Monday, March 02, 2009

Future Friendly For David Fincher

Have you ever lit up the world with music? You Will. In 1993, the music house I worked for was commissioned by ad agency, NW AYER, to create an original score for an AT&T campaign named 'YOU WILL'. At the time I was a young assistant –hanging onto the ropes of commercial music production with one hand, answering phones and getting coffee for composers with the other. 

 The premise of the 'YOU WILL' campaign was that with the future right around the corner, AT&T was in a position to deliver all sorts of high tech goodies to their customers. Try to visualize the pre millennial era: Few in the public sphere had yet heard of the Internet, much less owned a personal computer. Cell phones were the size of car batteries. The hot technology was the CD-Rom.

So imagine how futuristic these commercials looked and sounded when they first aired and asked the then hypothetical questions: "Have you ever paid a toll without slowing down? Bought concert tickets from a cash machine? Or tucked your baby in from a phone booth? 'YOU WILL'." 

In one sense, 'YOU WILL' can be seen as (and possibly) modeled after GE’s own campaign 'WE BRING GOOD THINGS TO LIFE'. But cleverly, AT&T recast the message so as to position itself as the GE of the future. But what a dark future the ad agency imagined for its client. Let's look at one of the spots now, sans audio. Doing so will give you an idea of just the way our music composers first approached the project: 



Director David Fincher was commissioned to shoot the commercials. His vision of the future, as it turned out, was pretty bleak, made only somewhat more pleasant by gadgetry. At first glance, most of the interiors looked like they couldn’t even power the lights in the room much less a computer, while exteriors seemed designed to resembled a climate change model in full effect. Which is not to say the film didn’t look good, it was great, even beautiful. But the art direction did not immediately convince one that a brighter future –either figuratively or literally– was upon us. 

Essentially, Fincher delivered a study in Sci-Fi noire: equal parts 'ALPHAVILLE', 'BLADE RUNNER' and 'BRAZIL'. Oddly enough, no one at the agency or anyone of our creative staff initially thought this Orwellian version of the 21st Century presented much of a marketing problem (for a company trying to position itself as a ubiquitous element to your future lifestyle). 

In fact, the consensus between both agency and our compositional staff was that Fincher’s footage demanded a rich cinematic treatment that inspired admiration in the things AT&T could achieve for its customers. Someone suggested that the music house use as a reference Ennio Morricone's 'WHILE THINKING ABOUT HER AGAIN’ from the soundtrack to 'CINEMA PARADISO'. I don't recall who first made this suggestion. It may have been Fincher, Jim Haygood (the campaign's editor), someone at the ad agency or one of our own creative directors Jonathan Elias or Alexander Lasarenko. But upon its acceptance and approval, Lasarenko composed a stirring work that captured the emotional depth of Morricone’s original cue. 

In fact, if you lay the 'CINEMA PARADISO' cue against any of the AT&T spots today, you can see that as a temp track, the music synchs relatively well to picture (it lacks sound design, but you get the idea). If I had to guess, I'd bet that Haygood might have used either Morricone’s music, or Lasarenko’s demo, to facilitate the process towards a final cut. 

 AT&T YOU WILL 'TOLL':30 (Alternate music direction):


Either way, Morricone's track certainly reinforces the cinematic quality inherent to the footage. It also adds emotive warmth, and in that regard it humanizes the picture. By virtue of the orchestral arrangement, it also conveys a sense of understated power, which one would think agreeable sonic branding for the communications giant. 

All of which is to say that this direction seemed exactly right for the project, and everyone at the ad agency seemed to agree at first. 

Unfortunately, the account executives at AT&T found the Morricone direction, however romantic in its original context, weirdly dark for a project that purported to be a brand imaging campaign. It wasn’t simply an issue of the music not working, but that the music worked too well, reinforcing Fincher’s dark vision, demanding awe and respect; rather than conveying a feeling of technological marvel and inspiring a sense of excitement and wonder. 

And of course they were right. Most of the time music is supposed to support picture, but the AT&T campaign provides us with a perfect example of a project that requires a score that contrasts picture. The symphonic direction did well to announce a Brave New World, but our real job was to introduce a Friendly Future. Lest there be any confusion, the future was not going to be dark, rainy or Orwellian, or feel anything like the inside of a rusting deep space oil rig. It was going to be fun, engaging, the technology liberating and easy to use. –Less 'ALIEN 3', if not quite 'JETSONS'. No rayguns; no monsters; and the weather is going to be fine. 

In other words, Disney’s TOMORROWLAND: safe, warm, inviting; and above all human and accessible. 

So why didn’t Fincher shoot happy-go-lucky spots in the first place? 

In all likelihood he was the hottest young director at the time, and sometimes that’s all it takes to get the job. Which is to say Fincher was hired to do Fincher (and he delivered), and any issues related to branding would be managed in post, which they were. 

But another surprise awaited our composers: While our symphonic music demo was soundly rejected, the edit it was synched to was approved. In many cases, when music providers get it wrong, agencies simply fire them and move on to someone new. But in the case of 'YOU WILL', NW Ayer gave us another chance. However, now we were in a position of having to compose a new score that contrasted picture, and in such a way designed to represent the polar opposite of our first demo, but would nevertheless synch to the existing edit, therefore matching picture lock. 

Elias wanted to provide yet another reference track for the creative team, in order to provide a concrete example of the client’s aspirations. So, this time out Lasarenko suggested an inspirational acoustic rock track, written in the odd meter of 7/4, whose cadence roughly followed a driving I V I vi V vi† chordal sequence, upon which a mystical lyric was delivered. Slammed against picture the music’s energetic beat and shimmering guitars all but lit up Fincher's otherwise dark world. (†FYI: For readers who are not musicians, the roman numerals in the previous paragraph represent shorthand for various kinds of chords: Upper case = Major/ Lower case = Minor) 

As a choice for a scratch track, it was far from typical film music. But it indicated a direction that could transform a Sci-Fi noire mini feature into a fanciful version of the future. And it achieved this result by forcibly re-framing picture with music (that specifically provided the necessary context). Obviously this speaks to the power of music, whether in advertising, entertainment or something else altogether: That is, the power to make you believe you are seeing something you are not, because your ear is telling you that you absolutely are.  Today, people re-frame their own respective worlds simply by scoring their life with personal playlists streaming off their own iPods or other portable playback devices. 

In the end, both Elias’ NY and LA composers created several versions of the driving acoustic rock direction. The agency selected the strongest demo, which was further developed by adding sound design and an affable voice over courtesy MAGNUM P.I. actor Tom Selleck. When at last approved, and the final spots delivered, AT&T released the following press announcement: "… the 'YOU WILL' campaign takes a whimsical look into the near-future when information technologies now being developed at AT&T will soon enhance the way people work, live and play." 



Of course, if the agency had approved the original symphonic orchestral direction, inspired by Morricone’s CINEMA PARADISO, the spots would never have been framed as anything near whimsy. Even now, the images themselves remain, dark and a bit Orwellian. If this is the future, where the hell is the sun, you may ask? Well, it's there, of course, beaming down upon the entire campaign, whimsy and all. It may never be a prominent element in any of the video. But nevertheless, it shines bright, illuminated by the power and magic of music. 

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 Here's a video that includes all the spots in the campaign


 * * * 
Read what other people thought about 'YOU WILL': 

1. From Boingboing, Cory Doctorow writes: “I think these are the most emblematic advertisements of the era, defining the way that big companies totally missed the point of the Internet…” 
 2. The Work and Genius of David Fincher: AT&T - "You Will" (1993) 

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 FUTURE FRIENDLY FOR DAVID FINCHER is the third in an educational series examining the utilization of temp music in advertising, entertainment and media production. To read previous articles on this topic, click on either the following link or the TEMP MUSIC label/link that follows at the footer of this post: 2009 WINTER/SPRING CRITICAL NOISE ARTICLES ABOUT TEMP TRACKS: 


cj powers said...

By the way, do you have the score sans VO/SFX?

cj powers said...

Thanks for this in-depth article. These were some of my favorite ads of all time, and they made a huge impression at the time. Of course, watching them now seems so quant. Again, thanks

Terry O'Gara said...

Hi CJ,

Thanks for the comments!

Unfortunately I don't possess the ATT YOU WILL score sans VO/SFX. Thankfully, we have YouTube to archive and replay the golden oldies.

Terry O'Gara

swanstep said...

Interesting article, thanks. One question about the final music. I never picked it at the time, but the track begins like the early and wonderful Peter Gabriel song Solsbury Hill, which is also in 7/4. Can you confirm that that was the actual musical starting point?

Of course, the track goes somewhere else entirely over the 30 secs - it's really amazing what's crammed in: keening strings, descending oboe, rising backing vocal. The musical timbres shift and develop as fast as the images, and as if by magic the ad overall seems to slow down and intensify. Without the music or with simpler music the visuals seem frantic to me, whereas with the final audio the future feels well-paced, serene, inviting. I assume it must have been pretty amazing to have seen all that come together in an edit suite. Thanks again for the article.

Terry O'Gara said...

Thanks for your comments! Of course, I understand your curiosity, but I purposefully omitted the title of the final temp track. The reason being that my intention was to not start a conversation drawing comparisons between two specific works, but rather to illuminate the mechanics by which film composers and commercial media music designers use temp tracks to source inspiration and frame brand messaging, at the service of film or video.

But you are quite right about how the final music ends up not just working with picture, but actually seems to work the picture. In some clever way, ‘YOU WILL’ is testament not to how our eyes play tricks with us, but how our ears can play tricks on our eyes.

Also, compare and contrast the AT&T YOU WILL Campaign with the current AT&T/Apple iPhone campaign. Even though AT&T is not the same company the brand represented in the nineties, it’s evident that AT&T (in partnership with Apple) continues to see merit in presenting next step technology by packaging it with friendly audio. Even Microsoft has learned to take a page from the friendly future marketing play book. You just seem to end up selling more stuff that way.

And yet, by stark comparison, the marketers for the Verizon Wireless/Google Android platform DROID line of phones have packaged their client's device as though it hails from a Kubrick inspired Space Odyssey future replete with dark Darth Vader like hues and robo-Dalek sonics. An interesting choice, to be sure. But by choosing to demonstrate power (over ease of function), the resulting message is that Droid is not just another mobile device, but nothing less than purposely positioned as the pure antithesis of the AT&T/Apple iPhone.

swanstep said...

Thanks for your response Terry. I ended up writing up my thoughts in a blog post here. in case you're interested. Thanks again.