CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/ANIMATION - When advertisers go back to the drawing board - Animation is increasing in popularity as a medium for advertisers

HHCL & Partners' recent Pot Noodle campaign claims to introduce a new technique in animation. And heavily made-up people wandering around a set, clad in red or blue costumes with jet-black sprayed hair and clothes outlined in pen sounds unusual enough to validate such a boast.

HHCL & Partners' recent Pot Noodle campaign claims to introduce a new technique in animation. And heavily made-up people wandering around a set, clad in red or blue costumes with jet-black sprayed hair and clothes outlined in pen sounds unusual enough to validate such a boast.

Using a live action director, HHCL's technique involved shooting the films and then animating the moving images to give a real feel to the commercials. The agency then took still photos of the scenery illustrated in the ads and imported them on to a computer to digitally build up the set. 'It gave us greater control,' HHCL's art director Mike Oughton says. 'We wanted to present the idea in a different way.'

Animation has consistently been employed in advertising to create standout and convey a brand in a different light to its competitors. In 1972, BMP DDB's creative director John Webster introduced the world to a cool polar bear for Schweppes' Cresta that was widely viewed as pioneering the use of the medium.

Animation's capacity for creating instantly memorable work has proved a powerful advertising tool. In 1980, TBWA produced a quirky stop-frame animation commercial for Lego that swept the boards at awards ceremonies.

In it, Lego bricks were transformed into a series of monsters and missile-eating machines as two collections of blocks vied for supremacy. Further innovation came with Gold Greenlees Trott's acclaimed 'ello Tosh' Toshiba spot in 1984. The ad's blueprint man was credited with making the electronics company famous, helping increase sales by 45 per cent.

The success of certain animators has arguably increased their attraction to advertisers and prompted greater experimentation in commercials. In 1990, Aardman Animations' director Nick Park based a campaign for the Electricity Board on his short film Creature Comforts, which had already won an Oscar. In the ads, animated modeling-clay animals promoted the use of electricity in the home. Making consumers warm to a utility company in such a way was similarly groundbreaking.

And it's not only film that provides a fertile borrowing ground for art directors. Vodafone used a technique pioneered by the French music video director Antoine Bardou Jacquet in BMP's campaign which showed actual words illustrating what they described. The idea, which originally appeared in Jacquet's 'the child', also popped up in PPP Healthcare's 1997 animated 'x-ray' spot. The music industry's role in the animation story doesn't end there. Mother's Jim Thornton cites the U2 Pop Mart tour as spawning the idea of the 'escape' spot for NatWest which he worked on during his time at TBWA. 'The music community is more interested in animation than the ad industry,' Thornton says, pointing to the influence of MTV's idents on taking the medium both forward and into a more widespread arena.

The landscape of animation has continued to grow more sophisticated since, and the advantages of using it are plentiful. 'The big plus is that there are a million different styles of animation. Animation is completely liberating because you don't have the restrictions of the real world,' Thornton says.

Dave Droga, the executive creative director of Saatchi & Saatchi, agrees.

'Animation lets you get away with situations you wouldn't be able to achieve if you shot it in real life. You particularly get a personality out of caricatures that you wouldn't be able to get out of an actor,' he says.

And it's also possible to get precise attention to detail. 'The nuances Nick Park could get out of those bits of clay were brilliant,' Oughton says.

And animation gives autonomy. 'You can create a property that is your own invention,' Webster, now the executive creative director at BMP, says.

'The animation for the product can't be mistaken for any other product.'

Webster's own invention of a scratchy pecking bird to represent Compaq's search engine is a fine indication of his point. Widely cited as an inspired animated campaign of recent years, it achieved instant standout without the need for expensive film stars. 'The pecking bird icon was brilliant by way of being engaging. And there was no multimillion-pound campaign needed to create such a charming idea,' Droga says.

Not only is a drawing cheap and effective, it's also impeccably co-operative and well-behaved. An animated character can run concurrently through all media, and remain totally at the control of its maker. 'It can't be splashed through the papers and discovered with a rent boy,' Webster says.

HHCL's latest contribution to the animation archives is a signal that possibilities could yet be stretched further, as the growth of technology makes the medium yet more accessible. Animation has historically involved a lot of people in a large studio set-up. Now the sophistication of Soft Image coupled with lower cost computer systems means the market is changing once again. 'A lot of the innovation over the past two years has been in digital animation created entirely in a digital environment,' Chris O'Reilly, an executive producer at Nexus Films Animation, agrees.

And greater accessibility serves to push costs down yet further. 'Previously you'd have to have been Dreamworks to afford the gear,' O'Reilly says, pointing out that the high cost of animated feature films has resulted in ads playing a crucial role in pioneering new techniques. In this way, cinema-goers could one day be as grateful for Pot Noodle spots as the Electricity Board was for Wallace and Gromit.

However, there are those who believe animation is a gimmick that is vastly over-hyped. And, indeed, if something can be filmed using live action, why animate it?

Andrew Cracknell, the executive creative director of Bates UK, is particularly sceptical. 'Because you can do anything in animation, there's nothing remarkable to it,' he says. Cracknell also sees the role of advertising as being reactionary, rather than proactive in the animation arena. 'With the might of our budgets, we amplify what's already there,' he says. 'Seldom do we innovate.'

However, Cracknell says animation's saving grace comes with a good narrative, citing Toy Story as an example of animation developing ahead of other technologies. And Walt Disney's famous visual extravaganza Fantasia, created more than 60 years ago, is still regarded as the most enduring example of animation in film. 'It's still breathtakingly wonderful because of the idea behind it,' Cracknell says.

Animation is showing no sign of abating. And although costs will continue to impede many, it's up to the animation industry to find ways of telling stories while breaking new ground and ensuring content does not give way to style.