Feature

The Insider's Guide to Production: The digital minefield

Post houses can help advertisers pick their way through the opportunities and pitfalls of new media. Just don't ask about the kung-fu-trained bear.

People make huge assumptions about the role of post houses, but every day we face different challenges as we continue to deliver work to myriad new platforms and devices.

Often the medium dictates the creative these days. There is no point shooting an epic landscape if the end user can only see it on a tiny mobile phone, but, equally, you want to make something engaging that may well be rolled out across more traditional platforms simultaneously.

That's where we come in. We can plan for any eventuality, and often find ourselves providing solutions for anything from multiple 40-foot screens - as we did recently at a Saab exhibition - through to "digi-signs" in Tottenham Court Road for the homelessness charity Shelter. The latter was a very powerful campaign where the digital signs featured children who appeared to be banging on the glass of the screens. Both communications were incredibly effective at making their points, but had very different challenges to overcome.

Hopefully, we are no longer "the bit at the end" after production when all the money has run out (although that's still true on occasion), but that old adage of "let's fix it in post" seems very backward these days. Often, post and delivery are the first things that need to be considered.

Everything has its own inherent challenges. How do we deliver content to 52 screens in a Barcelona museum and get them to interact with each other, for example? For us, it meant carefully choreographing the interaction of 800 mpegs with a smart piece of computer coding, all while working closely with the client to make sure the work was on brief.

This project provided audiovisual content for the Forum "Voices" exhibit, which ran for five months. The exhibition aimed to celebrate human communication and linguistic and cultural diversity. The central dome structure consisted of 28 screens of various sizes positioned around an amphitheatre 32 metres in diameter. The film was programmed through a central server to incorporate the 28 screens. Multiple and single images alongside typography were choreographed, making the most of the three-dimensional space and creating an immersive environment. In addition, a 100-metre wall, comprised of 24 screens and featuring 96 separate languages, ran alongside the central audio visual, resulting in a total of 52 different films shown simultaneously.

We are never happier than when we are problem-solving. We are in a technical service industry, after all, constantly exposed to new software and techniques. But we also love to bring as much creativity and flair to the process as we can.

This is why we are such a natural fit for digital; new agencies are springing up all the time, and because they are already immersed in technology, we speak the same language. Agencies such as glue and AKQA are often incredibly effective at planning. They look at the medium first, rather than the execution. We extend capacity for digital agencies; often they will come to us to generate additional content or to produce a bespoke piece of animated CGI, for example.

Meanwhile, some of the more traditional agencies, which are finding digital a bit of a learning curve, can benefit from our experiences. We provide a service that is uniquely tailored to the project and a model that fits each client in a different way.

We are also witnessing a new approach to buying outdoor media, which fits well with motion graphics. People are much more aware of their surroundings and interiors and want their environment to reflect that. Architecture is very fashionable; art is used as an advertising medium. We, as consumers, are much more sophisticated and we demand that our environment matches that.

The screens featured in the movie Minority Report will become more commonplace and people will react to being sold to in a more personal way. Pay-per-click advertising already reflects that.

Virals started out as low-budget home videos shot on a shoestring with a look to match. They are now starting to attract bigger budgets and higher production values as people begin to understand that quality does cost - whatever the medium.

We did the post for one of the first so-called advertising virals - John West Salmon. I say "so-called" viral because it wasn't. It was a TV spot that ran very briefly on air but was adopted online and sent out worldwide. It has been in the Adcritic top ten for years and achieved that by being one of the best written and directed pieces of our time.

The ironic thing was that it was based around a bear suit that was a bit motheaten and, therefore, needed to be shot on a long lens so as not to show it in detail. There was only one bear suit - we composited the others in shot, and you wouldn't believe how many calls we got about it. "Where do I hire the kung-fu-trained bear from?" or "Can you supply us with your CG animated bear?" were among the best. At this point, the technology for animated creatures and fur textures was not quite there ...

These days, it would have been straight on to YouTube, but this was a long time before that. The industry made it a viral; I was sent it about 15 times and it clogged up the very primitive inbox we had at the time. It goes to show that it is always the idea that carries the communication. How we choose to deliver it is now the next crucial part of the process.

I am always being asked if I am worried about it all being done on a Mac in someone's home. The answer is not really. I remember a client calling up in a panic because he had used a "geek in his bedroom", who had suddenly been taken to hospital for minor but emergency surgery. We were asked to collect his computer and to try to get the footage off it, but it hadn't been rendered to the correct resolution, so in the end we had to rebuild it all. I can't see the likes of Unilever and Coca-Cola being very understanding about that sort of problem, no matter how cheap it is.

As digital reaches maturity, it will inevitably attract bigger budgets. There is still a learning curve as to what can be achieved and it's up to us to help you through the minefield. In the end, the old maxim does stack up: you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.

- Penny Verbe is the chief executive officer of Smoke & Mirrors.

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