Target's Mascot mania

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While the animation feats in the spot are remarkable, that "They're Coming" ever got to production is a miracle. The :30, for Super Target stores, via Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, New York, features the intermingling of many beloved ad icons, who would ordinarily never be caught dead rubbing elbows in a million years. But with some super clout, companies like General Mills, Kellogg's and Pillsbury all signed off on it.

Once the negotiators had done their job, London animation house Passion Pictures and director Albert Hughes of Tate & Partners, Los Angeles, would have an enormous and complex animation job to finish in 12 weeks. At times, they would be working with more than a dozen 2-D and CG characters on the screen simultaneously. The style guide "Bibles" for most of these characters are phone book thick and have to be followed closely. But for Randy Cohen, KB&P director of broadcast productions, not too closely. "It's the subtle things that bring this spot to life, and Passion was amazing," he says "I believe the U.S. animation companies would have been more true to the style guides, which is just what we didn't want. We went with a London company partially because the animators hadn't seen many of these characters before."

"They're Coming" begins inside a typical commercial jetliner. Everything appears to be normal but for the fact that Tony the Tiger is closing the overhead compartment. A flight attendant pushes by him and offers a bag of peanuts to a seated Mr. Peanut. A profoundly unsettled look supplants his irrepressible smile. On a country road many miles away, a pickup kicks dust into the "face" of a hitchhiking Hamburger Helper hand. And at a bus stop miles from there, the Keebler Elves check their watches and peer down the road in vain. Epic music swells and in the parking lot outside a Super Target, a crowd of icons converge on the store's entrance. In addition to the above characters, we see the Pillsbury Dough Boy, the Gorton's Fisherman, the M&Ms duo, Snap, Crackle & Pop and Chester Cheetah. The voiceover begins: "And so they came. To live in a place where everything is better. Especially the prices."

In the store, they're greeted by a teenage boy who starts slapping price tags on them. Then that fat, grinning Kool-Aid pitcher comes crashing through the Target wall, as if he's lost in a strip mall and can't be bothered to use doors. The teenager casually says the familiar line, "Hey Kool-Aid," and the spot cuts to the Target bulls-eye icon, which swells and contracts in conjunction with Kool-Aid's famous reply, "Oh, yeah!"

"We aren't familiar with Kool-Aid over here but we liked him a lot," says Passion's animation producer Hugo Sands. "We wanted to add a slight twist to these characters. With Kool-Aid, it adds some realism if he is slightly disconcerted by the fact that he just burst through a wall into a new place. And Americans seem to think it's really funny."

Passion staffed up for the project in order to assign each character or group of characters its own individual team of animators. "It was complicated, because in some scenes you have to know exactly where your character is in relation to the others," adds Sands. "It meant the in-house organization and coordination had to be really good."

"We all knew going in that it would be a bear of a project," says KB&P's Cohen. "The timeline was a little short and it was a logistical challenge. We were dealing with a lot of people's input-Kirshenbaum, Passion, Target, the M&Ms people, and then you had the ad agencies. Plus, it wasn't the type of project where you can wait for people's comments. The boat was moving."

The egos of each character were well represented by their respective agencies, and despite green lights from all of them, it didn't stop creatives and art directors from trying to protect their heavily invested icons. "You half-expected the characters to demand a trailer," jokes Sands. "They all had style guides but because we weren't their usual production company, the agencies were concerned."

But KB&P's intent was to maintain the integrity of the characters. According to Cohen, it was the only way the spot would work. "This concept has never been done before," he says. "We were using cel, CGI and live action, and we have characters of all different sizes fighting for screen time. But this wasn't about getting these characters to act any differently. The challenge and the coolness of the spot, besides getting everyone to agree on it, was placing the characters in unusual settings."