Originally published on IDesignYourEyes on 1/26/2010.
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.
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.”