THE CRAFT REPORT: Production - Technique versus idea

Using the latest special effects in an ad can give a campaign an identity of innovation or desperation. James Hamilton investigates the difference.

Cast your mind back three years to a newspaper story about an odd, almost alien-looking girl with almond eyes set in a huge forehead making arcane warnings about the dangers of progress by proxy. Did you think she was for real? TBWA's "mental wealth" PlayStation ad made the front pages with papers eager to track down someone they assumed was a freak.

It was, of course, a tour-de-force special effects job courtesy of The Mill, the facility charged with making Fi-Fi look weird, but believable - the agency wanted viewers to question her existence. It worked, and arguably the facility had more influence over the look of the ad than the director Chris Cunningham.

Whether effects make commercials better has always been subject to debate.

In February 1997, the creative directors Peter Souter, John Hegarty, Tony Cox, Tim Delaney and Paul Weinberger created an ad that ran in Campaign to warn of the danger of being over-relient on techniques (see right).

But nowadays, many concede that the types of effects being used in ads are more spectacular and, hence, more noticeable than they have been in the past.

Like much moral decay, the root cause for this is cinema and television, with the big trick now being computer-generated imagery (CGI). Effects such as realistic CGI animation eat up enormous research and development budgets and take months to hone to perfection, yet only feature films can afford that time and expense. But once a facility has created a photo-real 3D dinosaur, such as Framestore CFC, and has retained the rights to the creature, then it is free to use them again and again.

Three years ago a seat of Maya or Softimage - the software most commonly used by 3D animators working in film and television - would set clients back close to £1,000 per day. It's nothing near that price now. Software costs have tumbled and computers have grown more powerful by the day.

Until recently, the tricky task has been realistically compositing CGI with live action. Again that's getting easier, with new software that can work out how the camera moved on the day the live action was shot, giving the VFX artist tracking information, which allows them to place a CG object naturally. Five years ago audiences would be able to tell when a CG effects shot was about to appear as the camera went from a loving pan to a jarringly obvious locked-off shot. These days not even handheld action or Steadicam pose a real problem for facilities.

Special effects and techniques have always filtered down from feature films. Morphing began with Terminator 2 and reached its logical conclusion in a Butlin's commercial nine years later.

CGI has trickled down from features and long-form television series. Gladiator gave us a big, vapid commercial for BT; Jurassic Park, via Walking With Dinosaurs, has bequeathed us "Vulcanicity" for Volvic mineral water. Advertising is waking up to the benefits of using the kinds of 3D animation that were once the sole preserve of the blockbuster.

However, it is unlikely that history will look back on Gerard de Thame's flying pig campaign, for the Swiss bank Zurich, as the high-tide mark of special effects and CGI in a commercial. Instead, it is a classic case, if ever there was one, of a piece of work being less than the sum of its constituent parts.

Not because it's impossible to suspend disbelief at the sight of pigs flying - they're beautifully modelled, rendered and composited with the live action - but because it's an ad based on the flimsiest of premises.

A bank that thinks about its customers? Pigs will fly first. It's all too depressingly easy to imagine the meeting when they came up with that one.

At a time when agency creatives are more worried about jobs than copy, it's perhaps only natural that people are writing safe and putting their edgy, creative ideas on the back burner until clients are in a more receptive mood. So with clever concepts thin on the ground, what better time to spice up a limp idea with a liberal spray of computer-generated effects.

And it's not just banking that's getting the digital spruce up. The current campaign for Sprite features a CG goblin and not much else in the way of an idea. It looks great, and once again it's beautifully rendered, this time by Glassworks, but it requires a leap of faith to convert that into sales of soft drinks. It's not really an ad to create a thirst in an audience.

While there are commercials that will always use effects to jazz up a jaded idea, there are also unique applications which bend the rules of advertising. Jonathan Glazer's "Odyssey" for Levi's may have taken Framestore CFC five months to complete, but it stands as a testament to what 3D can achieve when someone has the vision and the influence to push a technique to its limits, almost beyond what's been done on the big screen.

Daniel Kleinman, who recently finished a pastiche for Lilt of Glazer's denim epic, says: "A good ad is an ad which has got an idea, and you fit the technique to the idea. There's no point having fantastic special effects if the script is meant to be funny and it doesn't get a laugh. You think, 'oh, that's a bit crap'."

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