Bill Collis, CEO of award-winning visual effects software company, The Foundry, examines how the use of VFX in the advertising industry has evolved, as well as exploring what’s next and what it means for the industry behind the magic
The high-profile advertisements shown within marquee televised events such as the Super Bowl, the World Cup, Oscars, and this year’s impending Olympic Games have become almost as notorious as the events themselves. Some of the on-air commercial spots attract more than 90 million viewers and command price tags that run into millions of dollars. As audiences have grown, so has the trend towards more and more spectacular and innovative commercials.
These days, given the quality and use of high-end visual effects (VFX) employed in commercials, viewers could easily be left feeling as if they were watching film trailers as opposed to product advertisements.
High Profile Spots
Notable adverts that premiered at the 2012 Super Bowl included Chevrolet’s “2012 End of the World” featuring science fiction-like “doomsday” effects, and Audi “Vampire Party” with its Twilight-esque theme. Both these spots employed high-end VFX to transport the viewer into a fantastical world, creating the kind of immersive experience normally reserved for blockbuster movies.
At a fraction of the price, but with a more targeted audience demographic, this year’s Oscar coverage also saw big brands employing VFX to catch viewer’s attention. Proctor & Gamble wowed us with its TIDE “Pop-A-Lot” spot, and Hyundai pushed the boundaries with its Wes Anderson directed “Talk to my Car”.
While these unique mass audience events go hand in hand with a high advertising spend, the use of cutting edge VFX in commercials is not reserved exclusively for big ticket events. The advertising industry is increasingly employing VFX across the board and acknowledging the importance of commercials that use effects to access new levels of creativity.
The Visual Effects Society (VES) acknowledged this dynamic by creating categories to credit VFX work in commercials as well as film from the outset of its annual awards program, which began in 2003. Notable recent winners include Dior’s 2011 “J’adore” spot and Audi’s 2012 A6 Avant “Hummingbird” commercial. In addition, the British Arrow Awards (formerly BTAA) which have been recognizing excellence in British advertising since 1976 started a separate Craft Awards in 1996 to credit the increasing amount of skill involved in producing the work, with a VFX category being added in recent years. This year’s winner Talk Talk “Homes Within Homes” illustrates the versatility of VFX when combined with a creative director’s vision.
The History of VFX in Ads
If we quickly trace the trajectory of the television advert, it is evident that developments in VFX have been instrumental in the evolution of creative concepts. In the last 10 years technology has advanced at such a rapid pace, making what once was impossible, possible with the use of VFX. Practitioners moved away from using in-camera or practical “special” effects, which were time consuming, expensive and would often produce limited end results. In the place of special effects, the industry has increasingly used digital visual effects in postproduction.
As the technology has improved and the price of entry has reduced, there has also been a move away from using VFX purely for impact. No longer are VFX solely about the big climax moments, explosions, or stunts. Nowadays facilities employ visual effects in a wide range of situations, helping to add detail to environments, re-create period features, and generally aid the telling of a story using more subtle or “invisible” VFX. This shift has been made possible, as technology has advanced to reach the point where VFX techniques can present a photo-realistic look.
For example, one of the most notable VFX commercials of the 1990s was the Guinness, “We have all the time in the world” spot that was completed using a mix of practical effects and digital design. While groundbreaking in its day, this advert could now be done at a fraction of the cost and in less time.
Over the years, a huge increase in the number of television channels has also increased demand for commercials, while also having the counter impact of reducing the budgets available. To deal with this change, postproduction houses and software companies have had to find more innovative and cheaper ways of achieving the high quality results that enable advertising agencies to improve their ability to tell a story. In turn, this squeeze has driven fast advances in digital visual effects.
The future is bright thanks to VFX
The increased use of visual effects has made the realization of advertising ideas possible that weren’t previously, which has allowed brands and agencies to be incredibly ambitious with their advertising. Year-on-year VFX use is on the increase within the commercial advertising space. This growth has been driven by improvements in technology, which have made postproduction houses far better equipped and able to offer more for less.
Despite VFX in commercials traditionally trailing VFX in films, commercials have been, and will continue to be a playground for budding VFX producers and directors due to the creative scope afforded. While they only have between 30 and 60 seconds to tell their story and make a memorable impact, this often affords directors the opportunity to be more daring with ideas and innovative with the methods they employ. In fact, many film directors cut their teeth in commercials. Neill Blomkamp experienced a rapid trajectory from Citroen’s “Alive with technology” commercial to his first feature film District 9. Blomkamp is by no means an anomaly – there are many more like him. Even once these big name directors have made it in the film world, they are often lured back to direct commercial spots. For example, Duncan Jones (Source Code, Moon) directed the highly acclaimed Virgin Money “40 years of better” spot last year and Martin Scorsese famously directed a spot for Chanel in 2010.
In the now highly competitive space of postproduction and VFX, being able to bring the creative visions of both brands and advertising agencies to life remains hugely important. However, in this changed landscape it is those who are able to provide tools and talent at affordable rates that have the edge in this exciting industry.
Bill joined The Foundry in 2001 as an algorithms engineer and was soon promoted to head of research. In this role, he managed seven DTI and European Union funded research projects and led the development of The Foundry’s Furnace image processing plug-ins receiving a Sci-Tech Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2007. Bill became commercial director in 2006 and then CEO in 2007. Prior to The Foundry, Bill worked for Snell & Wilcox where he contributed to the development of the infamous “bullet time” effects in the first Matrix film. Bill received a PhD in non-linear Signal Processing from The Institute of Sound and Vibration Research at the University of Southampton in 1995 and is currently an associate fellow there.