Kids & Critters|
Shortcuts to Emotional Connection, Children & Animals
Present Challenges to Directors and Production Companies
While the American film and vaudeville comic W. C. Fields is rumored to have said "anyone who hates children and animals can't be all bad," he clearly wouldn't have found many friends in the ad industry. Since its earliest days, advertising has tapped the emotional connections we all have to kids and animals as a way to draw attention, melt hearts and register engagement.
Fast forward to the twitter generation and nothing has changed; adorable kids still rule TV shows like 'America's Funniest Videos,' and oddities like the Keyboard Cat register more YouTube hits than any man your man could smell like or do-it-yourself music video.
In examining the use of children and animals in commercials - or as we like to call them, Kids & Critters - SourceEcreative screened literally dozens of TV spots for a wide range of brands from production houses across the US and around the world. We also turned to a bevy of experts from our sponsor companies, all of whom have extensive credentials in the areas of youth marketing as well as in working with animals, both live and computer-generated. As you'll see, their CG critter business is running neck and neck with the use of live animals in TV spots, and in some viewpoints may eventually replace it entirely.
Our sponsor companies include Animal, the Pittsburgh, PA and Venice, CA-based production and visual effects shop best known for its ability to make just about any animal talk; Radar, the Chicago-based one-stop production company that's done extensive work with kids commercials via directors Don Hoeg and Danny J. Boyle, many of which integrate animation and visual effects; Three One O, the L.A.-based production company whose work ranges from broadcast promos for shows like "The X Factor," "American Idol" and "Dexter" to kids' TV spots for brands like Walmart and Hasbro; Rhythm + Hues, the L.A.-based visual effects company that's created photo-real animals for a wide range of TV commercial and feature film projects; Flirting Vision, the Auckland and Mumbai-based production company that's home to directors Benny Mallik and Rajiv Rajamani and EP Kunal Dhabuwala, which has shot numerous spots with infants and toddlers for the Asian market for brands such a Johnson & Johnson, Dumex and others; and Twist, the New York and Minneapolis-based production company run by President /Owner Jim Geib and EP Amyliz Pera, which includes Director/DP Rich Michell on its roster, who's worked with both children and animals on commercials for such national brands as 3M, Purina, Wendy's, General Mills and Target.
We'll start with the kids, then move to the critters. First, they're everywhere. TV shows, movies, commercials, even the intro video from Funny or Die (see "The Landlord") rely on performances from children. Advertising is no different. Three One O Partner and Director Norry Niven points out that one of the biggest TV spots of the year in the US - a major award winner everywhere from Cannes to AICP - not only was based on the outstanding performance of a child actor, but it did so without ever showing his face. (Can you name the spot? If you're thinking "Star Wars," you're close.)
But working with kids in ads faces its own set of restrictions. First off, in the US, there are creative limits on what you can and can't do in commercials aimed at kids. For example, only a third of the commercial can present the products in a way that's imagined, or as if in a child's fantasy; the remaining two thirds must show actual footage of the product, so as to present it as it actually is.
Dealing with these, in the US at least, is like dealing with a moving target, says Radar Partner and Director Don Hoeg, and as far as he's concerned it comes with the territory. "It's our job to find the best way to work within these guidelines and deliver the most creative product possible," he says. "Since we handle so much of this kind of work, we've become quite good within these structures without having to compromise the final result."
Niven agrees. "Anyone can understand why our society is so protective of the influence on children," he says. "What's really strange, though, is that it isn't regulated across the board. With cereal brands, for example, there really aren't any huge concerns, but if you're shooting toys the lawyers are practically on set."
Speaking of limitations, it's rare that spots aimed at kids are backed with major production budgets. Producers of kid-oriented commercials often find themselves having to make the most out of the budget they've got, which in many ways positions them well for working in longer-format web video for agencies, where budgets are similarly lean.
"There are a lot of mid-range budgets in the type of kids work we do, so perhaps new media budgets don't seem as scary to us as they might in another genre," says Twist's Pera, who's based in New York. "Furthermore, we have started to see an increase in new media spending as users are quantified in those various outlets and as clients and planners gain time and experience placing a value on them."
The Kids Conundrum
There are a lot of challenges to working with kids, and a big one is the unpredictable nature of what you'll get once the cameras start to roll. Everyone has their own approach to dealing with this.
At Radar, which is a one-stop production company that not only shoots and edits but also has full visual effects capabilities, they often utilize previz clips to show the kids how the spot is going to work and what it will look like when done. (For more on that, check out their feature story here).
"However, regardless of the age of the kids or the type of spot, the most important thing to strive for when working with kids is creating the right mood on the set," says Hoeg. "Children must feel safe and supported, in a relaxed and controlled environment. Only then will they have a great experience in which they can flourish."
For Three One O's Niven, what's also important is managing client expectations and managing time. "Dealing with how few real shoot hours we have with the smaller children is a real hurdle in some situations," he says. "I have little children of my own and I know how their focus is short-lived; they're experiencing a new world, so everything is a distraction. What I have to do is figure out the essence of the performance, then create an environment on set where our child walks straight into a situation in which he or she will be excited to participate. And the funny thing is, that's the way I think about the grown-up performances, too." (For more on Niven's work with kids and celebs, check out the Three One O feature here.)
Twist Director/DP Rich Michell is aware that kids can often lose interest and focus during the time it takes to set up shots, and he takes steps to minimize it. "Kids shouldn't feel the responsibility of the event as a job, so there isn't the weight of consequence that adults have in the same situation," he says. "There are assets which help with kids production in particular: for me, it's about preparedness, decisiveness, communication and atmosphere. With these in mind, things will roll as smoothly as the situation will allow."
How do these qualities come into play? "Preparedness means you work quickly, be well prepared with your key crew members," Michell says. "Decisiveness means know what you're looking for. If the other assets I've mentioned are in place, this should be easy. Communication means continually communicating with the agency and client , expressing your goals and expectations and making sure you're in agreement. And atmosphere means making the set fun and playful. Kids, like adults, pick up on the stress, and it will be reflected in their performance."
One way of dealing with this is the approach used at Flirting Vision, where the directors, Benny Mallik and Rajiv Rajamani, work as a team. An exceedingly informal company, its principals are known throughout Asia by their first names, says EP Kunal Dhabuwala, so we'll join in. Benny is in front of the camera, working directly with the cast, while Rajiv stays behind the camera, making sure they get the shots they need.
The two say that winning the trust of both the children and their families is one of the first things they need to do when working with either kids or infants (they do a lot of baby work). "We spent time with the families, getting to know them," says Benny. Adds Rajiv, "That effort to bond is really key." He notes that while on set, Benny is often so dialed-in to the child and his or her mood that she's almost in a trance. "She doesn't pay any attention to the camera," he remarks, "she stays totally focused on the actors."
Clicking With Kids
So what's the best way to establish rapport and get on a kids' wavelength? There are lots of secrets. Remember, just about everyone working on a kids commercial was at one point or another a kid themselves.
For example, Benny says it's about picking up the vibe, "like a dancer hearing a piece of music for the first time. One has to catch the rhythm and dance to the child's tune. And, of course, be a big manipulator!"
Or just be funny. Niven worked as a child magician at a Six Flags amusement park in Texas. "So I try to do a trick during callbacks or fittings, so that when they show up on set they look at me and get a big smile on their faces," he quips. "They know that we're going to have a fun day together, and at the end of the day I'll make them levitate or send them home with a cool present."
Niven also says he borrows techniques "from every great kid director out there. From Spielberg I borrow his trick of having a wrapped gift off camera, and unwrapping it during the shoot. From Bob Ebel I borrowed the technique of closing the set with fabric, creating hallways where the kids can't see crew or clients. And from my own children I've learned how getting down on the floor does so much to create an instant, mutual respect."
"Establishing rapport begins at callbacks," Hoeg agrees. "I try to narrow our choices quickly, so I can spend a bit of time with each child that we're truly considering. I find out about their interests and gauge their personalities. Next, we do our wardrobe fittings on the Radar stage, and while they're being fitted I have the chance to work with each child within our relaxed and fun environment. This helps me explore their range, while at the same time acclimating them to a production setting."
Michell says he tries to create scenarios where the kids' performance can appear to be a natural extension of their personalities. It helps that he can work with them up close. "Since I'm a Director/DP, I'm right behind the camera, which allows me to be comfortably nearby and feed them lines, if that's appropriate. Sometimes, kids will come up with great material. It's great if we have the flexibility to accommodate that."
Baby, It's You
Working with infants and very young children presents its own set of challenges, and producers, directors and EPs approach the process with a heightened degree of sensitivity.
"A baby or toddler will never do the same thing twice, so capturing a moment is crucial," says Kunal of Flirting Vision. "With the best will in the world, sometimes things just don't go to plan. And sometimes things happen that are unexpected and unscripted, and you have your 'magic moment'!"
As mentioned, the bonding process becomes even more important here. "And it's really bonding with the whole family," Benny adds. One has to spend longer hours observing the child, gauging its moods and its abilities and trying to connect emotionally. You have to remember that it's a rare privilege to be welcomed into their lives."
For example, on a recent job Flirting Vision was asked to film a scene in which a baby takes it first steps. "We could have shot with a baby who had just begun to walk, but decided not to do so," says Kunal. "Instead we identified a baby who was just about to walk, but could not do so yet. We were flexible about the timing of the shoot, so the baby could take his first steps on camera. As a result, we managed to capture that 'awww' moment on film."
Often, working with younger kids adds to the demands on casting. Radar's Hoeg recently shot a campaign requiring four kids, ages one to three. "Because of the level of dexterity needed, we looked at over 500 children in two cities," he says. "In the end we designated a 'hero cast,' along with multiple backup performers." Turns out that once they got on the set, several of the backup kids performed better than the originally-cast 'heroes.' "You just need to be flexible when working with small children," he says, "and always have a backup plan."
"Working with children under three is tricky," Three One O's Niven agrees. "You have to treat those shoots like you're shooting with cats, and I'm not kidding. You have to be respectful of their nap schedule, have a great baby wrangler and always be rolling. With the little ones I like to hide the cameras behind mirrors. Shooting with two cameras is great advice, too."
The folks at Flirting Vision provided us with some cultural insights into working with kids in the fast-growing Asian market, where conditions can be quite different than those found in North America or Europe. For example, they note, due to China's single child policy, a baby is typically fussed over by four doting grandparents. "With both parents working, it is the grandmother who plays a big part in raising the child. Hence it is important to win her confidence at pre-production workshops and the shoot," says Kunal.
He also notes that in several Asian cultures, such as in China and India, mothers who have just delivered are usually confined indoors for 40 days after childbirth. "One has to be sensitive to such customs and taboos when dealing with real mothers as talent," he says.
Talk to the Animals
Like Niven says, sometimes working with kids can feel like herding cats. Then again, when it comes to animals in commercials, sometimes you're really asked to herd cats. Fallon did it back in 2000 in a Super Bowl spot for EDS. These days, you have everything from the GEICO gecko in the US to the Andrex puppies in the UK to countless other talking or emoting animals in between.
Working with animals has gone through massive evolutions of late. First off, there generally appears to be less work being done with real animals, and more and more of it being done with computer-generated critters or real animals whose movements and actions have been manipulated in Flame.
Lots of factors influence this, most of them dealing with the issues of cost and control over the production process. There are other issues, too, some of which deal with concerns about animal welfare. This is particularly the case with the use of primates in the US, where organizations like PETA have lobbied advertisers to pledge not to use chimpanzees in their commercials.
Animal's Michael Killen, who is both a Director and a VFX Supervisor (in addition to being a partner), believes that overall there's a tremendous amount of concern for the welfare of the animals, both in terms of their trainers and the supervision of the animals on the set. "It's a very protected industry," he notes. "We have a strong respect for the animals we get to work with."
Animal specializes in using actual animal footage to make critters talk; their work on seminal talking animal campaigns for clients like the California Milk Advisory Board and Taco Bell is explained in detail in their profile article here.
The studio likes to give back to animal welfare organizations, thanks to the success it's had working with animals in the past. "Our goals are to be a voice for animals with the projects we start or have been involved with previously," says Killen. He cites an anti-dog fighting PSA the studio produced, and points out that they've held art auctions in their Venice, CA studio to benefit local animal shelters.
With CG driving the herd these days, how has its use in animal spots changed over the past few years?
"The technology has grown incredibly with certain animals, and not so much with others," Killen points out. "If realism is desired, dogs and cats in particular don't quite hold the close-up yet. We feel a live performance is still preferred." He also believes that how animals perform in CG can be an issue. "Motion capture for humans has become so realistic that we now accept it," he says "But capturing and modifying animals is not there yet."
So, are there any critters out there that can't be depicted in CGI?
Paul Babb, Executive Producer at the commercials division of L.A.-based visual effects studio Rhythm + Hues, says that some are easier than others. "It usually comes down to two things, and that's the ability to replicate fur and the ability to realistically recreate movement," he notes.
His studio has done more than its share of animals, both talking and otherwise, in both a range of commercials as well as features. Among the latter are the recent "Mr. Popper's Penguins," starring Jim Carrey, which came out earlier this year. R+H created photoreal CGI penguins for that film.
Success can depend on just how 'real' you're trying to be, says Animal's Killen. "CG animals that are stylized, like in movies such as "Ice Age" or "Open Season," seem to come across the best. We find that absolute natural depictions of animals tends to come off not as well, especially when inserted into live shots."
That said, working with computer-generated animals presents a range of advantages, as well as some disadvantages.
"You can make your CG animals do whatever you can dream up: cartwheels, high fives, etc.," says Killen. "The downside is that the physical performance of a CG animal always has a somewhat mechanical look. We feel that if you don't actually want the animal to move in a manner that's outside of its natural range of motion, you're better off shooting live action."
Babb agrees about the control issue, but has a different view of the downsides. "The major disadvantage is cost and the time it takes to properly develop and produce a photoreal CG animal," he says. "While CG may be the best way to go, there are often time and budget constraints on this in commercials."
In this instance, R+H has done Flame manipulations; it's how they had the singing wolf in a recent Jeep spot for Global Hue. "But with this technique, you can be somewhat limited by what the animal can actually do in terms of expression," says Babb. "And you don't want the animal doing something that's totally alien to what it can actually do, because that undercuts the effort to mimic reality. You want it to be cute, but you don't want to take it too far."
How important is the voice casting when it comes to talking animals? "As important as any other character," says Animal Partner and VFX Supervisor Jim Kreitzburg. "You can do your absolute best talking visual effects and put it against a badly chosen voiceover performance and it'll still fall flat. There's sometimes a tendency for the voiceover talent to go cartoony with the read. We find that a natural delivery, with a sense of comedic timing, is quite important."
As the GEICO ads in the US reveal, the list of available species for starring roles in commercials has gone beyond dogs and cats. What has this wider range of critters meant for the studios that produce this work?
Babb says it's not that big a challenge, noting that R+H is sitting on a veritable Noah's Ark of digital assets. "From all the different animals we've used in features we have an outstanding library of animals, plus the ability design anything from photo-real to cartoon characters," he says.
Talking animals, Babb adds, are not only challenging, they're fun. "They always entail a combination of techniques, and it's something we've done quite a bit of," going all the way back to 'Babe,'" the talking pig movie with visual effects from R+H that came out in 1995 and which earned the studio its first Academy Award.
Indeed, both he and Killen feel the time has come when a talking, photorealistic animal could take on the starring role in a live action TV show and not have to be a puppet. (Remember "Alf"?)
They cite the long list of talking spokescritters in ads as evidence that audiences (and producers) are ready for it. "When you think about it," says Killen, "the animal kingdom has so much reach that the possibilities are endless."
Chapter 1: Animal... Chapter 2: Radar... Chapter 3: Three One O... Chapter 4: showcase...