Halex GT, Holistic Marketing and the Future of Advertising

Originally published on IDesignYourEyes on 1/26/2010.

Halex GT robots in a cornfield

In the midst of a vast Midwestern corn field, a friendly yellow industrial robot is on the hunt. Searching between rows of tall, green stalks of healthy corn, the robot discovers its prey, a single weed — tiny and innocent, but if it spreads the entire crop is in danger. The robot strikes, ripping the offending plant from the ground with its steel fingers. The corn is safe once again.

There aren’t really industrial robots prowling the cornfields of America. This is a 30-second commercial spot for Halex GT, a weed-control herbicide produced for corn farmers by Switzerland’s Syngenta AG. The number of businesses that might use Halex is relatively small, compared to most commercial brands – but it’s a lucrative product, and Minneapolis-based creative agency Martin|Williams was tasked with reaching those consumers through a television spot and Internet advertising.

Culver City, California’s Zoic Studios created the spot, directed by co-founder Loni Peristere. But there’s more to the story. Zoic was able to use the original assets it created for the broadcast commercial to create web ads and interactive landing page components, providing the client with Internet content that was much higher in quality than that usually created for online, and at a considerable cost savings.

Zoic commercial creative director Leslie Ekker explains that from the outset the studio pitched the idea of a holistic approach: including the creation of interactive assets as part of the broadcast VFX pipeline. “It’s more and more the case lately when we’re doing commercials, we ask during the bidding, ‘are you interested in an online dimension to this work?’ And the word gets around the agency, and they realize, yes, we need to get these resources from the spot; we can build on this work, and expand on it without very much extra effort and expenditure.”

Creating the Commercial Spot

The Halex commercial (see it here) came to Zoic on a short schedule and with a tight budget. “This job was awarded on a Wednesday,” Ekker says, “and we shot the following Monday, in Florida — after the production company found a location; the agency determined which robot they wanted to use; we sourced and acquired a robotic end effector; designed and machined the actual fingers; and worked out a way to puppeteer it live on-screen for the shoot. All of this in a very few days.

“In fact, regarding the end effector, we acquired the machine Sunday morning, and over breakfast I designed the fingers. During the day I supervised the machining of the fingers at a custom machine shop, while simultaneously running out with the live-action producer and getting a compressor and the air hardware, tools and supplies necessary to create all the physical effects. By 8:30 that evening we had a set of fingers for the machine, fully motivated and ready to go in the morning.

“It’s seldom that we do things with practical effects, but because of my background – I was a model maker for 20 years — it was not very challenging. The schedule is what was challenging. And that end effector is now being used in trade shows by the client, attached to an actual robot, performing weed-pulling demonstrations, live at their promotional booth at agricultural shows.”

The robot was this character, an iconic image they wanted to carry through all of the Halex branding.

Despite the fantasy aspect of the commercial, the spot required a high degree of technical accuracy, as far as the depiction of the product. “We learned a lot about farming on this job,” Ekker says. “The reason we went to Florida was we needed to show a certain height of corn, because this chemical is used on plants of a certain age. Also the fields there are very neat, very clean.”

The commercial had to be very accurate in its depiction of the cornfield, the plants themselves and how they grew, because the farmers to whom the spot was targeted would notice any inaccuracies. “Apart from those limitations,” Ekker says, “the client was wide open to creative suggestions. In fact Loni [Peristere], the director, had pretty much free reign with the storytelling.”

The practical effects in the spot are the end-effector and several attached hoses, and the actual weed that is grabbed by the end-effector. Ekker acted as puppeteer for the practical effect, operating the end-effector from the end of a pipe with counterweights attached to a pulley. “They changed the species of weed after we shot it,” Ekker admits, “but it passes well enough.” Everything else in the spot – the yellow robots, the cornfield, the weed as it grows — is CG.

One of the creative challenges involved digitally reproducing a time-lapse effect, showing the CG corn moving in the breeze as the weather changed and the sun moved through the sky. “We developed some very effective ways to show the translucency of leaves,” Ekker explains, “since we’re seeing them primarily back-lit; and to show the kind of animation that people expect to see from time-lapse plant growth — that kind of nervous, random weaving action.

“The background plate was supposed to be time-lapse, but it was at a very specific angle. Rather than dedicate a digital video camera to this one shot all day, I took our digital still camera, with an intervalometer, and set it up in a 5-gallon bucket buried in a corn field adjacent to where we were shooting. I lined up a shot with a very wide-angle lens pointed up at the sky at an angle.

“I framed it in such a way that we could take those high-resolution frames, and move another frame inside of it with some added distortion to give it the look of a camera pan-and-tilt, so that we could have a feeling of craning down and tilting up as this weed grows in the foreground. The move was created in that larger plate, adding a certain amount of keystoning for lens distortion, and it felt very much like a 3D camera move in time lapse, which would have to be motion-controlled in a normal situation. Luckily, because it was such a macro shot, we could do it with a single frame and a single camera position.

“That proved to be quite successful; we got several hours of time-lapse out of the way, with very low impact on the production. I would just go out and occasionally monitor the camera, change the battery, and make sure everything was okay.”

The practical end effector designed by Les Ekker.The practical end effector designed by Les Ekker.

Creating the Interactive Experience

While Ekker and his team were shooting the spot, and designing and rendering the CG, Zoic Creative Director – Digital Strategy Jeff Suhy and his group coordinated the web banner and landing page campaigns in support of the Halex marketing campaign.

“Martin|Williams came to us to build on the development of the 30-second spot,” Suhy explains, “which involved creation of the online assets. We worked in partnership with Martin|Williams in creating some particularly interesting banners, and modeled the robot for those banners; and we created the landing page, an educational experience which conveyed the attributes of the Halex herbicide, how it’s beneficial and its advantages over the competitors.

“The robot was this character, an iconic image they wanted to carry through all of the Halex branding. We animated the robot doing various things — pulling weeds, knocking a tractor off the screen, and other things.

We’re not just envisioning effects… we’re talking about designing the architecture of a fully integrative experience.

“The pipeline here is at Zoic pretty good for this sort of thing, so there weren’t any real technical issues. Les [Ekker] and his team designed the actions, and we on the interactive side designed the experiential elements around that, and how they interacted with the navigation. It’s a pretty seamless experience and I think it worked out pretty well for the client.

“It was cost effective, because we already had the assets; we already had 90% of the heavy lifting done, to get those assets ready for the web.”

Ekker was impressed with the final products produced by Zoic’s interactive team. “We did these little mini-cuts of the spot, in frames that were 75×300 pixels, tall narrow slices of the image. We would just use the essential shots to tell the broad story, and do some close moves within those frames on the greater-sized hi-def shot frame; and we wound up with some very artistic, very effective little story moments that require very narrow bandwidth, so they’re easy to stream online. It proved to be a really clean, elegant way to reuse existing assets.

“We adapted those animations for the landing page, and created some very interesting little interactive demos, with mouse-overs, triggers and hold cycles at the end, so the robot wouldn’t just sit there idly. It would sort of look around and wait for what’s next. And we managed to get a lot of personality into the animation. It was a lot of fun. A very quick, very efficient project.”

Suhy says this kind of holistic marketing effort provides more than mere convenience for the client. “The techniques used to develop this character and to animate this asset would normally have been prohibitively expensive for such a niche marketing campaign. If it were not for the efficiencies of Zoic’s pipeline, this would be reserved only for large budget, big campaigns that could afford to invest the money.

“The real message here is that, even for something as niche as Halex, we can do something that’s really high-end CG.”

Holistic Marketing and the Future

Erik Press, Zoic executive producer, commercials, believes this kind of holistic marketing is the next step in the evolution of advertising. “It’s not just about broadcast anymore. Fewer and fewer eyes are remaining on what we all have known as standard broadcast television, and now they’re moving to the Internet, and that’s what the future is. Part of the conversation at the front of any job is, what are the plans for integrated content? Clients have been really warming to that.”

As Zoic has expanded from its roots as a VFX house, with its own editorial, design and interactive departments, it has been able to offer services that are more encompassing and can meet a wider variety of client needs. “I think people are waking up to the understanding, as we put out who we are at Zoic, that we are problem solvers and educators because of the depth of our resources. There’s a little spark going off in people minds now, and Halex was a great example. There was an ‘aha!’ moment for them, where they said ‘oh, you guys can do that?’

“We want to look at projects strategically. There’s a financial advantage to approaching projects at the outset, knowing the different kinds of media platforms we’ll be creating assets for. It’s a new paradigm in commercial production. We’re not just envisioning effects for a 30-second spot, it’s much bigger than that. We’re talking about designing the architecture of a fully integrative experience. That’s new advertising at its core – the experience.

“I think for us as a company, our goal is to be at the leading edge of that kind of creativity and technology. Zoic is poised so well to have a great comprehensive, strategic view of what it’s going to take to get there.”

More info: Syngenta Halex GT page; Martin|Williams web site.

3D TV, New Technology and the Future of Media

Originally published on IDesignYourEyes on 1/15/2010.

This is a moment of unparalleled change in the media world, part of a process of barely-controlled destruction and reconstruction that began over a decade ago. Business models and revenue streams are collapsing, and media creators are turning to the latest technologies to create new opportunities and new businesses. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, technology firms touted a slate of new 3D TVs as a solution to video piracy, and a way to lure fickle consumers back away from free Internet content. But are such promises tenable?

It all started in the music industry, when Napster, the original digital music sharing service, was launched in June of 1999. With music freed from the baryonic prison of vinyl, polyester tape and polycarbonate plastic, consumers could copy, edit, sample, decode and redistribute it and other copyrighted content at will.

Rights holders had always controlled their intangible product by controlling the tangible media – records, cassette tapes and CDs, as well as radio frequencies, for music; television channels and chunky videotapes for video; multiple 40-pound reels of motion picture film for movies; floppy disks and CDs for software; plus dead-tree books and photographs. Suddenly, their control of intellectual property was just gone, vaporized in a mist of ones and zeroes. On one side, many music executives saw digital media as a tremendous new opportunity for both creative expression and for business. Zoic’s Jeff Suhy, a former record company executive, was quoted in the May 2000 Village Voice: “I love that the world is quite obviously changing before our eyes and no one really knows how it’s going to play out!”

Suddenly, control of intellectual property was gone, vaporized in a mist of ones and zeroes.

On the other hand, some rights holders saw any perceived change to their traditional revenue stream as a threat to be destroyed at all costs. They dug in their heels and fought the future – engendering numerous disasters, from Circuit City’s Digital Video Express, which sold consumers DVD movies that “expired” after two days, to the RIAA’s litigious pogrom against file-sharing college kids and soccer moms. And money spent to develop various copy-protection and DRM schemes was almost always wasted, as consumers found ways to defeat protection, or avoided protected products altogether.

But some in the business world saw opportunities, not enemies. When Steve Jobs first laid eyes on the Xerox Alto in the late 1970s, with its GUI user interface and mouse controller, he saw the future of computing. Decades later, Jobs understood that the original Napster, driven out of business by the record companies, was the template for media distribution in the new millennium. With Apple’s iTunes software and online store, Jobs went from computer mogul to media mogul, taking advantage of record companies’ desperation to gain control of digital music, and appointing to himself the power to single-handedly set prices for online entertainment. But iTunes by itself would not have been enough to compete with free MP3s – it was the convenience, portability, style, incredible ease of use, sound quality and price point of the iPod that gave Apple control first of the personal music player market, and then of legitimate online music and video distribution.

Now the media industry has reached another watershed moment of change, as file-sharing endangers the revenue models of film and television creators, as well as publishers and journalists. But media moguls have absorbed the lessons of the music industry’s tribulations in the last decade, and there is a new humility in the face of change — a willingness, even an eagerness, to adapt to the new digital world, rather than to deny it. In the last few years, movie and television creators have moved their product online, to free video sites like Hulu, which will soon experiment with for-pay models; and are offering high-definition, appointment-free content on demand to home televisions through cable companies and Netflix.

There is a new humility in the face of change — an eagerness to adapt to the new digital world.

In 2010, how else are media producers taking control of the future of their own industry? What are they doing to reimagine their businesses, and insure that the media world of 2020 is profitable and stable?

Some of the answers were on display at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Publishers are betting that consumers will gladly pay to read their content on a new breed of flat, portable, easy-to-read e-book products. Just as the iPod saved music, publishers hope that Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook will save literature and journalism, at least until true e-paper is developed.

The greatest buzz at CES was elicited by a whole crop of new HDTVs with 3D capabilities. The motion picture industry and the movie theater chains are increasingly turning to 3D and IMAX as ways to lure audiences into theaters, and the current success of James Cameron’s Avatar demonstrates that even in a serious global recession, moviegoers are willing to pay extra for a high-tech movie experience they can’t get at home.

The new 3D TVs, including the Panasonic TC-PVT25 series that won the Best of CES award this year, promise to provide an in-home 3D experience for only a few hundred dollars more than ordinary HDTVs. In addition, satellite television provider DirectTV announced at CES that it has teamed with Panasonic to create three HD 3D channels, to launch this spring. Working with media partners including NBC Universal and Fox Sports, DirectTV will offer a pay-per-view channel, an on-demand channel, and a free sampler channel, all in 24-hour 3D and compatible with the current generation of sets.

Like the original HD offerings in the mid-1990s, which focused on sports events and video from space missions, the new 3D channels will offer existing 3D movies, 3D upgrades of traditional 2D movies, and sports. Unlike with HDTV however, there is no indication the government will legislate widespread adoption of 3D TV. And there are issues.

3D will likely establish its foothold in the living room is not with sports or movies, but with video games.

The greatest usability issue is the need for viewers to wear glasses. While there are experimental technologies that work without glasses, today if you want to experience high-quality 3D television images you need to wear pricey shutter glasses. Unlike the polarized glasses patrons wear at theaters, shutter glasses respond to signals from the TV, directing alternating frames to alternating eyes. The glasses are expensive – only Panasonic is promising to provide a pair with your TV purchase, and additional pairs will run around $50. At least one manufacturer is already offering lighter, more fashionable, more expensive replacement glasses.

And wearing special glasses while watching TV at home is not conducive to the average person’s lifestyle. As Microsoft exec Aaron Greenberg told GameSpy at CES, “when I play games or watch TV, I’ve got my phone, I’ve got all kinds of things going on… I get up, I get down, I’m looking outside at the weather… I’m not in a dark theater, wearing glasses, staring at a screen.” You cannot walk around comfortably wearing modern shutter glasses, and just happen to be wearing them when you want to watch TV. Until 3D TVs don’t require glasses, consumers are going to have trouble integrating 3D television watching into their lives.

The new 3D TVs also suffer from varying levels of picture clarity and a pronounced flicker, although these issues are expected to disappear as the technology improves. More importantly, 3D media demand changes in how movies and television and produced. Right now, only computer animated films are expressly produced with the needs of 3D in mind, producing stunningly realistic depth-of-field and fine gradations of perceived depth. Film and video produced according to the traditional rules of 2D creates flat, paper-thin figures moving in a 3D environment that can appear shallow or truncated. Sports coverage, intended to be a killer app for 3D TV, particularly suffers from these issues, and 3D broadcasts of sporting events may require drastic changes to the technology used on the field.

Filmmakers are still learning how to deal with changing depth of focus. In the real world, the viewer chooses unconsciously where to focus their eyes; but in a 3D production this decision is made for the viewer. A plane of focus that appears to constantly shift can give audiences headaches and eye strain. A largely different language of cinema is being developed, to produce content in which 3D is a core component rather than a faddish trinket.

And finally, CNN Tech reports that between four and 10 percent of consumers suffer from something called “stereo blindness,” a sometimes treatable condition that makes it impossible to experience 3D movies or television. This is hardly a deal-killer, but one wonders how the spread of stereo music technology would have been affected if 10% of listeners had not been able to appreciate the difference.

Honestly, how 3D will likely establish its foothold in the living room is not with sports or movies, but with video games. Video gamers are already accustomed to buying expensive high-tech peripherals. They are used to content designed for one person, one screen. And when designed properly, 3D does not just add visual excitement to a game, but actually affects and enhances the gameplay itself.

So will 3D television lure viewers away from legitimate free Internet video, and from illegally pirated video files? It is too soon to tell. But there is a key difference to this strategy, as compared to some of the previously unsuccessful responses to piracy and the Internet. As with Steve Jobs and the iPod, 3D TV producers are offering consumers something new and exciting that, once the issues are worked out, will enhance their news and entertainment experiences. Rather than treating customers like the enemy, they are approaching customers as customers. And iTunes proves that people are more than willing to pay for their media, as long as they can experience a clear benefit.

More info: “Keeping Up With the Napsters” on Village Voice; “Why I can’t watch 3D TV” on CNN Tech; “DirectTV to launch the first 3D HDTV Channel” on Device; “Microsoft Exec Not Sold on 3D Home Gaming” on GameSpy; “3D TV? Too Soon Now, but One Day You Will Want It” on Singularity Hub; “I’m Sold On 3D TVs…And I Kind of Hate Myself For It” on Gizmodo.

A Long Strange Trip: Jeff Suhy’s Journey from Artists & Repertoire to Twitter & Facebook – Part 1

Originally published on IDesignYourEyes on 12/29/09.

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In 2009 Jeff Suhy joined Zoic Studios, the visual effects house in Culver City, California. How the former A&R executive found himself working alongside the creators of spaceships for Battlestar Galactica and vicious monsters for Fringe is not only the story of one man’s career, but of the trajectory of the entire entertainment industry over the past three decades.

In the first part of this two part interview, Suhy describes the path of his career and how he came to Zoic as Creative Director – Digital Strategy. In the second part, he discusses the current state of the record industry, and what the catastrophic changes there portent for the entertainment industry as a whole.

So, you started out at the 128th best university in the country [Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College].

Is that what it is? [Peals of laughter.] That’s awesome! Out of how many, 150?

I was a track athlete in high school and I was recruited by a number of schools. My only real criterion was that I go to a warm place, and the warmest place that recruited me was LSU. So I went to LSU on a track scholarship.

Where did you grow up?

Chicago area, suburbs of Chicago.

So what was it like going to the South?

It was great. I was born in Tallahassee. So my family is from the South, and we somehow found ourselves in Chicago, because my Dad was transferred a lot via work. … My goal in life was to escape the Midwest; and I really wanted to come west, but I really didn’t have any reasonable scholarship offers out of the West. So I went south into the heart of the beast. And I stayed there for five years.

I ran the college radio station there – I was music director, I should say. I ran it from the industry perspective, as opposed to the actual operation of the station. And I worked at a record store. We bought a bunch of imports, and I started to learn about all these independent and import artists, and started programming that stuff on the radio. We started working with some of the labels to bring the bands through Baton Rouge.

I discovered you could have a record store radio station, and you could promote music and actually turn an artist that no one had ever heard of into something that people actually wanted to see. These bands would come touring through the US, and would have a date in Atlanta, then they’d go to New Orleans, then they’d go to Houston, and maybe they would have a stopover in Baton Rouge for the night. What they’d discover was that the shows in Baton Rouge were bigger than the shows in the major markets… because we were promoting the artists on campus. We ended up creating a successful scene there.

This was the mid-80s, right?

The mid-80s’ yeah – ‘84 to ‘88 would be the time frame. Then I started talking to SST Records, they wanted to bring me out to L.A. I’ll tell you the whole story, even though I know zero of this story should end up on [the blog post.]

So I moved out to L.A. thinking I was gonna work for SST Records, and when I got here they were bankrupt. I had nowhere to work and nowhere to live. I had a couple of hundred bucks in my pocket. And my Dad said “you’re an idiot.” My uncle gave me a place to stay on the floor of his apartment. I was resigned to survive L.A., even though I was having a really hard time.

I took a job at Larry Flynt Publications, as marketing coordinator, because I found it in the newspaper the day I got here and realized I didn’t have a job. [Suhy describes his job censoring pornographic material for ads, with NSFW details.] That was the most glamorous part of that job.

My feeling was, where is the creativity going? I wanted to follow the creativity.

As you might imagine, I was pretty diligent while taking the money from that job — I think $18,500 a year was my salary — taking that money and surviving until I could get myself into the music business, which is why I came out here.

The heavens opened, and I ascended to A&M Records in a miraculous scenario that changed my life. I stayed there ten years, and became vice president of A&R there, during that 10 year period.

And then A&M was acquired by Universal, and they fired everybody including me, even though I was so great. I had about a year-and-a-half on my contract to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, which was fortuitous, because I didn’t have to work. So I spent a lot of time on the Internet. I was really into technology and computers; I had an Apple II Plus when I was in high school in ‘82-‘83. So I was always trying to figure out technology, write programs, and hack things.

Then Napster came along when I was on my hiatus, and I went a week without sleep; I was obsessed. And at the end of that week I realized … I was going in to music & technology.

So I found a couple of guys…, and collectively we started a company that was ultimately called Nine Systems. … We worked with all the entertainment companies, and we built a software platform over a period of seven or eight years; and that was ultimately acquired by Akamai… which is a pretty major tech company, in December 2006. I stayed there for two years, and then escaped the MIT-PhD-math world and came back into the entertainment business, which is where I am now at Zoic. To combine my vast production and content experience with my now vast technology experience, and find ways to help media companies solve the riddle of the digital media era.

Can you talk about what you’re doing right now?

Right now we’re working with ad agencies on everything from banner ads, to other basic web implementations for brands. We’re working with some online brands in the redesign of their web sites and rebranding efforts. We are working with game companies to develop new ways to market their video games to consumers. It’s all little pieces of a big puzzle.

We’re developing original IP right now, which is a product called Media OS. We’re very optimistic that’s something a lot of our clients are going to find very useful to manage and build online media experiences.

But why Zoic?

Good question. As I was thinking about what I wanted to do next, I met [Zoic Studios founders] Loni [Peristere and] Chris [Jones] and [CFO] Tim [McBride], and realized there is a kindred spirit here. There is a support structure here to have that entrepreneurial, “invent-something-new” environment, combined with a stable, thriving creative organization that is very client-focused and very flexible. It isn’t all rigid and CFO-driven — it’s very creative-driven. It has … a start-up kind of vibe, but it’s well-established. Zoic is trying to leverage “visual evolution” into the new age of digital media, and I saw that was a great fit for me, I could help that happen.

Nobody wanted to hear anything about technology; hopefully if you just close your eyes and litigate against it, it will go away, you know?

I spent many years of my life at A&M being very artist- and very creative-driven; creating media, understanding pop culture, and understanding how people respond to media, how to market media; everything that was very media-oriented and entertainment-oriented. And I love that environment, everything being driven from a creative perspective. And I saw it dying in the late 90s, as corporate methodology was coming into a business that was once very naïve and gut-instinct-oriented. If you didn’t have a hit with an artist, it was an artist-development environment, where if everyone in the company believed in the artist, you would keep trying to foster their success, even though they wouldn’t have necessarily have any immediate returns on their first record. I just love that environment.

The record business became sort of a “home-run-or-forget-it,” a hit business. And the economics changed; the value of the art changed; it became much more of a commodity, much more commercialized. It became much less appealing. My feeling was, where is the creativity going? I wanted to follow the creativity. I wanted to use my experience in developing artists…

I had a certain skill set, but I had never had a chance, because of the myopic nature of the record business, to be able to use my technology background and interest in technology, because [the industry] was very phobic. Nobody wanted to hear anything about it; hopefully if you just close your eyes and litigate against it, it will go away, you know? I was doing all kinds of interesting stuff in technology, and it was not a receptive environment to that type of thing.

I also got tired of going to clubs, and I got more interested in sitting in front of my computer. I knew there had to be a future with music online and content online, and I wanted to have a deeper understanding of that, to the root. So I dove from production A&R into software, and let my geek side come out. That was very rewarding, and I enjoy that business and enjoy software and Internet content and digital media, all that stuff. I love what’s happening right now, it’s a very exciting and dynamic time.

I see a lot of companies and people struggling with how to make sense of it, and companies trying to market their artists, or market their media, their brand –I know where these people come from because I was there. It’s tough to wrap your head around these new models. I enjoy combing the new sensibility and contemporary thinking in digital media with an analog state of mind, which used to be and still is in some degree the prevalent way of thinking in the media business.

The best way to do that was to start a company, and develop this software that nobody had and which became really valuable, and was purchased for $160 million by Akamai. I did time at Akamai, which was fascinating, because then I got really deep into the technology. But I also discovered I don’t really want to go there, that’s not really where it’s interesting for me, it’s too much; and I needed to find a place that had an understanding of both [creativity and technology], and that’s why I’m at Zoic. It’s a company that embraces technology but has a traditional understanding of and adoration of creativity. Understanding those things is the future, and I’m in the future now, that’s why I’m here.

Where’s your flying car?

It’s outside. (Laughs.)

Read Part 2.