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WHEN PORTLAND, ORE.-BASED Will Vinton Studios animator David Daniels describes strata-cut-his name for his distinctive style of clay animation- he pours on the metaphors: it's sushi, a hot dog, a cone or, on a slightly higher plane, the fourth dimension of time. "It's a little like trying to contemplate infinity," marvels DMB&B/New York creative director Michele Salmon, who observed Daniels in his most ambitious use of the technique yet-a new Clearasil commercial that turns the pimply plight of a teenager into a humorous calamity.

Intercut with live footage of a spunky redhead who explains how she wanted to hide in the dark are Daniels' self-described "psychomorph" or "insane-amation," scenes of the girl rendered in clay. "I was desperate," she sighs, "I wished everyday was Halloween," as her clay counterpart, sporting a Medusa 'do, grows a pumpkin head, which segues into a clown and then a cat.

The agency chose Daniels' style for the :30, one in a series of spots that exploit eccentric animation to break through the teen TV clutter, because it didn't feel too young, Salmon explains, adding, "We wanted it have a degree of sophistication and seem irreverent."

The technique involves layering clay into pattern sandwiches, which are then rolled into long rolls, which in this case ended up weighing as much as 250 pounds. Using a specially built guillotine, Daniels then slices the clay like salami, and animates each slice in the order in which it was cut. In the final spot, each frame comprises up to seven of these animated clay elements composited in post. In a sense "it's a metaphor for fourth dimensional time-space, because every piece of strata-cut animation exists simultaneously," muses Daniels.

The idea of cutting clay first came to Daniels when he was 8 years old and slicing a clay birthday cake he'd fashioned. "It was a magical moment to see several pieces of layered clay wrapped around itself and still the insides could be seen. It was an organized form, it wasn't marbleized randomness, and I thought-someday I'm going to do something with that."

Daniels debuted the technique in his Cal Arts thesis project called "Buzz Box," a short film that parodied commercials. It later appeared as ancillary elements in a Peter Gabriel video, a Stride Rite commercial and an NBC ID.

Watching strata-cut, especially in the elaborate Clearasil spot, which marks the first time it's driven a narrative, can indeed be a "psychomorphic" experience. Unlike cel animation "every piece in it is connected to the last piece you just saw," Daniels says. The scary part, he adds, is that broken frames are impossible to reregister. "Humpty-Dumpty will not be put back together."

Other agency credits to CD Ken Charof, art director Doug Finelli and producer Randy Aubrecht. Bruce VanDusen at D&H MacGuffin Films, New York, directed the live action. Editing by Randy Snitz at Homestead Editorial, New York;

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