To get kids to think twice about smoking, the Washington State Department of Health recruited Bent Image Labs to create a pair of spots that illustrate why love and cigarettes don't mix. Director Chel White explains how cutesy animation and disgusting visuals do mix in the "Gross" campaign.
What was the thought process behind the look of these spots?
We talked about using dolls, and I wanted them to really have a uniqueness to them. I didn't want them to look like dolls that you could go buy in a store. So we did a fair amount of development on the dolls themselves. We kept making the eyes bigger and bigger, and the mouth and nose smaller and smaller. It was all to get to a place where there really was an innocence about them, so when they then turned around and did something so outlandishly disgusting, it would really be a shock. If we had started out with dolls that seemed a little edgy or too sinister, it wouldn't have worked.
How did the animation work?
In a lot of ways, the dolls were very much like traditional stop-motion puppets. They were armatured in the same way, with ball-and-socket armatures on the inside. The heads are more like regular toy dolls, and they had elbow and knee joints like regular dolls, so in that regard they're a little bit different. Each doll is about 8 inches tall, and it took about six weeks to build them, along with the sets. We shot both spots in tandem over five weeks, so we had two sets going at the same time, with an animator on each set.
What was the biggest challenge of making these spots?
I don't know if this is a challenge, but when you're given so much creative freedom, sometimes you can't really believe it. [Laughs] There's a certain amount of self-censorship, and we had to keep reminding ourselves, "No, the client really wants this to be off the wall, original and weird." Which is pretty amazing, having this governmental agency that totally got it. They understood that this was a new approach to anti-smoking ads for kids, and that it's so crazy it might just work. So once we realized we had artistic license, we just went for it, and it was really fun.
Do you think the spots would have been as effective if they were shot live-action?
No. I think what worked about these spots was the fact that they're toys, and even though that dead possum is pretty damned realistic, it's still a doll. That amount of removal helps it retain a certain amount of charm, even when you're seeing somebody put a hairball in their mouth. So I think that was critical, and doing it in stop motion was a really good way to go.