On Location: HP’s Toy Story

A Times Square street corner at 6 a.m. on a Sunday has undoubtedly seen its share of odd sights, but probably nothing quite like this: an assortment of toys, from balls to a robot to a doll in a convertible, poised outside Toys R Us at 44th and Broadway as if they were about to enter the store. Even in the drizzly, gray dawn, lit up against the backdrop of flashing signs and news tickers, the toys stand out, and passers-by stop and gawk.

Director Frank Budgen focuses on the toys with a steely intensity. He never breaks into a smile, as if there were nothing at all amusing about the sight of a blond, helmeted doll on a mini motorcycle making its way toward Toys R Us but instead running into a lamppost and falling over. Budgen’s lanky frame, nearly swallowed up by a black fleece, and his short silver hair add to the effect.

“Frank is the master,” says Todd Grant, associate creative director at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, which is shooting a spot not for Toys R Us but for Hewlett-Packard. “He’s a portrait taker. He has a nice eye for the aesthetic. It’s like a documentary on how toys come to work.”

The shoot is for HP’s latest spot in a year-old $400 million global push that describes how specific companies, such as Starbucks and the U.S. Postal Service, use HP’s hardware and software. This ad, which launches nationally this week, shows how HP helps the Times Square Toys R Us, which has no storage space, restock each morning from remote locations.

The creatives on the account—art director Grant, agency co-chairman Rich Silverstein, creative director Steve Simpson, group creative director John Norman and copywriter John Knecht—decided to illustrate what HP’s software does with a whimsical conceit: toys that commute into Toys R Us each morning, just like other New York workers. “Most of the spots running right now are dramatic,” says Julie Haralson, senior manager, global brand communications for HP. “This one adds a flair of fun.”

The five-day shoot is spread out over two early October weekends, and ranges from Brooklyn to Chinatown, SoHo and now Times Square. Central to the creative concept is that the toys are shot as is, not brought to life with special effects. “We wanted to focus on the natural limitations,” says Knecht. Immovable teddy bears are seen on a bus heading to the store, action figures parachute in, one doll is shot on a truck in the meat-packing district, balls are bounced in from off-screen, and a tugboat chugs down the Hudson River.

But try asking a toy to hit its mark. As the day brightens and the store’s 10 a.m. opening inches closer, the merchandise is acting as finicky and stubborn as movie stars: An action figure with a parachute keeps floating out of the shot; a robot, controlled remotely by a production assistant, moves painstakingly slowly. But eventually, each makes its way to the doors.

Grant points out where Budgen’s eye for detail comes in, noting that it was the director who suggested the shot of Geoffrey Giraffe coming up an escalator. “It’s a joy to work with him, and sometimes it’s a joy to let him work,” he says. Adds Knecht: “When he turns to talk to you, he’s very tentative. You can tell he’s visualizing and listening at the same time.”

Famously choosy about his scripts, Budgen typically takes on about four projects a year. His producer, Alicia Bernard, says Budgen agreed to the HP script after reading a one-paragraph description because of its “simplicity and charm.” But Bernard and Grant both suggest another reason as well: The director is a new father. “Maybe it’s sparked a little sensitivity in Frank,” says Grant of Budgen’s 8-month-old, quickly adding, “Not to say he’s getting soft and mellow.”

A week before the Thanksgiving-weekend break date, the spot is still being tinkered with. Music has proved the biggest sticking point, and at press time, creatives and the client were debating whether to go with a well-known song or an original tune. Another point of difference: which of the tiny stars would get cut. “Everyone saw a lot of toys being shot, and everyone developed their favorite,” Grant says.

But if there were some clashing opinions, everyone involved was still singing the spot’s praises. “It’s really charming,” says agency producer Colleen Wellman. “It’s a simple idea.”