The Totally Digital Man: Will Smith, Michael Jordan … and Ed Miller

Perhaps you’ve read about Ang Lee’s new movie The Gemini Man that features an entirely digital version of actor Will Smith’s 23-year old self. The results look pretty spectacular in early behind the scenes footage. By any technical measure, this is an extraordinarily special effect; creating an entirely computer-generated human being–particularly someone so universally recognized–is ridiculously difficult.

We certainly thought so back in 2003 when we needed a college-aged Michael Jordan for the end of a Gatorade commercial. Fred Raimondi of Digital Domain did amazing work throughout that groundbreaking project (watch the spot and a behind the scenes footage here) and yet, as good as the then state of the art effects were, the final version of young Michael always felt a little … Playstation.

But that wasn’t my first encounter with an entirely digitally-rendered man. No, I first experienced a digital doppelgänger upon joining J. Walter Thompson Chicago in 1997. That’s where I first encountered Ed Miller …

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That’s Ed on the left. A kinda good looking guy with one of those faces that feel somehow familiar. For a year or two, we’d read about him in the agency newsletter occasionally and see his face up there with the rest of us on the big, agency wall hanging in the lobby.

The thing was though, Ed didn’t exist. He was the product of the pleasantly subversive minds of three agency creatives: Joe Van Trump, Russell Heubach, and Mark Westman. As Mark put it … the idea came from the growth and flux in the agency personnel. There were so many going away parties, we joked that we could make up a fake going away party and people would still come. I used to do a lot of compositing for Russell and Joe and I lived with Joe at that time. They asked me if I could make a mash up of Joe and Russell for a fake person that would use both their middle names to get ‘Ed Miller.’ What made it possible was 3 things:

  1. I had all of the company head shots.
  2. They were all taken in the same set up, at the same angle with the same lighting.
  3. Photoshop had just released version 3.0 and introduced layers, so I could stack the heads and align the features. 

Having great source material made compositing easier so we could focus on finding unique features to combine. Merging two people was too obvious so we started pulling in more folk. Russell’s hair, Joe’s smile, your jaw, Matt’s shoulders and Steve’s eyes. The face felt familiar, but you couldn’t put your finger on it. Then for me, it was just a little blending and minor contrast adjustment to make them all look like there were meant to be there. I was a figure painting major in art school; it felt like sketching in charcoal. John Siebert took the face and started dropping it into old photos of guys in the army, company party photos, etc. He finally put the face on a going away card to sign for Ed. The venue was the dive bar Trotter’s. The party was packed; multiple people asked where Ed was. Later, I put the example in my book when I interviewed at DDB. It was so fun to do.”

These days companies like Generated Photos (“100,000 Faces Generated by AI, Free to Download!”), offer entirely digital people as a way to serve content-sucking new media by making copyrights, distribution rights, and infringement claims a thing of the past.

But in 1997, none of us were thinking that far ahead. We were just having fun.

Of course, Einstein said “Creativity is intelligence having fun.” So maybe we were just being creative.

But done right, you can’t really tell the two apart anyway.

 

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A Sweet Act of Creative Generosity

Most challenges modern agencies face stem from how we, as an industry, spent decades devaluing our one, singular asset: creativity. We gave it away for years since we earned our margins in media markups.

This worked fine, until it didn’t. By the time broadband and mobile fragmented the media landscape into a thousand platforms, we had trained clients not to pay for the one thing we truly own. And the results have not been pretty.

It’s a situation made worse by creative people themselves. We tend to underprice our own product, accepting lower compensation due to our sheer love of making things. That’s why a story last Saturday involving a creative team from Wong Doody LA made me smile so much. Call it “The Saved Quinceañera.”

The creative team was prepping a massive video and still shoot down in Houston with Patrick Molnar, a nationally-recognized, professional lifestyle photographer. As they worked in the museum district off Rice University, producer Amy Wise noticed a group of teenagers posing around a fountain as family members snapped photos with their phones. Being curious and outgoing (invaluable traits in an agency producer), Amy quickly learned it was Jasmine’s quinceañera–the traditional celebration of a fifteen year old girl’s transition from childhood to womanhood. Unfortunately, the large bus they had rented for their celebration hit a curb and blew a tire, setting them back a few hours. By the time they arrived at the park for their shoot, their photographer had given up and left.

And yes, the movie-of-the-week scene you are currently imagining in your head is exactly what happened next. Amy told the creative team, the creative team told Patrick, and within minutes, a major professional photographer was lining up shots of the young woman and her court, saving the day with a level of professionalism far beyond anything the family might have imagined. For no other reason other than it was fun, and it would brighten this girl’s day, transforming disappointment into delight.

The whole experience lasted less than fifteen minutes, but in that time, Patrick squeezed off bursts, insuring he’d have lots of selects to choose from, which he did later that night, retouching frames in the hotel bar.

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Unretouched photo courtesy of Patrick Molnar.

Creative people get into the business for the joy of making things. On Saturday afternoon, they didn’t make an ad or a piece of content or a digital experience; they simply made someone’s day. And in this case, that feeling was compensation enough. Well done Matt Burgess, Vanessa Witter, Callie Householder, Amy, and Patrick.

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Fake Note, True Leader

A few years back, I found myself at one of those interminable, mandatory, multi-agency meetings called by a major client. About half the content at these meetings proves truly valuable. Unfortunately, there’s the other half consisting of client filler and other agency throats jockeying to ask the insightful, incisive question they hope will lead to a bigger slice of the pie for their firm.

Anyway, I sat next to this nice bearded guy who seemed smarter than most. Late in the morning, as the presentations ground on, I was surprised to see him pull out a moleskin notebook and jot something down. The current presentation seemed absolutely meaningless, despite the false enthusiasm of a few front row hand-raisers; what had I missed?

Then, he slid the note over so I could read it…

Abundant good humor: it’s what makes Marcus Fischer, Marcus Fischer. And it’s just another reason why Carmichael Lynch is in tremendous shape for the future: you’ve passed the reins to an adult with deep understanding, calm patience, and real love for this game. Good on you.

And congratulations Marcus–a proven president who will make an exceptional CEO.