RIFFS “Hip Hop”

This visdev image landed me the first commercial I ever directed, back in 1993 at Colossal Pictures. I can’t remember if we competed with other studios for this spot, or if the client had already decided on Colossal, but it was the classic advertising-biz story of “We want it to look like a Bentley but cost like a Hyundai, and we need it yesterday.”

The agency clients were attracted by work on the Colossal Pictures demo reel directed by Mike Smith. Specifically, the complex lighting effects in his spots for NIKE, which they felt might fit their ad set at a rock concert (for a Canadian snack food). However, the technique they liked was far beyond their budget, and besides, Mike Smith was either unavailable or uninterested. 

..so they got me instead. 

I tried to pack as much info into my storyboard as I possibly could, including a colour script. Thankfully the client liked it, and then we were off, with 8 weeks to deliver the finished spot. Back then, it took about 12 weeks to complete a fancy animated commercial with all the bells and whistles, like the clients wanted; animated on ONES, on 16-field paper, layers of shadow & highlight mattes, shot in multiple camera passes, some of them with diffusion, and elaborate multi-pass camera moves (called bipacks).

To save time & money on this spot, it was animated on twos, on regular 12-field paper, there were only two shots that used bipack camera moves, and the rest were done in-camera, and we ditched the shadow pass and just burned in highlights with ONE extra camera-pass. But thanks to the fantastic work by Carter Tomassi (Colossal Pictures’ head of animation camera) we managed to get a great, deliberately grainy, hand-held concert footage look (Carter spent many years as a real life rock photographer, so he knew exactly what I was going for). I’m ashamed to admit it, but it was only when working with Carter Tomassi, that I finally realised how much value a creative camera person brings to animation. In fact, Colossal Pictures was the studio that taught me that anyone on the project can elevate the material, as happened every day in every department of that powerhouse little creative studio.

One of the great things about directing a 30 second commercial was doing all the aspects of animation that I love. Being able to design the characters, draw the storyboards, and all layouts, and some of the animation too (Tony Stacchi, Simon O’Leary & Garett Sheldrew animated other scenes). This multitasking was tiring sometimes but exhilarating always, and what I most liked about working at small or mid-size studios where animated commercials tended to be done, and generalists are welcome. Bigger studios frown on artists ‘wearing many hats’, and we must choose ONE role in the pipeline, sadly.

When we finally had the animation drawn & tested, cels inked & painted, and the whole shebang shot on film, producer Jenny Head and I flew to Toronto to deliver the spot to the ad agency client and sit in on the final post-session. I remember the agency art director & writer were very happy with how it all turned out, but the owner of the agency being sour about the spot not being a Bentley, which was very true. But he did get a tricked-out Hyundai; RIFFS: “Hip Hop”

15 thoughts on “RIFFS “Hip Hop””

    • Ha ha! Right? Advertising is often pretty feverdream bonkers (especially some Japanese ads I worked on which I may post later) and this first one set the tone for what was to come. Struck me at the time that if your whole concept is a PUN, that it was a shame NOT to actually use HIP HOP. But I guess GRUNGE was the thing in ’93 so..

  1. Id just started at Collosal when you made this, so I got to see it going from boards i to layouts, and hear your hiltious insightful commentary from your workstation! Whenever my fancy LA aquaintances would ask what we were up to at colossal, Id always point to this spot and sayI wanted to make something this good one day. It’s intensity and original flavors were a natural draw for my corner of nerdville, it felt like a high end graphic novel animated on ones!!! Holy Kamoley!!!

    Just one of the many small gems I got to peak at in process and absorb and learn from. What a place that was!


  2. The owner of the agency “wanted a Bentley” — if he’d coughed up enough cash to make this magnificent little cartoon into a half-hour TV special he’d have walked home (or been driven in that damn Bentley) with an Oscar, and we’d all be eating Riffs forever, and playing with hip-hoppity frog action figures.

  3. Stunning ad James, thanks for posting. Also thanks for the insight into some of what’s involved in the animation business and the processes involved to produce such an ad. Much of it is beyond my limited artistic talent to comprehend but your article has sure increased my understanding if what it takes.

    • Hey Marg!
      The whole process has changed since this ad was done, since everything moved to digital media in the 2000s. Many things that took a lot of ingenuity (and fakery!) to achieve back then can be done much more simply now.

      Thanks for reading & commenting!

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