Jonze and the Beasts

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Moving from the sublime to the ridiculously sublime, Spike Jonze cast another long shadow in commercials this year, following the dreamy adidas "Hello Tomorrow" (see Creativity, March05), with a new campaign from Y&R/Chicago for Miller that takes the brewer's battle with Bud into new, inspired territory.

Since busting Miller out of its post "Cat Fight" slough with the likes of "Dominoes," Y&R has built on the beer's bigger taste image with spots like "Epidemic," the "Taste Loss" series and the more recent "Tiny Bubbles" and "Sprinkler." The latest campaign takes some Bud sacred cows-or lizards-and extrapolates wildly, turning the concept of the pitch-animal on its talking furry head. The six spots each feature an animal auditioning for a beer commercial, while talking about the often humbling process of doing so. The spots capture the look and feel of an actual casting session, mainly because the dialog is taken from unscripted casting sessions. The human actors' words were then put into the mouths of an array of animatronic "actors" created by Edge FX and Animated FX.

In the hands of Jonze, the spots become multilayered wonders that can be viewed as trenchant little feats of postmodern marketing, as compelling portraits of characters backed into an existential corner or, well, as funny ads with talking animals. "I like ideas that can play on both sides of the fence," says Y&R ECD Mark Figliulo, adding that the campaign idea was a perfect match for Jonze's particular directorial dexterity. "He's very good at doing what you would call artistic, contemporary film that pushes the envelope, but at the same time doing something that a mainstream audience responds to."

The idea came out of Miller challenging Bud on all fronts-taste, low carbs and now, talking animals. "We decided to take out their weapons," says Figliulo, who served as ECD, copywriter and AD on the project alongside CD Dave Loew and creatives Ken Erke and Corey Ciszek. Matt Bijarchi was executive producer. "Our intention isn't that we want to now do animals for Miller, but that we want to take the notion of talking animals as a ridiculous notion-it's all marketing and has nothing to do with beer, and Miller has everything to do with beer."

The idea originally focused more on bad animal acting, but with Jonze on board, it evolved in the direction of character and the actor's process, as he conducted seemingly real casting sessions with real actors. "The basic idea of animals auditioning was the thing I was excited about," he says. "The initial board was making fun of the animals. I thought it would be more interesting to make a connection with them." Jonze had several actors speak off the cuff about themselves and about acting in commercials, as well as having them take a stab at some Miller tag lines. He narrowed the sessions down to the most interesting six people, who all then agreed to have their unwitting performance used in this context. "I wanted everyone to feel good about it-I didn't'want to make fun of them," says Jonze. The resulting moments are funny and poignant and silly, sometimes simultaneously. In one of the best spots, an English-accented bear talks about the essential humiliation of acting in commercials while leaning sheepishly against a wall. Another spot has a female goose talking about a previous commercial gig involving impersonating a taco in a hurricane. An otter, a penguin, a turtle, and a Mancunian raccoon appear in the other executions. "I feel for actors," says Jonze. "Having to go into a room where you don't know anyone, standing in front of lights, with people you can't see or people who are sometimes eating or not that interested and make an ass of yourself. I thought that would be fun to show in this context - that even animals have feelings too."

Jonze worked with frequent editing collaborator Eric Zumbrunnen, who did double duty on the project; with the casting tapes such a key part of the spots, much of the editing was done up front, with further editing and subtle fine tuning done based on the animatronic performances.

Each of the animals will star in a 30-second TV spot as well as a longer film that will be shown at Millerauditions.com. The campaign likely have some additional interesting media support. While initially conceived as one spot, Figliulo says the idea, given breathing room, took on a life of its own. "The more we let them be people, the more interesting it became. It became more character based. At the end of the day it says there is more to Miller drinkers and there is more to the beer."

Meanwhile, the ads showcase Jonze's flair for both visuals and character and the ability to ground the most bizarre situation in human terms. That uncanny facility for the peculiar yet accessible has become all the more appreciated as a wave of self-conscious weirdness sweeps adland. "I just look for things I relate to," says Jonze of the process of weeding out the witty wheat from the labored chaff, pointing to the adidas spot as another prime example. "If it was a just a big effects thing, I wouldn't have been interested. But once it became about what it feels like to run through a dream and being able to be emotional in that way, then I could get excited about it."

Next up for Jonze is a new Gap campaign through CP+B and, he says, a summer start of shooting for his new feature based on Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are.

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