Campaign Trail is our analysis of some of the best new creative efforts from the marketing world. View past columns in the archives here.
Most automotive commercials rely on a familiar formula: a vehicle accelerating down stretches of highway or navigating rough terrain, a voice-over about cutting edge features, a disclaimer that warns drivers not to try this at home, and so on. While these ads show what their subjects can do on the road, very few use the car to create the ad itself.
To promote its GR Corolla — a performance variant of its flagship compact car — Toyota tapped Australian creative agency Hero to craft a short film that would live up to Toyota president Akio Toyoda "no more boring cars" ethos.
The result is "Metalmorphosis," a two-minute clip that not only shows off the GR Corolla's capabilities but uses the car to shoot several animations without the use of visual effects, post-production tricks or green screening.
The campaign launched on March 8 and spans cinema, TV, outdoor, social, direct and dealerships in Australia. The effort presented an opportunity to utilize a car developed by Toyota's motorsport division, Gazoo Racing, that "isn't your grandma's Corolla," explained Shane Geffen, executive creative director at Hero.
"We wanted to use the car as an instrument to tell a story," Geffen said. "How do we create an ad that — just like the car — pushes the limits of filmmaking and at the same time allows us to tell the story of Gazoo Racing?"
Welcome to the Thunderdome
The seed of "Metalmorphosis" was Toyota telling Hero about Calder Park Thunderdome, a Melbourne race track that once hosted NASCAR races but closed in 2001.
"It's amazing — it's this abandoned dome and oval shape. The stands are falling apart and there are weeds growing out of the stands, but it's so charming," Geffen said.
The introduction of Calder Park into the mix synced up with an idea Geffen had for years that involved using a car-mounted camera to film animation of stills fixed to a track's barriers — without requiring visual effects (VFX) or other post-production techniques. Not all pitches from production companies were on board.
"During the treatment process, one of the directors that we sent it to came back and they told us that it was impossible to do. Their treatment was to do it all in post, and immediately, that treatment fell off the table, because we knew we wanted to do it for real — that was the point of it," Geffen said.
The winning treatment was by director Toby Pike of production company Scoundrel. Pike had scouted Calder Park and came up with different ways to film animation on the track.
"He really elevated the script that we gave him," Geffen said. "He took the treatment to the next level with different segments that allowed us to tell more and more of the story."
In the first segment, black-and-white images are animated to show Toyota's sporty heritage as models including the Celica and Supra transform into each other. Then, paper on the track itself bearing the words "made untamed" (a nod to Toyoda's request for a car with "more untamed energy") are crunched and crumpled up. Then, as the car drifts and heads off-road, it captures images from a multi-tier zoetrope, in a tribute to the history of animation. Finally, a drive through a blacklit tunnel shows a driver becoming one with the machine, like something out of anime classics "Akira" and "Ghost in the Shell."
Engineering meets filmmaking
While the final product is impressive, especially considering the no-VFX rule, the team wasn't sure it would actually work until days before the shoot. They had done some technical calculations (with an assist by Pike's father, who is an engineer) and, thankfully, a test before shooting proved that the concept would work — almost too well.
"It worked so well that when we did get to editing, we were looking at the footage and we're like, 'This is too clean,'" Geffen recalls. "We thought, 'Do we mess with it? Do we mess with the shutter speeds or shake it so it looks more rough?' We didn't do any of that, but I think it's testament to Toby's pre-production process how it all came together."
In the end, the film speaks not just to the GR Corolla but to the power of traditional filmmaking techniques, without the CGI that has come to dominate media. "Metalmorphosis" serves as a metaphor that connects a highly crafted, engineered machine and the way that the film was created, and it served the client's needs, as well.
"[Toyota] definitely bought into that this wasn't your typical car commercial, where you have to sell a list of safety features and fuel economy and electric performance," Geffen said. "We really got away with just showing the raw nature and performance of the car."