On the count of six, the buildings start to move. On 13, the car gets a new fender. The pigeons come in on 15, the butterflies on 21, and the miraculous transformation is complete by 24.
It’s difficult to change the world in less than 30 seconds but that’s exactly what happens in two TV commercials in a new ad campaign from Lexus. The campaign, titled "Actively Safe," highlights the benefits of 14 active safety features offered in the automaker’s new 2008 RX 350, Lexus’ top-selling vehicle. The spots show what it might look like to "rewind" the effects of an accident. But what’s most surprising is how Lexus chose to do this — or perhaps more accurately, not to do it.
Both spots were filmed entirely in real time, using only one camera, and in a single 30-second shot — no computer generated images (CGI), cuts or edits. Even the dent repairs were done in real time.
"Because safety is such an emotional topic, we wanted to keep things on a human scale, with real actors moving real sets in real time," says Deborah Meyer, vice president of marketing for Lexus. "It’s rare to say this in an era of special effects, but everything you see really happened in one shot."
In one of the spots, titled "Hospital," a boy lays in a hospital bed with a cast on his arm after an accident. Several men and women in white coats enter and begin moving things around the room: a curtain rotates to reveal a boy’s bedroom wall with toys and astronomy posters. Medical equipment sinks into the floor as the boy’s nightstand and headboard pop up. Floors slide out, cabinets glide in and a solar-system mobile lowers from the ceiling. Before you know it, the boy is snuggling with his teddy bear at home, as if the collision never occurred. Pan to the RX parked safely in the driveway outside the boy’s house.
The second spot, "Hydrant" opens on a city street after an RX is sideswiped. Water from an overturned fireplug erupts in the air. Again, men and women enter and begin altering scenery: building facades are hoisted out of view. The sidewalk itself starts to move. Trees, birds and butterflies come into view. Suddenly, the city has become the country and the RX 350 is sitting pretty on a bucolic estate.
The Ultimate Race Against Time
The spots may look effortless, but they were anything but. Each one required more than 50 actions to be performed in less than 30 seconds, and the pinpoint accuracy of actors, stagehands, heavy equipment operators and more than a few barnyard animals.
"It was the ultimate race against time," says Nicolai Fugilsig, the Danish-born director. "If someone was half a nanosecond late on their mark, we’d have to do the shot all over again."
The sets began as elaborate dioramas built by production designer Floyd Albee, who trained alongside architect Frank Gehry. But scale models couldn’t answer certain questions: How can you make asphalt move? Is anyone strong enough to hoist a stone fountain? What if the boy in the bed drops his bear?
All that was settled during pre-production and a day or two of rehearsal. For "Hydrant," most of the surfaces and moveable objects — including the "roads" and "masonry" — were fashioned from fabric or foam so they could be easily maneuvered. A damaged car that gets pushed out of the scene was on unseen rollers. The pigeons that take flight were concealed in an actor’s raincoat. The butterflies (400 were used in all) were hidden in a newspaper.
Too bad nothing worked like it did in rehearsal. Even with an assistant director counting out seconds through a bullhorn, actors and crewmembers missed cue after cue. The roads got so waterlogged from the gushing water they were nearly impossible to move by mid-day. An actor who missed a mark got knocked over by the moving car. Pigeons flew away too early and the
butterflies refused to fly at all because it was an unseasonably cold day. To make matters worse, shooting had to wrap by 4:30 p.m. to allow the 20 homing pigeons enough daylight to fly home.
"Hospital" created different challenges, mostly having to do with cramming seven actors, a ton of equipment and 27 off-camera "puppeteers" into a tight set and yelling, "Action!" The "doctors" frequently bumped heads, others tripped on hidden wires and one take was spoiled when the "teddy bear wrangler" walked on too soon.
In the end, it took 48 attempts to get the right shot for "Hospital" and a mere 35 for "Hydrant."
And, yes, all those hard-working pigeons made it home before nightfall.
The campaign breaks on March 1 and is scheduled to run on network television, prime time, late night, cable, cable sports, NCAA March Madness tournament, NBC USGA Golf and TiVo.