Test commercials have come a long way from the days when animation stands were used to shoot storyboards and the resulting quick-turnaround animatics were presented to focus groups to determine which concepts would best grab viewers’ attention as full-fledged spots.
Today, test commercials are created in an array of sophisticated styles and executions, although multiple concepts still duke it out to see which will emerge with a shot at full-up production.
About a decade ago, New York City-based Animated Storyboards (www.animatedstoryboards.com) introduced Flash animation to the testing process. “We were one of the first to start animating the animatics, which traditionally had been put together by editors,” says Dan Pack, the company’s director of global marketing and a former producer at Grey Advertising. “Until then, animatics could be jarring and confusing with many dissolves and transitions — it was hard to visualize the content in some parts. By having all the illustrations and animations done in Flash, you could better focus on telling the story.”
Since that time CEO Ezra Krausz has added a “broad range of options” to Animated Storyboards’ offerings, providing a full-service approach to test spots from casting to audio post. In-house directors are on board from the beginning of the process. “A lot of clients value the fact that we’re able to create an entire commercial within the span of two weeks,” says Pack. Especially since test spots have “become so much more sophisticated and closer and closer to the end product,” adds Krausz.
He believes that “brands are testing more than they ever have — it’s all about not throwing your money away. Large brands can compare successful campaigns with test spots and see if there’s a correlation.”
In the last two years test commercials featuring 3D cinematics have comprised the lion’s share of the company’s work. Animated Storyboards has five motion-capture systems in its offices around the world; data collected on mocap stages is applied to fully 3D-rigged characters.
“Working in 3D eliminates all the traditional restrictions of animatics: You can change characters and camera angles” as the testing process evolves, says Pack. Krausz concurs. “It’s a relatively easy medium to revise compared to hand-animated 3D,” he says.
He also notes that with offices in New York, Bangkok, Tel Aviv, London and Sao Paolo, Animated Storyboards can “follow the sun to feed the agency world, where everything needs to be done yesterday.” Local directors and producers helm a test campaign but animators around the world share mocap files stored on a Mira server to create the 3D cinematics. “We can pass work to any studio with no downtime,” Pack emphasizes. The only drawback: “We haven’t slept in 10 years,” he quips. The company has handled test spots globally for such major brands as Anheuser-Busch, Colgate and Kellogg.
Animated Storyboards has “developed a lot of proprietary automation tools for character animation, liquid simulation, rendering, lighting,” says Pack. “Our office in Tel Aviv has proven itself to be very good at developing all kinds of tools an animation company needs.”
About 10 percent of Animated Storyboards’ business is creating spots for online or broadcast, according to Krausz. “The online world needs more and more commercials done for lower budgets, so that brings them to companies like ours for final work that’s fully animated, has a lot of life to it, is good looking and conveys the message. We’re also bringing test spots closer to broadcast: If people aren’t crossing that line now, they will be soon.”
The company has spawned a division called Demolition, which takes 3D demo sequences developed for test spots to the next level for broadcast. “People often think test spots are disposable productions, but Demolition creates assets in 3D that don’t have to be recreated for broadcast or other final platforms,” says Pack.
THE NAPOLEON GROUP
New York City’s venerable The Napoleon Group (www.napny.com) has seen test spots “change exponentially” in terms of sophistication and styles of execution, says VP/creative director Ken Kresge, a former editor at McCann-Erickson. “Given the state of the economy, people are taking testing a lot more seriously than they used to. Years ago juniors and assistants worked on test spots at agencies; now you see more people at a senior level working on them” as testing plays an increasingly important role in the decisions major brands make about their advertising dollars.
The Napoleon Group partners with agencies in the early stages of an ad campaign to work though creative ideas. “Some come with boards and scripts while others have only a scribble of an idea,” says Kresge. “It’s up to us to make sure the concept is cultivated from the beginning, that we choose the right style for the spot. To do that, you have to be flexible and offer a diverse talent base. It’s about being good storytellers, being able to problem solve before getting into production, and getting good test scores for our clients.”
He notes that longtime agency clients value partnering with Napoleon. “They come to us not only because we do good work but also because we work together with them on a project. We don’t just take the order for a test spot. They expect us to bring our thoughts to the table and put our stamp on things.”
The company creates test spots for a large slice of major New York City agencies, including Publicis, McCann-Erickson, Saatchi & Saatchi, Kaplan Thayler, DDB and BBDO. Some have sister agencies abroad with testing needs, and The Napoleon Group has extended its networked services to agencies worldwide.
When it comes to choosing a style, Napoleon’s 3D cinematics are proving to be the latest popular product. Yet Napoleon still considers its traditional approaches — photomatics, live shoots and 2D animatics — the best choice for some test commercials. “We represent a diverse range of digital and traditional artists that collaborate in and out of house to produce a wide range of styles,” Kresge says.
While Napoleon has always relied on its in-house 3D department to enhance its test work with 3D demos and VFX, Kresge says the company made a calculated decision when it came time to build its unique 3D cinematic style. “We wanted to make sure we could transition our clients smoothly to the new style. It was good to wait a year or two [after companies began offering 3D cinematics] and see where the style was going.” Kresge says that Napoleon didn’t want an off-the-shelf or “canned” 3D look and worked with a core team of experts to develop their characters’ appeal.
The Napoleon Group taps Autodesk Maya for 3D modeling and animation with Adobe After Effects — and now The Foundry’s Nuke — for compositing. Autodesk Smoke and a Flame are also on hand if needed. 2D animatics are crafted with the Adobe suite of products with Apple’s Final Cut Pro, Autodesk Smoke or Adobe Premiere used for editorial, and third-party plug-ins handling lipsyncing, dynamics and simulation.
Audio for test spots shouldn’t be overlooked. “It plays a major role; it’s very detailed,” Kresge says. “The level of quality is no different from a broadcast spot, especially if the commercial has lipsync or is music- and cut-driven. The audio elements will often go to air.” The Napoleon Group boasts two audio rooms, each manned by its own engineer.
PIPE DREAMS 3D
Pipe Dreams 3D (www.pipedreams3d.com) was formed in London in 2004 by Adam Attew who was doing 3D animation for games and television. Attew was aware of the role of animatics in advertising: His brother had worked on them years earlier and “they hadn’t changed that much” since. He thought about “bringing the techniques of games, TV and film to the animatics world,” so he pitched agencies on a 3D approach to a tried-and-true process.
Although Attew was “selling something new,” some agencies immediately saw the value of 3D cinematics, notably FCB/London, which used the technique for the S.C. Johnson brand. Word spread about Pipe Dreams 3D and its high-scoring test spots. “We kept breaking test results with the research firms,” says Attew. “FCB/Chicago noticed the scores and wondered what we were doing differently.”
So Pipe Dreams 3D exported 3D cinematics to the Windy City, sending artists back and forth to work. By September 2008 the company was generating enough business in Chicago to justify opening Pipe Dreams 3D there.
Today, the offices do test spots for Mars confectionery and pet foods as well as S.C. Johnson and Unilever brands and Anheuser-Busch in the US. Their reach is global, with agency clients based in the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Singapore.
Chicago-based production manager Rick Livingston reports that when some US agencies were reluctant to try 3D cinematics Pipe Dreams devised a 2D “Toons” style of animatics that quickly caught on with them.
“Some clients want highly-polished animatics that go into research, get high scores and give them a path to follow for the full-up spot,” says Attew, describing those who opt for 3D cinematics. “Others want a looser creative style which, after research, still gives them the freedom to play with things. That’s where Toons-style animatics or (photography-based) photomatics come in. Our services fit all those approaches.”
Last year Pipe Dreams 3D began creating full-up commercials for clients. “They asked, ‘If we gave you more time and money, could you produce this for TV?’” Attew recalls. “It has worked quite well, and is a good value for clients.” The company crafted CG and live-action combo spots (Vacation and One Step) for S.C. Johnson’s Scrubbing Bubbles, which aired in the US and Canada, and their Toilet Duck product, which was broadcast in Germany, France, Eastern Europe, Australia and New Zealand. They’re currently delivering a fully-3D finished commercial for Unilever, which will air in Indonesia and Vietnam.
The London and Chicago studios use motion capture to collect data for 3D character animation and Autodesk 3DS Max and the Adobe suite for modeling, animation and compositing; Adobe Premiere meets in-house editorial needs. The studios can share files and collaborate on spots or work separately.
“The use of motion capture is a huge benefit to both studios as it cuts down the animation timeline while also raising the quality bar on the final product,” notes Livingston. “What used to take weeks for animation now only takes days.”
Attew sees test spots in continual evolution. “You’ll see the expensive techniques of feature films used more and more,” he predicts. “We’re looking at facial animation, for example. You’ll see a lot more tricks from the film world available to us.”
THE SPOT FARM
Business at New Paltz, NY’s The Spot Farm (www.thespotfarm.com) is divided into test spots and Web content. The company has a two-decade track record of creating test commercials and works with agencies in New York City, New Jersey, Chicago and Boston, which are pleasantly surprised by the low overhead and cost savings offered by The Spot Farm’s upstate location.
Test spots at The Spot Farm are almost exclusively live-action-based with 3D, including demo segments, integrated.
“The Canon 5D has been a godsend to the industry,” says Stephen Laughlin, who is partnered with wife Denise Edkins in The Spot Farm; he serves as the company’s commercial director and has hundreds of spots to his credit. “The HDSLRs give you a broadcast-quality product while saving you money.”
The Spot Farm has its own greenscreen studio, although Laughlin shoots in Manhattan about half the time. The company casts its spots as well, mostly with SAG members. Teams of artists use Adobe Photoshop and After Effects, Apple’s Final Cut suite of products, and Autodesk 3DS Max and Maya for 2D and 3D animation, compositing and editing. The Spot Farm frequently partners with Peter Darmi of nearby Cloudcap Audio Post.
By shooting live-action test spots Laughlin captures the essence of a full-up spot in ways that may elude other animatics techniques. “A lot of agencies want the real emotion of real actors, and that’s pretty hard to beat unless you have a movie budget for 3D animation,” he says. “Our spots look like what you’ll see on TV — they’re not cartoons. Some of our clients tell us that our spots have produced the highest test scores they’ve ever had. We’ve seen full-up versions that are nearly identical to the live-action test spots we’ve done.”
The way Laughlin shoots, live-action-based spots offer just as much flexibility for agency and client revisions as other animatic styles. “As a director I always insist on shooting stuff that’s not on the board — whatever I think might come in handy: different camera angles, a number of different takes of each scene so you have choices of acting and facial expressions.”
One of the biggest selling points for live-action test spots is the fact that they serve as “dress rehearsals” for full-up spots, he notes. “We can work out a lot of problems prior to final production, even things you wouldn’t think of,” such as blocking and shooting certain moves. “We can figure out the dynamics of the spot in a much less expensive environment,” Laughlin says.
The Spot Farm’s turnkey process typically takes about two weeks from receiving the storyboard to finishing the live-action test spot. Edkins, who acts as producer, says the company is adept at problem solving in post, making changes to clothing, hair color and backgrounds as spots evolve and crafting cost-effective VFX and demos.
In fact, some of The Spot Farm’s 3D product demos have been extracted from test spots for use in full-up spots; sometimes the company is hired to create demos as part of broadcast commercials, too.
With The Spot Farm’s live action-based test spots achieving such a high level of quality and finishing it may not be too long before the company’s commercials go directly to broadcast. “We feel we’re getting close to air,” says Edkins. “And we’d love that!”
Storyboard artist Scott Ownbey launched Storyboards Online in Los Angeles in 1999, and when it became one of the first to offer a fully-digital approach to animatics not just digital coloring, Animatic Media (www.animaticmedia) was born. A few years later Ownbey started exploring 3D for animatics but it was such a new concept “and the render times were insane, especially for revisions,” so he abandoned the idea for a while.
But by 2008 “everything had changed,” he recalls. Agency cutbacks and smaller budgets for animatics were coupled with higher expectations than ever. “There was a lot more pressure on test spots,” he says, “to make them more realistic, better animated yet cheaper.”
Today, Animatic Media is headquartered in Fort Lauderdale and has a sales office in London and a production office for 2D animatics and storyboards in Manila. Storyboards Online remains in Burbank; both companies come under the umbrella of Interactive Arts Services.
Animatic Media offers an array of approaches for test spots, from traditional 2D animatics to 3D cinematics and live action. “Styles are very client-specific,” says Ownbey, who notes that New York City agencies tend to be big on 3D while those in the UK also like hand-drawn styles. “You need to offer all the options. If you only have one, you’re really limiting yourself.”
For a loose 2D-style, the company offers the “eight-hour animatic,” which combines drawn elements, computerized coloring, editing and Adobe’s After Effects or Flash animation. A major computer-maker recently took the traditional approach and requested hand-drawn animatics for a campaign about the future of technology. “It’s ironic that the computer spots used traditional techniques while packaged goods advertisers often want state-of-the-art animatics,” says Ownbey.
For 3D cinematics Animatic Media uses Autodesk Maya and After Effects, and has a library of pre-rigged human models to choose from on its www.previz3D.com Website. The company also has a motion capture system in-house, with two body capture suits for complex moves.
Animatic Media’s open-plan office and adjacent greenscreen studio facilitate live shoots for test spots; Ownbey also goes on location to shoot, manning Canon EOS 5D and 7D HDSLR cameras.
Ownbey notes that, “Clients once had the luxury of visiting the previs vendor’s studio and working with the editor, but ever since the great recession they have to juggle four jobs.
“We have found that by providing clients the ability to watch streaming video in realtime from our office we can give them the interaction they want while they are at home or in their office. We had one client in London monitor an entire production, approving wardrobe, make-up and scene-by-scene performances from their office and home while we streamed the production from our studio.” Animatic Media has also streamed mocap sessions.
Ownbey sees live streaming becoming “a commonplace methodology, especially as bandwidth speeds get faster and faster — you will see not only previs productions completed this way but also full-up broadcast productions with the client and agency monitoring from several different remote locations. This feature gives the client and agency creatives a front seat to direct from anywhere with an Internet connection.”
The approach saves time, maximizes efficiency and also offers reduced costs for clients, he says. “They were once confined to studios in their geographic area and now have more options to work with new companies.”
In addition, Animatic Media’s offices in four locations “allow a 24/7 production pipeline,” he points out. “The end of our day on the East Coast is the beginning of the day in our office in Manila.”
Animatic Media has had 2D and 3D demo portions of test spots extracted and used in full-up commercials. It also won a competition to create a dynamic 2D-animated broadcast spot for Mountain Dew, which aired as part of the soft drink’s Dewmocracy campaign in December 2010.
“It was nice to be recognized for our talent with a broadcast spot,” says Ownbey. “People were really impressed — they didn’t know all we could do. I think we’ll be doing more final commercials and corporate work direct for clients.”