A Buffalo digital-effects company has helped get Charlie the Tuna ready for his close-up in a new TV commercial.
IBC Digital, which is known for its computer-generated animation work on behalf of major studios and cable networks, was hired to create a refreshed version of StarKist’s classic mascot for a national ad campaign promoting its single-serve Tuna Creations.
IBC Digital employees spent about eight hectic weeks at the end of last year working on the campaign. “We felt we had an obligation to maintain the integrity of this brand and usher it into the modern era of technology,” IBC President Ben Porcari said.
Winning a piece of the StarKist campaign was a coup for IBC Digital, which shares space in the Tri-Main Center with Daemen College’s animation program and draws on access to a University at Buffalo supercomputer.
IBC beat out two large animation studios to win the contract, but the company has a long history in animation for TV ads and programs and has developed connections in the industry since opening in 1991.
IBC animated KC the Penguin, which markets Kids Cuisine meals and frozen dinners for ConAgra, and a roller coaster made of flying pieces of Trix cereal for a General Mills ad.
IBC teamed up on its StarKist bid with Cornerstone Pictures and Steve “Spaz” Williams, known for his pioneering graphics and visual-effects work on movies .
“It is very, very tricky, and you open yourself up to a machine-gun nest of fire, when you decide that you’re going to take a character that’s been around for 60 years and basically revive him,” said Williams, who directed the spot.
In preparing the bid, IBC staff “exhaustively” researched the history of the Charlie character, including original design documents found at the ToonSeum, Pittsburgh’s museum of cartoon art, Porcari said.
Charlie the Tuna was created in 1961 by the Leo Burnett ad agency, appearing initially in black-and-white, animated TV commercials that popularized the phrase, “Sorry, Charlie.” The “spokes-fish” – StarKist’s term – had a red, beatnik cap, sunglasses and a cool, wiseguy charm.
The character brought pizzazz to a “very bland category” – canned tuna – and remains a popular brand ambassador, like the Trix Rabbit, Frosted Flakes’ Tony the Tiger and Poppin’ Fresh, the Pillsbury Doughboy, said William M. Collins, a principal with Travers Collins. “These are Hall of Fame advertising icons, and I think they are timeless in what they can add to the brand,” Collins said.
StarKist has consistently used Charlie in ads in recent years, but the new campaign is the first time in about a decade that Charlie has had a central, speaking role in an ad, with updated animation to boot. The national campaign – “My Lunch. My Way. My Creations.” – for StarKist’s Tuna Creations line of seasoned tuna in a pouch is the latest of more than 80 StarKist ads featuring Charlie.
The production team faced the complication of translating hand-drawn Charlie into a computer-generated figure.
“I get very concerned about taking two dimensional characters that have been established with the market and actually adapting them into the 3-D world,” Williams said.
Their “incredibly technical solution” began with drawings of Charlie in two dimensions, done by Calabash Animation’s Wayne Brejcha, who has “a magic hand,” Porcari said.
IBC worked from the 2-D drawings to animate Charlie in 3-D, a process that in some cases required frame-by-frame adjustments to make sure Charlie looked OK no matter what angle he was viewed from. One concession they made was to draw his eyes by hand.
The IBC animators – a team of eight, plus a Daemen intern – labored on the project for about eight weeks under an intense deadline that saw them finish two days before Christmas.
One version of the commercial, which began airing nationally in late December, shows two women eating lunch in their office and lamenting how boring their salads are until Charlie swims up to suggest trying one of his packets of seasoned tuna, thrilling the diners.
Air bubbles float up from Charlie, even though he’s not underwater in the ad. Porcari said the ad brings Charlie from his underwater world to our world, and the bubbles act as a bridge between the worlds.
Not everyone loves the new-look Charlie. Amid Amidi, a contributor to the Cartoon Brew website, panned him in an item titled “Things That Didn’t Need to be CG: Charlie the Tuna.”
“Besides the fact that it makes zero sense conceptually to have Charlie float in the middle of a room with air bubbles spouting up, the spot’s clumsy character animation and unattractive rendering leaves much to be desired,” Amidi wrote.
Porcari said that traditionalists may prefer the hand-drawn, 2-D look but that computer-generated visuals are “integral” to bringing Charlie’s message to a modern audience.
“I’ve seen the spots, and they’re fresh and contemporary,” Collins said. “So I think it’s a good blend of new and old.”