Glowing in a red electric haze and revolving at more than 40 kilometres an hour, a fantastic contraption that would have stretched the imagination of HG Wells, sits quite bizarrely in the middle of a 14th-century Italian piazza.
The people of Verania, a village founded for the purpose of servicing the hunting passions of the Savoy royal family, have gathered in awe around this extraordinary pulsating object, which in spite of its extra-terrestrial appearance was crafted in a workshop in Perivale, on the outskirts of London.
To gasps of amazement from the crowd, figures emerge on board the craft; eight, nine, 10 or more of them. Each one turns out to be Kaka, the Brazilian football star, neatly stepping over a ball with his left foot, and laying it off with his right. It's an image made from still photographs, spinning at precisely 44kph to bring Kaka to life, so that he moves with the effortless grace that fans of AC Milan have come to recognise from his performances at the San Siro stadium.
This contraption is the world's biggest and fastest-moving zoetrope, the rotating device invented by Englishman William Horner in 1834 to give motion to still pictures. The technique of viewing pictures through slits in a drum, later used in the early days of cartoons to animate prototype characters such as Felix the Cat, has now been redesigned for showcasing the latest television technology in what is possibly the most anticipated commercial of 2009.
In a corner of the freezing cold piazza, Vernie Yeung, sits on a small box beneath the flame of an outdoor heater, directing a team of cameras, one of which hovers on a crane, high above the zoetrope. Yeung, 30, who works for Ridley Scott's RSA UK production company in London and is known for having filmed Kylie Minogue in a neon birdcage for the video of "I Believe in You" has been hired by Fallon, Britain's hottest creative advertising agency, to make the latest in its phenomenal series of ads for Sony Bravia televisions.
"The first time I saw the zoetrope, I thought of a UFO. I thought of the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with a friendly space ship rather than a scary one. So I'm trying to have the crowd gather round – it's not like the UFO is about to attack, everyone is having fun," says the director, a black woollen hat pulled down over his ears.
This is cutting-edge creative advertising up close. The Fallon team, huddled around a cluster of camouflage tents that recall the Vietnam drama M.A.S.H, will film through the night until 4am. The villagers don't seem to mind, as they jostle for a picture of the real-life Kaka as he turns up to monitor progress of an ad that will be screened globally, raising his profile to new heights.
But the buzz around this commercial extends way beyond the Piazza Dell'Annunziata in Verania. This is the follow-up to the Colour Like No Other trilogy, which have been some of the most talked about pieces of work in British advertising. The campaign began in 2005 with Balls, a spectacular ad that grew from the imagination of a young Argentine Juan Cabral, working from Fallon's offices in London's Soho. Recalling his childhood fondness for playing with those brightly-coloured rubber balls that bounce 30 feet in the air, Cabral had the idea of propelling 250,000 of them down the steep streets of San Francisco.
A year later the team moved to Glasgow, dousing a high-rise housing estate in rocket propelled paint as a clown ran for cover from the rainbow-coloured rain. Then they headed to Manhattan, overrunning Foley Square near Wall Street with rabbits made from Play-Doh and getting animators to bring the bunnies to life by moving them around on pieces of wire as office workers looked on in bemusement.
Whereas those previous three ads focused on the simple concept of colour, this latest commercial has the more complex sell of technology. Giles Morrison, a senior member of Sony's marketing team, says the "battleground" in the TV market has changed. "Ultimately we are in the technology business and things move quickly. We have to give ourselves a competitive edge."
Sony needed a way of alerting the public to it being first to market with a 200Hz television, ahead of rivals such as Samsung, Panasonic, Philips and LG. The extra frequency means the picture needs to refresh less often and removes juddering from high speed action, such as a shot on goal from Kaka. To do this they decided they needed to create the world's biggest zoetrope (a name combining the Greek words for life and turn). So Fallon called in Matthew Fone, a freelance producer who had previously worked on the agency's drumming Gorilla commercial for Cadbury's, and Ben Scott, who once lit up a 100ft high neon tree in Maastricht to mark the arrival of the Euro.
Working with a team from special effects company Artem (which also designed the Play-Doh bunnies), Scott came up with something made from 10,000 nuts and bolts, 50,000 LED lights and red steel girders that protrude like the legs of an arachnid. Because this zoetrope – branded as the Braviadrome – can hit speeds of 50kph and bolts have a propensity for working themselves loose, the structure is fitted with a bullet proof polycarbonate shield to protect onlookers. It takes a team of 10 workers three days to assemble.
"We wanted something as futuristic as we could make it. Something that would sit in this ancient, classical square and look like it really has landed from space," says Scott, who had eight weeks to get the calculations of the zoetrope exactly right. Inside the structure, 64 shots of Kaka revolve at 25 frames per second. The Moving Picture Company post-production house was brought in to work out the "fairly complex maths involving the size of the split openings, the distance between the image and the slits and the speed at which the zoetrope travels".
The battleground may have moved from colour to technology but the Bravia ads retain a common thread, which is the child's playroom. After the bouncy balls, the squeezy paint and the squidgy Play-Doh, this latest incarnation owes something to the wonder of the kaleidoscope. As well as the shots of Kaka (the emphasis is on the second 'a', which is an important distinction in Italy), the Fallon team have imagery of butterflies, which may make it to the final edit.
Chris Willingham, a partner at Fallon who has overseen the Bravia campaign from the first ad, says the childhood connection brings warmth to the tricky issue of technology. "A zoetrope on a very small scale is a child's toy and a lot of people have said to us that they used to have one as a kid. I think there's something wonderful in that because Sony advertising should be able to speak to the inner child. Technology can be quite daunting and oppressive so what we have done is demystify it so that people can understand the basic emotional benefit that Sony has to offer."
Cabral was again involved in the concept stage, working alongside Richard Flintham, Fallon's executive creative director, and the creative team of Phil Cockrell and Graham Storey. The digital agency Dare was last week on set gathering footage for viral ads which will run online ahead of the main Braviadrome campaign.
As well as the step-over, Kaka was pictured doing a scissor kick, and taking a pass while turning through 360 degrees. Even Dan Magness, a "freestyle footballer" from Milton Keynes who Sony had brought to Venaria to break some Guinness World Records in ball trickery, seems impressed. "He looks really relaxed, like it's easy for him. He's obviously got a good touch," he nods.
Kaka was regarded as an ideal subject for the commercial, partly because Sony, with its heavy involvement in computer gaming, is a major sponsor of football. The company's name will be all over the next two Fifa World Cups and is already associated with the Champions' League (for which Kaka's AC Milan have not this year qualified, a rare flaw in the Brazilian's marketing value). "Kaka is currently in the top three best players in the world," says Willingham. "He is a great role model, an intelligent guy and very likeable. His football skills are unquestionable; he has amazing stamina and balance, allied with incredible speed and trickery. He's almost the perfect footballer. He's also one of those rare footballers who rises above international and club rivalries and gets respect from anyone who has an interest in football. He's not a controversial figure but a thoroughly decent guy whose skills do all the speaking for him."
As for the zoetrope itself, the 10-metre wide hulking Terry's Chocolate Orange shaped "space ship" was being dismantled this week to be brought back to England where it may be used again in an experiential dimension to the campaign. In advertising these days, no one can afford to stand still.
Over here and over there: The Colour Like No Other trilogy
The ad that started it all. Hatched from the memory bank of London-based creative Juan Cabral, who recalled the coloured bouncy balls of his childhood and had the vision to release 250,000 of the things down a San Francisco street. The commercial transformed the Soho ad agency Fallon into the hottest shop in town. Credit too to the British production companies MJZ and The Mill which also worked on the project alongside director Nicolai Fuglsig.
For the follow-up, Fallon decamped to a disused housing estate in Toryglen, Glasgow, firing rockets of paint from the windows of tower blocks. The cameo role of the frog was this time assumed by a clown, running for cover in his flipper-like shoes as paint fell around him like a Technicolor rain storm. The ad was directed by Jonathan Glazer, famed for his work on the Guinness ad ‘Surfer’ and the cult film ‘Sexy Beast’.
Sony crossed the Atlantic again last year for the third instalment in the ‘Colour Like No Other’ Bravia campaign, flooding Manhattan’s Foley Square with 200 primary-coloured bunny rabbits. Once again, Cabral went back to his childhood by having the rabbits made from Play-Doh. The ad, which stunned New Yorkers as they walked to work, featured the Rolling Stones’s “She’s a Rainbow” and was directed by Frank Budgen.
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