Lucky the Leprechaun has finally been cornered by the kids.
The kids make their final demand for our icon’s Lucky Charms cereal filled with unicorn marshmallows. Lucky is trapped in a barn, atop a unicorn. Will they get a bowl of his Lucky Charms, or does Lucky have a bit of magic up his sleeve to get out of the jam?
It’s not a spoiler to say that Lucky finds a way to guard his magically delicious cereal by the end of the “Sneeze” spot. After all, he’s been doing it for more than 50 years. Lucky has delighted the world with his cereal and endeared fans to the icon’s likeable leprechaun persona.
Production studio Calabash Animation plays a pivotal role in keeping Lucky on his toes, as the character appeals to the next generation while remaining true to his shamrock-y roots. Co-owners Wayne Brejcha and Sean Henry spoke with us a few years ago in our oral history series on Calabash Animation. (FYI, this is where they spilled the details about Lucky’s 2005 ‘Car Chase’ commercial for Lucky Charms.) Now, Creative Director Brejcha is back to share what it was like to animate an ad that mixes live-action with characters. Plus, find out more about their St. Patrick’s Day themed follow-up: “Unicorn Traps.”
How did the storyline for “Sneeze” come about and what role did Calabash play in bringing the campaign to life?
[Lucky Charms’ ad agency] Erich & Kallman had tight scripts for both “Sneeze” and “Unicorn Trap” ready to go by the time they brought us aboard for visual development.
From the scripts, we did boards and a scratch audio track to make a basic animatic and went through a refinement of a dozen or so versions on E&K’s feedback, until the timing and pacing felt good and all the staging was clear. Our final animatics for both spots were pretty tight, with shot lengths very close to final. Camera moves, simple movements of characters, major poses and expressions for the animated characters were mostly worked out at that stage, along with accompanying color concepts.
We looked to Eric Kallman for the feel and style of the productions. We had a ball with the direction he wanted to go. We’re fans of his sense of humor. We relished the opportunity to do ‘golden-age’ style painterly backgrounds, as well as pretty wacky animation with roots in old Tex Avery and Looney Tunes fare.
Both spots made use of CG animated elements. The kids were shot on green screen at Resolution Studio in Chicago; and composited into the animated world. Chris Blake here at Calabash did a great job heading up the compositing team, and our production manger Diane Grider coordinated all of the animation.
For “Sneeze,” we also created the animated character of the Unicorn, based loosely on box artwork we’d done earlier.
What’s it like to work on a commercial that is 50/50 animated and live-action?
We board these very tightly and make animatics that form a really strict blueprint or template. On a short schedule, production has to be multi-tasked every way possible. Once we have approval on the animatic and color concepts, we can simultaneously start in on the background painting, the character animation, and the live action shoot. The footage of the live kids has to fit into animated layouts and there’s not much room for improvisation. When we shot the live action at Resolution, we lifted images directly from the animatic to overlay in the monitor as the live action was getting set up, so that the camera height, lens and angles all matched the layout. Using the image overlays, the director could get the kids looking towards the animated characters as well.
In “Unicorn Trap,” the kids with unicorn masks on that had to appear in the windows of a cardboard-cutout stable that falls over as they jump up. You could spend days trying to get even a simple stunt like that to work in live action — and all the live action for that whole spot was shot in four hours. Knowing that the stable would have to be a CG element, it was critical that the kids fit into the eventual scene perfectly. Our experience with this lets us foresee and avoid the likeliest pitfalls. You have to do your best realistic guesswork at the animatic stage when you’re drawing poses and figuring out timings for the eventual live action elements. The kids in both spots did good jobs looking in the right directions to end up looking at the animated characters.
What about the sequence where the unicorn sneezes? That sneeze sends the horse and Lucky through the back of the barn and up the rainbow. How was this brought to (animated) life?
We had a small army of talent on the shots showing the sneeze and its aftermath. David Childers, Levi Ames, Jeff Mika, and Lynn Walsh all contributed to the 2D animation of the sneezing/hurtling unicorn and Lucky. The blast of glitter was CG particle stuff done by Anthony Morrelle. David Gardner painted the gorgeous backgrounds for both “Sneeze” and “Unicorns Trap.” This shot required a painting overlay where the barn wall has a hole in it. Ryan Quinlan did the effects of the board splinters flying. Jimmy Wasion and Nick Oropezas handled the CG movement of the landscape where the Unicorn flies backwards across a field and up the rainbow. The landscape was an amalgam of David’s paintings and some CG models that Jimmy and Nick created and textured and arranged in 3D space.
In the live action, the kids were blown by a big fan on cue as they jumped back, so their clothes and hair got puffed by the sudden wind. We had some micro-adjustments in the edit, sliding the live footage to the place where the cause-and-effect seemed totally natural. The blowy motion makes a nice contrast to how perfectly still they are in the aftermath shot where they are standing stock still, coated in glitter.
The difficulty with shots like those is that each element has endless difficulties on its own, and you have to bring them all together to make that seamless shot.
Quite a few of us already know the story of Lucky the Leprechaun, but can you tell us more about his unicorn friend?
The unicorn marshmallow appeared in the Lucky Charms cereal mix in February 2018 (replacing the hourglass). We’d been fortunate enough to contribute to the box artwork featuring the Unicorn, so we had experience working with the character.