How'd They do That Spot?

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What will advertising look like 50 years from now? Three Ring Circus faced that conundrum when Steven Spielberg approached the Los Angeles motion design house in 1999 to help create the media-dense environment for the new sci-fi thriller Minority Report, starring Tom Cruise, set in 2054. Joining Spielberg's production designer Alex McDowell, as well as his team of MIT futurists, Three Ring created a slew of futuristic ads that appear in the film both as background elements and as crucial vehicles in the movie's plot.

The shop created more than two dozen ads for both imagined and authentic advertisers, the latter including Pepsi, Reebok, Guinness and American Express - the result of unusual product placement deals with Twentieth Century Fox. Tron-like athletes zip along in biorhythmically adaptable running suits for Reebok; mythical desert warriors are seen alongside what appear to be Lexus travel pods; and an angelic Britney Spears heir floats in a cola-hued liquid universe, surrounded by red, white and blue butterflies for Pepsi. Although quite stunning and futuristic in vibe, the spots themselves were created using the very today technology of live action and CG blending techniques.

"Steven and Alex were both very concerned that what we were making was future reality, not future fantasy, so everything had to be grounded in potential real technology," explains Jeff Boortz, the project's creative director and former Three Ring Circus president, now at Concrete Pictures. The most interesting challenge for the artists was dealing with how the ads would actually play out within the projected media configurations of 2054. Spielberg's crew divined that in the future, ads will be seen primarily as moving billboards that are triggered into motion by what may seem to be insignificant individual details, like a shirt fiber or even bits of last night's dinner. A scary thought, considering also that "in Spielberg's vision of the future, every surface could have moving imagery - the sides of buildings, your clothing, taxis, trains, buses," says Anne White, former executive producer at Three Ring, now at TAG, who oversaw the project with Boortz. That ubiquitous setup posed a serious set of obstacles for Boortz and his team, who until now had been cozy working within TV's typical 3x4 aspect ratio. "This was like doing a storyboard but you don't know what size or shape the TV is going to be," Boortz points out. Tackling the issue involved linearly storyboarding the spots and then creating planar versions of them as "placeholders." Three Ring then presented the flat versions to Spielberg and McDowell to get an idea of where, and how, they would figure into several bluescreens that were placed into various scenes. Afterwards, Three Ring artists then reconfigured the moving images appropriately to surfaces like the curved forms of Guinness glasses or even the interior of a taxi cab. Santa Monica post house Asylum then composited the newly sculpted visuals into the final film, with Three Ring supervising the process. "Creating the future with today's technology was a challenge," Boortz notes. "It was almost like doing the same project four times, but it was new every time."

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