All's Not Quiet on the Western Front

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San Francisco's Western Images will be 25 years old in March 2001, "and we'll probably celebrate that, but we think of ourselves more as a 15-year-old company," says president/CEO Michael Cunningham. The current management team goes back 15 years, he explains, and more significantly, this latter period marks Western's drive "to become a much more creatively-driven company," he notes, during which it left its origins as Western Videotape Productions, a corporate video company, in the dust.

The creative drive is presently proceeding on several fronts, including new media - so never mind any old post house paradigms. "We don't consider ourselves a post house," Cunningham explains. "We're much more a digital studio. We're not really marketing traditional post services aggressively; it's our heritage, and we use it as the backbone of our creative, but there's clearly been a shift from traditional online editing to creative editing or `editorial-type' editing. It's the creative process that's the differentiating factor." A big such factor at Western is ace editor Alan Chimenti, a music video specialist who's cut 11 clips for Primus, seven for Green Day, and among his more notable recent jobs is 'N Sync's "It's Gonna Be Me," in which the fetching fellas become G.I. Joe-type action figures.

But the biggest action at Western figures elsewhere. "The largest banner flying on our building now is visual effects, but computer animation is growing rapidly and becoming more integrated with effects," says Cunningham. "CG requires a different culture and it's a major change in a company to bring these two areas together." The CG breakthrough year was 1998, when Western did the animation on two acclaimed spots: Honda's "Robots," from Rubin Postaer, in which a male auto assembly line robot falls in love with a Honda Accord, much to the distress of his robot assembler girlfriend; and Lexus' "Brain," from Team One, in which we see an X-ray-style view of the interior of a driver's head as he wildly accelerates and his eyes get G-forced right into his cortex. "The Honda spot is certainly the one that validated to the industry and to ourselves that we'd made it to a higher creative level," says Cunningham. "The Lexus spot signaled a leap in the capabilities we could demonstrate. They used different methodologies from a computer animation point of view, yet they were both executed on time, on budget and with a high degree of creative componentry. It was very significant for us. It really showed we could do it."

"Those spots caught my attention while I was in L.A. and they really piqued my interest," says executive producer/business development Ken Solomon, who joined the company in '99 from Ring of Fire. "When I found out Western was so steeped in CG, it really turned me on to what was going on up here."

"Up to that point, Western was known as a company that did terrific technical and creative compositing," adds Cunningham. "We had very talented clients and great material to work with and we would pull off a certain magic with great images and what have you, but so much of the imagery was provided to us - and our task was simply to put it together and make the final 30 seconds work." A sterling example is the hilarious Sprite "SunFizz" parody, from Lowe & Partners, which was animated at Olive Jar in Boston and posted at Western. "But in the Honda and Lexus spots, everything except the live action was created by Western, and that's the difference," says Cunningham with pride.

Though they've done some cool CG since then, for clients like Tang, Nintendo and Sony, spots like the car extravaganzas don't come along every day, or even every year. Does Western need to branch out to attract a wider range of agencies? "It's come up for review several times," says Cunningham. "We'd targeted offices in Europe and L.A. but we ultimately chose not to do it. I'm glad we didn't expand, because the Bay Area seems to be percolating very strongly now, especially in the new-media sector. While we may eventually expand, right now we're focusing all our energies here."

`Here' includes Western's design division, known as WiG, founded in '95 and headed by creative director Tuesday McGowan. "WiG was a way to identify a design component back in the days when post houses didn't really do design," says Cunningham. The latest addition to the palette is the new Mekanism unit - a joint venture with San Francisco production company Pandemonium. Mekanism recently produced Western's first multimedia project, a complicated campaign for Rock the Vote and San Francisco boutique Collaborate. The voting effort was designed to "make a cohesive campaign for both the broadcast and online world," says Solomon, which is indeed Mekanism's raison d'etre. "The online component of a campaign is usually a rehashing of the broadcast component, but not here," he explains. The Rock the Vote work seems simple enough on the face of it: Hiply depicted but uncluttered images, like an electric chair, with issues, like capital punishment or abortion, presented as text with Yes and No check-in boxes. But this concept had to be customized for many media: broadcast TV, interactive TV, Flash animation, streaming video, and e-mail-delivered `viral postcards.' Moreover, the original broadcast footage had to be shot according to new-media specifications so that it could be tailored to the variety of formats. The result was "the most successful online campaign that AltaVista ever ran," says Solomon, pointing to one of its heavy-hitting internet hosts, along with the likes of MTV, RealNetworks and Launch.com.

Is this the wave of Western's future? Will every job have a new-media component? "That's the $64,000 question," Cunningham says, but he's got all his bets covered. "Certainly, a lot of work is going to require multiple distribution channels, and we're definitely focused on addressing this. But this is sure to go through evolutions too. Three or four years from now we'll look back at Rock the Vote and say, `Boy, was that primitive stuff.' "

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