Legs of Steel

Not only are there no big-name celebrities in David Fincher’s most recent work, there are no people at all. In an Adidas spot created by TBWA\Chiat\Day in San Francisco, Golden State Warrior Antawn Jamison does make a brief appearance on a computer screen, but the real action is played out by computer-animated mechanical legs.

In an industrial-looking test lab, robots with human-like anatomy from the waist down hang from overhead wires. One machine, which has just put on a pair of Adidas a3 Cushion basketball shoes, begins to jump and run, as if on a basketball court. Another pair of mechanical legs comes to life and butts up against the Adidas-clad robot, which knocks the newcomer flat. The spot broke in North America, Europe and Asia last week.

“There’s not one live piece of film in it,” says creative director Chuck McBride, who had never worked on such a complex animated spot and admits it was a learning experience.

McBride and his partner, art director Todd Grant, compare the commercial’s intense 13-week production process to layers of an onion. A team from Giant Studios, Los Angeles, began the process with motion-capture shots of athletes and dancers’ movements. The footage served as a guide for a team from Digital Domain, Los Angeles, to animate the robots. To give the mechanical legs added authenticity, the company hired Jeff Julian, a designer of prosthetics for runners.

For the setting, Fincher and his team at Anonymous Content, Los Angeles, wanted a large room with strong lines and interesting textures. They found it at a former NASA test site near L.A. Animators then used hundreds of still photographs to re create the room digitally for the commercial, the same process used for Fincher’s recent film Panic Room.

Because of Fincher’s experience with special effects—his first job was as a camera assistant at Industrial Light + Magic—he was much more involved in the entire process than most directors, says Baptiste Andrieux, Digital Domain’s visual effects producer. Fincher could look at the rough work in progress and understand how different elements would eventually come together.

“Everything was researched and crafted in an exact way. David was present at every single step,” says agency producer Jennifer Golub. “When you book David Fin cher, you get David Fincher completely.”

For McBride, the process involved some adjustment to his normal routine. Accustomed to making changes by simply trying “another take,” he quickly learned that another take in the animated world is not so simple. “Those ‘takes’ take time: It’s like two or three days a pop,” he says. “Every time we made a comment, it would just cost us time.”

“Mechanical Legs” is part of a global effort to promote the a3 cushioning technology. The push includes a partially animated commercial that broke last month, “Slugs.” In that spot, two a3 running shoes apparently run on their own, but when one is tipped over, it’s revealed that a slug is navigating each shoe. Both spots employ the a3 tag, “More power to you,” written during a joint meeting with 180, Amsterdam, which shares creative duties on Adidas with TBWA\C\D.

“Our challenge these days is to have great product stories, but also have a message that feels right for the brand,” says McBride. Because the a3 technology applies to other activities, the agency team is hoping to follow the current spots with forays into different sports, says Grant. But the team is unsure whether the mechanical legs will appear again.

The departure of Neil Simpson, Adidas’ head of global advertising, is not expected to disrupt plans for up coming ads from the 180\TBWA team, which is working on assignments as far into the future as 2004, McBride says. More immediately, the team is crafting a spring brand initiative.