How 'd They Do That Spot?

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No doubt you've seen the ongoing Blockbuster campaign, from Doner/Detroit, in which a rabbit and a guinea pig carry on like hyperactive kids in a pet shop window across from a video store. While the mammalian shenanigans have little or nothing to do with Blockbuster, they sure do provide some borrowed interest. Like, what the hell kind of animation is this? It looks so strangely real it has to be CG, but whoever saw CG animals look this good, especially in a commercial? And that's just the point. "It's the best fur I've seen," says Steve "Spaz" Williams of San Francisco's Complete Pandemonium, who directed the spots in what turned out to be a nine-month project. And Williams, a former ILM animator, knows whereof he speaks. "Each of those hairs is individually grown and, technically, they know about their surroundings so they collide with one another, they don't interpolate with one another. Many people in the business will be fooled, and that's the idea."

The secret was Tippett Studio, in Berkeley, Calif. - a major player in film effects for some 20 years, stretching all the way from Star Wars to Men in Black 2. Run by founder Phil Tippett and partners Jules Roman, executive producer, and Craig Hayes, creative director/visual effects supervisor, this is the company's commercials debut. Not a bad way to start. Originally, says Williams, "Doner was looking at the Henson puppet approach, then a Babe approach with mouth replacement. When we came in, I'd just seen some of the best fur ever at Tippett, on the heels of their Cats and Dogs project. We can definitely get the personality; we need the right look, which has to be realistic. I knew these guys could pull it off."

As for getting the personality, "matching Jim Belushi with the guinea pig, Ray, came off real fast," recalls Williams. "Carl took a long time to get to. We want through hundreds of voices, famous and infamous." And they ended up with none other than James Woods, taking his career to another level.

Speaking of which, "Anyone with technical knowledge knows CG is the only way to bring this off, but the fur is so good it takes it to another level," says Williams. "They have to have the mannerisms of the real animals, but with a human twist. But physically, I wanted them like the real animals. We can't do things like bend the jaw or lips. The less I can bend bone, the better. It's more of a challenge but it's more gratifying visually. To keep the eyes more or less like in nature, they have to be blackish. This makes it tricky to convey emotion. So we built an elaborate network of muscles around the eyes for eyebrow gestures and cheek gestures, especially in Ray, who does a lot of the yapping. If you do it too rubbery, it loses the real animal."

Another round of spots is planned and there's even been some talk of a feature film or a TV series. The work "is subtle, but it has broad appeal," says Williams. "It's not just for sarcastic college students. It's for kids all the way to older people."

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