Psyop is a creative studio that has given the Little Black Book team some of its most loved and enjoyed commercials. It also turned the grand old age of 21 a couple of weeks ago. The five founders, Marie Hyon, Kylie Matulick, Marco Spier, Todd Mueller and Eben Mears came together in 2000, with the mission to break the siloed production and post production 'facility' model and was experimenting with and blending 2D and 3D animation from the get go. True to its innovative roots, Psyop produced the first big-scale virtual production commercial earlier this year (which we spoke to them about here).
In celebration of its 21st birthday - and with the perfect excuse to ogle a lot of very nice films - LBB's Addison Capper took a trip down memory lane with Psyop chief executive producer Justin Booth-Clibborn, who chats us through 21 of the studio's most important, iconic and revolutionary project.
2001: VW - ‘DNA’
In its early years Psyop continually experimented with and blended the techniques of design, 3D and 2D animation, pushing the tools in new and original ways. With the VH-1 My Music Awards graphics for 2000 and 2001, AT&T’s Olympic ‘Skater’ spot, and this VW spot, Psyop envisioned a new style in animated TV spots - bringing relatable humanity to animation through character design and rotoscoped animation techniques (‘ghetto capture’ as they called it), along with never before seen fluid 3D camerawork and transitions (that were impossible in live action at that time). The simple yet elegant linework animation about the passion and obsession of VW designers and engineers led DesignWeek UK to recognise an aesthetic that Psyop developed across multiple clients and award winning spots, as a “style has transformed other campaigns.”
2002: Lugz - ‘Arrow’
Recalling the highly experimental 3D graffiti animation racing through the NYC subway in a late ‘90s music video for ‘End to End Burner’ by Company Flow, creative director Scott Barbay, at ad agency Averett Free Ginsberg, sought out the creators at Psyop to build on the idea for his client Lugz shoes. Again blending design, 3D and 2D, and rotoscoping real breakdancers, Psyop created a breathtakingly original, but relatively underground, award winning piece. Lugz was a small brand and the spot didn’t have much of a media buy behind it, but it did subsequently ‘inform’ a high profile spot for a large electronics company, incurring a lawsuit and leading to numerous media stories, (including in the The New York Times - ‘Is Imitation Flattery, Theft or Just Coincidence?’), and garnering Psyop some well early deserved attention.
2003: Bombay Sapphire - ‘Drift’
Working from a completely open brief, a ‘Psyop’ labeled bottle of gin, and nine words that encapsulated the brand, Psyop combined design, 3D and 2D in entirely new ways to create a groundbreaking, stunning and quiet, Zen-like, art film that seeped into viewers subconscious, transported them away to a different world, and kept the phone ringing for the following three years.
2006: MTV - ‘Crow’
To launch the ‘new’ HD channel for MTV, Psyop pitched a dark ‘story’ of a murder of crows, set to a twisted version of Beethoven’s classical masterpiece ‘Moonlight Sonata’. A key part of Psyop’s vision was to highlight the fidelity of the new HD technology and 5.1 surround sound by creating a piece so dense that it ‘fell apart’ with noise on standard definition and ‘normal’ stereo. The pitch meeting was interesting(!) but credit to the MTV execs who took the leap of faith with their former employees (four of the the Psyop founders were Viacom alums) to create another inventively original combination of design, 3D and 2D unlike anything anyone had seen, or felt, before for MTV or anywhere else.
2006: Coca-Cola - ‘Happiness Factory’ (1:30)
Still, to this day, one of the finest examples of blurring the line between marketing and entertainment (there is a product in almost every shot!), Psyop - collaborating with Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam - conceived of and built the Happiness Factory - the hidden world inside a Coke machine populated with whimsical characters whose one purpose in life is to imbue each and every bottle of Coke with happiness, and spread it to the human world. The project, which tapped into the world’s emotional relationship the Coke brand, was one of the most successful commercials in Coca Cola’s history, and was the cornerstone of the five-year ‘Happiness in a Bottle’ campaign, spawning several follow up films, an online game, physical toys, and a World’s Fair pavilion. The original commercial earned multiple top awards including a Creative Emmy nomination and a Cannes Silver Lion, and was a turning point in Psyop’s industry profile, launching its insurgence into full 3D character based world building and storytelling.
2008: Adidas - ‘Hu Jia’
TBWA China tapped Psyop early in the creative development of its ‘Together in 2008 - Impossible is Nothing’ campaign for the Beijing 2008 Olympics Games. Building on the concept of the entire Chinese nation lifting their sports stars to victory, Psyop helped develop the overall design aesthetic that went on to win China’s first ever Cannes Gold Lion. The production pushed Psyop’s design+3D+2D techniques to new heights and, through a new partnership with Stink Films, marked a significant step forward in the company’s use of live action. This deeply emotional spot featuring Chinese diver Hu Jia and an underwater world that becomes a portal to his memories seconds after his jump was one in a series of spots, and part of the largest Adidas campaign ever outside of Europe, helping the company achieve 60% sales growth in China in 2008.
2008: Converse - ‘My Drive Thru’
For its 100-year anniversary, Converse commissioned and released an original track by Pharrell Williams, Julian Casablancas (from The Strokes) and Santigold. Psyop collaborated with Anomaly to create a breathtakingly unique music video for the song depicting the artists as paper doll like figures connected primarily by their Converse sneakers. Once again using design, live action and animation in an entirely new way, the production was extremely painstaking and labour intensive, but resulted in a deceptively simple film that was one of the top 10 shared videos in its first day of release, with over 750,000 streams - a big number back then!
2009: Coca Cola - ‘Heist’
This beautifully executed, simple advertising idea - that even the most diverse class of life on Earth want a taste - marked the beginning of the creatively fruitful collaboration (which continues to this day) between Psyop and Wieden+Kennedy Portland. The charming, inventive and whimsical storytelling, and the ‘designed live action’, is a Psyop hallmark, delighting audiences everywhere, including, in this case, during Super Bowl 2009. It earned Psyop and Wieden+Kennedy the Creative Arts Emmy for Outstanding Commercial that year.
2010: LG - ‘Something’s Lurking’
Setting out to create a commercial for a vacuum cleaner that would resonate on an emotional level, Psyop took viewers into a different, hidden world. “Suspense and drama in a vacuum cleaner commercial is usually limited to micro close-ups of dirt…being sucked up by a snazzy new product,” wrote AdWeek. “Thanks to animation by Psyop and a Jaws/Toy Story-inspired theme…this online LG video showcasing the brand’s Kompressor technology is an action-packed adventure that keeps viewers watching, even at its full 60-second length.” The spot won a Gold Clio award for Directing.
2007-2014: Fanta - ‘Bounce’ (2011)
The seven-year Fanta ‘Play’ campaign was yet another example of Psyop building a marketing/entertainment franchise. When Ogilvy tapped the studio to help re-invigorate and re-brand Fanta (another Coca Cola brand) to young people globally, Psyop invented and designed an imaginative, Fanta branded world of ‘Play’, populated with a squad of fun, universally relatable characters who would inspire teens around the world to playfully battle the dull grown-up world. The Fanta brand was woven into the entertaining mini-stories and slices of life, full of mischief and surprise, which stayed on trend with new fashions, looks and tech, and emphasized music-driven storylines in simple settings, for nonverbal, universal appeal, and easy adaptation to multinational markets. With ‘Bounce’ Psyop built on the huge popularity and success of the initial spots, evolving the design to a more modern, sophisticated 3D look. They also expanded the universe of Fanta-themed entertainment to include over two dozen more spots, a mobile game, and an interactive graphic novel. The seven-year campaign delivered tens of millions of views and helped Fanta achieve a 3% increase in sales volume - the strongest growth of all the top 10 soda brands.
2011: Fage - ‘Plain’ (:45)
This yoghurt commercial - the first for Fage in North America - is one of the finest examples of ‘designed’ live action from Psyop. “In poetic rhythm, Psyop takes us on a journey… a seamless blend of both live action and computer animation” according to Shots magazine. And Adweek said: “This poetic and painterly 48 seconds, awash in slow-moving liquids that are reminiscent of some recent and similarly hypnotic video works by artist James Nares - with the addition of a whimsical bit of verse, a cow, a Grecian goddess type, and a voice-over by Willem Dafoe. It’s anything but plain.”
2013-Present: Clash of Clans/Clash Royale - ‘The Last Second’ (:60)
Once again blurring the line between marketing and entertainment, Psyop, Barton F. Graf, and the Supercell clients ditched the ‘traditional’ use of gameplay to market a game. Instead, they used Pixar quality 3D animation to bring fans down to the battlefield-level where they could be immersed in the action, humour, saliva, and excitement of their favourite strategy game. Eight years on, with nearly 60 minutes of content produced and 2+ billion YouTube views and engagements, (including the most-watched 360 videos of the year), AR filters, experiential events and more, Psyop has helped turn the Clash universe into a full-up entertainment property.
2014: Cricket Wireless - ‘Great Big Network’
In 2014 Argonaut (started by Coke ‘Happiness Factory’ creatives Hunter Hindeman and Rick Condos) were looking to break the mold of wireless carrier ‘OFFER’ advertising, and brought in Psyop to do what they do best - invent and design a world that would create an emotional connection between brand and consumer. The ‘Cricket’ world and characters that Psyop created are ownable and unique for the category, and are still fueling the ‘Smile, You’re on Cricket’ positioning which continues to drive unprecedented growth for the brand. “The cute characters have been a boon for Cricket (which is owned by AT&T), having increased its unaided brand awareness by 12 points since the campaign’s launch in 2014,” said Aaron Baar in Mediapost in 2018.
2015: Coca Cola - ‘Man and Dog’
Another partnership between Psyop and Wieden+Kennedy Portland, this Coke commercial marked a bold new direction for Psyop towards forging creative and production collaborations with the best artists and studios around the globe according to the creative vision and needs of the project. Earning Best Animated Television/Broadcast Commercial at the Annie Awards, the heart-warming, hand-drawn (by ex-Disney animators!) spot also won the Grand Prix at the Stuttgart Festival of Animated Film competition, the jury finding that “in the computer-animated world of today, this spot is rare…a small piece of art, combining the techniques and styles of several generations of animated film.”
2015: Sherwin-Williams - ‘Epihany’
Another example of Psyop’s experimentation and innovation with the latest technology, and using it to build a world that makes you feel something...about paint! This poetic, mesmerising, almost entirely in-camera, spot was created with a high speed Phantom camera mounted to a robotic arm named Spike, Emerald paint, and a 400-gallon water tank.
2016: Aldi - ‘Kevin the Carrot’
This was the debut of Kevin the Carrot, who has gone on to become a beloved Christmas advertising icon in the UK (170,000 people queued online to buy a Kevin the Carrot toy last year). In collaboration with McCann Manchester, Psyop once again created a world and characters that people emotionally connected with, helping to build the Aldi brand and fuel measurable growth in the highly competitive UK retail grocery sector. Across five chapters, the British public has followed Kevin’s antics, whether he be riding on Santa’s bike, saving his lover from a rumbling train, producing baby chantenays or taking on a bunch of villainous sprouts, aptly named The Leafy Blinders. In this year’s Dickensian-style installment ‘A Christmas Carrot’, Kevin embodies the spirit of Christmas, reminding Ebanana Scrooge of the joys of the season.
2018: Travel Oregon - ‘Only Slightly Exaggerated’
This whimsical campaign uses animation to evoke the feelings of joyous wonder and discovery that travel to Oregon can bring, beyond what would have been possible with ‘just’ live photography. The wildly successful campaign (one study found that for every $1 invested in Travel Oregon’s advertising campaigns, the state saw a return of nearly $157 in visitor spending and $8 in tax revenue for the benefit of Oregon residents) fuelled the current trend for 2D and anime inspired commercials, and is now in its third year.
2019: KFC - ‘I Love You, Colonel Sanders!’
Leveraging the popularity of both ‘dating sims’ and anime culture, Psyop and Wieden+Kennedy Portland gave new life to KFC’s Colonel Sanders by creating an authentic experience that held up to scrutiny by the very fans who never expected a KFC-branded game to really ‘get’ them. Building on skills and technology developed partly on Psyop’s original content initiatives, creative director Alexei Bochenek wrote a three-hour long branching narrative experience packed with fun and familiar dating sim and anime tropes which created a genuine cultural moment. It generated 1.6 billion impressions, millions of views and engagements and $12 million to $18 million of free media in the first month, and two years later is still being played by fans, new and old, with over 90% positive ratings from nearly 11,000 reviews on Steam.
2021: Resorts World Las Vegas - ‘Stay Fabulous’
Pushing technology to fuel and inspire creativity is very ‘Psyop’, as is world-building and ‘designed’ live action. For the newly opened Resorts World Las Vegas, Psyop created an immersive short film shot on a live virtual set, with added CGI elements, using game-engine technologies to blur the line between physical and digital worlds. This is the first time this technology – previously only used in the production of The Mandalorian and The Jungle Book – has been deployed in a large-scale commercial shoot. The video follows a visiting couple exploring the resort and meeting some of its notable stars – Katy Perry, Luke Bryan, Carrie Underwood, Celine Dion, Tiësto and Zedd – each presiding over their own fabulous domain.
2021: Taco Bell - 'Nacho Fries'
One of the latest and most successful examples of Psyop’s evolution towards a global creative collective is this twist on Taco Bell’s yearly Nacho Fries movie trailer marketing fakeout: this time it was anime. By building a team of animators in Japan who typically work on popular anime shows and putting Luca Vitale, one of Psyop’s newest signings and a bona fide anime expert, in the director’s chair, Psyop created a spot so authentic it immediately went viral and had fans finding it impossible that a ‘fake’ anime felt so real. With the ad shown throughout the Tokyo Olympics in primetime slots, the campaign made a huge splash and anime fans felt seen by the approach, not exploited by it.
2021/22 - Artie
London and New York based studio Golden Wolf has been part of Psyop’s League of Extraordinary Makers for several years, and this ongoing collaboration with Artie is an extension of Psyop's well known reputation for helping define groundbreaking brands with iconic content that blurs the line between marketing and entertainment. Artie is a platform that enables multiplayer gaming inside social media applications like Instagram, Tiktok and YouTube. Players can engage with their social networks, build an ongoing digital universe, and earn digital collectibles (NFTs) that can be used across games, traded or sold on the open market. Psyop and Golden Wolf are working in collaboration with Artie on a series of content including the launch of their inaugural beer pong game.