How'd They Do That Spot?

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An intriguing new AT&T "Boundless" :60, pushing its WorldNet web service, offers a visual conundrum: is it clay animation or computer animation? Despite its largely organic appearance, the likely answer is CG, based on the slickness of the spot and the fact that just about everything is CG nowadays. Wrong - it's both. Produced at New York's Curious Pictures, the blue-on-white clutterbuster is mainly clay, with CG enhancements. The clay concept is rooted in the spot's underlying theme, explains Jules Filicia, CD at Impiric, a unit of Y&R/New York that handles AT&T's WorldNet business. "The basic idea is WorldNet has the fastest log-on times and fewer disconnects than the typical ISP, so you're only limited by your imagination," he says. "It's that feeling you had when you were a kid; with Play Dough, you could create anything." Hence the container of clay that falls into frame to kick the action off. "We were thinking about the clay-animated Penny from Pee-wee's Playhouse, that quality of continuous morphing - that's how we helped sell it to the client." Curious, in fact, worked on Pee-wee's Playhouse, which helped them get the gig.

But then the usual constraints came into play. "It was originally supposed to be all clay animation," says Curious director Steve Oakes. "But they had a short schedule and they made a few changes along the way, and stop motion is not a flexible medium. But I wanted the integrity of handmade sculpture, so I did the pieces in clay animation and worked with our computer team to mimic the look exactly." A computer mouse becomes handcuffs, which becomes a snail and so on, all morphing in the traditionally wondrous clay style - but all the transitions are CG and there are subtle CG enhancements to the clay sculptures as well. "I'm quite pleased with how it goes back and forth and you really can't tell," says Oakes. "Which is kind of bad news for stop-motion animators," he laughs. "To be true to the organic, human characteristics of clay, we made a sculpture of every one of the icons that are animated. On the ones that weren't actually put into stop motion, we scanned them in 3-D with a laser so every little lump and fingerprint was preserved. And once you have this information, it's amazing how you can manipulate it. If someone says, `I wish the telephone receiver would jump in a more comical way,' you can make it happen without calling your DP back in." With the aid of Maya software, the spot was "done in six or seven weeks, which for a 60-second stop-motion project is almost half of what you should have," says Oakes.

Moreover, the commercial is hitting a marketing home run. "It's setting a record in terms of how it's performing," says Filicia. "AT&T had incredible projections and they're ahead of them by almost 50 percent."

"I think we're the first ones to cheat to this extent," adds Oakes. "Clay animators will watch this and not be sure what's clay and what's computer. When they ask, `How did they do it?' - that's success. It's the first time I've done clay in the computer, and I'm doing another AT&T spot right now, with little building blocks, using the same technique. We're going to fool everyone again."

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