It’s one of the juiciest advertising jobs of all, but Psyop found itself creating seven completely different ‘worlds’ for a single ad when it took on the Guinness Dot spot – and that wasn’t the only challenge...
When it comes to superstar brands, Guinness is definitely A-list. Not only is it one of the standard draught stouts in British, Irish and American pubs – and famous the world over – it also has an advertising pedigree that would make any creative’s mouth water.
For decades, the company has ploughed a fortune into eye-catching, witty and succinct branding, from John Gilroy’s quirky toucan in the 1930s to the iconic 1999 Surfer ad, which was voted the best TV ad ever in one poll.
Winning a Guinness commission, then, is a dream come true for an agency – but it’s also a huge challenge. When BBDO Dublin commissioned New York-based animation studio Psyop to make Dot, a minute-long spot for Guinness, it was thrilled.
“We were very excited when BBDO approached us about this spot,” says director Eben Mears. “You often create cool spots for products that aren’t so enticing. But Guinness is not only a brand with a history of great ads, it’s also great beer! It’s always easier to work on jobs that promote a product that you like.”
Typically for a Guinness ad, the spot is a clever, technically accomplished take on a deceptively simple idea. “Essentially we needed to develop a character, Dot, that can create anything in the universe, but decides to become a pint of Guinness...
"The dot would need to evolve graphically while creating ever more complicated worlds. Throughout everything, we needed to retain the dot as a character.”
Developing the story
Psyop’s initial brief from BBDO was fairly open: a script and a brief. However, the sky-high production values meant a long process of negotiation as to the precise shape of the ad.
“The crazy thing is that this script had been worked on by the agency for nearly two years,” says Mears. “We didn’t understand what this would mean for us until we got into the thick of production.
"Initially we took the concept and reworked the script and presented that to the client with our storyboards and design frames. BBDO Dublin came back to us very happy with our story additions, but then wanted to modify the script again.
“We ended up scrapping our first round of design and engaged in two months of back-and-forth on the script... There was [also] a legal department that had to approve all the concepts. Finally the creative team from Dublin flew out to New York to finalize the script face-to-face.”
The lengthy pre-production process squeezed the project’s schedule. Mears says: “We went through multiple rounds of design. Each time we thought we had locked a script down we’d design it, then we’d rewrite it, and then redesign it.
"So the end result was a luxurious schedule [just over three months] became a nightmare of stress as we tried to finish a spot constantly in flux.”
Designing and agreeing on the storyboard and the spot’s aesthetic became a fluid but lengthy process. “This was one of the hardest jobs creatively I have ever worked on,” says Mears wryly.
“An idea that works on paper does not always work in production. We ended up doing something like 30 or 40 versions of the pre-viz and still we couldn’t lock it down.”
Even without the disappearing timeframe and wrangling over the storyline, the project’s technical demands posed a major challenge: “Psyop jobs always start with design. As we locked down certain areas of the script, we would design that section. We then had to figure out how the hell to make it – this job was extremely hard on that level.
"The graphic evolution of the spot from pencil drawing to live action ended up meaning that we had seven distinct styles to create,” Mears explains.
“On some levels this was like creating seven different ads – that doesn’t include the work we ended up scrapping for narrative or technical reasons.”
To deal with the ad’s seven segments, the Psyop team had to call upon almost as many animation styles. “The opening section was a combination of hand-drawn elements... with 2D animation in After Effects,” says Mears.
“Jungle was all built in XSI. The water world is a combination of CG ink created in Houdini with live-action elements we shot and a tonne of compositing in Flame. Most of the rest of the CG was Maya. The final scene was a combination of live-action film with a CG city built in Maya and Flame.”
Now for the hard part
This final scene proved nightmarishly difficult. Mears explains: “The hardest [section] to complete should have been the easiest: the live action of the guy at the end.
"We ended up shooting with a ‘velocity cam’ system and a helicopter to do the pull-out from the eye. The initial shots looked like they would stitch together just fine, but due to altitude restrictions for the helicopter in Vancouver, we were never able to get the two shots close enough.
"We had also covered most of the surrounding area with digital stills in case we had to recreate the shot.” However, despite all this, the shot stubbornly refused to work out.
“When we went to stitch the shot together, the arc of the velocity cam and the shaky flight of the helicopter were impossible to stitch and stabilize.
"The photogrametry didn’t end up working with the camera move the agency wanted – in the end we had to create most of the city in CG on a super-tight deadline.”
The point where the ad arguably takes off is the transition between the pen-and-ink jungle and the fluid forms of the underwater section – Mears says that this is his favourite section.
“One of the most challenging hurdles on the job was creating ink fluids in CG,” he explains. “We used Houdini for the first time here to create particles for the ink section of the spot.
"I was extremely happy with the results and think that we created something unique and original. Let me put it this way: we started calling our TD for the fluids ‘Particle Jesus’ when we saw the results.”
Even the simplest shots, such as the opening section, required a lot of reworking. “Oddly enough the initial designs were quite different. They had a more thread-like quality to them,” Mears says.
“We spent months trying to nail the animation style for the opening and in the end we gave up and redesigned it. It’s all for the best, though, since the line animation and design of the first shot is really stunning.”
Mears is candid about the complexity and stress of the project, but says that he’s highly satisfied with the end result. “I’ve never had to brainstorm and rewrite so many times... I suppose the best things always require a lot of work and, at least for some of us, a lot of pain, but in the end it’s worth it to get great work.”
“It is the story of evolution”
The ad evolves from the simplest of animation styles – a black, gently bouncing dot on an off-white background – through an astonishing series of changes, ending in a flourish of CG wizardry.
The dot first moves through increasingly complex ink drawings before becoming a berry in a black-and-white jungle scene. From there, it dissolves dramatically into an underwater world, where it moves through a seascape trailing a long, inky tail.
The scene fades to black and the dot becomes a light in a night-time city, among many other dots, and the neon streaks of car headlights.
The camera pans up and the neon streaks whirl up into the sky to become a firework display, then swirl into a primitive computer game, which spirals into a more high-tech, 3D computer game (the dot is the ball) and medical imagery, where the dot is a pulse.
Next, the dot grows into a pupil, and there is a rapid zoom out, from the man’s face in which the pupil sits, up past the street, the city, the cloud layer and the whole planet.
This then returns to being a black dot on a white background – until the shot pans round and the dot is revealed to be a bottom view of a pint of Guinness.
Finding the flow
Ensuring that the ad’s sections blended together smoothly in Psyop’s trademark style was a headache. “The hardest thing became brainstorming and redesigning many of the sections, and then all their transitions,” explains Mears. “As with most Psyop spots, we tried to create a seamless flow from section to section. This is particularly difficult when every section is a completely different graphic style.”
Agency: BBDO Dublin
Studio: Psyop, www.psyop.tv
Software: Adobe After Effects, Softimage|XSI, Autodesk Flame, Autodesk Maya, Side Effects Houdini