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Super Bowl: Convergence Happens

There was 4:41 left in the third quarter of Super Bowl XXXVII with Tampa Bay up 34 over Oakland's 3 when suddenly amid the crash of helmets and shoulder pads -- convergence happened.

ABC-TV aired Reebok's 60-second spot, "Terry Tate-Office Linebacker," featuring a 6-foot 7-inch, 320-pound football bruiser crashing through a hive of office cubicles to chastise discourteous drones for improper workplace behavior. The idea seems to have caught the fans' attention because after the end plate proclaimed: "Watch More Terry Tate Office Linebacker" above the Reebok.com url, by the end of the day 25,077 people had accessed the sportswear company's site to view the four-minute follow-up film "Terry's World." On Monday the count was up to 175,916 (maybe thanks to stealing a few minutes on broadband connections at the workplace-Ouch, Terry!). By Feb. 5, it had jumped to 4 million and with future "Terry Tate" episodes coming out every other week, the total is still climbing.

Note those are actual "film views," not just passive site hits, and it validates the increasingly expanded power of post production to bring a company's message to the world. Could this be the harbinger of a practical model converging over-the-air and Internet technologies? If so, just who is the broadcaster? ABC-TV? Or the World Wide Web?

BRANDING CAMPAIGN

The spot's setup is a lecture from the self-proclaimed "paradigm breaking" CEO of "Felcher & Son" corporation praising the corporation's increased productivity, thanks to the punishing tactics of "Terrible Terry Tate" (or "Triple T") played convincingly by Lester Speight who now goes by the name of Rasta. With cries of "When it's game time, it's pain time," Tate body tackles coffee break abusers, clandestine PC solitaire players, and one unfortunate whose sin is forgetting to put a cover sheet on his fax.

According to John Christie, vice president of technology for the L.A.-branded entertainment company Hypnotic that produced both the Super Bowl spot and its follow-up filmlets for New York's Arnell Group agency, "We wanted to create an entirely integrated branding campaign aimed at molding the perception of the client, Reebok, in people's minds. That's why the Web link became so important."

The Terry Tate character was the brainchild of Rawson Thurber, who originally shot an "Office Linebacker" short just after graduating from USC's School of Cinema-Television's Peter Stark Producing Program. When Hypnotic's producers Gary Bryman and Steve Hein recognized the chart's potential, they hired Thurber to direct the spot and subsequent Web incarnations. "I think what people respond to is that this is an auteur-driven commercial, not the typical comedy pablum that comes out of most agencies," Thurber reflects. "It's overwhelming having my first commercial be a Super Bowl ad and as a result my career has gone from the surreal to the pleasantly bizarre."

After Thurber directed the productions in 16mm, Hypnotic contracted veteran commercial editor, Jason Painter, to cut the various versions of the Reebok/Terry Tate campaign at Santa Monica's editorial house, Swietlik. "Rawson thinks in terms of longer films," Painter says, "but I brought my background as a commercial editor to the table. The requirements of comedic timing in short-form spots sometimes means that what you leave out is as important as what is included. Even in the four-minute filmlets destined to be viewed on the Reebok Web site, I approached it like cutting a series of stories like you would see in quick TV commercials."

One prime example of this comes toward the beginning of the 60-second spot that aired during the Super Bowl. We see a young yuppie coming out of the coffee room carrying a fresh cup of java and waving to co-workers when suddenly Terrible Terry Tate clobbers him from the side, shouting, "Break was over 15 minutes ago, Mitch!" In the longer Web version called "Terry's World," we learn that Mitch had ignored a sign over the coffeemaker along with a co-worker's warnings to refill the pot. This changed the overall effect of Terry Tate's full body tackle. "At first, Rawson didn't understand you don't need all that backstory to get the point across," Painter explains. "In the time frame of a commercial, the gags have to pay off much more quickly."

Painter's input was so valuable he went to the set so he could help make sure there was sufficient coverage for subsequent editing. Then, when all the various versions were finished he output the master to digital Betacam tape. In an earlier era the project would have been completed-but that's so 20th century!

ADVENTURES IN ENCODING

One of the co-producers at Hypnotic, Gary Bryman, explained that the company has long specialized in creating non-traditional forms of branded infotainment. Now, to give Terrible Terry a unique Web presence, they turned to Last Exit to encode the video so that it could be accessed on Reebok's Web site. One of Last Exit's co-founders, Andrew Beach, began by capturing the images to disk through an AJA Video Kona SD video card.

"Terry's World," the first of the four-minute videos was digitized into an 8 GB file on a dual gigahertz G-4 PowerMac controlled by Final Cut Pro 3, according to Beach. "We then took the material into Discreet's cleaner software for compression."

At this point, Beach's experience preparing music videos for Web delivery came into play. Reebok and Hypnotic wanted the highest-quality imagery available, but this required balancing the requirements of file size with the specialized needs of popular online video players that can be accessed either via dial-up modems or broadband connections. "Frankly, clients don't know the answers to these questions yet," Beach says, "so it is my job to help them formulate what they want by balancing quality with file size."

Ultimately, they provided the option of letting viewers see the filmlets in either a small or large viewing window and in both Apple's QuickTime and Microsoft's Windows Media Player platforms to accommodate the largest number of site visitors possible.

This process turns out to be as much art as science, and the final encoding settings depended on the amount of movement in the scenes. "We analyze the video shot by shot, then select an overall setting for the encoding," Beach said, "and then use our best judgment to get maximum use out of the available bandwidth."

Once all the encoding values were in place, Beach accessed the Digital Color Meter that is part of Apple's latest version of its OS X (known as "Jaguar") to optimize the color parameters of the images and conform them to the requirements of computer playback as opposed to what would look best in the color space on a video monitor.

Finally, Beach exported the entire filmlet in a single pass to the cleaner software and checked its file size, or weight. "For example, we wanted the DSL version of 'Terry's World' to be in the area of 21 MB, down from the original 8 GB," Beach says, "and that's what we 'ftp-ed' over to Hypnotic's server to make it available on the Reebok site."

Terry Tate will develop into a character in his own right if everyone's plans come to fruition. It will be interesting to see if the success of Reebok's campaign of convergence will be copied by other companies. But those of us who saw Terrible Terry's commercial debut on Jan. 26 during Super Bowl XXXVII witnessed the birth of a phenomenon made possible by new concepts in video post production, whose ultimate impact may change the whole paradigm of broadcasting.

Meanwhile, does anyone remember the final score of the game?