I’ve been fortunate enough to work with George Booth on three advertising campaigns, and he was even kind enough to design one of our cards of “Happy Holidays” past.
Working with him opened vistas for me and redefined what collaboration should be all about. I’m going to focus on a two spot campaign we did together for Pacific Bell because the circumstances honestly couldn’t have been better on all fronts. The advertising agency (Foote Cone & Belding/SF), the designer (that would be George), and the sound designer (the late Tom Pomposello), were a magical combination that one rarely gets to experience when producing commercials. It was this project that was also a right of passage of sorts for me because I was extended a level of respect and a peer level working relationship that I hadn’t really seen yet.
It was mid-1993 and Patrice and I had been in business for about 3 years. Among other productions, we’d done the first season of Beavis and Butthead, an international 7Up campaign using Fido Dido, and even started our relationship with Robert Smigel and Saturday Night Live by doing the “Cluckin’ Chicken” parody commercial. All these were high visibility and added to our reputation — all feathers in our cap. I hadn’t realized what was missing until I stepped into this project for Pac Bell.
Our rep Andy Arkin called and said that FCB/SF had a couple storyboards that needed a simple line design for the characters and the backgrounds. This was going to be a Yellow Pages job and yellow was planned as the only color — yellow and black line. They sent the boards over and after looking over them, two artists/designers came to mind: Patrick McDonnell (prior to his fame doing the comicstrip, “Mutts”) and New Yorker cartoonist George Booth. Both were terrific and both would be able to create unique, sympathetic characters that could also withstand the necessity of existing in simple line form over a single color.
The agency storyboards, as is usually the case, were concept boards, not shooting boards. They were done to sell the idea to the PacBell client. I had to look at these and start imagining what I could do with the basic idea — what I could add to plus the idea and raise the entertainment value. This is where the idea of working with George Booth got me juiced! George has always had knack for using elderly characters in his print cartoons. Some call them eccentric, but they’re really not. They’re quite normal and the situations he depicts are also normal. What I assume labels them “eccentric” is that you’re not accustomed to seeing these sorts of people and scenarios in cartoon form, but we’ve all seen this sort of thing in real life. George shows us how truly observant he is by snatching out these little gems and serving them up to us. It’s like watching W.C Fields films like “The Bank Dick” or “It’s A Gift” — very real scenarios you’re not accustomed to seeing in a movie, certainly not in the 1930s, but something you reflect on and realize you’re familiar with.
In “The Earl And The Spark Plug” agency board, the guy who is about to get married is a naïve young man — makes sense, right? But now with the potential of inhabiting George’s world, the vista opens up. What if the guy is an older guy who never got married? He’s clueless instead of simply naïve. This adds a lovely level of depth and richness. He’s a passenger on the train of life and never bought a ticket — stuff just happens to this fella. This is when I knew George was going to be perfect! Look at the original agency board and then how it was transformed once Earl was finally designed and folded into the concept. By the time we began animating, I felt I knew Earl better than the agency did. For instance, the original board has him owning a Duesenberg automobile. A Duesenberg was a ritzy high class car. I suggested a DeSoto instead — a defunct “everyman” auto with a funny name to boot. Much more like something Earl would have.
“The Robin And The Hair” didn’t receive the geriatric treatment because we all agreed that she was going to be more effective as a wirey and frenetic “whirling dervish” — someone who’s moving so fast (in direct contrast with Earl) that she never seems to give anything the proper attention.
An important feature of these two spots is the narrative voice-over reading drives the action. It’s an alternate reality that’s reinforced by the way we enter the film. We begin by seeing a storybook whose cover opens presenting the character. We then pull in and we’re in the Yellow Pages world. There are no real defined backgrounds, just background elements and props that reinforce each vignette idea. This allows us to take advantage of what animation does so well: create a fantasy world where you have complete control over what you want the viewer to see and feel. It also distills everything down to the bare essentials and makes the concept come through loud and clear! The spots end with us pulling out and the book (now the PacBell Yellow Pages) slamming shut. Nice “closure”. . .
Because modern digital ink & paint technology wasn’t quite up to speed when we produced these, we utilized traditional methods to create the artwork that would be filmed on 35mm motion picture film. The final, cleaned-up animation line drawings were photocopied onto an acetate cell(uloid), turned over and painted on the back with acrylic vinyl paint. Because all the color in these was essentially yellow, and had to be the SAME yellow, we were confronted with a problem. When you stack acetate cells on top of one another, they darken the image underneath. If you have three or four levels of cell, you’ll have three or four different tones of (in this case) yellow. Traditionally, you’d mix the paints to compensate for the fluctuation in tone but that technique never assured an exact match. If our concept was going to be 100% successful we had to make sure that there was no difference in the yellow whatsoever. Luckily there was a post production technique available that allowed us to adjust the yellow color AFTER it was filmed. It just meant that we had to cut the final production down to two levels – character and background – and adjust the color of the character to the yellow color of the background. In order to have complete flexibility during this process we had to choose a character color that would be radically different from the background. We did some tests and determined that a medium green was going to be user friendly with the computer process.
Imagine what the first reaction was when the film from the lab was put up on the screen for the first time and the agency and client saw their Yellow Pages animation with a bunch of green characters moving around. . . after a faux surprise on my part I explained (and demonstrated) the process and the appropriate “ohhs and ahhs” commenced. . . We just color corrected the yellow to where we wanted it to be and steered the green into the same yellow realm.
The final stage was sound design. This is not some obligatory phase you simply go through to finish a project. It’s just as important as the animation itself – it makes the animation into everything it can possibly be ! There’s an interesting backstory to this particular project and it also explains why each spot begins with an opening refrain from “What Can The Matter Be/Johnny’s So Long At The Fair”. I wanted to give everyone involved in the project a clear idea of how I felt about the characters, especially Earl. At the pre-production meeting here in the studio, I played a piece of music that had always made me laugh and was sure would help define our clueless fiancé. The soundtrack consisted of a solo trumpet player desperately trying to blow the notes of “What Can The Matter Be”. No matter how many mistakes the player made, they continued to struggle forward with their effort. Everyone broke into laughter and it was all that was needed to complete Earl’s defining character. (the track was a recording that my father had made of me at nine years old) That’s the reason both spots begin and end the way they do.
When it came to sound design, I had worked continuously with the late Tom “Honest Tom” Pomposello on most of my projects, and this was especially exciting for both of us because we both realized how rich the soundtrack could be. As usual, I wanted the audio to support the animation but also wanted the effects to be much more than literal. From the honk we hear when Earl sinks into his car seat, to Robin’s frenetic little voice escaping as she runs, Tom totally nails it. He draws your eye to precisely where it needs to go at any given time. For instance, watch and listen to Robin’s dog as he hears the word “Rottweiler”. Magic.
As I said before, this project was very important to me and my development as a filmmaker and epitomizes how a good working relationship produces the best work. The high level of trust and encouragement on all sides allowed everyone to collaborate fearlessly. No one was afraid of tossing an idea into the mix, and there were plenty of things that we all decided wouldn’t work, but at least we mutually explored the territory before agreeing it sucked !
My only regret is that I couldn’t find an effective way to incorporate George’s trademark, “single light-bulb hanging from the ceiling”.
Oh well, hopefully next time. . .
Mike Leonard – Creative Director/Copywriter
Paul Norwood – Art Director
Iliani Matisse – Producer
George Booth – Designer
J.J. Sedelmaier – Director
Irene Cerdas – Production Coordinator
Tony Eastman – Animator (“TheRobin And The Hair”)
Ed Smith – Animator (The Earl And The Spark Plug”)
Tom Pomposello – Creative Director
Citizen Kafka – Associate Creative Director
John Crawford – Voice
Thanks go to Corrie Lebens and Zero Lastimosa for their help in preparing the layout of this piece !