Imagine a diesel engine flying through the sky ... Honda. Imagine a chair talking to a price tag ... Ikea. Imagine a three-legged man winning the World Cup for England ... Coca-Cola. Imagine Frank Zappa, John Lennon and Abba in one commercial for a newspaper ... The Observer. Imagine a bunch of sperm knocking at the door of a real ovary ... Wanadoo
Animation has been on our screens for years. If it takes Honda to win the Grand Prix at Cannes to open people's eyes to the possibilities of using animation in advertising, then so be it.
I asked a few directors why they think animation is becoming more popular and why it appears to have only just begun to capture the imagination of the media.
First, I approached Antoine Bardou-Jacquet, a man who would appreciate what it's like to be free of the realities of "regular" film-making. After all, it took him 606 takes to perfect Honda "cog". "You are limitless," he says.
Geoffroy de Crecy, famed for the music videos he directed for his house- producing brother Etienne, and one of France's finest comic-strip artists, agrees. "First and foremost, animation frees you," he asserts.
Then I asked Loic and Aurelien, known for their Virgin Mobile idents and excellent short film AP2000. "What's important is to touch people and surprise them. If they get to dream, to laugh or cry, to ask questions," they say. "Virtual images allow us to create unimaginable places, incredible people, stories and amazing worlds through which these messages can be transmitted."
"Yes, that is exactly it," Michael Wright, an expert in stop frame from years working with Aardman Animations, enthuses. "Animation is so appealing because you can simply do things that you could not conceive of doing in live action."
Matthias Hoene, the man behind the lens for "doggie style" for Club 18-30 and "hide" for Hyundai, goes further. "In animation, you are God," he insists. "You can give life to inanimate objects. By manipulating the stills or making that wire frame walk about, you have created a life. Animation reveals the soul of everyday objects and it is the animator that imbues this life and fills it with personality."
"We are working with a blank page and there is a conscious choice for every moment," de Crecy says, "which is exciting because it is closer to painting and craftsmanship than traditional film-making," Hoene adds.
"Viewers respond to seeing something that is hand-crafted. Often, it's more charming to watch a crude bit of animation than it is to watch something overproduced and slick, because you feel the humanity and character of the person who created it. The best animators can preserve that charm even if they work with a big team to make their vision come to life."
I then asked them why advertisers are getting so excited about animation.
Michael Gracey and Pete Cummins, who directed the latest M&S Christmas ad, quickly returned with: "Because we are at war. You're engaged in a struggle with a dozen other commercial spots over any given media buying period for the attention of a jaded audience. Animation allows you to go into that struggle armed with talking pigs, flying car engines and giant two-legged spider monsters that eat the sun. You try getting anyone to notice your new car without that lot.
"The modern zeitgeist is digital and kinetic, high-end feature films, computer games and digital entertainment merge together into a noisy video wallpaper that forms the backdrop to our culture. You need to stand out and the unrelenting success of Disney and Warner Brothers in the old days and the superstar status of Aardman and Pixar movies today demonstrates that people's affection for animation remains a generation-to-generation constant. People are prepared to give it a few minutes of their time rather than just flicking the channel, as they might on another anonymous, slickly shot soap ad."
Wright adds: "Animated characters can get away with things that a live character would never be allowed to. If a character really needs to shove a screwdriver up his nose, then he's got a better chance of getting away with it if he's animated." Saatchi & Saatchi's ad for the NSPCC used animation to drive a point that would never have been so effective in live action.
Alex and Martin, who recently won a Grammy for their video for U2's Vertigo, say: "The thing about animation is that it is funny, direct and communicative on many levels. Animated characters have no age, nor race, nor social constraints, so appeal to a very wide audience. They have a certain liberty of speech and a globality that means they get away with murder."
"This is ideal for the client," Wright observes, "because an animated spokesperson can get away with talking about product benefits and keep it amusing and interesting, whereas a live spokesperson can seem too much of a salesperson."
But what about the fact that the animation can become synonymous with the product or can become a logo?
Bardou-Jacquet says: "There is more to it than just the characters. For me, it's the style and look of the piece that's the important issue. Honda has been incredibly clever with animation. Rather than staying with one tried-and-tested 'look', it has used the tools of animation to find specific styles that communicate its message."
But Matt Tucker, who heads our digital media department, says: "The style underlines the message, but what is important is the amount of press by association the client can get through a great little animated character. An association with a film star hangs in the balance of that person's popularity ... in animation, this is never an issue. A character has no secret life, they can come to embody the ethos of the client and can be imbued with the essence of the brand without posing any threat from their personal lives."
I might add that new technology has allowed for a whole new aspect of animation that is accessible to aspiring directors. Moreover, a lot of animation lives in the digital domain, so speaks the language of new forms of media - the internet, mobile phones, virals etc - so fits perfectly with it.
There is huge untapped scope for below-the-line advertising - in Flash, games and so on. They link perfectly with animated above-the-line-ads and that radiates directly from the TV commercial. Just look at the Crazy Frog - proof that animation works on mobile phones. The consumer comes to subconsciously thank the advertiser for creating entertainment. The challenge is to use this wider scope of communication in brand advertising.
- Isabella Parish is the head of animation at Partizan Lab.