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Making Commercials: 12 Days of Christmas

Web Projects Now Include Profits

By Michael Fickes

Winter Numberland wraps up with a lady dancing, a lord a-leaping, a piper piping and a drummer drumming.
Winter Numberland wraps up with a lady dancing, a lord a-leaping, a piper piping and a drummer drumming.

As every consumer knows, the holidays grow more expensive every year. Pittsburgh-based PNC Wealth Management communicates the higher expenses to its clients via its annual Christmas Price Index, a humorous look at the rising costs of the gifts named in the holiday classic, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

For the 2009 Christmas Price Index, Deutsch Inc./NY decided to make an animated and live-action video of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” for PNC and asked Dancing Diablo in New York City (www.dancingdiablo.com) to craft the three-and-a-half minute web-only video dubbed, Winter Numberland.

According to Beatriz Ramos, director of production and owner of Dancing Diablo, the project posed two prime challenges: a short two-and-a-half week schedule and a very low budget.

Ramos resisted the urge to give in to the quick turnaround and throw budget concerns to the wind in an attempt to get done — no matter the cost — what would inevitably be a showcase reel project for her company. “During preproduction, we figured out how to make the budget and the schedule work without compromising quality or profits,” she says.

The agency suggested shooting children in costumes, dressed as if they were performing in a school Christmas pageant, against greenscreen then compositing them into an animated background. But, notes Ramos, the shoot and edit would have depleted the budget, leaving too little for that level of animation, let alone the compositing. In addition, the short schedule couldn’t support the time requirements of heavy animation.

Ramos solved both problems with an insightful idea: If the shoot and edit would use virtually all of the budget and all of the available time, why not shoot everything (or virtually everything) real and edit in the conventional way, leaving simple chores for the animators? She ran the numbers and figured that it just might work.

Prices for calling birds remained stable as the horn?s stream of zeroes attests.
Prices for calling birds remained stable as the horn’s stream of zeroes attests.

Ramos located a funky stage with a proscenium at the Jalopy Theater in Red Hook, Brooklyn and had it fitted out as elementary school stage. Then, “We created costumes for the kids — a goose, swan, ladies dancing, lords leaping and so on, and we built the props,” she explains.

“We felt strongly that the web video needed to have a ‘homemade’ look to it, while maintaining a cohesive artistic style that made it interesting to view,” she continues. “So we created all of the props and set pieces used by the kids in a skewed or oversized scale, and crafted miniaturized sets to composite the kids into later on in the postproduction process.”

PNC Wealth Management liked Dancing Diablo’s imagery so much that it ultimately decided to integrate the look of Winter Numberland into the firm’s “Twelve Days of Christmas” interactive website which had games and other fun features.

Ramos planned the web video shoot in painstaking detail mapping out three acts, each of which would cover four of the twelve days and show the characters onstage interacting with each other. DP Piero Basso manned a RED One Digital Cinema camera for the shoot.

Act I opens with five children standing in a snowy forest setting with artwork of a mountain range in the distance. To the viewer’s left a child in a partridge suit stands beside another child dressed as a pear tree. To the right, a girl is costumed as a French hen with a red beret and a black-and-white feathery outfit. In the background, another child is clad as a turtle dove. The fifth child, the calling bird, is behind the pear tree and her appearance later in the scene comes as something of a surprise.

Each does a bit of business to set up his or her price ranking. The partridge exclaims, “Oh my!” as PNC Wealth Management executive vice president Jim Dunigan, who narrates the video, announces that the price of a partridge in a pear tree fell 27% in 2009. The turtle dove’s price, however, rose 1.8%, as illustrated by the child playing the turtle dove proclaiming, “Up, up and away!” as he took wing.

Winter Numberland wraps up with a lady dancing, a lord a-leaping, a piper piping and a drummer drumming.
A French hen is set to capture a zero from the calling bird’s horn.

“Ooh la-la,” squeals the French hen at the news of a 50% price hike for the exotic fowl. She picks up a loaf of French bread and points to an Eiffel Tower that has magically appeared in the scene along with an animated 50% sign. Finally, the calling bird plays a song on a horn. Animated red zeroes pour out of the instrument indicating that calling bird prices remained stable this year; the French hen catches one and gives it a toss.

The finished video looks choreographed and integrated. But, in fact, Ramos shot most of the characters individually on stage. Each child played his or her specific role and then acted another bit of interactive business that could be edited on a Mac Pro running Apple’s Final Cut to look like the characters are relating to each other.

For instance, the spot shows the French hen performing with the calling bird and the notes tumbling from the bird’s horn, but the interaction never happened. “While we were shooting the French hen, we told her to jump up and down and pretend that someone was blowing bubbles and that she was trying to catch them and throw them,” Ramos reports. During post, the compositor, armed with Adobe After Effects, combined the jumping French hen with the animated zeroes to create a seamless scene.

Ramos wanted each of the three acts to have a different background so simple but unique backgrounds were keyed in during post: snowy, forested hills for Act I; a mountain range for Act II; and a village setting for Act III — all very simple and guaranteed not to strain the budget or stretch the schedule.

While holiday gifts continue to rise in price every year, budgets for Internet-only video productions do not. Those prices continue to bounce along the bottom; sometimes a little higher, sometimes a little lower, never high enough for comfort. Even so, Ramos managed the production of Winter Numberland skillfully enough to illustrate how the price of goods and services are generally rising but without compromising the profits flowing through to Dancing Diablo.


December 17, 2012