Robots. Mind control. Mobile games. Social films. Been there, done that. That is, if you're B-Reel. Last year, we named the Stockholm-headquartered outfit our Digital Production Company of the Year. It was an easy call, based on groundbreaking projects including the Cannes Cyber Grand Prix-winning "Wilderness Downtown" for Arcade Fire (directed and conceived by @radical.media's Chris Milk and Google's Aaron Koblin) and the much-buzzed-about Live Drive for Mitsubishi, from 180, Los Angeles.
Yet B-Reel's output during the past 12 months has proved even more impressive. A small sampling of the work includes a "Minority Report"-style retail interface for telecom provider 3Sweden, which is now being reproduced for other industries; a Rube Goldberg-inspired browser puzzle for Honda and Wieden & Kennedy, London; a social-media-created thriller for Intel/Toshiba via Pereira & O'Dell; and yes, some really great film, for brands like Ikea, Tanqueray and others.
In the process, the company has inspired agencies and clients to step out of their comfort zones to create campaigns that absorb, challenge and involve the consumer in once-unimaginable ways. B-Reel has also reaffirmed what we've been observing for a while -- that commercial production is no longer a predominantly filmic proposition. And with that, we believe it's finally time to drop the digital/traditional distinction and name B-Reel our straight-up 2011 Production Company of the Year.
Founding partners Petter Westlund, Pelle Nilsson and Anders Wahlquist, who have respective upbringings in the digital, film and business worlds, launched B-Reel in 1999 with the aspiration to experiment and play with media and technology in new ways. "It just seemed like you should be able to do things that were more interesting, had more impact online -- that you should be able to use video and animation in a bigger way," said Mr. Westlund. "It felt like a natural evolution, and working together felt like it could be a good way to try to push that type of production forward."
The trio first met through mutual connections at St. Paul Film. The Stockholm production company was founded by Fredrik Heinig and Johannes Ahlund. In 2009 it partnered with B-Reel on the launch of its films division, adding two new "founders" and rounding out B-Reel's offerings as an integrated production company.
Even on its first job, a 2000 campaign for Swedish fashion brand Whyred, B-Reel was already exploring the outer reaches of production. An interactive site put a modern-day twist on the fashion show: on display were models dressed in Whyred, lounging around an apartment and shot on security cams from a variety of angles. The idea then became a real-world event for which B-reel recreated the apartment scene in the middle of an art gallery, coupled with projections on the venue walls. All the directing, production, editing, design and coding fell to Mr. Westlund and Mr. Nilsson.
"I guess if I would have been told back then about all the projects we do now, it would have seemed insane," said Mr. Westlund. "In a way it makes sense, because we were already then trying to do mashups of different technologies. It's just on a bigger scale now."
Bigger scale, indeed. Today, any given B-Reel project will require skills even more varied than that first one. But the teams are bigger, thankfully. The company has grown from the original three to 120 employees in offices in Stockholm, New York, Los Angeles and London. For each project, B-Reel takes a "modular" approach, building teams equipped with whatever skills are necessary -- from creative technologists and developers to film and technical directors, producers, motion artists, designers and creatives.
One job that required "using all the strings on our guitar," said Mr. Westlund, was Ariel's Fashion Shoot via Saatchi, Stockholm, a social-media experience/installation that invited consumers to soil white shirts via Facebook and a remote control stain-shooting robot. B-Reel created the online interface and robotic cannon, and produced all the video assets, including a broadcast commercial featuring the stunt.
Outside of client work, the shop has invested more time in R&D, leading to mind-boggling experiments such as a projection-mapping game that put a 3-D and mobile spin on the classic arcade game Centipede, as well a brainwave-controlled slot-car.
Learnings from the latter, which involved the mashup of a Neurosky headset and a Scalextric car set, eventually led to real client work. Working with Oslo agency Dist Creative for furniture retailer Varier, B-Reel merged brainwaves and data visualization on a platform that enabled kids sitting on the brand's chairs to create dazzling art pieces -- just by thinking about them. The patterns were later imprinted on the upholstery fabric for the furniture. The idea of experimentation also comes into play on the smallest of jobs. "We're always looking up new technologies and trying to implement them in every kind of project we've been doing," said Mr. Wahlquist. "Actually, so much so that even when we get a very simple project, we always make it more complicated in some way for ourselves, and it turns out bigger." And, he added with a laugh, "In some cases, we're the ones who end up paying for it."
Looking back on the company's evolution, Mr. Nilsson noted that sticking with its original mission has served the company quite well. As the shop grows, "we're not trying to change B-Reel," he said. "We're hoping that the world around us is changing the way we hope it to. And it seems like it is."
B-Reel's latest new thing: wolves. Three of the creatures -- real ones -- star in an interactive story that users control via iPhone or iPod touch, for an unnamed client. "It's a rather odd production," said Mr. Wahlquist. Also in the works are an assortment of 15 to 20 other projects, including traditional spots, mobile apps, data visualization and more R&D experimentation. "It's business as unusual, as usual," said Mr. Wahlquist.
Tune in tomorrow to see the rest of the 2011 Production Company A-List.
See a sampling of more of B-Reel work below.
Wieden + Kennedy's "The Experiment" for the Honda Civic invites visitors to make a series of window well together and create magical chain reactions to make things go. The HTML5 browser game takes the idea of browser interaction introduced in Arcade Fire's "Wilderness Downtown" to a new level.
Magnum's "Pleasure Hunt," out of Lowe Brindfors, allowed players to take a woman on a cross-internet journey and collect chocolate bonbons on the way. Visitors could make her jump and leap through a series of websites, including those of other brands. She might jump into a car in a Saab ad or become part of a fashion show video on YouTube. In the final moments, she reaches her goal-Magnum's Hazelnut Bonbon ice cream treats, and players can see their game score, share on Facebook and invite friends to take the challenge.