Wag the Tongue

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For those few who haven't seen DDB/Chicago's Super Bowl "Whassup" sci-fi tour de force for Budweiser - a :60 titled "Come Home" - a brief synopsis: A cute golden retriever runs out of the house, into a field and is promptly beamed aboard an alien craft and whisked to another galaxy where he stands helpless before fearsome alien throngs - only to remove his dog head with a deft paw, revealing he's one of the aliens too, home from checking out Terra in a clever canine get-up. "What did you learn on Earth?" his commander asks via subtitles. A typical tongue-lolling "Whassup" is the reply, which instantly becomes a deafening extraterrestrial mantra. Cut to two humans who are scanning the skies for intelligent life; alerted by the deep-space racket, one naively utters, "Oh, man. We are not alone."

How do you do an ambitious, CG-intensive spot like this? You go to a place like Industrial Light & Magic, in San Rafael, Calif., needless to say, where veteran director Rick Schulze was tapped for the job. "Up to the point where the dog gets lifted off the ground, it's all live, of course," he notes. Then matte paintings merge with live-action elements, and assorted CG tools and compositing tricks create a creature emerging from a dog suit. But this is all in a day's work at ILM. "It was a complex scene, there's a lot of overlapping and underlapping," Schulze concedes. "But in terms of new technology, it's the crowd scenes that were probably unique to this job. We've done a fair amount of crowd simulations on features, but this is the first time we've applied this level of simulation to a commercial. That, along with the general level of sophistication of the characters, makes it unusual. Normally you wouldn't have this detailed a character in a commercial; it takes too long to develop it." But a Super Bowl showcase enjoys advance planning; the spot took four months total, three in postproduction, according to Schulze. Nevertheless, he concludes, "16 weeks for this? That's a reasonable schedule."

The biggest conceptual hurdle was "a long design and development phase," he recalls. "We probably presented 30 different looks for the aliens. The big question was how anthropomorphic should they be. We knew they had to be creepy at the beginning, then become party boys at the end. That was the tricky part. We soon realized that they had to have enough similarity to a human - two arms, two legs and a face - so people could identify with them at the most basic level."

Despite its near-million dollar cost, the job came with a sort of creative carte blanche, explains DDB group executive producer Greg Popp. "Anheuser-Busch basically gave us enough rope to hang ourselves. They let us go off and shoot it and finish it without any direct supervision. We tried characters that were mammal-like and insect-like, but we ultimately decided that the spot would have to be relatable to a grandmother and a little kid. So when we do the rug-pull and it turns out the aliens are studying us, they have to be, dare I say, cute." And they have to have big, wagging tongues, of course. "Yes, but a lot of it is the eyes," says Popp. "Their eyes are slitty and reptilian, but at the end eyelids come into play, which keeps them from feeling like snakes." True.

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