Live-action commercials are de rigueur once again. Emma Hall finds out why
The last action hero is making a come-back. The reason seems to be that
filming live ads is much more fun than sitting in a darkened room
wrestling with computer technology. The novelty of fiddling with Harry
and Flame has worn off for many in advertising and film-makers are
finding their challenges in live shoots.
In the current commercial for Lemsip Power+, ‘cloud’, BST-BDDP uses
traditional special effects to create a mushroom cloud erupting from a
steaming red mug. This involved pouring disinfectant into sugar water to
stage a chemical reaction.
Richard Dean, who directed the commercial through Park Village, says:
‘There is a joy about physical effects, the wonderful unexpected luck
that can produce a minor miracle. It’s all about being organic as
opposed to digital.’
The mushroom-cloud effect is almost as old as film itself - the same
technique was used by Cecil B. de Mille in his epic, the Ten
Commandments - and technological advances are still unable to replicate
the excitement and feel of the real thing.
Scaling the Himalayas in the name of a BT corporate ad certainly has no
rival in a Soho studio. Jonathan Greenhalgh, who directed the ‘Hillary’
ad through Saatchi and Saatchi, is wildly enthusiastic about his part in
Greenhalgh says: ‘Live action is the maverick option. You get things
that you would never storyboard and when certain shots work brilliantly,
you want to take your clothes off and run around punching the sky - it
is such a thrill. A pure high.’
Commercials directors, wary of losing out on certain jobs, are reluctant
to speak of a backlash against post production, but they will all admit
that the mood is veering in that direction.
Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury is widely credited with over-turning flashy
production values and, through campaigns such as Tango and Golden
Wonder, introducing a ‘grunge’ feel, which is still strong in the
James Sinclair, the copywriter on the Lemsip commercial, feels the
market is saturated with ads using sophisticated post production, and
admits that the search is on for something new. He argues: ‘It is like
watching a magician on television - we know it’s on TV so we don’t trust
his tricks. In our business we try to find the reality in products, but
computer-generated images are just another move off into fantasy land.’
Live action can give an integrity to commercials by providing an
antidote to the sterile, glossy, manufactured post-production image. The
straight shoot also puts the onus on narrative and ideas, allowing the
director to take credit for the persuasiveness of the ad.
Richard Dean has a pragmatic view on the attractions of live action
shoots. He says: ‘A director can make a lot more money and get on with
life by moving on from one shoot to the next, rather than being tied up
doing post production for weeks on end.’
Cost, of course, has a large part to play in the making of any
commercial. It is a lot cheaper to pack a crew off to the Himalayas for
a couple of weeks than it is to spend the time creating a film using
phenomenally expensive post-production techniques.
It must also be remembered that post production is not all-powerful.
Landscape is difficult to simulate and the scale of the scenery in the
BT ad, for example, could not have been achieved in a studio.
Daniel Barber was the only director to pitch a live-action solution to
BMP DDB Needham’s script for the pan-European TV campaign for the Sony
Trinitron (left). He wanted to throw a man, clinging to an armchair, out
of a plane and feed off the drama of such a daring stunt. The
alternative, he argues, was to cobble together shots using a wind
machine with footage taken from the air.
When applied liberally, as compensation for the lack of an idea, post
production comes in for particular criticism. Dean says: ‘It gives more
choices, but in a negative sense, because it opens the floodgates for
endless nitpicking. If there is an idea, it inevitably loses its clarity
once the Flame operator, the agency, the editor and the client all get
Post production, he says, is abused when employed as a ‘get-out-of
trouble’ card. But its more general use to enhance images, especially
product shots, is never called into question.
It is at a more fundamental level that directors are rejecting post
production in favour of live action shoots - discarding the predictable
in favour of the thrill of the unknown.