Fallon McElligott Takes EDS to the Wild West for Super Bowl
While there are occupational hazards linked with advertising, dodging cow pies is not generally one of them. Neither is waking up to the sound of an unfamiliar feline purring in your face. Or having to rough it in surprisingly cold December weather in Southern California.
But a creative team at Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis, got to do all this and more in the quest for footage that will become, owing in part to the magic of technology, a 60-second Super Bowl spot for Electronic Data Systems. It adds humor and humanity to a computer-services company with a stodgy image.
The ad is the crescendo of a marketing outreach spearheaded by chairman Dick Brown, who joined underperforming EDS in early 1999.
Having lost contracts to competitors such as IBM, a major overhaul was needed, with marketing a focal point. Fallon’s first print and TV ads for the Plano, Texas, firm debuted in the fall, using simple symbols–a bumper sticker, a wedding invite, pizza boxes, a plate of French fries–to convey how the company helps clients manage the complexities of evolving technologies. The tagline: “EDS. Solved.”
But the Super Bowl begs for something epic, so the Fallon team–creative director David Lubars, copywriter Greg Hahn and art director Dean Hanson–began searching for that perfect visual metaphor in September. The answer came a month later in the form of a catch phrase that means taking on the impossible: “It’s like trying to herd cats.”
And that’s exactly what they pitched: a team of rugged cowboys herding thousands of house cats across the Montana plains.
“We were intrigued by it immediately,” says Don Uzzi, EDS marketing chief. “It’s the perfect analogy for what we do, especially in e-services: simplified complexity.”
The ad begins with the cowboys trying to herd the cats. As the wranglers give testimonials about the job, various scenes play out: a wrangler training with a wooden kitty and a ball of yarn; a cowboy trying to round up a stray via an electric can opener; ranch hands trying to rescue cats from a tree.
“Herding cats, don’t let anyone tell you it’s easy,” says a cowboy. “But when you bring a herd to town and you know you haven’t lost one, there’s nothing like it. In a sense, this is what we do. Impossibly diverging technologies, information and ideas going where you want.”
To show the impossible, however, requires considerable effort.
“Cats all have minds of their own–they are extremely hard to herd,” Hahn says. “Instantly, you visualize how insane it is.”
To prepare for their roles, 50 feline actors and their trainers traveled to Tejon Ranch a week before the crew. The shoot location is 70 miles north of Los Angeles, and they need to get used to the area’s wind conditions. The spot calls for cats with different skills, so rƒsumƒs vary: Some excel as runners, others specialize in water scenes, another subset has a talent for staying motionless, a skill needed for scenes calling for them to fall asleep on command or sit on a tree branch.
When “action” is called, cats lured by the stimuli of strategically smeared tuna are persuaded to ride on a saddle, stampede over a horse-thrown wrangler, even go against the cardinal rule of cathood–never, under any circumstances, get wet–for the dramatic river-crossing scene.
“Trainers taught the cats to swim by starting them out in one-quarter inch of water, then gradually building the pool to swimming depth,” Hanson says. “Since we were shooting in nippy weather, our ‘river’ was actually a small pool warmed by a portable heater, like a little cat Jacuzzi.”
For the herding scenes, about a dozen felines trade off working shifts. For some shots, head trainer Karin McElhatton hides behind tumbleweeds to direct them via verbal commands.
To prevent accidental tramplings, cats and horses can’t be filmed together, and an American Humane Association monitor is on hand to ensure that regulations are met. For scenes where both are required, a computer-operated motion-control camera is used to film the same shot over and over with each animal. The horses, background and layers of kitties are filmed separately, and each will be stripped in during post-production to create the illusion of an elaborate cat drive.
Getting cats to do anything is difficult, but the weather during the five-day shoot behaves like the fussiest diva. Two crew members have the scars to prove it–their clothing briefly catches fire after lurking perilously close to industrial heaters.
Fallon producer Judy Brink sports a Frisbee-sized melt mark on the back of a new jacket she and the rest of the crew bought after the first five minutes on location convinced her to hightail it to the nearest Sports Chalet.
Just like the mythic postman, two- and four-legged talent toil through rain, sleet, snow, fog and 40 mph winds. The creatives and EDS advertising manager Lawanda Burrell observe the action from the safety of a van.
For those outside, goggles and full face masks deter the fierce wind and blowing sand. All but the most brazen crew members drive the 250 yards to craft services and toilets.
In spite of the weather, “the cats have been beautiful,” Hahn says, and each scene is filmed no more than three times.
Some interspecies bonding even occurs. At night, crew members who are not allergic or cat haters bring the cats back to their hotels, and later swap stories about how the sleeping arrangements worked out. “I let my cat out of its carrier, and it slept in the bed with me,” one brags.
The only star trips witnessed involve a Persian whose antics included refusing to let other actors eat off its plate, lagging in the running scenes and staring at the camera. “The Persian is a little lazy,” admits account executive David Sigel. “But it’s funny, because it’s obviously such a house cat.”
For the human talent, authentic cowboys were needed, so a casting call went out across Colorado, California, New Mexico and Arizona. Some have never acted before, others, like Cliff Stokes, a New Mexico silversmith, have SAG cards, agents and bios that boast film work.
Many wear clothing from their own closets, but their rugged looks are embellished by makeup to make their faces appear weathered and cat-scratched.
Because of the actors’ inexperience, the agency chose John O’Hagen of Hungry Man, Los Angeles, a director with a reputation for coaxing naturally humorous performances from nonprofessionals. This talent is evident as O’Hagen works with the wranglers on testimonials. It begins semi-scripted, but on subsequent takes, the director gets them to relay the information in their own words.
Follow-up includes five weeks of editing at Filmcore in Santa Monica, Calif., and postproduction at Sight Effects, Venice, Calif.
Orchestral music, created by Asche and Spencer, Minneapolis, will be added to convey a Western feeling. Then it’s off to the viewing audience, who will watch the ad during the game’s third quarter.
“We think people will say, ‘How did they do that?’ and it’s a circle right back to what we do,” Uzzi says. “We’re creative, driven and we’ve been around for a long time.” K
Cat scratch fever:
casts cowboys as cat herders in a 60-second Super Bowl spot.
Fifty feline thespians were rounded up
at Tejon Ranch