Tea for Three

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There are few long-running campaigns around that are funnier or more refreshing than the Lipton Brisk iced tea spots, where the Karate Kid squares off against Bruce Lee and Elvis the Pelvis writhes alongside Coolio and Willie Nelson. Since 1996, the quirky commercials from J. Walter Thompson/New York have shown how a swig from a jewel-blue can of the Brisk tea reinvigorates weary stop-motion celebs. But what breathes real life into the latex limbs of these quintessentially American icons is the work of a loopy British animation shop called Loose Moose.

Founded in 1994 by producer Glenn Holberton and director/animator Ken Lidster, Loose Moose does 2-D and CGI, but what stands out is its outlandish and irreverent work in stop-motion. "People sort of look at animation and expect cute simple little puppets for children," says Holberton. "But we tend not to do the syrupy jobs. We like to have a bit of an edge." Hence the company's weird name; after tossing around ideas like The Oxymorons and Beam-Me-Up Scotty Productions, the founders finally made peace with the current moniker, which is the name of a local pub, not so coincidentally.

But given their flair for the offbeat, it's no coincidence that JWT creative director Mickey Paxton chose the Loose Moose guys for the Brisk spots. "We were trying to create an alternative world, not a cartoon," Paxton explains of the campaign, which has also featured puppet versions of Sylvester Stallone, Babe Ruth, and Ol' Blue Eyes. "We're taking these giant icons and being very real with them. It's a different discipline animating a cabbage head and animating Frank Sinatra." Also, size mattered. "We looked at a bunch of different animators and didn't want to go to a big animation machine where you'd lose control over what you're doing."

Loose Moose has wowed U.S. audiences with its Lipton Brisk work, but in the U.K., it's their sausage that stands out. One of the company's longest-running projects is with Ammirati Puris Lintas, London, for Peperami, an anthropomorphic Slim Jim-like treat with masochistic, self-cannibalizing tendencies. In one of the 17-spots in the ongoing campaign, the half-consumed Peperami, deprived of his lower region, hoists himself onto his arms, and charges his way down a street after his snacking benefactor. "Come on!" he screams. "Finish me off, you wimp! What's the matter? Too spicy for ya?" In another, the infamous wiener joyously happens upon a cheese grater, against which he rubs his head until nothing's left of him above the belt.

The entire campaign was featured as the curtain-raiser to the World Animation Celebration in Southern California in 1998, and it's a favorite with Holberton and Lidster as well, partly because of the creative freedom they were given. "We virtually had carte blanche to do what we wanted," says Holberton, still with a trace of disbelief. "The creatives from the agency were very lucky to have a client who's prepared to go out on a limb. It's a Unilever product, and it's rare to have a brand manager who will want to rewrite the book on snack advertising." Not only can Loose Moose make self-torture a lot of fun, it also succeeds in making the most vanilla objects drippingly _sexy. Another British spot from Ammirati features the interviewing process for pea pods hoping to make it into a can of Bachelors Bigga peas. The first candidate, which Lidster says was modeled after Bubbles of Absolutely Fabulous, plops her Olive Oyl-slim body onto the chair, and is quickly rejected. The next, with a Madonna-fit frame, walks in with resolution, only to be turned down as well. The third legume, with a Jane Russell-inspired form, va-va-va-vooms into the room, swinging her ripe pea bum slowly from side to side. As she takes a seat, the podskin on her_bottom bursts open. "Right! You're in!" chimes the interviewer.

So what makes the beans so luscious-looking? "It's years of studying the female form," Lidster jokes. Actually, all the principals agree that Loose Moose's punch lies in its good grasp of character. "Whether you're animating something with a pencil or puppet or computer, the animation has to give rise to an actual character," says Holberton. "Anybody can basically move something around on the screen, but it takes a real animator to make it live. That's the big difference between moving something and animating it."

Take the work the company did for JWT for Kraft Good Seasons salad dressing, which features Barry White embodied in the form of a furry stuffed rabbit. In a darkly hilarious way, the bunny appears more foxy than cute, seductively moseying down a vegetable-lined path, and he makes an innocuous salad dressing seem as stimulating as love potion No. 9. "The rabbit is a perfect example," remarks Lidster. "Although it's a tiny stuffed rabbit, you immediately know it's going to be Barry White. He moves slowly. You know he's got weight. He's really cool. So much of the work is done by keying in on those elements. It speeds things along pretty quickly."

Speaking of which, having finished the sixth Brisk spot "Jailhouse Rock," Loose Moose continues with more commercial work, including a "carpet animation" spot for British Gas. It attempts to illustrate a shakeup in the organization by showing an entire room quivering so hard that the llamas and figures woven into a Mexican-inspired wall hanging fall from their flat abode. The fuzzy creatures scurry about, trying to help each other back up. The crew has also delved into long-form territory, with a pilot for Nickelodeon called Thunder Pig, about a porcine superhero who botches his world-saving missions. Ange Palethorpe, who joined the company in 1995, directed. Also in the works is an animated short entitled Interrogating Ernie, which features a wise-cracking dinosaur rattling out extinction theories to a New York cop.

But how do the Moosers cope with the tedium of stop motion, where it can take as long as three weeks to make one :30? "It's something that we all enjoy doing, but you can't work terribly, terribly long hours when you're animating," explains Holberton. "The hours are short but the moments are long. It takes such intense concentration on the part of the director and animator, you have to turn off after a little while or you lose style, you lose everything. It's very, very intense, so we all try and make it fairly stress free."

Maybe a gulp of Brisk would help too.

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