It looked like something Dr. Seuss might have dreamed up. In late August, about 80 people took over a parking lot in downtown Toronto to construct a contraption that included a 10-metre-high wind turbine, a crew of burly men flailing away on gears and pulleys that rolled a movie-screen-sized vinyl sheet around and around on a pair of upright poles, numerous banks of solar panels, and half a dozen men on bicycles whose back wheels were hooked up either to batteries or to a treadmill dotted with fake potted plants.
It was a confounding and possibly laughable sight, sure, but it may prove to be something far more lasting, too: a sign of the future of television commercial production.
That's because the odd apparatus was created to help Hyundai Auto Canada shoot three new TV spots without any carbon emissions.
If you've seen the ads, which spotlight some of the auto maker's more fuel-efficient offerings, you would have remembered their trompe l'oeil effects. In one spot, the camera lazily floats around the new Sonata Hybrid: opening on its spinning wheels, cutting to painterly images of the hood, the headlights, and the body, then swooping in to regard a couple in the front seat enjoying a lazy drive through the countryside. In the final seconds, the camera pulls back for a theatrical reveal of that Seussian contraption and the viewer's realization that, not only was the car not moving through the countryside, its tires were being manually spun by men surrounding the vehicle.
In another spot, a driver cutting through the night in his Sonata Turbo overtakes a truck, at which point the camera pulls out to reveal that the scene is taking place on the same outdoor soundstage. A third spot, currently scheduled to break in a couple of weeks, initially seems to show the Tucson crossover vehicle navigating roads in the middle of a snowstorm - before showing viewers it was actually shot in the middle of summer.
Each of the spots concludes with the on-screen text: "This commercial was made with no carbon footprint."
"If we're going to bring to market vehicles that are kind to the environment," explained John Vernile, the vice-president of marketing for Hyundai Canada, "then why shouldn't the making of the commercial be kind to the environment?" With apologies to Marshall McLuhan, the medium was part of the message.
Some people aren't convinced, and have filled blogs and YouTube comment boards with skeptical slaps. "I bet they didn't haul all that metal structure, stage and solar panels by bike," said one commenter. "How were the cameras powered? How about the energy that the people who were moving the scenery were burning and the food that they ate to provide that energy? No carbon footprint. Riiiiiight," read another.
Judge for yourself: In developing the campaign, the Toronto office of Innocean Worldwide, which won Hyundai Canada's business last February, recruited the sustainability consultant and former TV host (of HGTV's Green Force) Lauren Gropper to ensure the four-day production was as environmentally friendly as could be.
She ensured that water bottles were banned from the set, the crew ate locally produced organic food with compostable plates, cups and cutlery, and everyone was required to separate their trash into recycling, organic waste and garbage. Paper consumption was cut sharply by using communal call sheets and scripts, requiring anyone who wanted to know what was going on to troop over to a shared bulletin board. The spots were shot digitally rather than using film. The crew even recycled the rainwater that soaked the set during ill-timed downpours, collecting it in buckets and then using it for rain effects in the commercials.
As a result, Hyundai claimed its total CO2 output was 0.35 metric tonnes rather than the more usual 8.93 metric tonnes that a conventional shoot would have produced, while the shoot accumulated 45 kilograms of garbage rather than more than the more usual 1,500 kg. Part of the reduction came from reusing rather than throwing out materials after the shoot, such as the vinyl backdrop, which was sent away to be repurposed into handbags.
Ms. Gropper also tracked the commutes of everyone who came to the set, whether by bike, public transportation, or car.
"They were very militant on the set about everything," reports Keith McDevitt, the senior vice-president of Innocean. "I got yelled at for walking on the set with a plastic water bottle I'd been recycling, from my car."
Ms. Gropper had previously performed a similar role on the cable hit Entourage, whose star Adrian Grenier is a green advocate. But while many in the media industries are environmentally minded, she notes the ethos doesn't appear to be spreading quickly to production practices.
"I think some commercials will look to use alternative generators, as opposed to diesel generators, or maybe they'll use an ecotrailer, like we did [on the Hyundai shoot]" she said. "They'll evaluate lighting and try and use more efficient lighting, but for the most part you don't find on an average commercial shoot a green consultant coming in and getting involved to the level that I was involved on this shoot. It's [usually]sort of an afterthought."
Keith McDevitt, the senior vice-president of Innocean Canada said the experience was a bit of an awakening for him. "I've been in this business for many years, produced a lot of car commercials, and in hindsight, looking at what we did with this, it's so efficient and respectful to the environment, it's kind of a no-brainer," he said. "We don't need to be on the road, driving down the road, or three different roads in a two-week-long shoot."
Will that awakening lead to new practices? "In terms of being as efficient as possible, I'd say that would be our goal and I would think it would be everyone's goal," he said. Still he acknowledged there are no current plans at Innocean to overhaul its own approach. And an informal survey of a number of Canadian ad agencies conducted this week found none formally instituting greener practices on their shoots.
Which is a shame, considering the out-of-pocket costs for the different approach might not be as high as some fear. "I was kind of nervous at the end," admits Hyundai's Mr. Vernile. "I didn't know how much to budget for." When he was told the total cost to offset the 0.35 metric tonnes came to two dollars, he breathed a sigh of relief.
"We were in our boardroom here," he recalls. "I pulled a toonie out of my pocket and said, 'Here, I got it covered.'"