The Insider's Guide to Production: When to animate - Sponsored by Hibbert Ralph

Animation adds a special something to many campaigns, and if it can be funny, then great. But when should you animate?

Always. Well, nearly. I will accept there are exceptions: commercials for perfume, hair products or lingerie tend not to benefit much from an animator's touch; and David Beckham and Nicole Kidman seem to have the sex-appeal thing nailed, without our help. But other than that - yup, always.

I'm over-generalising, of course, but there are two main reasons for including animation in a budget: to be funny and to be brilliant. In Los Angeles, people want to work in animation. This is largely because they want to "do funny", to be associated with funny, help create funny, all with the hope that a bit of funny brushes off on them.

One of our directors once tentatively suggested to a Hollywood scriptwriter that a tiny part of his script should be dropped because, although it was funny, it was irrelevant. The writer's eyes bulged in disbelief as he stuttered: "Huh? B-b-but you never cut funny!" In London, people want to work in animation to be technically brilliant, to push software to its limits and develop more effective techniques.

Animation is the perfect tool for practicality and imagination; on a basic level, children love it, no matter what. Demo sequences are an obvious choice. It's great for mobile media when the message has to be clear on mini screens; for simplicity, when there is too much to put across in real time; for the depiction of characters without social or racial labels; for following through into an illustrative print campaign; when it's too difficult to shoot live; and for creating a character to associate with a brand - after all, he/she/it never ages, never behaves badly in public and never insults the brand.

The timing of action within animation means much more can be put across than is possible in live action, as it can all be cheated. The Boots Health Club "full bag" commercial establishes that a woman reads a sign in a pharmacy inviting her to join the Boots Health Club. The pharmacist explains and offers her a form to fill in, which she does. He tells her that she can now get two for one on all vitamins, and suddenly her bags are overflowing with products. She's so overjoyed that she inappropriately hugs the pharmacist. Try doing all that in live action in 15 seconds, including the pack shot.

And unless specifically designed so, an animated character has no class, race, age or sometimes even sex. This means he/she/it is not identified with any social group, which engages a far wider audience with the character and, consequently, the product. This isn't as mercenary as it sounds. Because characters generally aren't created specifically to appeal to all. It's just the way it is. Animation characters are all about personality; they are portrayed as accident-prone, staid, pompous, gleeful, foolhardy, etc, without age even being a question. We accept them on personality alone, whoever we are.

But the undeniable and most obvious reason to animate is simply that the only limit is imagination. Anything can be done. And even better, some of the elements of the hard sell that highlight the difference between advertising and film-making become less noticeable. Take Mr T from the Strepsils campaign: if he talks to camera, pats his back pocket to imply he's saved money, smiles at the effect of the product or even dances with glee at it, it's all endearing. Show the same in live action and there's a heavy risk of "cheese". Mr T has one eye floating outside his head, cartoon body proportions and no apparent clothes and so it's much harder to perceive him cynically.

So that's practicality and personality, but brilliance is much harder to put your finger on. I still don't know all the reasons why Darren Walsh and Dougal Wilson's Beck's "four steps" is so charming, but it's one of those rare spots I want to watch and watch. It isn't laugh-out-loud funny but the direction is brilliant, the movement is fantastic and it was clearly one of those magic moments - take a totally weird idea, run with it, put it in the right pair of hands and strike gold.

And in London, technical brilliance is far from rare. Feature films are rarely either live action or animation; they are more commonly both, seamlessly integrated. The line between VFX and animation was blurred a long time ago as post expenditure quietly morphed into production expenditure. This is now the norm and it enables more fantastic stories to be told. The talent in VFX in London means we now have to weigh up the difference in price, for example, between a live shoot with animals and wranglers, or creating the same in post. These days only one of those options is a gamble.

But also, animate to be funny. For the Boots campaign, the creative director's brief was basically just "Make it funny"; to an animator, there is no better remit. The British public love funny characters, live-action or animated.

Why the curve of one line may be funnier than another; why one standing pose is funnier than another and how to determine the exact angle and speed of a look to camera to make it its funniest, are all things a director of funny animation just knows and understands. Nothing is as important as comic timing. Pierre Coffin's Pat and Stanley doing The Lion Sleeps Tonight has the most perfect comic timing and facial expression; it ticks the funny box a million times over, and covers brilliance with its subtleties and nuances (watch the nostrils and ears). This is the kind of work that shows us it's all about personality and performance.

On a personal level, I have made choices about where I work based on funny. I decided I want to be working with animators and directors who know how to make it funny. I wanted to be in a studio where we review the line tests and laugh. Finding opportunities to be funny in a hard-sell ad isn't always easy, but so long as every opportunity possible is being taken to add humour, just for the sake of being funny, I'm in the right place.

So, brief animators with character descriptions and type of humour. Then knock out ideas and visual gags with the director, as you would script-write a sketch show. Animation can solve a lot of problems, but it's the extra touches that can be added which don't use up extra screen time, don't detract from the message and can, in the right hands, make it both funny and brilliant.


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