Taking the plunge into live action ads

Free-falling in armchairs, tearing after tornados - top TV ad directors are abandoning computer images and opting for 'reality'. Jim Davies reports

"It's the real thing" is a celebrated advertising slogan, but most switched-on television viewers realise that even the most spectacular commercials are little more than clever set-ups. Often studio-based affairs, they owe most of their vim, polish and realism to post-production and special effects technology: see Organics's human heads blossoming in the desert or the Vauxhall Vectra's surreal trip into the future. Perspectives are exaggerated, colours are pumped up and no effort is spared to achieve carefully pre-packaged excitement.

Recently, however, there has been a backlash. BT's Everest ad, for example, or the Volvo 850 tornado, glory in real live action. More accomplished commercials directors - Hugh Hudson, Tony Kaye and the young pretender Daniel Barber - take pride in capturing the most dangerous-looking moments "in camera", relying on carefully orchestrated live stunts.

"Subliminally you lose something if it's done with computers," says James Studholme, managing director at Blink Productions. He is keeping an eye on the trend and concludes that "shooting for real brings a quality you'd never get otherwise".

BMP DDB's commercial for Sony Super Trinitron Wide television, which gets its first airing on British TV on 6 November, is a case in point. This pounds 2m campaign features a man free-falling in an armchair, which meant the poor fellow had to be pushed out of a helicopter at 10,500ft - not once, but 20 times. A champion parachutist, he was followed down by a colleague with a small camera attached to his helmet, and baled out just before impact. The shoot required 50 identical armchairs, all scientifically weighted to fall vertically. It involved a two-location shoot in California, shipping in some of Hollywood's best aerial stunt people fresh from the thriller Drop Zone.

"There were many ways we might have done it," admits Daniel Barber, the director. "But like this, you see what happens naturally - tiny unquantifiable things that you couldn't have imagined happening. There's a slightly loose quality to it and shots and angles I would never have dreamt of achieving. There were times when the cameraman drifted away from the chair and had to make all sorts of odd moves to get in closer again."

Barber came to commercials via television station identities - he conceived and directed the original falling figure twos for BBC2. He says he is reacting to the constraints of his former discipline: "Computer-generated ads can look incredibly san-itised. You can almost smell the fakeness."

"Leaves are always too shiny," adds Studholme. There is also a feeling that "in camera" commercials have more integrity. You may be making extravagant claims for your product, but at least you are not duping the public with computer trickery.

There is also the cost to consider. A few days in a digital editing suite is peanuts compared to shipping a full crew to the Himalayas and New Zealand for a 30-day trip - which is what BT did for its latest extravaganza, which saw Sir Edmund Hillary and his son Peter communicating by portable video link-up. "You just can't shoot such wide landscapes in a studio," says Jon Greenhalgh, who directed the ad for Ridley Scott Associates through Saatchi and Saatchi. "TV audiences have high expectations. They're used to seeing nature documentaries that have taken months to film."

BT's corporate campaign, which touts the power of communication, is not the most obvious candidate for the white-knuckle treatment. The usual fodder are hi-tech boy-toys - cars in particular.

Especially frenetic is Tony Kaye's Twister commercial for the Volvo 850, which sees a meteorologist chasing a tornado for data. Kaye used aircraft engines to create a vortex and cranes and industrial sprinklers to hurl grit and boulders at the oncoming car. For one of the previous commercials in the campaign, a steel bridge (rumoured cost pounds 30,000) was built across a ravine in Greece to demonstrate the handling of the car.

"This kind of commercial relies far more on the lateral thinking of the director than the cleverness of a computer," believes Adam Kean, creative director of Saatchi and Saatchi. Which is exactly why the more ambitious directors prefer this option: it gives them far more opportunity to strut their stuff. "There's also a macho thing going on," says Theo Delaney, a director at Spots Films. "You know ... 'I'm the man. I was bitten by a snake and hanging out of a helicopter by my big toe, but I still got the shot'."

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