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‘Superpowerful Duo’: An Interview With The Mill

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Take my word on this one … whenever a design agency or marketing department has to overcome the challenge of being receptive to a younger audience someone brings up superheroes.

Marvel and DC worked very hard to make comic book heroes into the loveable lucrative icons.  There were bumps along the way.  Between comics being burned in the mind and branded as encouraging violence in kids (an opinion that has been used word-for-word on both movies AND video games), even without the influence of politics comic heroes lost favour with their audience, a lot of dramatic updates had to be made to keep characters popular and these sometimes worked (death of Robin – Batman) and sometimes failed (original black suit Spiderman) but either way the leaders of the comics industry have earned the right to make decisions on what makes a superhero likeable.

So I have issue when I see superheroes selling furniture polish or working in the property market. Superheroes aren’t just a guy in a costume … there’s an art to making it work.  On occasion someone does it fantastically well. Pixar’s ‘The Incredibles’ is a work of genius but let’s be fair, the team that worked on it ARE a team of entertainment industry geniuses and they DO have large budgets and three years to work on their projects.

But what of the design agencies and marketing companies? Are they destined to clutch at straws but still fall short of their mark?  Will they learn that the advertising industry is no place for superheroes? The answer is simply no.  Especially not when leading agency, The Mill gives them all a symbol of hope.

The Mill’s recent HUGE cross media campaign bridged the gap perfectly between advertising and entertainment and succeeded where thousands have failed. Skwigly was very fortunate to find a slot in the extremely schedule of The Mill’s digital design director Nick Morland.

To some people this brief must have been a dream project come true. Where did it come from? Were you approached or did you pitch the idea?

The Mill’s Digital team were approached by AMV BBDO to work with them as their creative partner to help launch the new Doritos Jalpeno Fire and Pepsi Max Citrus Freeze. They had a basic story outline for the online comic, a script for the TV spot and some initial ideas about the main characters. We were briefed to develop these into what you now see on the web and your telly. And while it’s been stressful at times, it’s a comedy comic book after all so I can’t think of anything that would be more fun to work on frankly. My dreams really have come true.

Does your studio specialise in this kind of animation/illustration work or is this a new venture for you?

The Mill has a rich history in animation, illustration and visual effects work but this project has been unique. Developing a fully animated TVC and an interactive online comic in tandem would be a novel experience for any studio so from that point of view it’s been a new venture. We looked at several existing online comics but we firmly believe that there’s nothing out there that’s doing what Doritos and Pepsi Max is.

It’s getting increasingly difficult to recognise the software used in animations. Which programmes did you use?

Ha! All of them I think. That’s how it feels anyway. We’ve mostly used a mix of After Effects and Flash to help get the optimum look for each set of panels. The comic is built in Flash and then pulls in a mixture of Flash movies outputted from AFX and Flash SWFs, along with the music and sound effects that were all developed specifically for the comic. It’s worth pointing out that for the online comic, all of the artwork was pencilled and inked just as a traditional comic and then coloured and cleaned up digitally in Photoshop. We felt it was important to maintain the level of quality and craft of a real comic by using the same techniques.

Creating something that translates seamlessly from animation to print advertising can’t be as straight-forward as it sounds. How difficult was it?

Not too hard as long as all of the requirements are in place up front.We knew that we’d be using work on TV, print and online so all of the work has been produced in either HD or high resolution for print and then scaled accordingly.

Between the witty script writing, great illustrative style, music, graphic design, website and programming there must be a large team dedicated to the success of the campaign. How many people are we talking about here?

Oh stop, you’re making me blush (keep going).  Across the TV and online, there were around 20-25 people at any one point. Once the TVC and the scripts were finished this dropped to around 15 animators, illustrators and developers.

The style is very distinct, were there any particular inspirations for the look and the character designs?

We looked at lots of underground comics and lots of different illustration styles. In the end we pulled on the styles of Jonathan Vuillemin (who also directed the TVC) and Carlos Nieto who both work at The Mill as illustrator/animators. We wanted a more independent comic feel rather than a recognisable mainstream look. We feel it makes the comic look more authentic and bespoke.

A lot of companies have tried to use superheroes as mascots to liven their branding but have always failed more times than not. How has Doritos and Max managed to make such a seemingly simple concept work so well whilst others have just become patronising embarrassments **cough** Mr Muscle **cough cough**?

You’re quite right; there have been many attempts at making products more “awesome” by stapling a superhero onto the advertising campaign. (Captain Car Insurance!) I think the problem there may be is that they often seem to be too earnest and, well, super. Or they are simply just a bit rubbish. We looked at successful Indy comic characters and their one common feature is their flaws.  It makes them more approachable. We tried to make sure that Firefingers and Icefist were incompetent enough to be likeable but lucky enough to come out on top most of the time.  People should be laughing at them as much as with them.

How much longer before we can have a downloadable game? I’m guessing there must be one in the pipeline right?

We need a bigger pipeline – it’s jammed with amazing stuff! I’m sure if the project is as successful as we all hope then we’ll be seeing more content. Until then, I’m afraid you’ll have to keep playing the sofa destruction game in episode 1.  There’s new interactive elements in episode 2 though which is out soon, including a peek into Firefinger’s and Icefist’s secret base.

Refreshingly the style of the humour and characters are more ‘Scott Pilgrim’ than ‘Marvel’. How much effort went into researching the genre … or … do you feel that it’s possible to shut out any other superhero influences?

We all wanted this to be a slight pastiche of the whole superhero genre rather than anything too serious so the Scott Pilgrim style seemed to suit the tone better. Having said that, we obviously looked across the entire genre for inspiration.

The concept could have easily been done with actors and costumes, why was the decision to have it illustrated and animated?

It’s much easier to create bizarre scenarios when you’re in the world of animation because of the lack of constraints. That and the fact that we were briefed to do it as a comic book.

After seeing a 4 page comic spread in the metro an animated ‘origin story’ and an interactive web comic I get the impression that there are big promises for the future adventures, can you give any clues as to what (and how many) to expect?

The second and (sadly at the moment) final episode of the online comic will be going live shortly (did I mention that already?) It’s full of eye-popping action, terrible puns and faintly rubbish super villains. Kapow!

A super-powered Coco Cox (with apparently the ability to turn into a buxom reporter) and OMGenius (the criminal record icon) are already being promoted as upcoming characters, anything else you can tease us with?

She’s buxom? I can’t say as I noticed. The Hole Punch and The Human Tool are two new villains making an appearance in episode 2, out soon (sure I haven’t mentioned that yet), and Coco and her generously proportioned alter ego Kiki are featuring much more. As is OMGENIUS, the annoying, pocket-sized pop menace with his standard super villain plans for world domination.

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