BAH! Humbug

Dick Hobbs. TV-Bay Magazine
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by Dick Hobbs
Issue 96 - December 2014

Yes, it's that time of year again. When, if you are a commercial broadcaster, you start coining it in with the Christmas commercials.

Presumably if you are a director or a post house, you are already pitching for next year's blockbusters. They never have the look of something that has been knocked up on the spur of the moment.

Take the one that started this year's festive season of over-hyped marketing: John Lewis and Monty the penguin. In 2013 John Lewis - posh people's Argos - rather let the side down with a sentimental animation and the awful wailing of Lily Allen. For me, they are back on form with something that shouts commercialism at you, but also that it is single-handedly keeping Soho's post houses in business.

Yes, I know that the story of the commercial is glamorised sex trafficking ("I love you so much I'll smuggle a girlfriend into the country for you"), but the work that went into the CG penguin is startling. Top marks to MPC for the digital Adelie. According to lead animator Tim van Hussen, "With Monty we focused strongly on his physical performance." I think if you spend five months in a darkened room animating an animal you get to talk like that.

The other big talking point this year was the Sainsbury film, which it is hard to even call a commercial. Essentially it is a three and a half minute, historically very accurate, drama, with a logo tacked on the end. Inevitably it attracted a lot of criticism, along the lines of you should not use the heroism of the front line soldiers to flog turkeys.

A lot of it was old-fashioned film-making too. Recreating the famous Christmas Day truce of 1914, director Ringan Ledwidge collected together a lot of extras, many from organisations like the Association for Military Remembrance, which added authenticity. There are some obvious CGI shots (The Mill this time) but most of the impact was created in camera, which is always nice. Even if it meant vast acreages of countryside had to be covered in fake snow in midsummer when it was shot.

Once you have seen those two ads, though, the competition inevitably looks rather thin indeed. Debenhams goes for out and out consumerism, with kids running amok in a department store until one finds the cuddly reindeer she is looking for.

(The spot is set to Paul McCartney's Frog Chorus, a song I once performed in the Royal Albert Hall with Canterbury Cathedral Choir singing the tune and the Treorchy Male Voice Choir doing the croaking. I'm sure there was a reason for it, although for the life of me I cannot think what it was.)

Aldi has an endless tracking shot of all those actors who would otherwise never get a job, ending on Jools Holland committing the cardinal sin of putting wine on the piano. Waitrose has some mawkish nonsense about a girl learning how to make gingerbread for the school's charity stall, but instead giving it to the assistant in Waitrose who sold her the decorations.

The fairies in Marks & Spencers' production are as bad an example of creative post as Monty is an exemplar. It's not often you see compositing as unconvincing as this. And for a television commercial, is it really a good idea for the supposedly good fairy to stop people's televisions working at Christmas, especially to stand in the middle of the road while it is snowing.

Boots tries to wring our withers by showing a family gathering around mum who is a nurse who has been on shift on Christmas Day. But the abiding impression is of the shiftless student daughter who forgot to get her a present and had to get whatever was available in the airport shop on her way home.

Cheap jokes apart, is there any real significance in reviewing the Christmas commercials. Well I think there is, because the industry is dependent upon advertising, and will continue to be so, whatever the advocates of TV everywhere tell you.

Obviously commercial television sees this time of year as a bonanza. The negotiations for buying out the whole of a Coronation Street centre break to show the full Sainsbury's commercial for the first time must have involved quite large numbers, I suspect.

But there is a more subtle benefit. Advertisers are prepared to put big budgets into prestige productions, even in these straitened times - five months of CGI for Monty the penguin, for instance. That secures work for the best post houses, and I know the post production industry is still in a difficult state so that is good news.

That work, in turn, also means that developers of creative tools have a reason to go forward. Post houses are demanding the best CGI, compositing and grading tools. Directors and cinematographers want to start with the best quality so are looking at 4k cameras to allow for what gets lost in post. And what gets invented, or invested in, for commercials then becomes available and affordable for programmes, whichever channel they are for.

So Christmas should make us all happy. Just don't try wrapping a penguin up in a cardboard box.

Tags: iss096 | dick hobbs | christmas | adverts | sainsburys | aldi | tesco | john lewis | Dick Hobbs.
Contributing Author Dick Hobbs.

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