Aspiring digital artists looking to nail a job with one of the hot f/x houses often harbor visions of working on cutting edge visuals for blockbuster studio feature films.

But what many hopefuls may not realize is that the cutting edge at many of the top visual effects companies is in the commercials division.

While Digital Domain, with the likes of action-master Jim Cameron, f/x creature-maker Stan Winston and former ILM and Lucasfilm honcho Scott Ross at the helm, has won Oscar noms for “True Lies” and “Apollo 13,”

But the 4-year-old company has charted an equally spectacular rise in the commercial biz, emerging as a leader in effects-based ads for top clients.

The commercial division accounts for roughly 40% of Digital Domain’s business, turning out spots for Disney, 7-Up, American Express, Sprint, and car clients Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, Chrysler, Dodge, Isuzu, Chevrolet and Oldsmobile.

Beyond frogs

The studio also is creating two new characters for Budweiser, Frank & Louie the Lizards, the next stage in a campaign that has included comic ants, frogs and field-goal kicking horses.

“It was a very conscious decision to only go after the best work, period, no matter how much it hurt,” says Ed Ulbrich, senior VP of production for the Venice-based visual-effects house. “We had to take a very strong position that we were only going to go after the A list: the Nikes, the Budweisers, the Coca-Colas, the really high profile advertisers. In the ad business, more so than in feature films, it’s absolutely image-based.”

Startup funding from IBM and subsequent investment from Cox Communications has made that selectivity possible.

Digital Domain burst onto the commercial scene in 1994 with a Jeep spot titled “Snow-Covered.” The spot was audacious because the product was never actually shown in the ad; the moving Jeep is detected only by the computer-animated wake it leaves while burrowing through a snowbank.

“Snow Covered” went on to win the 1994 Grand Prix Award at Cannes, while the company’s Magazine Wars ad for Nike pulled down the Journalist and Silver Lion awards. “We had to come out with both guns blazing,” Ulbrich says.

The company broke more new ground in 1995 with a Mercedes-Benz spot titled Rhinos, in which a herd of photorealistic digital rhinoceroses charges through city streets.

Before that, Ulbrich says, “You would never attempt to do ‘Jurassic Park’-style computer graphics on a commercial schedule and on a commercial budget. So we had a mission.”

The costs of photorealistic digital animation have since fallen sufficiently within commercial budgets so as to become quite common.

At the same time, the software has become increasingly sophisticated. In fact, for a Nike spot titled “Virtual Andre,” Ulbrich had to restrain his animators from making a motion-captured and digitized Andre Agassi too realistic.

For Ulbrich, “Rhinos” proved that the previously impossible could be done with the right talent. And talent, he adds, is the key to staying on the cutting edge. “We have no secret weapon hardware and supercomputers that [arch-rival] ILM doesn’t have,” he states. “It really comes down to the talent you can draw to your studio, the hot young animators out there you can get in who know how to do this stuff.”

Attracting talent

In today’s wildly competitive marketplace, snaring that hot, hip talent requires more than just throwing around the most money. For Ulbrich, it means offering the most unique projects. “If you’re going to work brutal, horrible hours — day, night, weekends, months and months and months of this — then it had better be on the coolest work in the business,” he states.

Digital Domain’s commercial unit differs from the competition by allowing ad agencies to choose their own directors rather than imposing a staff director on them. “When I was at (the Leo Burnett) agency we came across this dilemma every time we had a visual-effects commercial,” Ulbrich says. “Do you go with a director you want, or do you go with a facility that has the technical wherewithal to deliver the level of visual effect you want? What I learned is that the work will always go to the director.”

Eschewing the Love-Me-Love-My-Director philosophy, has allowed the company to establish relationships with such commercial top guns as David Fincher, Simon West and Kinka Usher, by offering itself as a complete “digital playground” where the director is supported by its varied staff.

Digital Domain does offer a roster of effects supervisors — Ray Giarratana, Andy McDonald, Fred Raimondi and Michael Gibson — who in Ulbrich’s words “have such an amazing range of experiences in traditional animation, compositing, models, motion control, that there’s no curve ball you could throw them in any film project that they haven’t dealt with.”

But in some ways, Digital Domain’s reputation is preceding it. “We have a lot of agencies coming to us and (asking), ‘What’s the next cool thing?’ They want a technology hook,” Ulbrich says. “For us, that’s a really delicate issue, because if they’re going at a technical solution, it probably means they don’t have a very good idea, and we have to be careful if we take on that kind of work.”

The real object, he says, is to match the right technology to the shot, and that means trusting the company’s judgment. “Sometimes people accuse us of being arrogant or being overly particular about how we do our work,” Ulbrich says. “But the fact of the matter is, it gives us credibility with the filmmaker. When you do it all, and you recommend an approach, you have credibility.”

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