- Friday, Oct. 20, 2000
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Image is everything in our mass-consumer-driven society. And not even a baby still in its mother's womb wants to be seen in something as desperately uncool as … a minivan! But a Honda Odyssey? Now that's entirely different.
At least according to an amusing new commercial called "Sonogram." Directed by Mark Pellington of bicoastal/international Propaganda Films via Rubin Postaer and Associates (RPA), Santa Monica, with visual effects by Digital Domain, Venice, Calif., the 30-second spot follows the Honda Odyssey tradition of taking people in supposedly ordinary circumstances and adding an unexpected twist.
Pellington also directed two other spots in the campaign—"Ride to the Dance" and "Cross Country"—which take a similarly unconventional approach.
"Sonogram" opens in a hospital room where a young, heavily pregnant woman, accompanied by her husband, is having an ultrasound. We see a doctor take a reading from the woman's stomach, the outline of a blue-tinged baby appearing on a computer screen. The doctor turns to the couple: "Well, the baby is looking healthy. How are you two doing?" We see the woman's face from the nose up as she answers, "We're great."
Next comes a wide shot of the room as the father adds: "Just doing the parenthood thing—you know—buying a minivan." At this point the baby perks up, becoming more animated and tapping his hands on the glass of the computer screen for attention. "Oh," says the doctor, as we see the distraught baby in close-up, about to launch into a full-fledged tantrum.
"He's kicking," states the mother.
"What minivan?" asks the doctor.
"The Odyssey," answers the father—at which point the baby ends his tantrum. His grimace turns to a smile of contentment as he gives his parents the thumbs-up.
"Nice. Very nice," says the doctor.
The action then shifts to the Honda Odyssey and the voiceover announces: "With a fold-down, third-row seat for family-sized cargo, and a five-star safety rating—it's beyond a minivan. The Odyssey from Honda."
Targeted at young couples, the concept for "Sonogram" was driven by the stigma attached to driving a minivan, especially among younger parents.
"We were trying to put a new spin on the idea of a generation gap between kids and their parents. Parents know they need the minivan, and sometimes younger people try to resist getting one," explained Todd Carey, associate creative director/copywriter, RPA.
"But because the Odyssey really is better than the average minivan, and the stigma isn't so great, we worked from the positioning that the Odyssey is a desirable vehicle, rather than one you settle for," added Curt Johnson, VP/associate creative director/art director, RPA.
According to Pellington, a lot of the credit should go to Digital Domain's Fred Raimondi, who was the computer animation director on the project. "I believe the quality that makes the spot special is the personality of the animation, which is really Fred's personality. I knew from the first meeting that Fred got the concept and understood what the agency was trying to achieve," noted Pellington.
Raimondi said that as soon as he saw the boards, he was attracted to the concept, and that the whole project was a labor of love. In figuring out how the baby would come across, he started acting out various scenarios in front of the mirror. By the time the first production meeting took place, he was pretty much at ease with the character he wanted the baby to have. So during the meeting, when Pellington asked for input on how the baby should act, Raimondi started demonstrating the way he felt the baby should behave. He suggested hiring an actor, whose actions could be used as a blueprint for the baby's, providing a sense of timing around which the live action could be paced.
Simultaneously Pellington and agency producer Helen Park pointed at Raimondi and declared, "You! You're the baby."
This settled, during the live-action shoot, Pellington directed Raimondi—a middle-aged man acting as a baby, replete with thumb-sucking, tantrums and smiles.
Because the team had decided to keep the focus on the baby, the other characters—the doctor, mother and father—were filmed in a more abstract fashion.
"The original boards were pretty much a one-shot deal, but I thought that this might be a little bit limiting, so it was decided to film fragments of them—their hands or eyes—which wouldn't overpower the focus of the spot," related Pellington.
Once the look and feel of the commercial were determined, it was over to Digital Domain's CG team, which—under the guidance of animation supervisor Bernd Angerer—started working on the initial animation of the baby, using Alias/Wavefront's Maya. "The first time I saw the animation of the baby, I was floored. It was way funnier than I even thought it could possibly be. I just kept building on that, so it was tweaking a bit here and there to achieve the ultrasound effect," enthused Raimondi.
In terms of the CG work, the biggest challenge was making sure that the ultrasound looked believable. "With a real ultrasound you don't know what you are looking at. Sometimes you see the hint of a head or a spine or a finger or a foot, and I didn't think it would allow the baby to come across as having a personality," explained Raimondi. "We heard about this new 3-D ultrasound technology that provides images which kind of look like our baby, so we decided to use new ultrasound technology and give it the old ultrasound look."
In creating the CG baby, several reference points were used as a guide. For example, the animators started out with a model of a toddler and scaled it down to make it look more like a baby. Photos of actual fetuses were also used, to get proportions that would realistically reflect a still-developing baby, such as a larger head and skinnier arms.
Raimondi pointed out that because an ultrasound is typically a low-resolution image, the animators were able to get away with less detail. "Keep in mind that you aren't seeing any skin texture, and it isn't in color. As an ultrasound it looks very real, but to be a fully live-action CG baby it would have miles to go," he noted.
This was one of Pellington's first visual effects-driven spots, but the talent of the people involved left him less fearful of tackling effects spots in the future. He praised the agency for having the courage to take such an unconventional approach. "It was my job to give input and steer it along," said Pellington. "I left the technical execution up to the experts—it was amazing what they could do in terms of making the baby come to life as they did. Seeing it grow from the first test to the finished spot was remarkable."
RPA's Carey agreed that the animated baby was the key to making the spot work, and everything else fell into place around it. "The most difficult thing was creating a spot, but not having the lead character in place until the very end of the production. In the rough cut, we were looking at Fred miming the baby's actions," Carey recalled.
"I've done quite a few CG jobs," concluded Johnson, "but this was the most character-driven one that I've been involved in. So I was really surprised at how readable the facial expressions were, and how realistic the movements were."