Gee-whiz effects make Super Bowl ads super special

By Bruce Horovitz, USA TODAY

The guy who made the Terminator look so creepy — and Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs so scary — is about to play on the biggest field of all: the Super Bowl.

John Rosengrant of Stan Winston Studio helped create this ‘alien’ for a FedEx ad.

A Super Bowl commercial, that is.

John Rosengrant, an ace Hollywood designer of yucky-looking creatures, filled two roles for FedEx’s (FDX) Super Bowl ad. First, he designed the life-size alien, crafted of rubber, silicon and fiberglass. Then, he got inside the body to play the brown-nosing alien.

“I have three kids,” he says. “They think Dad has a normal job.”

There’s nothing normal about creating ads for the Super Bowl. The super commercials call for super special effects. At least that’s what many of the free-spending marketers believe. Special effects — visual, mechanical, digital and audio — will show up this year in more than half the 60 ad slots.

The magic isn’t cheap. Some of these “How the heck did they do that?” micro-movies can cost up to $1.5 million to create, with special effects accounting for up to half that. That comes on top of the average $2.3 million spent per 30-second ad slot for the airtime.

It’s not just the Super Bowl anymore. It’s the Special Effects Bowl. Full of costly computer-generated Houdini-isms in ads for Pepsi’s (PEP) Sierra Mist and GM’s (GM) Cadillac. Full of new tricks, such as super sound that will — for the first time — surround millions of Super Bowl listeners in ads for Budweiser (BUD) and Chevy. Full of bang-up, movie-quality special effects in ads for AOL (TWX) and FedEx.

Sometimes, the gimmicks become an end in themselves — a substitute for a big idea. Then, the effect on the viewer is anything but special.

“When they fail, the sight of them flaming to earth seems to stick in your head,” warns Jeff Goodby, widely regarded as a creator of trend-setting ads who’s made numerous Super Bowl spots with and without effects.

But when they work, they’re unforgettable. In past Super Bowl hit ads, special effects put the mischievous boy inside a Pepsi bottle. They gave Christopher “Superman” Reeve the apparent ability to stand up from his wheelchair. They enabled Budweiser’s Clydesdales to play football, its frogs to chant and its lizards to chat.

Because Super Bowl advertisers spend so much money for the airtime — and because the domestic audience of about 90 million viewers is so huge — many marketers will do almost anything to make their ads stand out. Most use comedy. Many use animals.

But what better way to attract wandering eyeballs than with whiz-bang effects?

Some turn to computer technology that, while costly, is widely available. Others turn to special design or mechanical gee-whiz effects. Some combine them all. Yet, because special effects have become so commonplace on Super Sunday, it’s getting harder and harder to stand out.

“If an ad is too reliant on special effects,” warns adman Steve Hayden, who co-wrote the famous “1984” ad for Apple Computer 20 years ago, “there’s a good chance that you have a turkey.”

The Apple (AAPL) ad — featuring a woman who destroys a Big Brother figure by tossing a hammer at a giant screen — cost the company a then-huge $600,000 and set Madison Avenue on its head.

Now, special effects are so routine that even Charmin — the toilet paper — will use them in its first Super Bowl spot.

“Too many people go for the special effect instead of the idea,” says Joe Pytka, who has directed more Super Bowl commercials than just about anyone. Pytka directed an IBM (IBM) spot, to make its debut Sunday, without using any big special effects. It features Muhammad Ali advising a young fan to shake up the world.

When you have Muhammad Ali in your ad, says Deirdre Bigley, vice president of advertising at IBM, “he is the special effect.”

Just another office drone

For FedEx, the special effect is “Jenkins” — the alien who is half-heartedly disguised as a geeky office worker. Although he wears a white shirt, tie and a paltry mask, he is clearly a slimy alien.

In the commercial, the drooling Jenkins convinces his boss he’s a brilliant office worker by strategically uttering the mantra, “Why don’t we use FedEx?”

“We told our ad agency, ‘Shock us. Awe us,’ ” says Laurie Tucker, senior vice president of global marketing at FedEx. “For the Super Bowl, you pull out all the stops and break all the rules.”

The creature was built in the Stan Winston Studio, which arguably has created more Super Bowl stars than the Dallas Cowboys. The company made the Bud frogs and lizards. It made the Clydesdales appear to play football. “I think of myself as a creator of creatures, not of special effects,” says Rosengrant’s boss, Stan Winston.

Rosengrant, who designed and plays the alien, says the process used to bring Jenkins alive was extremely complex.

On the set, 20 people work in unison to get the alien’s look right. One controls the foam that oozes from its mouth. Another stands at a computer keyboard with software that controls the alien’s breathing. Two more workers use radio controls to create the small movements of the lips, jaws and gills. Three puppeteers handled other movements. Other workers applied touch-up paints and make-up and fiddled with the lighting.

From inside the alien, Rosengrant had virtually no way out. He wore the skin-tight rubber suit — which zips from the rear — for 15 hours straight, with just one potty break and one lunch break.

“You learn to roll with the punches,” he says.

He also was essentially blind — except for a tiny monitor built inside so he could see his own performance. There were no slits or eyeholes. “If my eyes show in any way, it’s a giveaway,” he explains.

Making the alien’s mostly silicon head was the hardest part.

A plaster cast was made of Rosengrant’s head and the alien head was made to fit. That head sits on a mechanical “underskull” that assists the head’s motion. A body cast of Rosengrant was used to mold the foam-rubber bodysuit from a fiberglass form. By the time the head is latched onto the skullcap, the 5-foot-9 Rosengrant towers at more than 6-foot-4.

It gets very hot, and a modified hair dryer is used to constantly shoot cool air into the suit through a tiny flap in the throat.

For all the sweat, Rosengrant could make some serious money. As an actor, he’ll earn residuals every time the ad airs. Never mind that in his Super Bowl debut, no one will see Rosengrant’s face. “It doesn’t bother me,” he says. “I always wanted to be a monster.”

Here’s who else has big effects for the Big Game:

•Sierra Mist. The Pepsi brand combines an array of special effects in an ad that features an overheated guy who jumps off a high-rise fire escape into a pitcher of ice water at an outdoor cafe below.

To make the effect work, 18 pieces of film from different angles were combined with digital imagery. A motion-controlled camera also was used, which can be programmed to precisely duplicate the same movement repeatedly.

Other tricks are used, like shooting the actor’s body pressed against glass, then digitally shrinking it and placing it into the pitcher.

“The most difficult thing is making it seem funny, cartoonish and believable — but not gross,” says Bill Bruce, executive creative director at ad agency BBDO.

•Cadillac. Eager to appeal to younger buyers, Cadillac will use computer-generated imagery to show Cadillacs cutting through air as if they were slicing through water. When two pass each other, they create swirling waves. “Some people still have an antiquated perception of Cadillacs driving like boats,” says Mark LaNeve, Cadillac general manager. “We’re kicking up a new image of high-performance, precision machines.”

•Chevy. It isn’t always visual effects that make a spot stand out. This year, it’s sound, too. While the Super Bowl is broadcast in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, the ads have not had theater sound — until this year. Two commercials — one for Chevy and one for Budweiser — will use Dolby Pro Logic II.

You need to own the proper electronic gear to hear the super sound; about 10 million American households do.

In the Chevy ad, when the car drives past the camera, viewers with the gear will hear the car move around them, says Tom Daily, marketing director at Dolby Labs.

•AOL. The phone calls were frantic. More than 50 commuters called police in Irwindale, Calif., to report that there was a super-crazy guy on a motorcycle dangling from a helicopter cable some 1,000 feet above the freeway.

Crazy? Naw. Super Bowl ad.

The guy on the chopper is stuntman Mike “Mouse” McCoy. The ad is for AOL’s new TopSpeed service — which speeds dial-up Internet access.

With the use of special effects — which erase both the helicopter and cables — it will look in the ad as though the guy jumped his motorcycle over eight cement mixers, then literally flew out of a stadium somewhere into the stratosphere.

The ad stars the bike builders from the Discovery Channel reality series, American Chopper.

Stuntman McCoy says hanging from the helicopter was pretty hairy. “I had to trust that helicopter pilot with my life.”

But he prefers ads with mechanical special effects such as that to digital creations. The emotional value to a commercial is gone when too much of the imagery is created inside a computer, he says.

Besides, his livelihood depends on stunts. He doesn’t mind that his face never appears in the ad that folks are likely to be talking about on Monday.

“It comes with the job,” says McCoy. “You’re the unsung guy.”