He’s the star of a $250,000 commercial for Cineplex Odeon. He’s an adventurer, a romantic, a lover. He’s Harrison Ford, John Wayne, Leo Dicaprio. But will Frank the Fly’s big-screen debut — and comedic demise — deliver the buzz that advertisers are after?
by David Hayes, National Post Business, April 1999
It’s the afternoon of February 18, and Paul Lavoie, one of Canada’s hottest ad guys, is on his cell. It’s bad news. The talent for his new Cineplex Odeon Corp. commercial, he learns, has died. Lavoie is stunned. Now the production will have to be delayed, and all the necessary professionals — the editors, sound and music specialists, film colourists, digital technicians — will have to be rescheduled. All because several hundred flesh-eating flies, in pupae form, are sitting at the Toronto Nature Centre frozen in their packing cases. The bug wrangler, who had been guaranteed live delivery, isn’t pleased. He will order more, Lavoie is told, this time from a more reliable insect supplier.
The bug wrangler is scrambling because Lavoie has built a quarter- of-a-million-dollar commercial around a fly. It’s his latest solution to advertising’s oldest dilemma: how to help a company solve a business problem while at the same time building an agency’s reputation for creative genius. When the two come together, the result can be wildly successful. Last year, the “Rant,” a commercial for Molson Canadian produced by a Toronto-based agency not previously known for its distinguished creative, featured Joe, a young man who became increasingly passionate as he described the differences between Canadians and Americans. The spot not only helped to reverse Canadian’s decline, increasing its market share in the highly competitive beer industry, it won numerous awards and was both widely imitated and reported upon in the media: a genuine cultural phenomenon.
But today, Lavoie’s mind is focussed only on the crisis at hand. His plan to help both himself and financially troubled Cineplex is on hold due to a box full of flies, the product of the same fanciful imagination that created an ad featuring disco-dancing ducks for Clearnet PCS Inc., which was recently purchased by Telus Corp. He made that one work, despite major obstacles, but can he do it again?
THE BUSINESS PROBLEM
The story of a commercial always begins with a business problem. In the case of Cineplex, it was falling attendance due to increasing competition from elaborate home entertainment systems, video and DVD sales and rentals and other distractions, plus a perception that going to the movies has become too costly. To make movie-going more of an “entertainment experience,” Cineplex and other chains throughout the 1990s built state-of-the-art megaplexes — with luxurious stadium seating, digital sound, wraparound screens, espresso bars and video arcades. But, at the same time, they were locked into long-term leases that prevented them from closing older, no-longer-profitable theatres. That left the chains with many more screens to serve roughly the same number of theatregoers as half a century ago. As a result of these and other factors, by early this year, several chains, including Cineplex, had filed for bankruptcy protection.
Theatre chains traditionally do little advertising — they feed off the backs of film studios, which lavishly market each new release — and Cineplex, which doesn’t even have a vice-president of advertising, was in no position to commission ambitious ads. So the origins of this commercial are somewhat unorthodox.
Lavoie and several other ad people sit on a committee that tries to increase the Canadian industry’s profile at the annual Cannes Advertising Festival. At a meeting at Cineplex Odeon on January 24, Lavoie and his friend Rob Guenette, an advertising director at Molson Companies Ltd. and a client of Taxi, Lavoie’s agency, saw an opportunity. For Guenette, it was a chance to demonstrate his belief that advertisers would prosper if they took more risks and encouraged exciting creative work. Not surprisingly, Lavoie agreed. In the ad business, agencies often do pro bono work, using the opportunity to make adventurous, attention-getting ads that burnish an agency’s image. Cinema spots, which are longer than 15- or 30- second TV commercials and should have high-quality story lines and production values to compete with the Hollywood films that follow them, are an adperson’s dream. So, Guenette and Lavoie thought, why not donate their time and talents to help their colleague, Paul Bolte, Cineplex’s director of national sales, by making a cinema commercial that would not only attract customers to the ailing chain but would also be a showcase for Canadian talent, a potential Cannes award-winner?
THE CREATIVE BRIEF
The first step in the making of an ad is to prepare a brief – a one- or two-page manifesto outlining the strategic goals the client wants the advertising to address for a product or service. Usually written by the client’s senior marketing executive, it provides a general direction for the agency’s creative team.
Acting on behalf of Cineplex, Guenette took on the brief. He’d read research showing that, on average, people go to fewer movies than he’d imagined. So what would make them go more often? What is the one thing that is unique in the minds of consumers about going to the movies? What little advertising Cineplex has done focussed on gift packs of tickets or new, more comfortable seats, great sound or better cafes. But, thought Guenette, these are features, not benefits. Based on his experience with large corporations, he found it incomprehensible that a company wouldn’t advertise its core competency. A movie chain’s strength, he believed, is in presenting a film to an audience in a way that can only be duplicated in a cinema. For one thing, it’s a social experience to laugh or to cry along with scores of fellow theatre-goers. For another, the experience can’t be matched by even the largest TV screen, the best DVD player or the most expensive audio system. With all this bubbling in his mind, Guenette started the brief this way:
Exactly what do we have to do?
Convince and reward movie-goers: they are truly choosing the only real cinematic experience and anything less is a lot less by comparison.
What’s the category need?
Get more people to see more movies at the cinema.
What are the mistaken assumptions that we can capitalize on?
- TV technology has caught up with cinema (e.g., DVD, surround sound, etc.)
- It’s more comfortable and convenient at home
- Going to the cinema is really expensive
How can we do this in a surprising and memorable way?
Contrast the significant difference between the movie experience at home and at the cinema to illustrate that only the cinema provides the real experience.
With his buzzed hair, stylish black-on-black-on-black outfits and an assortment of narrow Armani glasses with frames of different colours, Guenette doesn’t look like the stereotypical suit-and-tie client. But he’s got the credentials: an economics degree and experience in retail banking and in a marketing division of Unilever. Nothing if not shrewd, Guenette knows that creatives — especially those who are visually oriented — usually don’t read the entire brief. His solution, worthy of Pavlov, is to always include a sexy line that will push creative buttons. So, for Lavoie’s benefit, he wrote:
What insights will make this communication truly surprising?
The difference between seeing a movie at home vs. at the cinema is like comparing watching pornography vs. having sex.
As Guenette expected, the line excited Lavoie, but how would the adman turn an arousing simile into an execution? Off and on throughout the rest of January, Lavoie toyed with ideas. He thought about running spectacular footage from effects-heavy films to dramatically demonstrate — especially to those theatre-goers who had only seen the movies on video — how stupendous they look on the big screen. But aside from being predictable and not much different from the high-impact trailers that precede every film, there was no glory in executing a spot that needed nothing more than a skillful editor. What about showing a tiny TV on the huge screen to demonstrate how much bigger the sound and visuals are in a cinema? No, thought Lavoie, I have to show something that is fantastic in the theatre but would die on a TV at home. The boring made exciting. Then, while on a business trip to Florida, Lavoie had a eureka moment: A fly lands on a kitchen table. It gets swatted. It sings to its loved one. Like a Hollywood movie, it doesn’t die.
For such an audacious idea to work, of course, there are risks. The rules for cinema ads are somewhat different than those for TV ads. When people go to the movies, they expect to have a larger- than-life experience. To show a commercial on the big screen is no different. But what if Lavoie’s approach backfired and consumers decided that instead of being a brilliant execution of the boring- made-exciting, the spot simply looked boring?
THE PRE-PRODUCTION MEETING
February 7, 2:30 p.m. Eleven people are congregated around the boardroom table in the renovated warehouse that serves as Taxi’s offices in downtown Toronto. The pre-production meeting is the first time the agency’s creative team meets with everyone involved, including representatives from the production house and the editing studio, the cinematographer, a casting agent (if the spot involves actors) and wardrobe people, the sound specialist and, most importantly, the client. (It’s at this stage that agencies, eager to move ahead, may push for approval from a still uncertain client, leading to potential conflicts later.) Although the key participants today are providing their services without a fee, in most ways the Cineplex commercial is like any other. Its value is about equal to an average Canadian spot – $250,000 – and everyone is taking it seriously.
Standing up, Lavoie passes around Guenette’s brief and a package entitled “Laura’s Friend.” It contains a working script and his pencilled storyboard for the visuals. With his partner, Jane Hope, Lavoie co-founded Taxi nine years ago and built it into an award- winning agency with $70 million in annual billings and a staff of 65. Although a relatively small player in Canada’s $10-billion ad industry, Taxi has an impressive client list: Pfizer Canada Inc. (Reactine and Viagra), Molson Companies (Rickard’s Red and the don’t- drink-and-drive campaign), BMW Canada Inc. (the upcoming launch of the MINI Cooper), Krispy Kreme Doughnuts Corp. and Telus (the ongoing campaign featuring ducks, frogs, lizards and ladybugs).
When Taxi was an unknown start-up, Lavoie decided he didn’t want category leaders. Instead, he preferred underdogs — clients who were in second or third or fourth place — because they had less to lose and were more likely to take a chance on a new agency and edgier creative work. It was a strategy born of necessity as much as design, but one that remains in place today.
Lavoie is six-foot-three and broad-shouldered. With his shaved head and commanding presence, he looks a little like rock star Billy Corgan, leader of the Smashing Pumpkins. He is wearing a black sweater, black cargo-style Armani pants and black shoes that appear to have been outlined in white paint. Lavoie knows how to squeeze the juice out of casual. Acting out each step for his attentive audience, he explains how the commercial will look. It’s meant to be a boring scene: a kitchen table, overturned glass, some spilled cola, a woman talking on a phone in the background who walks off- screen. Then, Lavoie says, you hear the sound of a plane that’s so realistic the audience will think it’s flying right over their heads. It does a loop, and flies by from another direction. After another loop it’s even louder, right above the audience, as though it’s coming in for a landing. Then a fly screeches across the kitchen table — “Errrr, errrrrr,” says Lavoie — and comes to a halt. Lavoie leans forward, his hands flat on the table, his shoulders heaving as he pants: “Ah-huh, ah-huh, ah-huh…”
Looking up, Lavoie says: “Then he stretches. It’s like he’s just finished a long, hard run….” Lavoie stretches, loudly cracking his knuckles, groaning as though he’s exhausted.
“Then he walks to the liquid….” Lavoie rocks animatedly from side to side, imitating the fly’s gait. “He stops to drink….” Making animated slurping sounds, Lavoie swallows noisily. Everyone in the room is laughing at the performance.
“Then a door slams, someone’s coming, he looks around….” Lavoie, his eyes wide open, glances nervously to the left and right, then in a stage whisper says: “Whazz-that?”
Raising his arm, Lavoie brings the palm of his hand down on the table with a dramatic bang!
“A big flyswatter comes down,” he says. “And lifts up. The fly’s stuck to it. Then he falls on his back. There’s a pause. He looks dead….”
Al Jolson-style, Lavoie melodramatically spreads his arms and begins singing, with choked emotion, a song that he remembered listening to as a child and that seemed perfect for this spot. “Tell Laura I love her, Tell Laura I need her….”
Bang! He slaps the table again. Surely the fly must be dead this time. He sings: “Tell Laura not to cry….”
Bang! Bang! Lavoie weakly raises an arm, his eyes staring heavenward. “My love for her…will…never…die….”
As the laughter subsides, Lavoie explains that theme music will follow, along with a superimposed title — known as a “super” — that reads: “Cineplex. Where movies come to life.” Then he reads from a page in a handout entitled “The Buzz on the Fly”: “He’s an adventurer, a romantic, a lover. He’s Harrison Ford, John Wayne and Charlie Chaplin rolled into one. The quintessential Hollywood hero who doesn’t die.”
Lavoie solemnly introduces Jim Lovisek, the bug wrangler who has worked with Lavoie on Taxi’s Telus/Clearnet spots.
“Jim, can you explain what kinds of things you can make them do?” Lavoie asks. “Like when the fly hears someone coming and looks up, startled, and says, ‘Whazz-that?'”
“For the movie The Adventures of Sinbad, I imported ants from Malaysia,” Lovisek says. “If I blew a little puff of air toward the left side of the ant’s head, it would move its head to the left. If I blew on the right side, it would move to the right. If I blew under its head, it would lift its head up. Flies aren’t quite as responsive as ants, though.”
“What about getting the fly to walk up to the puddle of liquid?”
“I’ll have it on a harness. I can get it to walk up to the liquid, no problem. If you want the fly stationary, no problem. If you want it drinking, not a problem. The most difficult shot will be the landing. There’s a lot of latitude as to where it can go.”
The agency producer, Louise Blouin, a trim, striking blonde, asks: “What about close-ups?”
Lovisek furrows his brow. “Flies have large compound eyes. They’re quite horrific, actually. I don’t know if you’ll want a close-up.”
Later, while studying the director’s storyboard, they discuss the swatter scenes. Michael Schwartz, the president and executive producer of Avion Films, the company that will be providing the technical staff and equipment to shoot the commercial, asks: “Will we be accused of abuse of flies? I’m sure there’s an organization out there somewhere representing flies.”
“They only live for 10 days to two weeks,” says Lovisek. “I’ll have lots of ones that died naturally. We can use those on the table for the swatting.”
“Good,” Lavoie says. “If it’s on its back, it doesn’t have to move at all. The digital effects guys can move a leg or arm in post- production.”
Finally they discuss the length of the spot. Turning to Cineplex’s Paul Bolte, Lavoie says: “We should aim for 60 seconds.”
“Maybe it can go longer than that,” says Bolte.
“So,” Guenette concludes at the end of the meeting, “when consumers leave the theatre we want them to think, I’ll never rent a film again.”
THE BUG WRANGLER
February 28, 11 a.m. The offices of the Toronto Nature Centre are located in a nondescript suburban industrial park. Inside, the premises are filled with terrariums and aquariums containing snakes, lizards and other creatures. Upstairs, Jim Lovisek sits in a room about the size of a bachelor apartment cluttered with fossils, minerals, seashells and boxes.
Advertising is fond of using babies and animals, since consumers respond to them. It’s not hard to find a dog or cat trainer, Lovisek explains, but who do you call if, as was the case with Taxi’s Telus/ Clearnet commercials, you want a Nicaraguan red-eyed tree frog or a Madagascar giant day gecko or an Indian running duck?
As a boy, Lovisek obsessively collected frogs, snakes and other wild things. Later he became a zoologist, working on the remote coast of Hudson Bay and along the banks of Amazonian rivers in Colombia, Bolivia and Brazil. After a stint at the Royal Ontario Museum, he became a consultant in exotic creatures for the commercial and feature film businesses in the mid-1980s. He’s a big man, over six feet, with a salt-and-pepper beard and moustache, an untidy thatch of dark hair and a soft-spoken, vaguely professorial manner.
Today, 10 days after the flies arrived frozen, Lovisek is staring intently into a wooden enclosure about the size of a large shoebox. It’s screened on three sides and has fabric on the fourth so he can slip his hand inside, where there are dozens of live flies and, lying on a bed of pine chips, even more pupae, resembling grains of rice. This is the replacement shipment, which has just arrived.
“I ordered 6,000 greenbottle pupae,” Lovisek says, explaining that flies are raised commercially in the U.S. for fishing bait as well as reptile and bird food. Reaching into the box and removing several pupae, he rubs them between his fingers. “They’ll hatch at about 25 degrees Celsius. I cool some of them, keep them at different temperatures, so they’ll hatch at different times. That way I’ll always have some.
“The biggest challenge with this job is the landing. I’ll cool the flies down, so I’ll have many of them at different temperatures. At a certain temperature, a fly won’t fly much, but it will walk around a lot. This is important if, for example, you have a prosthetic of a decaying body for a horror movie and you want flies to appear to be feasting on it.”
March 2, 8 a.m. The basement studio at Generator Productions, a facility affiliated with Avion Films, is crowded with people. The set is simple — a yellow Formica table with two chairs and, past that, a fridge, stove and another table against the back wall. The film camera is positioned just in front of the yellow table, and a fake wall with a realistic-looking window cut into it has been erected along one side, within camera view. With military efficiency, a production crew — the grips, gaffers, props experts, assistants and assistants to the assistants — is setting up lights, positioning portable reflectors (used to soften and diffuse lights), taping down cables and arranging props.
Just then, Jim Lovisek arrives, lugging two coolers and a toolbox. He opens a cooler and removes the wooden box, which is teeming with flies — the cool temperature keeps them less active. Coffee in hand, Lavoie walks by, looks inside and whistles in amazement. “This is a good yarn,” he says. “Really, we can’t worry about recreating the script exactly. The flies are going to do what they’re going to do. We just need to shoot enough so that we have a lot to work with in post-production.”
Lovisek sets up a small sheet of foam core on a nearby table and opens his toolbox. Taking a fly from the box, he anaesthetizes it with a blast of CO2 from a portable canister. Placing it on the foam core, he puts two small pieces of cardboard over its wings and fastens the cardboard with entomological mounting pins. Then he begins the painstaking task of tying a harness around the fly’s abdomen using a polyester line thinner than the thinnest fishing line. Explaining to Lavoie that he may use a drop of liver to attract the fly, Lovisek says: “I like my liver a little bit more rotten. I just took it out and put it on the heater. It’s coming along, but it’s not really foul yet.”
Behind him, Lavoie is talking to production manager Greg Horton about swatting flies. For a brief pre-production session the previous afternoon, Horton had obtained an assortment of flyswatters: green, brown, yellow and red ones with white plastic handles; a purple one with a braided wire handle; and one with a child’s flip-flop sandal on the end, which everyone laughed at but agreed was so weird it would take the viewers’ attention away from the fly. “I love that big red swatter,” says Lavoie. “It’s going to look as big as a barn door on a theatre screen.”
In the studio two hours later, after the woman has been filmed in the background, Stanley Mestel is sitting on the dolly, fine tuning the camera angle. The silver-haired Mestel, who’s in his 60s and learned his craft in Britain, is a multi-award-winning cinematographer. He’s using a camera that’s capable of shooting at very high speeds — 150 frames a second for some of the shots — to capture the rapid movements of an insect. He’s also selected an 8mm lens, called a Boroscope, which gives an extremely wide-angle view, one that makes the saltshaker, fork and overturned glass on the yellow table look like a vista on some surreal landscape, especially with the dramatic shadows from a single, bright, carefully placed light. Staring at a video-playback monitor that shows an image of what the camera is focussing on, Lavoie says: “In my mind, it’s a landing strip. That’s the control tower.” He points at the saltshaker. “That’s the pond.” He points at the small puddle of spilled liquid. “And that’s the evil monster,” he adds, as the man in charge of props — called the “key props” — brings the red swatter into view.
Lavoie tells Horton that the spilled liquid looks like it’s drying out. Horton turns to the key props and asks him to touch up the puddle, which appears to be made of cola but is actually soy sauce. The man pulls a capped syringe of soy sauce from his tool belt and carefully adds some to the edges.
When they’re ready to shoot the fly, Lovisek puts a drop of decomposing liver into the puddle and decides to try one without a harness. “Rolling,” says Mestel. Lovisek removes a fly from the cooler and releases it. The fly lands very fast, almost straight down, and begins buzzing noisily. Lovisek tries to recapture it, but it flies away.
Lovisek gets another, picking one that’s been kept at a cooler temperature so it will be less frisky. This time the fly lands on its back. Lovisek picks it up and releases it again. When it lands, it walks toward the liquid, pauses, turns around and walks toward the camera.
“That’s okay,” says Lavoie. “The more times he lands and walks around, the more they’ll have to work with in post.”
Lovisek releases several more flies. A couple of them manage to escape. When another glances off the table and flies underneath, a crew member scurries after it. One of the techies whispers to another: “I’ve seen actors who can’t perform much better.”
At one point, one of the bright lights, pointing straight up in the air, makes a sharp sizzling sound and there is a puff of smoke. “Is the light shorting out?” someone asks in a startled voice. There’s a pause; then with a lazy drawl, the technician in charge of lights and electrical — the gaffer — says: “No, it’s a fly.”
Lovisek switches to the fly on the harness. “Action,” says Mestel. For several minutes, Lovisek repeatedly places the fly on the table and yanks it up and away from the camera. Lavoie and Mestel coach him on how fast to pull. “It can’t go too fast or we can’t see its body, Jim, but it has to appear to have that runway speed.”
Many takes later, Lavoie says: “That was interesting, Jim. It went right over the lens. That could be cool. Can we keep going?”
“Is the fly okay?” asks Horton. “Can I get him a soda?”
As Lovisek had predicted, getting the landing shot to look realistically like a small plane touching down on a runway is difficult. Hunched over the monitor, Lavoie says: “This is the most important shot. This establishes our credibility with the audience. If it succeeds, the rest will be fine.” Finally, after another take, Lavoie leaps jubilantly from his chair. “Bingo! Great! We got it. Jim, you’re a genius.”
As the afternoon wears on, Horton carefully marks off each shot as it’s completed. At around 5 p.m., Rob Guenette and Cineplex’s Paul Bolte arrive. Sometimes the client’s representatives are present for an entire shoot; with this one, Bolte’s presence is relatively minor. Still, the client is on the set, and Lavoie defers to him.
“Hey, watch this,” says Lavoie to Bolte, pointing at the fly on his monitor. “He walks sideways, stops a second, then continues. That could work for when he’s walking, stops and says, ‘Whazz- that?'”
There’s a sizzling sound and a plume of smoke rises from one of the lights. Everyone stares at it silently until Mestel, without looking up from the camera, says: “At least we won’t have to pay him residuals.”
For the swatting scene, it takes many tries to get the fly sticking to the swatter, then dropping onto its back after a couple of taps on the table. Mestel shoots one of Lovisek’s dead flies lying on its back for 10 seconds, then has the key props adjust its position slightly before shooting for another 10 seconds. These will be the shots in which the fly sings Tell Laura I Love Her. Finally, satisfied he has what he needs, Lavoie announces that the shoot is officially over.
Lavoie, who has an engaging, insouciant manner, can, like his friend Guenette, give the impression of trying to sell you something even when he’s not, an occupational hazard, perhaps. Part of his charm is his absolutely sincere belief that advertising is a kind of contemporary popular art, rather than just cleverness in the service of capitalism, although he would cheerfully admit it’s that as well.
Lavoie is determined that the fly spot will be a creative statement as well as good advertising, but will the final product create the buzz he’s after?
March 5, 10 a.m. Three days after the shoot, Lavoie and Mestel sit with editor Gord Koch at Flashcut, an editing facility located on the floor above Generator. The film images have been transferred to digital videotape, so Koch can almost instantly bring onto the monitor any of the many hundreds of raw shots. Lavoie’s task is to give Koch enough direction so he can put together a rough cut of the commercial — a version to show the client — with what seem to be the best shots in the best arrangement, without refinements, like digitally animated effects or the finished sound mix, which will come later. After they watch several sequences of the fly landing, Koch says he likes one in particular.
“See, it’s that World War I feel, like one of those biplanes that hit the ground, and some of them landed clumsily….” Koch is wearing a faded check shirt, black jeans and yellow Converse All Stars. He has light brown, wavy hair, a wispy goatee and a silver earring in his left ear. He sticks out his arms and rocks from side to side, as though making a rough landing.
“Yeah, yeah,” says Lavoie enthusiastically.
When they watch another shot, Lavoie points at the fly on the monitor and says: “See what he just did? He went up and down there. We can play that back and forth when he’s panting….” Lavoie pants: “Ah-huh, ah-huh, ah-huh.”
“Go back to that other shot, Gord,” Lavoie says. “Then cut to the one where he gets swatted. That’s one option. Drinking, then walking back to get swatted. Option two: a slow dissolve from where he’s drinking to the ‘Whazz-that?'”
Finally they study the swatting shots. Lavoie talks about the pacing: “Okay, there’s two or three seconds, nothing happens. At this point, he goes…” Lavoie sings: “Tell Laura I love her, tell Laura I need her….” Then he claps his hands together to indicate the swatter striking. “Pause. Tell Laura not to cry. Then, bam….” Clap. “Bam….” Clap. “Bam….” Clap. “You know, is it dead yet?”
Koch scribbles a few notes as Lavoie says: “So that’s it. The Cineplex super comes up: ‘Where movies come to life.'”
THE ROUGH CUT SCREENING WITH THE CLIENT
March 8, 2 p.m. Paul Bolte is sitting with Lavoie, Guenette, Mestel and a couple of others in Koch’s studio. In the best of worlds, the client screening is collegial and collaborative, with the client suggesting reasonable changes. However, it is at this screening that any cracks in the agency-client relationship will emerge. Sometimes, especially with large corporations, client representatives may be so aware of the chain of command above them that their reactions will be indecisive and vague, leaving the agency unsure how to proceed. Other times, as Gord Koch knows too well, the atmosphere can be toxic. He has sat with his nose inches from his monitor, listening to corrosive arguments rage behind him.
When everyone’s settled, they watch the assembly. The opening super reads: “Mundane Productions Presents: A Really Boring Film,” followed by “La Table de Cuisine (A Kitchen Table),” parodying an arty foreign film. Lavoie provides a running commentary, mentioning, for example, that the leash attached to the fly’s harness will be digitally erased. Afterwards, everyone agrees that the fly singing the song — Lavoie’s voice for now, until an actor has been recorded — is funny.
“About the super,” says Guenette. “Instead of saying, ‘This is a really boring film,’ would it be better to say up front: ‘This could be a really boring film’?”
Lavoie considers the suggestion, then says: “When you say it’s boring, you’ll get their attention.”
Looking concerned, Bolte asks: “But is the first impression that it’s boring on film? Not that it’s boring on television?”
“I really feel strongly that we can achieve that at the end,” says Lavoie. “Maybe we’ll say something like, ‘A boring film on TV is a boring film, but here in the cinema….'”
Bolte still seems worried. “What about saying, ‘A boring film?’ with a question mark?”
“Mmmm, I don’t know,” says Lavoie.
They watch it again.
“I’m still hung up on ‘A boring film’ with a question mark,” says Bolte. “I think you’re leading people to thinking, Oh no, it’s a boring film.”
Gord Koch, who’s been listening to the discussion, says: “At the movies you always see trailers that say: ‘Astounding,’ ‘Exciting,’ ‘Thrilling,’ ‘Explosive’….”
“Yeah,” says Guenette. “It’s like, I’ve heard that before…. Then, what’s this? A really boring film?”
“It starts to make more sense,” says Bolte uncertainly. “I start disagreeing with myself.”
After they watch it again, Bolte asks: “What’s the duration.”
Koch glances at his monitor and says: “That version, with the Cineplex super at the end, was two minutes.”
Bolte does a double take, his eyes bulging. “TWO minutes?!”
“Have a sale,” suggests Lavoie. “Buy one ticket and get an extra film free.”
Sagging weakly in his chair, Bolte says: “I knew it was longer than 60 seconds. We used to do up to 90 seconds. But with advertising, if you have three 90s, people would be, like, When does the movie start?”
Lavoie and Guenette exchange glances. A disturbed client is never a good thing. They discuss with Bolte whether Cineplex has an official policy on lengths of commercials, and whether the chain hasn’t every right to go longer on a commercial for itself. Although worried, Bolte doesn’t pull rank, which is characteristic of a good agency-client relationship, although in this case it also reflects the fact that Cineplex is getting the spot for nothing, defusing the client’s authority, and that Bolte, who is a sales guy, is a bit junior compared to the senior marketing executives who often represent the client at these screenings. Clients, despite being the butt of jokes in the ad industry, often bring valuable insights to the process, however.
Shaking his head, Bolte says: “Well, I’ll give it some thought.” Pausing, he adds: “If it’s under two minutes, that’s okay.”
Turning to Koch, Lavoie asks: “How long is it exactly?”
“Two minutes and four frames.”
“Can you cut five frames?”
With comic timing, Guenette leans forward and says: “Cut out the Cineplex logo. That’d do it.”
The room erupts in laughter. Even Bolte joins in.
THE VISUAL EFFECTS
March 14, 4:30 p.m. In a roomy studio at Toybox, a post- production company in Toronto, Lavoie is sitting on a sofa working on his Powerbook and taking calls on his cell. Across the room, Gord Koch sits beside Jeff Campbell, a visual effects artist whose credits include Fight Club, with Brad Pitt, and The Cell, with Jennifer Lopez. Campbell, who in his black ribbed T-shirt, black jeans and goatee looks like the part-time punk rock guitarist he is, has on his monitor the shot of the fly standing next to the puddle of soy sauce. During the shooting, the fly never walked up to the liquid in a satisfactory way, so Koch and Lavoie selected an overhead shot where the fly walked, paused, then walked farther and stopped. A partial image of the puddle from another shot was married to that, and Campbell digitally painted it in, adding reflections and tiny ripples when the fly appears to drink.
Now Campbell places a computerized web mesh over the fly’s image, which allows him to isolate and digitally enhance individual features. Having just made the fly’s head bob up and down as it drinks, he and Koch watch repeated playbacks. Koch tells him that Lavoie has talked about wanting the fly to look like “a little dog drinking at a puddle.”
“If that was a dog, you’d believe it,” says Koch. “But as a fly, you don’t. A fly’s head just moves from one position to the next — ” Koch turns his head from side to side very quickly “– so fast you hardly see it. It doesn’t swivel around — ” he swings his head around in an arc “– like a dog, or like we do.”
For much of the afternoon Campbell continues tinkering with the image. He puts the cursor on the fly’s web mesh and stretches it, altering the way the head moves. Later, when Guenette arrives, he and Lavoie watch the entire sequence of the fly landing, walking to the puddle and drinking. Just after landing, the real fly did a small motion with a back leg that looked like a stretch. Campbell digitally extended both the leg and the shadow it casts on the table, making the stretch more obvious and human-like.
“Fuck, that’s brilliant,” says Lavoie. “When you see the whole thing coming together, it’s like Christmas.”
A POTENTIAL CRISIS
March 14, 6:20 p.m. Shortly after Campbell and Koch finish their visual-effects work for the day, Lavoie and Guenette take advantage of one of Toybox’s client services and order a bottle of Merlot. A waiter brings a cheese-and-cracker tray as well. Turning to Guenette, Lavoie says: “Paul Bolte called. He showed it to the powers that be. He said there may be some changes….”
“Oh, no,” says Guenette, groaning. They both roll their eyes. Generally, people in advertising think clients are too cautious or present the work too early to decision-makers.
“He showed it to them without sound. They think it’s too long.”
Guenette shook his head. “The whole thing is: why not wait until you have the final production?” He pauses, then says: “If I single- mindedly turned a critical eye on it, we could reduce the length.”
“It could be shorter,” agrees Lavoie.
The two men sit in silence. Suddenly, a huge swarm of flies appears on the studio’s wall-sized TV screen, which is tuned to Newsworld. It’s a story about “The Bug Lady,” a professor at Simon Fraser University’s school of criminology who can, by studying insects that colonize human bodies, pinpoint with great accuracy the time of death.
“Well, that was symbolic,” says Lavoie.
Guenette nods. “Forensic investigators go to flies for answers. Advertising people, like us, also go to flies for answers.”
THE SOUND EFFECTS
March 20, 11 a.m. Today, Lavoie and Louise Blouin are in a studio control room at Keen Music, Voice and Sound Design to oversee the recording session with the actor who will be the fly’s voice. With them is Keen’s owner, Thomas Neuspiel, a sound specialist who over the last few days has completed most of the effects and music, which will soon be cued to what Campbell has done to the fly. In addition to putting down some short segments of scored music, created by one of his composers, which add drama to the fly’s movements, and a final theme based on the Tell Laura I Love Her melody, Neuspiel has recorded some sound effects. The bang of the flyswatter, for instance, was created by first recording the sound a real flyswatter makes, then combining it with the sound a thick book makes when smacked against a table and, finally, mixing it with the sound of a punch to the face, which was taken from a CD. The biggest challenges, though, were the sounds of the fly walking and the plane passing overhead.
For the fly walking, Neuspiel and an associate tried tapping twist ties and Q-Tips on a countertop. But they didn’t like the sound it made so they tried lifting a Q-Tip off a piece of two- sided sticky tape, which sounded all right, though they ultimately used some cartoon-like pizzicato string music. The plane was much harder. The sound of an airplane changes constantly as it approaches a listener, and then as it recedes away into the distance. The sound is so complex that it’s hard to digitally simulate it, so the live sound of a real plane was essential. In the end, Neuspiel found a recording of a Curtiss Jenny biplane that his team modified electronically to duplicate the flying pattern and sound Lavoie had wanted, then made intricate modifications to it electronically so it would work on the surround-sound audio systems in a theatre.
Through a window, Neuspiel, Lavoie and Blouin watch Frank McAnulty, a short, stocky actor who teaches at Second City’s training workshops, as he prepares for his role, which Lavoie has dubbed “Frank the Fly.” Activating the intercom, Lavoie says: “Don’t hold back, Frank, or we’ll swat you.” With the help of a glass of water, McAnulty makes a variety of slurping, swallowing and burping sounds, then several exaggerated sighs. When they stop laughing, Neuspiel says: “Good choice, Paul.”
For the next couple of hours they record the sounds of the fly panting after its landing, groaning when it stretches its leg and drinking from the puddle of liquid. Then it’s time to record the nervous Whazz-that uttered by the fly moments before the swatter descends. McAnulty tries it, and Lavoie tells him it’s too “big” for a little fly. McAnulty tries it a few more times, but Lavoie isn’t satisfied, so McAnulty does a series of Whazz-thats, hunching his shoulders, drawing his arms close to his sides and curling his hands under his chin, making very small, almost spastic movements, each one tinier and more frightened than the last. After moving on to the singing, Lavoie decides he’s satisfied with the assortment of takes.
“We get paid for doing this,” says Lavoie, echoing a sentiment voiced by almost all advertising creatives. Lavoie is feeling especially upbeat having learned that Bolte’s superiors at Cineplex Odeon have agreed to the two-minute length. “It’s too much fun. We’re just playing games. On this spot we didn’t research it to death. We didn’t have to fight through 33 layers of client to sell creative ideas.”
The implication is clear: the unusual freedom of this Cineplex spot is going to translate into a superior creative execution and a highly successful commercial.
A CRISIS AVERTED
March 22, 3 p.m. Two days later, Lavoie and Blouin are reviewing the sound mix in Neuspiel’s studio. There’s a problem. The closing theme is a sad, funereally paced rendition of Tell Laura I Love Her inspired by Frank McAnulty’s anguished singing of the final line — “My love for her… will… never…die…” But as they listen, they realize that the closing super, “Even the mundane is thrilling on the big screen,” isn’t working with the music, a similar problem to the former closing line “Where movies come to life,” which had been rejected because the contrast with the fly being whacked to death was just too great. “You know what my only worry is?” says Lavoie. “It’s so sad at the end, but then the super says, ‘Even the mundane is thrilling on the big screen.'”
As if reading his mind, Blouin slowly shakes her head. As she understands it, the digital master has been sent to the lab to be transferred onto film. Any change now will be very expensive. “We can’t change the visuals,” she says.
Neuspiel, suddenly worried that Lavoie might want to solve the problem by changing the music, quickly says: “I don’t think the music should be thrilling there. It doesn’t suit the sad mood of the story at the end.”
Lavoie waves his hand distractedly. “No, the music’s right. We’ve made an error.” He pauses, thinking, then says to no one in particular: “Did we make the mundane exceptional? I think the word would be dramatic. Even the mundane is dramatic on the big screen.” Turning to Blouin, he says: “What is the situation? Is it big?”
Blouin explains that it may be. For several tense moments Lavoie waits while she calls Gord Koch on her cell. “Hi, it’s Lou. I have a Cineplex question. You know the super? If we need to change one word, can we? Are you serious…?” To Lavoie, she says: “They haven’t sent it yet.”
Lavoie shoots both arms above his head victoriously. The change can be made inexpensively.
“Paul’s a happy man,” says Blouin.
THE TEST SCREENING AND ANOTHER CRISIS
April 26, 6:30 p.m. The commercial is finished. Tonight, on behalf of Cineplex Odeon, Paul Bolte has invited the team that worked on the commercial to see it at a downtown Toronto theatre. There is a mix of advertising and production people in the audience, along with regular theatre-goers who have paid to see a 6:50 p.m. showing of Blow, starring Johnny Depp. If all goes well, Bolte plans to have copies of the commercial made and shipped to theatres across Canada.
Three commercials run first, each with its own crowd-pleasing qualities. The first, for the antihistamine Reactine, is a spot Taxi has just finished. Shot in South Africa and featuring a man with allergies shedding his clothes in joy as he frolics in the woods amidst the pollen, the ad draws many laughs from the crowd. The second, a hilarious series of clips of ordinary-looking people singing karaoke badly, turns out to be a Levi’s commercial. Like the best cinema ads, the emphasis is on entertainment rather than hard sell. One viewer whispers to his companion: “Now that’s what a commercial in a theatre should be like.” The third, a car spot, is filled with fast cuts and the headache-inducing sound of a high- performance engine. These are followed by three trailers for upcoming films, each one characterized by dramatic editing and punchy sound.
Finally, the Cineplex spot runs. Lavoie himself is restless, anxious to see how it will look on-screen and observe how people will react. But as he waits to hear the dramatic sound of the carefully constructed biplane, he realizes something is wrong. The sound is so low that the spot, especially in contrast to everything that had come before it, isn’t boring-made-exciting, it’s just boring.
Later, a disappointed Lavoie says: “The spot is supposed to be really banal, but for it to work, it has to have big pictures and big sound. The sound was down so low that the impact was lost. So we’re fixing that. Also, the spot was in the wrong slot. It should be with the group of commercials before the trailers. It’s long, so if it doesn’t come up until after all the commercials and trailers, people will be pissed off.”
June 22, 6:40 p.m. A Cineplex Odeon theatre in downtown Toronto is nearly three-quarters filled for a screening of the summer hit, Moulin Rouge, starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor. There are only two commercials before the trailers begin, the second one being “La Table de Cuisine.”
There is sporadic chuckling when the super: “Mundane Productions presents: A Really Boring Film” appears. After the now throaty roar of the biplane passes realistically overhead and the fly screeches onto the table, however, the crowd responds enthusiastically. When the swatter smacks the fly for the first time, there is surprised laughter, which grows in intensity when the fly begins singing. The credits are met with spontaneous applause. There are similar reports from other screenings.
The sound may have been solved and the response to the commercial positive, but the business problem that inspired the commercial had gradually begun to correct itself by the time the spot was in theatres. The latest box office numbers show a rise in movie ticket sales throughout North America, mainly because of a succession of hit films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hannibal and Spy Kids, as well as summer blockbusters such as Pearl Harbor and The Mummy Returns.
As Cineplex’s fortunes improve, and because the firm has not commissioned market research, it’s impossible to tell whether the spot’s goal — to put more bums in seats — is working, or whether it’s merely providing audiences with a bit of light entertainment before the feature presentation. Still, informal reports suggest that audiences are enjoying it and many are associating their enjoyment of it with the Cineplex Odeon brand.
What’s more clear is that the spot succeeded as a vehicle to generate excitement for Lavoie and Taxi. Both agency colleagues and advertisers have been telling Lavoie and his associates how much they loved it, and it has been shortlisted in the best cinema commercial and best direction categories at the prestigious Toronto Art Directors’ awards, scheduled for November. In addition, when it was screened at Toronto’s annual Worldwide Short Film Festival last June, the crowd heartily laughed and applauded. It may be telling that at a festival like this, where most cinema ads would have looked like what they were — commercials intended to sell a product — “La Table de Cuisine” looked more like a short film than a commercial.
Perhaps that’s why, at the Cannes competition in June, reaction to the spot was neutral, although the industry crowd at Cannes is notoriously hard to please. More disappointing was that in a year in which a record 25 Canadian commercials had been shortlisted, “La Table de Cuisine” was not among them.
Lavoie, ever upbeat, says: “Our expectations were high there, but I honestly don’t give a fuck. It’s great PR for us, and as long as I know it’s creative I’m happy, whether it wins awards or not. I would be more disappointed to think that people didn’t get it. I know they feel fondly toward it, find it likable.
Likability is a key element in how you feel about a company. At the end of the day, a commercial has to capture your imagination and say something interesting about the product or service. When you do that, you give something to the consumer in return for his or her attention. It’s a more polite way of selling.
“Does it work 100% of the time? I don’t know. But more often than not, great creative works better than bad creative.”