Oral History: Calabash Animation (Part 1)
 
18 Apr, 2017 · Heather Taylor, Advertising Week

Oral History: Calabash Animation (Part 1)

 
Heather Taylor, Advertising Week

For 32 years, Calabash Animation has brought out the extraordinary sides of ordinary brand icons. Launched by Monica and Ed Newman in 1985, the company was purchased by Co-Owners Wayne Brejcha and Sean Henry in 2004. Brejcha and Henry (who serve as the studio’s Creative Director and Executive Producer, respectively) have spent decades coupling creative storytelling with design and animation techniques that bring these narratives, and the characters within them, to life.

We were honored to sit down with Brejcha and Henry and take a look back at some classic commercials from the Calabash Animation vault. In fact, we discovered so much that it couldn’t be limited to one post. Join us on a two-part oral history behind the scenes of eight of Calabash’s most infamous spots as only Brejcha and Henry can tell the tales.

Title: “Got Milk?”
Client: California Fluid Milk Processor Advisory Board feat. Trix the Rabbit
Debut: 1995
Agency: Goodby, Silverstein & Partners

WB: The action follows a nervous and guilty-looking guy (Harland Williams) as he purchases several boxes of cereal in a dive convenience mart and returns to his low-rent apartment, where he pours a huge bowl of Trix. “All these years,” he mutters, “’Trix are for kids! Trix are for kids!’ Well today... they’re for RABBITS!” and then unzips himself out of his rubber human disguise, revealing that he is in fact the Rabbit and will finally eat that Trix! His elation turns to horror, however, as his empty carton of milk yields only a couple of pathetic drops. The spot ends with the familiar “Got Milk?” graphic.

It was an agency idea. We had done several Trix spots for kids, and General Mills liked what we were doing with the rabbit, so we became a go-to for the cell animation.

AW: Was there any hesitation from General Mills, or the California Fluid Milk Processor Advisory Board with having the Trix Rabbit in the spot?

WB: I think General Mills liked the idea quite a lot when they were assured that the rabbit was in character and that the cereal was not portrayed negatively. I think the Milk Board was happy to get the go-ahead to use the rabbit. There’s really no other critter that fit the story and joke — it’s such a tight and logical weaving together of the products and the brand icon. 

If they hadn’t had the rabbit, the entire spot would have to have been re-written into something else entirely. The plot was built so perfectly and logically around, uniquely, the rabbit: a character whose motif and byline was so well known by several generations of viewers that it didn’t require overdone narrative. The Rabbit’s act was to disguise himself to get the cereal, so the rubber human being suit was a perfect extension of that theme.

AW: I’m especially interested in how you were able to bring the Trix Rabbit into a real-world setting and execute scenes like the zipper being undone on the person’s face to unveil the character underneath.

WB: We had done several all-animated spots with the Rabbit previously, and had a pretty good handle on his personality, expressions and overall drawing model. The agency creatives sent along videos of several takes of themselves acting out the Rabbit’s part, which we tried to incorporate into the animation. Stan Winston created the rubber suit with the zipper for the actor Harland Williams, who played the role of the Rabbit as a human being. Harland’s live action face was composited onto the unzipping rubber face in the close-up, and the live action crew shot a plate of the rubber suit falling away to which we added the hand-drawn Rabbit.

We made large blow-ups of each frame of that live action, with each photo registered to animation pegs, animated the Rabbit interacting with the live action, looking like he’s maniacally clawing his way out of the suit and shoving it down and away. If you did it now, you could do it all as layers in software like Toon Boom “Harmony” and draw with a Cintiq graphics tablet but at the time, we were tracing the photo blow-ups frame-by-frame on paper, and drawing the Rabbit onto those papers, flipping the sheets to see the motion, testing the drawings with the photographs laid underneath on VHS pencil-testing equipment, then tracing the drawings onto acetate cels in ink, and then painting them on the reverse side. There was additional artwork to make tones and highlights on the animated figures, as well as shadows over the live action. We shot the artwork on 35mm film, which was then transferred to digital tape for compositing. 

Overall, there was big love for this spot. It continues to be a favorite on our reel.

Title: “Rotoscope”
Client: Little Caesars
Debut: 1995
Agency: Cliff Freeman & Partners

WB: This was an agency idea: cartoon Little Caesar knocks at a door, saying “Pizza Pizza,” and we discover that he is on a movie set, starring in, of course, a Little Caesar commercial. Unfortunately, his line is supposed to be “Delivery!” which the poor director cannot coax from him, and must resort to using the backup actors waiting in the wings — none of whom really cut it. Having cartoon-world mascots appear in live action settings with live action figures was popular after Who Framed Roger Rabbit came out. The brief was to keep Caesar his recognizable self, but bring him into this “two-and-a-half-D,” as 2D cartoons with hand-drawn tone and highlight passes were called.

AW: Tying in with the spot’s name, what’s it like to film live action side by side with animation?

WB: During the live action shoot, there’s no actual animated figure on the set. The cameraman had to line up the shot leaving enough space for the eventual figures. You usually have detailed shooting boards to guide the camera compositions, but that’s hardly ever enough. It’s much more helpful to have a cardboard cutout standing in for the eventual animated figure, just to line up the shot. It makes quite an imagination task for the actors — they have to interact with something that isn’t actually right in front of them, as if they’re talking to their little invisible pal. That’s particularly helpful if the shot is close-up, because in the final composite, the audience can easily detect if the actor’s eyes are really focused on a point in space three feet away, where the animated character is supposed to be, not twenty feet away.

Once we have the live action to work with, the process can take anywhere from a few days to a few months to complete the animation. You pose the characters out and work out the basic acting, and make several work-in-progress tests compositing the rough animation with the live action. If the camera was in motion, you have to match your animated figure to that movement, and if the live actors or props make physical contact with the animated character, you can spend a lot of effort getting the contact to look just right.

The most crucial thing with a mascot in the situation is making sure its size relative to the real world is exactly what the client has in mind. In this case, Little Caesar is three feet tall and because you have to set up all the live-action shots based on that size, you really can’t change that after in post.

Title: “The Creature”
Client: Honey Nut Cheerios
Debut: 2001
Agency: Saatchi & Saatchi

WB: Another gem from the Saatchi creatives — BuzzBee meets Frankenstein’s Monster and gains his friendship after giving the hungry guy a bowl of cereal. We had done a few Honey Nut Cheerios commercials up to that point, all of which paired Buzz with live action settings, but none with such an unexpected guest star. 

SH: It used actual footage from Bride of Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff. I remember one particular scene that Wayne and the team had a lot of fun animating: where Frankenstein shakes Bee's hand really vigorously and the bee's shaking around like crazy.

WB: Yes, one of the rare instances where a live action actor is actually making physical contact with the mascot — the animation of Buzz getting flopped around by the Creature’s handshake took a few tries. It was also challenging to match the moody lighting from the film with the hand-drawn tones on the bee.

WB: The original footage is black and white, and originally the creative brief called for Buzz to also be in B&W as well, but the client felt Buzz and the cereal box were not recognizable, and the jar of honey lost appeal. We ultimately went with de-saturated look as not to collide too strangely with the B&W footage. The client loved it, and it successfully got the bee out of his usual broad-daylight cheery settings.

Title: “Car Chase”
Client: Lucky Charms
Debut: 2005
Agency: Saatchi & Saatchi

WB: This was designed for theatrical release, and a year later was repurposed into a teaser campaign.

SH: This was such an interesting twist on the Bourne movies or The Fast and the Furious franchise and a little grittier than what had ever seen before from Lucky. Given that everybody's always chasing Lucky to get his Lucky Charms, this was a natural extension of that. Everybody's chasing this little Mini Cooper, but they don't show whose driving it. It's bright green so you can kind of guess. You get little hints of a little clover hood ornament and the marshmallow charm hanging from the rear view mirror.

WB: The shots in the spot are all pretty quick, and the cars are speeding around like crazy, so you do have to match the motion-blur of the car to the character. The longer shot of Lucky in the car was the hard one — the whole car was tipping slightly throughout the shot, and we had to match the character to that slow movement, as well as hit the lip-synch.

WB: We’re very proud of it but because the spot was created for theatrical release we don’t know exactly how it was used.

We leave you with a car chase cliffhanger unlike any other — complete with hearts, stars, horseshoes, clovers, and blue moons. Stay tuned for the second part of our Oral History with Calabash Animation series coming soon!

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