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Reel Creativity

Few things will get you noticed quicker than encasing yourself in tight black vinyl -- unless, of course, you're a show reel in a pile of similarly attired tapes. Motion graphics designer Stephen Ray of Brooklyn-based Work in Progress realized this one day when, at an ad agency, he came face to face with a large garbage bin filled with black plastic reel cases. Ray couldn't help wondering if his own show reel might have ended up "in that anonymous graveyard of creativity."

The designer consulted Work in Progress's in-house fabricator Sheila Sobolewski, and the two created the company's distinctive reel case, a custom-molded bas-relief number covered in the company's Soviet-style logo and name. The detail, effort and expense put into the reel made it much more difficult to thoughtlessly toss into the garbage then its plain-Jane sisters.

It seems obvious: if you're a creative company, what better way to make your mark than with packaging that stands out?

It doesn't have to be costly: Ric Ostiguy, founder of Montreal visual effects company Voodoo Arts, is pleased with a paper sleeve that fits over a standard reel case, giving it the appearance of an ancient book of spells. "Everyone comments that it's original and cool. People are really curious to open it up and see what's inside," Ostiguy says.

Nathan Byrne, head editor and partner at Manhattan's Post Millennium, took a more ambitious approach. When the company started in January of last year, it ordered up a batch of eye-catching, custom-made aluminum cases. Explains Byrne, "We were new and sending our reel out for first time. We wanted to stand out, and it fit our aesthetic." The oversized box, which sports the company's evolving logo (above, right) and some simple metal latches, was mostly sent to art directors, as it doubles as a portfolio for flat art.

While agency folk appear to appreciate a well-designed reel, the production world is harder to please. Some clients were less than impressed with Pavlov's drooling dog identity, says Tracy Hauser, formerly of Pavlov Productions, Culver City, Calif. "They thought it was over-packaged -- that we focused on packaging the company but not the individual [directors]." Meanwhile in ad land, Sandstrom Design, which created the case and the accompanying identity, won numerous awards for the work.

But no matter how eye-catching or beautifully designed the reel, in the end it's all about the work. Says Post Millennium's Byrne, philosophically, "By the time the reel reaches the shortlist, the box is long gone." (SK)

Can a Self-Flagellating Salaryman Save Sega?

Sega's Dreamcast videogame console is probably the last hope for a corporation that has gone from having one of the strongest brands in the world to having the words "laggard" and "also-ran" permanently affixed to its name. The first 128-bit system ever, the Dreamcast is really fast and quite dazzling. But with even more high-powered game systems arriving next year from Sony and Nintendo, Sega can't rely on technology alone. And so we're getting a sophisticated, pseudo-grassroots ad campaign, from FCB/San Francisco, with edgy graphics and a tagline that warns, "It's thinking." It's a good campaign, but it's hardly revolutionary.

The irony is that the TV spots for Dreamcast that Sega has run in Japan, where the system was launched last November, are unlike anything you've seen. They're self-flagellating and bitter, acknowledging not only Sega's past blunders -- in the early 1990s, Sega was the dominant videogame maker, but it was crushed by both Sony and Nintendo when the Playstation and N64 systems arrived -- but also the quixotic nature of the Dreamcast launch.

The commercials, done by Dentsu, star an actual senior managing director of the company, a man named Yukawa Hidekazu, who looks much like what you imagine Japanese salarymen look like. In the first, Yukawa eavesdrops on two kids saying, "Sega videogames suck. Playstation is much better." Melancholy, Yukawa heads to a bar, gets drunk, and on his way home scuffles with some thugs, who beat him up. The commercial ends with him collapsed in the doorway of his house, as an offscreen voice exhorts, "Come on, Mr. Yukawa, get up!"

In the second spot, Yukawa is on a remote mountaintop, dressed in a business suit, talking to a group of seemingly friendly children who tell him that Sega has changed for the better. "Really?" he asks, at which point the children's eyes turn black and they scream, "No, it's a joke! We don't need Sega--we want Playstation!" The earth then opens beneath Yukawa and swallows him, just before he wakes up on the floor of his office to realize that his secretary has caught him daydreaming. The commercial ends with him reflecting on his nightmare.

Despite (or thanks to) his misery and humiliation, Yukawa has become a cult hero. He's recorded a hit single, a love song to the Dreamcast, and Sega printed up a limited edition of six phone cards with his image on them. At a games conference in Tokyo, people lined up for hours to have their picture taken with him. Most improbable of all, the Dreamcast box in Japan features a photo of Yukawa-san looking somehow anxious and yet charming.

Although the Yukawa ads are startling, they make sense in the context of the Japanese veneration of what the scholar Ivan Morris famously called "the nobility of failure." As such, they throw into sharp relief the differences between the Japanese market and the U.S. market, and point up a basic problem faced by a company like Sega of America: This is an American subsidiary of a Japanese company, trying to target a market different from the one in which its parents are rooted.

In other words, no Yukawa ads for us. -- James Surowiecki

This story first appeared, in a slightly different version, in Slate

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