Mairi Clark finds out how a Dalmatian lost its spots and bright skies
Flame operators are the artists called in to add that ‘finishing touch’
to films. They take their place alongside Henry and Harry operators as
grand manipulators of celluloid, although every operator believes
fervently in the superiority of the system he works with.
None more so than Jon Hollis, Flame operator supremo, partner in the
London post-production house, Smoke and Mirrors, and for many directors
the top Flame artist in town (Campaign, last week). Hollis is the
creator of some impressive ads - probably his most famous current work
is the Persil ad, in which he made the spots fly off a Dalmatian.
Hollis has a passionate dislike for Henry and Harry machines, preferring
to work with Flame software. ‘I just don’t like the others. The end
result on Flame is much more exciting, I can have so many different
approaches. You go one way one day and another the next,’ he says.
When you see the end result you can’t help but agree with him. The
Persil commercial, which is shot in vivid colours, opens with a lone
white horse enclosed in a pen with a group of black horses. The white
horse breaks free from the enclosure by jumping over the fence and
gallops into the distance. The scene then cuts to balloons underwater,
again the majority are black, but a single white one breaks free to
float to the surface.
The next shot features a parachutist, first in neon colours, then in
negative, opening his white parachute. Another shows a speed skater,
dressed entirely in white, racing ahead of his black-suited competitors
against a dramatic snowy backdrop.
Next comes a deep-sea diver dressed in a dry-suit, which he takes off to
reveal a pure white tuxedo, then a pack of characters in green
bodysuits, dancing and waving their arms, from which a red-clad figure
Probably the most stunning visual is the penultimate scene, of which
Hollis is particularly proud. It shows a Dalmatian that appears to be
shaking off its spots as if they were drops of water. After this comes
the endline, ‘Persil now has a stain release system, to set clean free’.
The final scene features swathes of cloth being cast out of what appear
to be windows in a cliff face, billowing in the breeze.
Although the majority of the scenes were shot by the director, Graham
Fink, Hollis was drafted in at the end to hone the look of the film. He
explains: ‘The whole thing took about four days, and the work on the
Dalmatian alone took one day. To get the Dalmatian’s spots to look as if
they were being shaken off, I had to pull them off individually, then
put them back on. I then had to time them to fly off at key moments. We
used Flame in quite a lot of the film, to enhance the colours of the
horses, put in the glow around the white balloon, and to make the
parachute scene look as though it was shot on negative film. We probably
used it most effectively on the end-scene where it looks as if the rolls
of cloth are being thrown down a mountain. In fact, we created the
When you ask people about the differences between Henry, Harry and
Flame, the majority of creatives are nonplussed. ‘They are all editing
techniques, I know what you can do with them but I can’t say I know why
there are so many,’ one admits, adding, ‘they are all expensive, I know
These kind of effects don’t come cheap. A standard Flame machine can
cost more than pounds 400,000, and Henry and Harry facilities don’t fall
much below that.
However, the system can be upgraded, for example, S&M has a test
agreement with Discreet Logic, the software developers behind Flame, so
it can experiment with the new software as long as it sends a report
back explaining the software’s limitations and quirks.
Discreet Logic then adapts the system and sends the new software back.
This works well for both the supplier and the user. Hollis explains: ‘We
get to say what we don’t like about the system, or ask whether we can do
this or that, so Discreet Logic gets customer feedback, and we get the
most advanced software.’
Another commercial that Hollis worked on, and the one he lists as being
most proud of, is Reebok’s ‘Signori’ commercial featuring the Italian
footballer, Beppe Signori.
The ad opens on Signori looking round a stadium: ‘This is my mountain,’
a voiceover says, and Signori’s gaze falls to the pitch, where the
voiceover says: ‘This is my plain.’ He looks at a picture of a little
boy, and the voice adds: ‘This is my sunshine, my guardian flame.’
When the flag of his Italian football team, Lazio, appears, the voice
continues: ‘This is the flag that I march under.’ Signori looks at his
trainers and says: ‘These are my lightning,’ then, when he kicks the
ball, ‘followed by thunder.’ The scene cuts to way up above the stadium,
and the ball is seen flying past, while the voiceover finishes: ‘This is
The ad, which was shot on a bright sunny day in a football stadium, ends
up looking as though it was shot on a grim Saturday at Wembley. In shot
1, where you can see the goal and the grandstand, the radiant blue
skyline was completely corrupted with clouds and dark shadows, which
were all added on Flame.
All the advertising hoardings behind the goal were taken out and
replaced with more shadows and clouds. In shot 2, the shadows and clouds
were put in around the player, and in shot 3, the ball was inserted so
that it looked as though it fell from a great height.
The glow around the ball and the lightning in the ad were also created
on Flame, and for the shot within the stadium the clouds were enhanced
and the ball was inserted. Flame also generated the lightning effect
around the word Reebok on the end-frame.
Although this appears straightforward on paper, in reality the technique
is complex. Hollis had to ensure that the movement of the clouds looked
natural, and to do this, he added a ‘tracker’. He did this by placing a
mark at a certain point in the original film. For example, in shot 1 he
placed it on the goalposts, and from that he worked out how the clouds
would move in relation to that point and ensured that his added effects
moved naturally across the stadium in relation to that mark.
Another love of Hollis’s is his work with the design team, Tomato. ‘The
stuff I do with Tomato I really enjoy because it gives me a loose brief.
I worked with them on some of the BBC Radio Scotland campaign, and
that’s the sort of thing I like doing, working from artwork and creating
shapes and images.’
Although he has made his name through special effects, Hollis tries to
play down Flame’s contribution. ‘We don’t boast that we use Flame.
People come to us and say, we want to do that or we want to do this, and
we do it. We can build an image, fix something or put something new in.
We don’t claim to make something look spectacular when it didn’t before.
We just give clients the chance to look at a film from another angle.’
Jon Hollis, 31, left West Bromwich College of Commerce and Technology in
1984, having done a year-long music-recording course. On his course, he
had a go at video editing and realised that he was better at that than
at playing the guitar. He landed a job at SVC as a tape operator, and
soon became an online editor. He left SVC in 1989, and joined the Mill
where he worked for five years until setting up Smoke and Mirrors last
year. He has used Flame on include ‘virtual pub’ for Carling Black
Label, Orange, a few films for the ICA, BBC Radio Scotland, Kiss FM and