A blitz of super commercials

TV: Super Bowl advertising is a high-tech art form unto itself. Witness the new spot pitting Michael Jordan at 23 against MJ at 39.

January 24, 2003|By Andrew Ratner | Andrew Ratner,SUN STAFF

One of the most accomplished directors of television commercials ever, Joe Pytka would rarely seem at a loss for how to make one.

He has created thousands of TV ads, from Pepsi and McDonald's spots to the famed "This Is Your Brain on Drugs" series. His portfolio includes more than 30 Super Bowl commercials and the 1996 Warner Bros. cartoon movie Space Jam. His fee is $15,000 a day.

But when presented last spring with a concept for a Gatorade commercial depicting Michael Jordan playing basketball against a younger version of himself - to air during Super Bowl XXXVII on Sunday - Pytka was uncertain he could pull it off.

"It was almost like an impossible project. The idea was so good, but I didn't know how to do it convincingly," said Pytka, in a telephone interview from his home near Los Angeles. "I contacted places all over the world."

He found his answer up the block.

A short walk from his studio near "Muscle Beach" in Venice, Calif., Pytka visited Digital Domain, an effects studio founded by Titanic director James Cameron. Digital showed Pytka a computer animation technique that it used to insert actor Vin Diesel in stunts for the action film, XXX.

"I saw the Vin Diesel stuff, and it completely changed my mind. You can take another human being and re-create him," Pytka said. His commercial of Jordan at age 23 playing Jordan at 39 will be shown on ABC during the first quarter of the National Football League title game between the Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

His work is the latest example of how technology has quietly transformed the making of television commercials - especially the big-budget creations shown during the Super Bowl.

"Technology has blown open the doors in terms of television commercials for the Super Bowl because the budgets are so enormous," said Andy Dumaine, partner and creative director of the Campbell Group Inc., a Baltimore advertising agency. "The line between reality and fantasy is getting thinner by the day. In four years, you won't be able to tell the difference between a real actor and a virtual one."

Time is money

The NFL's annual championship has become the Academy Awards for the advertising industry. About one in 10 viewers say they watch the event solely for the ads, according to surveys done for Eisner Communications Inc., a Baltimore ad agency.

For this year's game, 30 seconds of national airtime cost an estimated $2.1 million. Production expenses equal that amount in some cases.

"Every year, the stakes seem to get higher and higher, and what was acceptable last year is now passe," said Johnnie Semerad, creative director of the QuietMan visual effects firm in New York. His work includes an award-winning Super Bowl commercial for Pepsi in 1996 that featured a computer-animated fish.

Tremendous gains in computing power have "democratized" the industry during the past decade. Software developed by companies such as Softimage Co. and Discreet, both of Canada, have enabled small shops to produce effects that only the biggest could once afford. Also, high-speed Internet communications have shaved time: Some Super Bowl ads now are completed and transmitted the day before the game.

As for the new Jordan commercial, the professionals who made it and others who have seen it consider it another breakthrough.

Jon Flannery and Geoff Edwards, creative directors for a Chicago agency called Element 79 Partners, last spring concocted a photo montage of Jordan facing a younger version of himself as the genesis for an ad for Gatorade. PepsiCo Inc. acquired the brand with Quaker Oats for $13.4 billion in 2001.

The agency and the beverage maker liked the idea - "Shakespearean," someone called it - but were uncertain how to execute it.

`Cyberscanning'

One director, who didn't win the job, suggested splicing old footage with current film of Jordan. But Pytka, who used animation effects to mingle Jordan with cartoon characters in Space Jam, said such an approach would look stale and unconvincing.

Nor could Jordan be made up as himself 16 years younger because he is heavier now. Also, applying prosthetic makeup could take up to eight hours a day, much more time than the director would have with the star.

But when Pytka visited Digital Domain in May to see its work for XXX, he instantly believed he'd found his time machine.

In August, Digital Domain carted equipment to Chicago to "acquire data" on Jordan. As he sat on a stool, a revolving three-dimensional camera "cyberscanned" him. He was then digitally photographed hundreds of times.

Then came the critical part, Pytka thought. Jordan played two hours of basketball for three straight days against Kevin Daley, a semi-pro player discovered in a casting audition. Daley's 6-foot-6 frame and agility reminded the ad makers of a younger Jordan. (Make-up artists, however, had to apply hair to Daley, who is bald like the present-day Jordan.)

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