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The history of TV-commercial production, in a nutshell: "It has gotten better and easier to do," says Bob Koslow, senior VP-director of TV production worldwide at Leo Burnett Co., Chicago.

Through creativity and technology, the TV commercial has evolved from a static product presentation to a dynamic marketing message.

Once, voiceovers and still product shots were de rigueur. Now, commercials can show snow in the desert and basketball players alongside cartoon characters-and the spots have become as notable as the shows.

According to Mr. Koslow, production quality has gotten 100 times better and the commercial process takes half the time. Computers are responsible for most of the changes; thanks to advances in post-production, almost anything can happen now.

The industry certainly has come a long way. Larry LaBelle, 69, proprietor of LaBelle & Associates, Minneapolis, emerged from the Kudner Agency's bullpen in 1951 to become one of TV advertising's first art directors. He claims to have been one of about five in New York then, all of whom met for lunch weekly at Toots Shor's to discuss their mutual challenge: to create commercials as well as show openings and closings for advertiser-generated programming.

Mr. LaBelle, for example, worked on such shows as "The Texaco Star Theater" with Milton Berle; "This Is Show Business" with George S. Kaufman; "Martin Kane, Private Eye"; and "The Goodyear Television Playhouse."

Since commercials were live at the time, the camera didn't dare focus on any product too long, Mr. LaBelle points out, for fear of burning in the image. Promos evolved to demonstrations, which offered some of advertising history's more hilarious moments: Pets refused their food. Cleansers failed to wipe up dirt. Betty Furness couldn't get her Westinghouse refrigerator open.

Mr. LaBelle, who moved to Knox Reeves Advertising, Minneapolis, in l953, recalls a spot for General Mills in which a young woman was supposed to mix pie-crust dough on camera. Although everything went fine in rehearsal, the show was performed before a studio audience and the woman removed her glasses. As a result, she couldn't see when the prop person had poured too much water into the bowl.

"We wound up with a taffy pull on TV," Mr. LaBelle says.

Then in the early '50s came the telopticon and the balopticon, which made 4-inch-by-5-inch cards similar to slides, called telops and balops, that could be projected into the camera chain.

Mr. LaBelle also used an animatic projector, a strip film machine that, he says, "could pop from one frame to another. We did photographic storyboards for clients and also rear-projected the images to make a commercial."

Mr. LaBelle lays claim to the first split-screen commercial, which he dubbed the Mondrian technique, in 1958. The spot showed swimmer/actress Esther Williams at one location (a swimming pool?) and athlete/long-time Wheaties spokesman Bob Richards, at another, on screen together.

In 1957, Kimberly-Clark used a film overlay process for Kleenex spots featuring Manners the Butler, a miniaturized manservant solving napkin problems for hostesses. In 1961, Hertz, using a superimposed optical process, showed people flying through the air with their knees bent, then landing in a convertible.

The mid-1960s marked the start of a new era. Commercial lengths began the long shrinking process from a minute to 30 seconds, and black & white became color.

In the early '70s, commercials met the technological developments now considered the norm for production. Videotape-cheaper, easier to edit-became prevalent. Computer graphics appeared about the same time.

A "fantasy" spot for 7UP featuring a winged woman floating above fountains, from 1976, has been called the first successful computer-assisted animation. It was done by Bob Abel & Associates for J. Walter Thompson Co., Chicago.

Even the Pillsbury Doughboy, who for years relied on stop-motion techniques similar to the early Speedy, has become computer-animated, Mr. Koslow says.

Computers also spell bliss for production crews, who no longer have to light out wires or rig sets invisibly.

"If you can imagine it, you can do it," says Sue Chiafullo, senior VP-director of broadcast production for Campbell Mithun Esty, Minneapolis.

A producer since 1977, she recalls the days of optical tracks, when it would take two weeks to finish the film, using labs and a complex process that went from negative to positive to 16mm answer print before reaching its final form on 2-inch videotape. Today, using non-linear computer equipment such as the Avid, a commercial goes straight to video dailies and can be done in an afternoon.

"None of the editors have trim barrels [to catch discarded footage] anymore. Now it's all on a disk they carry with them," she says.

Extra time and enhanced capabilities add up to more creative options. Ms. Chiafullo describes a recent 3M corporate commercial done in conjunction with Industrial Light & Magic that features an airplane moving off a painting and soaring into space. The composite layered 23 images.

In a Texaco commercial, gasoline nozzles creep through a junkyard and bring cars to life. They were rigged with wires that computers "painted out" later. When snow melted before the shoot was over for another commercial, the creative team used a special effects compositor called a Flame to build sky, stars and an entire nighttime neighborhood, rather than rescheduling the shoot.

"New advances in video technology affect the realm of possibility," Ms. Chiafullo says.

And those advances are just beginning. Mr. Koslow says the day when all images are captured on a digital device isn't far away. TV will no longer be dumb boxes, either; once the sets become computerized, "broadcasting" will become "broadcatching," with each viewer a part of the commercial process.

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