A Stop-Motion Pitch for Diet Dr. Pepper
Director Ken Lidster and EP Ray Di Carlo on Animation's Unlikeliest Cast of Characters
Ray Di Carlo: When we started, it was what we were best known for. We knew we would be competing with the top few companies in the world in that part of the marketplace. Everything else, though we knew how to do it, was a slow burn. Right now we have a full stop-motion department and a full CG department. We did a big Coke spot that’s about 25 or 30 percent stop motion mixed with CG.
We try not to make a decision about the medium until we hear, creatively, what your vision is. We’re concerned with getting visuals and ideas across. The process is secondary. And sometimes you can’t tell if we put a CG thing in a stop-motion scene or vice-versa.
Ken Lidster: You just want to stand out from the other spots, don’t you? With animation and well-known characters, you step through the barriers that people naturally have. Your commercial has to get through. It has to communicate to them. And when you have this wonderful animation, with characters they know and love, they drop their walls and they allow it in.
RDC: We’ve discovered over the years that if you compare a live-action spot to an animation spot, people are able to identify more with the character in the animated spot. When it’s an actor, they’re looking at a human person who owns that mystique. When it’s a puppet, it’s an everyman thing. And it’s funny for a different reason. If you have a live-action 12-step circle or support group, that’s a different kind of funny than when you’re looking at animated characters. When you’ve got a Sasquatch and a Tooth Fairy in live action, that’s more of a sitcom.
CreditsClient: Diet Dr Pepper
Spot Title: “I Exist”
Air Date: September 2009
Agency: Deutsch, LA
President/Chief Creative Officer: Eric Hirshberg
SVP/Group CD: Chris Ribiero
Sr. Designer: Marius Gedgaudas
Sr. Producer: Tracy Jones
SVP, Group Account Director: Valencia Gayles
Account Director: Helen Murray
Prod Co: Bent Image Lab/Portland, OR
Director: Ken Lidster
EP: Ray Di Carlo
Sr Producer: Tsui Ling Toomer
Producer: Kara Place
Coordinator: Ryan Shanholtzer
DP: Mark Eifert
Product Shoot DP: Jay Wesley Jones
Stage Manager: Jim Birkett
AD/Set Designer: Curt Enderle
Art Department Director: Solomon Burbridge
Art Department: Greg Fosmire, Marty Easterday, Kimi Kaplowitz, Mary Blankenburg, Daniel Miller, Huy Vu, Jayme Hansen, Kate Fenker, Brandi Cochrane
Storyboard Artist: Steve Hess
Character Design: Brett Superstar, Steve Hess, Monique Ligons, Colin Batty
Principal Animators: Jerold Howard, Jeff Riley
Editorial Supervisor: JD Dawson
After Effects Supervisor: Tarn Fox
Composite Artists (After Effects): Orland Nutt, Brian Kinkley, Jay Twenge, Sean Saul
Composite Artists (2D): Traci Cook
Post Production: Downstream/Portland, OR
Colorist: Jim Barrett
KL: It’s probably very similar. You have to design the characters, and that’s the best time to flesh the characters out. You don’t want them to be one-dimensional. As you’re designing, ideas come up. You send stuff back and forth with the agency, and that’s where the collaboration is really happening.
F&V: Are these character designs digital?
KL: We use a little thing called pencils. [Chuckles.] We go through a whole bunch of character designs. The leprechaun could have any number of looks. But we needed something that would fit with the other characters, and what he was had to be readable. That’s a fun bit of the process, deciding what the character looks like. How tall is he going to be? How will he interact with the other characters? What is he going to do? And then you have to fit him back into the environment that you’re building for him. He has to sit in a chair, for example.
RDC: You asked if they’re designed on the computer, and one of the funny things is that even the computer-generated characters are designed by pencil first.
KL: It’s quicker, isn’t it?
RDC: Well, it’s quicker for people like Ken, who can draw!
F&V: Once the characters are designed, you’re obviously storyboarding the spot.
KL: Yes, the next stage is to board it all out and rework the storyboard back and forth. We set that into an animatic, and that’s when you stretch how long your shots are. Are we spending too much time in one area or another? It’s the same as live action. You’ve got to figure out where you’re going to put your camera, how many characters you are going to get in there.
RDC: A good way to think about it is – and this is what we say to clients all the time – in animation, you edit before you shoot. In live-action, you shoot a bunch of stuff and find the pieces that work. In animation, we do boards, and then we do boardamatics that are timed to the voices with the pictures changing, and we get our shots sorted out that way. Then we do something called a pop-through, so the clients can see where everything is going to be in the frame every 10th frame for blocking, so we’re all on the same page. Once that’s done and the animator starts animating, we like to say, imagine a live-action theater performance in very slow motion. One of the things animators like to say is watching somebody animate is like watching paint dry.
F&V: As director, what’s that part of the process like? Are you hanging out on the set all day?
KL: Pretty much, yep. With this job, because we were doing two :30s and a :15, we had two different animators and four sets of the same room, with three full sets of characters. We would have maybe two sets being shot and we’d be setting up a third one at the same time. It’s enough to keep you busy, even though a lot of it was worked out beforehand.
F&V: You know what the motions are going to be. Is it almost a technical job at that point?
KL: As the shot takes place you can go in and see the first third of it and then discuss it. Are we going too quickly? Should we put a little pause somewhere? You’re talking about the action. Acting is what you’re talking about with the animators. Making sure the shot is flowing the way you want it to. Where do you want the viewer to look? That’s a big one with me. It’s similar to live-action, really.
F&V: This is shot with a DSLR camera, not a video camera shooting single frames, correct?
KL: A modified DSLR, yes. You get a higher resolution, and it’s smaller and easier to work with. There is something about HD that people don’t realize. They’ll say, “It shouldn’t cost any more [to do this in HD]. I’ll just send it to a post house and they’ll upres it.” You’re like, “OK, that’s fine.” But if you’re shooting in HD, everything has to be much cleaner, because you’re seeing detail that’s so crisp, whereas SD sort of mushes things together.
F&V: When the new Wallace & Gromit animated film ["A Matter of Loaf and Death"] first came out last Christmas, it was the first of those films that was broadcast in high-definition. I was reading some of the discussions online, and viewers were seeing things that they had never seen in stop motion before. They were writing posts like, “This must not have been meant to be in high-definition because you can see the way the fingerprints Ã¢Â€Â¦”
KL: No, no, no. Nick Park likes to leave a bit of thumb mark here and there. It’s his style. There are a few animators who want to make it clear to people that it has been manipulated by humans.
F&V: It’s a handmade quality.
KL: I suppose you could say that’s a good thing to do. But if it gets in the way Ã¢Â€Â¦. personally, I feel that if you’re looking at a thumbprint you’re not thinking about the character. I’m not sure that’s the way to be going.
F&V: What extent do you go to in post-production to touch it up and mask imperfections?
KL: A lot of things happen while the animator is animating. You’re moving the eyes around, and it can leave a gooey smear on the surface of the eyes. You have to clean stuff like that up. Or that classic when the fur starts moving around.
F&V: The King Kong effect.
KL: Sometimes it’s completely acceptable, and in another shot it will look like he’s standing in front of a fan. “Wow, he’s in a wind tunnel.” It varies from shot to shot, but we like to calm that stuff down so it’s a non-issue. It’s OK if the fur goes clump-clump-clump. But if people go, “What the hell is happening?” they’re not in your commercial. You’re losing contact. When we try to make it look nostalgic, like it was shot in the 1950s, we’ll do stuff on purpose, like make it a little more staccato. We’ll make it a little more Ã¢Â€Â¦
RDC: Most of it was shot on doubles [meaning the puppets were only moved in between every two frames of film].
KL: Not only that, but since they didn’t have what’s called a frame grabber, they couldn’t see what they were doing [as they worked]. You might have a movement of a hand that’s 1/8 inch, 1/8 inch, 1/8 inch, and then 1/4-inch, because somebody moved the hand, forgot that they had already done it, and moved it again by mistake. You’ll get these jumpy effects. And often the clothes will crawl and the fur will crawl.
F&V: I understand the Red camera was used on this spot. Was that in more than one place or just the soda pour?
KL: That was just the pour.
RD: Obviously we can’t use the other cameras for anything that’s moving, especially anything that has to be slowed down. We were very early adopters of the Red cameras – we may have shot the first footage ever used in a commercial on the Red cam, in a spot for the Oregon Lottery – and we were one of the first groups with a Red pipeline. We built it right at the beginning. The really cool thing about the Red camera is that you’re at 4K. On anything we shoot, there’s usually animation involved in it. We have to go into the frames and do a lot of compositing, and a 4K frame is very helpful.
F&V: What was the biggest challenge in directing this spot?
KL: The difficult thing is when you get those characters together in the same room. It’s more difficult to knock some of the characters back. If they were live action, you’d be looking back there and saying, “Oh, look at the Tooth Fairy! Isn’t she cute?”
RDC: One of the things that went really well that was super-difficult to do, but you never notice when you look at the spot ‘ Diet Dr. Pepper Guy is a completely new character, never been seen before. Nobody knew who he was. And the spot is done in a way that it feels like he’s been with them forever. That’s tough when you’re introducing a new character to the world.