordinate amount of trust in their agency,” says Russem. Sann agrees: “They’re very much on the same wavelength in terms of this campaign and what it means.”
“We tell them to keep stretching the envelope,” says Kessler. “We will stay with the campaign as long as it continues to have an impact in the marketplace.”
For the creative team, that’s a fairy tale with a happy ending.