What do a dinner table full of characters, an oven mitt on a quest for Italian flavor, a giant dribbling a basketball, and a heart-smart tuna all have in common? Each is a different brand mascot brought to life for advertising campaigns by the creatives at Calabash Animation. Last week, we took a peek inside of part one of their oral history covering four of their classic commercial spots. We head back to that animation vault today along with Wayne Brejcha and Sean Henry to unveil four more of their classics on the reel — and a sneak peek at what’s to come next for their team.
Debut: January 31, 2005 (Superbowl XXXIX)
Agency: McCann Erickson
WB: This idea came from the McCann creatives. “Icons” is a MasterCard spot in their popular ‘priceless’ campaign. The idea is that all of these disparate iconic advertising mascots all sit down to a holiday dinner together. The spot is full of brand icons — everyone from Mr. Peanut to Mr. Clean makes an appearance.
In the first drafts of the script McCann was still trying to line up all the players, and there were a few that politely declined the invitation after initial interest. We went through several board revisions while that was going on, trying different things with various other mascots before it gelled to the final: a live action Gorton Fisherman and animated Count Chocula, Charlie Tuna, Mr. Peanut, The Green Giant, Chef Boyardee, Vlasic Stork, Pillsbury Doughboy, Morton Salt Girl and Mr. Clean.
AW: How did you animate this many icons at once? Were there any challenges to the process, especially given that so many have very specific styles of movement?
WB: We had previously animated Charlie Tuna, Count Chocula, and the Green Giant, so we had those model sheets, but we had to get a model sheet for the Vlasic Stork. We made up model sheets for the Morton Salt girl and Chef Boyardee, since they did not exist as animation assets. We imported the existing CG models for Mr. Peanut, the Pillsbury Doughboy, and Mr. Clean. We had quite a team of artists working on the animation, and I think we were at it for two months, working through Christmas and New Year’s. It was helpful that we could assign certain characters to the care of a single animator, so that the animator could really concentrate in on just one figure. BJ Crawford animated the Chef, which was very naturalistic, almost portrait-like animation; Priscilla Olson animated the Morton Salt girl, nice gentle animation there, Ed Newmann animated the Stork in a very Groucho-Marxish moment.
SH: I was a CG animator at the time and remember animating the Pillsbury Doughboy, which was fun. He’s a lovable character.
WB: I think we all loved the ‘chemistries’ in the droll pairings between Charlie Tuna and Count Chocula, the Salt Girl poking the Doughboy, the Stork telling a sly joke to the Chef. The essence of dimensional personalities is that different people bring out different qualities in each other, and even in these brief glimpses into their togetherness, you feel like you see something different in each character.
SH: I recall, the reception to this ad was pretty overwhelmingly positive — so much so that they began re-airing the spot a few years later around 2008.
Title: “Italian Website”
Client: Hamburger Helper
Agency: McCann Erickson
WB: This came from creative Sean Kiener and Steve Centeno, then at McCann. The directive was to really put Lefty into that warm evening light and give him some great appeal.
SH: This is one of the first spots for us where we were really starting to use photo-realistic rendering and lighting on a CG character that was integrated in a live action environment. It had a lot of effects like reflections, mattes, lighting and rendering style that really matched the environment, and we built the CG to look as if it were a real object in that environment. That kind of CG realism has become very common nowadays with the tools that have been developed just in the past 5 or 6 years, offering better ways to achieve soft surfaces with subsurface scattering and global illumination. CG up until that time was still often quite harsh and artificial-looking, but at this point we were starting to incorporate some of the newer techniques that are more physically accurate and correlate more directly to the real world.
WB: The client and agency liked the final; there was such nice warmth to it.
Title: “Pick Up Game”
Client: Green Giant
Agency: Saatchi & Saatchi
SH: Usually the Green Giant is bit disassociated to the action [in commercial spots], he’s always off in the distance saying ‘ho-ho-ho.” He never interacts with people. But if you look at how the character started, there are print ads from the 1950s and 60s where they had him sitting in a easy chair with his plaid bathrobe on and his loafers reading the paper and smoking a pipe, all kinds of silly things like that.
WB: Our brief was simply to put a somewhat fanciful but convincing Giant (or parts thereof) into the scenes.
We used a good bit of live action reference, shot in our back room, to guide the animation and articulations of the Giant. The ball in the spinning shot was also CG, so we had total control over the movement as much as we would with cartoony imagery. For that sequence, we shot some live action reference of a hand and arm starting in a raised position, and then tipping from the elbow until the forearm was horizontal. That let us know what kind of arcing camera move we had to have for the background photograph, to keep the hand from looking like it was just turning oddly, as it would if the background were still. But the animation was relatively simple, compared to most of the other shots.
AW: Plot twist – the Green Giant is a little boy who eats his veggies! Was filming the child shaking off his “green leaves” fairly easy to do?
SH: It was fairly straightforward but not originally planned as part of the spot. Somewhere along the way the agency sensed the need to communicate more clearly that the Giant was actually the kid.
WB: It’s a pretty impressionistic shot — the leaves from the Green Giant tunic are just fluttering off of him, all in CG, and our compositor, Chris Blake, rotoscoped the shape of the boy to overlay the green color pass, which dissolves to the original color.
Title: “Modern Charlie”
Debut: January 2016
WB: The creatives at Quench, working with director Steve ’Spaz’ Williams, created the boards. They loved resurrecting the Octopus, which had been a beatnik, flute-playing character in a long-ago StarKist commercial. Charlie, as ever, is slightly confused about the nature of StarKist’s slogan, and the Octopus enlightens Charlie about omega-3s and heart health.
SH: He’s a very cartoony, graphic style of a character design, which has some very intrinsic challenges for translating it into CG. He’s designed in a fairly abstract way that doesn’t necessarily translate into something that you could sculpt symmetrically. We needed to come up with tricks that would make him appear dimensional but still have him look exactly like he does as a drawing. His glasses and his eyes are technically skewed around onto the side of his head, and the way that his mouth is shaped is not something that you could really get out of a physical creature in 3-dimensional space. For all these you have to find ways to do it in 3-D so it appears correct from the specific camera angles you’re using.
WB: We essentially created a CG model that behaved in a kind of 2D, cartoony way, but also had the textures, lighting, and dimensional cues of a fully 3D figure. The thing about Charlie’s design is that if you really sculpt him as a symmetrical, dimensional figure, you can’t position him to look the way he does in his iconic pose. His head, glasses, hat, upper lip and jaw just will not fit nicely into those outlines.
SH: We got a lot of positive feedback. Based on how much the spot aired, I think the client was very happy with the final.
About Wayne Brejcha, Sean Henry, and Calabash Animation
Our greatest milestones at Calabash…
SH: I think 2002, when we were nominated for an Oscar with our short film “Stubble Trouble” directed by our own Joe Meredith. That was a high point for all of us. At the time I was a CG animator and not very involved with that project, but it was still a real high point for the studio. And then of course when Wayne and I purchased the company in 2004, that was the start of this big adventure.
And a look at what’s on the horizon…
SH: While we’re proud of our history and the classic brand icons we’ve worked on over the past 32 years, we are focusing on the forward view. Calabash keeps on seeking opportunities to work in different styles, with new technology for global audiences. Last year we traveled to China to work on an elaborately animated spot for a major Chinese tire brand, as well as worked with USA Soccer to create a series of 20 animated online shorts supporting the Women’s US National Soccer team.
WB: Other recent projects included creating animated elements for exhibits at the Georgia Aquarium and promotional ads for mobile apps such as the popular game “Oops You Died”. Our first love is character animation, which we continue to do a lot of, most recently on K.C Penguin for Kids’ Cuisine and Bongo for D’animals, as well as Charlie The Tuna for StarKist, and an array of projects for toy companies like SpinMaster and Hasbro. It’s fun to glance in the rear view mirror at old projects, but the road ahead is the awesome view.