Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Recently, I visited my friend Marc Antoine, who is a very talented French videographer.   I showed me his latest love – a professional level camera, that (among other things) can slow motion.  More on Marc later. That camera got me thinking about special effects in TV commercials.

I do a lot of TV commercial work, not to mention PR videos for all kinds of products. I get to see the best and the worst.   I’m an idea man -- and that extends to things like special effects, which define content.
However,  I am not responsible for rendering those ideas  -- that is up to the TV commercial company and the ad agency.  I am intensely irritated to see my ideas spoiled by poor execution, which happens quite often.
The irony is that I have a better background in perceptual psychology and videography than most “experts” here in Japan, whose skill sets are derivative or narrowly defined.

An issue in Japan is that few people in ad agencies and TVCM companies have studied advertising.  Few reallly  understand what actually grabs attention.  Critical thinking is short supply.   Most aspiring “professionals” here learn from a senpai, who learned from his senpai. They may read a book or two – if it’s in translation and “trendy” – but they have no deep understanding of almost anything.   This is a culture of amateurs and imitators.  People don't think "outside the box" -- but almost always IN the box -- a box with high walls and a top to keep out the light.

Ad agencies and TV commercial companies can create various effects on demand – but they don’t really know how those effects work – or when to use them.  High schools in North America  offer courses in graphic and video design and teach “why” and “how”, their students can do a lot better.
TV commercials are short.   That means you need perfect integration of visual effects, sound and music to convey a finely honed message – available in just a few scenes.   They are also hugely expense to make a broadcast.

Take a look at this:

Never has Harrison Ford looked older and less like his movie characters.  Remember Star Wars.     He used to be an action hero and here he is playing action games – which I guess suggests a connection.  What is the message here?   Is it Old Guys in Assisted Care can play video games?   Buy a game for Gramps, right!

Keep in mind that celebrities is very expensive.  But that does not deter Japanese companies from hiring over the hill celebrities,  such as Ford or Arnold, or even second tier names such as Tommy Lee Jones.    This is presumably because the guys making the decisions are OLD!   They loved Ford and Arnold when they were young – thirty years ago.

But today they are appealing to the youth market who are focusing on a new generation or emerging celebrities.

The new generation of action heroes?   Of course all the Marvell and DC Comics guys.  They are expensive too.  But may have contractual agreements that prevent them from sullying their image advertising games or sports drinks in Japan.

However, there are other talents, who actually have a cult following among young people:
  • Cheaper
  • Cool
  • Have (in the case of Scott Adkins) impressive skills
Choosing the right talent is not easy.   Clients usually just think Name Value rather than appropriateness.   Ford has Name Value , for example – but he is not the right person for a video game aimed at young people.  Celebrities have to be cast – for match the character represented in the video.   It is not difficult to get an off-the-shelf, semi-retired celebrity.  It is far harder to do talent search and casting.  For this you need a company like mine, with a special skill set.

Similar issues arise with location search and choice.      Many Japanese companies use location shooting – just as they use celebrities -- as a substitute for creativity, inflating budgets and wasting money.  Very often they often shoot in the wrong location, often going abroad for what is really generic footage, that could be shot anywhere of replaced with CGI – while ignoring fundamentals – like the selling points of the product.
Memo to everyone:  A LOCATION IS A CHARACTER!   You cast it!

Here’s how  BMW does it….

The location is the Bonneville Flats, famous for speed tests.  It is visually unique –white, flat, a wonderful canvas for what BMW wants to do in this commercial, “the Bullet”.

The BMW is shot out of a huge gun, so we understand that this vehicle is fast – a performer,  if not a record breaker.

At the end we get slow motion shots in beautiful color.  Breaking the  Apple.   Is that Apple computer?  Then the three colored water filled bags.  Color contrast.  Impact.  Indelible images.  Slow motion emphasizes speed while drawing attention to the vehicle’s dynamics.

To understand an effect like slow motion, you have to understand how your brain works.   Ever have an accident? And afterwards, you “play back” what happened not as it happened but in something approaching slow motion, the sequence structured by emotion.   In daily life, we see things in slow motion – as I said, structured by emotion—or sometimes in fast Our minds adjust the “frames” automatically.  In a TV commercial, slow motion or fast motion, zoom in and zoom out,   flashbacks and flash-forward do the opposite – they structure the viewer’s emotion, for (in the best cases) an indelible image.  They also allow time for the mind to create positive associations.

Techniques such as slow motion (and fast motion) aren’t  easy to do.  You really need some background in perceptual psychology to make them work.    That said, such things are   a lot less expensive than hiring Harrison Ford or shooting in downtown New York!  You just have to find the right guy or guys to do it.
Basic rules:
  • Don’t hire semi-retired celebrities from yesteryear.
  • Hire the up and comers.
  • Use Faux Locations
  • Don’t use locations with backgrounds you can find anywhere – cities and city roads, in particular. Why are about half of Hollywood productions shot in Vancouver Canada?  Because all modern cities look a like!    Vancouver has lots of modern buildings and a lot of natural settings right in the city like Stanley Park! And it is half the cost of shooting in LA or NY.
  • Why was the Last Samurai shot in New Zealand? Becuase it passes for 19th Century Japan better than modern Japan does and ( Important) its cheap.     Jackson is a Kiwi but he shot Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit in NZ because of its wide range of locations – and, yes, as a Kiwi, he knew it was cheap.
  • If you use a genuine location, make sure the landmarks are main characters – as in the BMW commercial.
  • Paris?   The Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe have to be main characters.  Italy?  The Coloseum maybe.  But the rule is that if you can substitute CGI, they are not characters – just backdrops.
Special Effects
  • Slow motion and fast motion
  • Zoom
  • Flashback / Flashforward
  • Coloration
  • Macrophotography
  • CGI
All of these things depend on core concept of the commercial, the theme.  To get it all done economically invest in somebody good. Never, ever hire someone who cannot explain the psychology and cultural impact of something!

You need a writer (like me) to define the concept in terms of what you want it to do – and investigate the memetic options.   And you need a talented videographic director to implement that concept.   Someboy like Marc Antoine.

We don’t come cheap.  But cheaper than Harrison Ford.