The Ages of Man
The three ages of man: youth, middle age and "my word you do look well".
- June Whitfield
This spot for the European launch of Microsoft's X Box gaming platform took the medium to the next plateau: full production values with an explosive coffin-rocking finale. Apparently, this "next level" - while suitable for online consumption - was beyond what the British public would permit on TV...
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Agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty
The controversy: This rather startling ad did at least part of what it was intended to do, which was get attention. According to the BBC, 136 complaints about it were registered with the United Kingdom's Independent Television Commission. Twenty of these viewers were bothered because they'd recently lost a loved one; another was a pregnant woman. Most of the rest were simply offended. The spot was promptly pulled. The ITC commented, "The final scene of a body smashing into its grave was unnecessary and had caused considerable distress to many viewers."
Microsoft apparently issued a response to the UK ban asserting that the ad makes a "positive statement about life," a claim that has a funny-but-chilling Kafka-esque ring to it. If this ad is a positive statement about life, then how scary would a negative one be? Oh, don't answer.
When, in his famous "Seven Ages of Man" speech from As You Like It, William Shakespeare briskly sketched our journey from cradle to grave in 28 lines of poetry, he may have felt he'd nailed it. But, 500 years down the line, the art of condensed narrative has moved on and, courtesy of Framestore CFC's effects team, that same journey has now been beautifully condensed into a 30-second TV spot for the X-Box games console.
The action opens on a familiar enough scene - the hospital birth. The usual elements are in place - doctors, nurses, anxious father and screaming mother-to-be. But the moment of birth (and the inspiration for the spot's title) shows an unexpectedly powerful expulsion of the infant, which shoots out of the high hospital window and off on its compressed life journey. Flying at aircraft-like speed over town and country, our hero ages rapidly, from mewling infant to second childhood. As his trajectory nears its inevitable conclusion, we cut to a grave in a cemetery. The peaceful scene is abruptly shattered by the arrival of the old man's just-deceased body, crashing through the stonework to its predestined place. The spot's message is emphasised by the wording that solemnly appears: "Life is short".
Supervising the week-long shoot and the subsequent work for Framestore CFC was Murray Butler, Senior Inferno Artist. "One of the first things we had to do was choose similar-looking actors from a huge selection, to cover all these stages of one person's life," recalls Butler. Appropriately enough, 7 actors were chosen, ranging in age from 9 months to 65 years old. One of the trickier elements in this sort of ageing-through-morphing sequence was, Butler realised, not as much of a problem as it might be. "The continuity of the flight itself convinces the brain that it is seeing just one person's journey."
The actors were shot in a series of motion-control sequences so that various matching flight paths could be created. The head and body positions of each actor had to be carefully lined up to ensure smooth transitions through the generations.
The next stage was to shoot all the background plates, a process which entailed a number of helicopter flights over beautiful Essex. The helicopter would perform a series of 360º rotations to cover the entirety of the sky and ground. "Using this material and tiling it," says Butler, "Inferno Artist Ben Cronin and I were able to create a "virtual dome" within Inferno, which we could match to any of the shots we had taken in motion-control. This was crucial in creating the effects we were after."
Among further elements added around the actors were digital particles and live action smoke and vapour. These provided the hurtling bodies with a jet-like vapour trail. This trail enhanced the illusion of speed, helped delineate the trajectory of the bodies and, in the case of the infants, provided a misty nappy to protect their modesty. In addition, camera shake was added to help bring the shots to life.
Our hero's terminal impact was an entirely practical affair. It was shot on Palewell Common in East Sheen, where a dummy was repeatedly fired into the carefully dressed grave. This bizarre scene was witnessed, Butler remembers, by a bemused elderly couple seated on a nearby park bench.
Punching its message across wittily in a breathless few seconds, Champagne's use of Framestore CFC's own box of tricks is, in itself, another way of conveying the X-Box's uniqueness and edge over the competition.
I don't exactly see where the title Champagne comes from. That's all the mother had left to console her?
Admiral Cigarette (1897)
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Early advertising film (1897) from the Edison Manufacturing Company; copied at 26fps from a 35mm print preserved by the Library of Congress; director: William Heise; 0 audio/Visual: silent, black & white. Creative Commons license: Public Domain.
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