The transformations of that Old Spice dude are the real deal
The rousing success of those Old Spice commercials confirms our innate distrust of digital manipulation
Toronto Star | July 30, 2010 | Ryan Bigge
In a delightful collision between creaking analogue and shiny digital, Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr. was recently released in Blu-ray format. If this silent comedy from 1928 sounds unfamiliar (or worse, irrelevant), I’m confident that everyone is familiar with at least five seconds of it. Near the end of the film, as Keaton is buffeted by a wind storm, he manages to pause in front of a two-storey house. A moment later, the façade tilts forward and topples, with Keaton spared only because an open window frame corresponds with the spot he’s standing in.
According to the documentary A Hard Act to Follow, the stunt involved 1,000 pounds of wood crashing down around Keaton, making it the ne plus ultra of cinematic verisimilitude. More 80 years later, technology has now allowed us to move so far away from the actual that summer filmgoers willingly embraced the absolute fakeness of a CGI tank (attached to three CGI parachutes) battling two CGI planes in The A-Team.
The good news for those with “reality hunger,” as author David Shields dubbed it in a recent book, is that the backlash has arrived — although, in typically post-modern fashion, it’s a complicated form of revolt. Consumed columnist Rob Walker recently wrote about various options for “digitally antiquing” that add a layer of imperfection to digital sound, film and photographs. As Walker notes, “The unifying theme is the link between the flawed and the interesting. A boringly perfect digital picture of a flower makes no impression. But an equally boring one marred by (digitally recreated) light leaks, exposure mistakes and focus inconsistencies presses the aesthetic button that suggests deeper meaning.”
Walker is not the only person to locate our fatigue with binary manipulation, or at the very least its unyielding precision. In June, anthropologist Grant McCracken wrote about low fidelity culture on his blog CultureBy.com: “In a world of post-mechanical perfection, we love the actual, the manual and the mechanical. It grounds us.” The desire for a touch of humanizing imperfection helps explain the otherwise impossible-to-articulate charm of unevengoogle.com, which is the famous search engine, but, you know, slightly crooked.
Without the excess of digital effects over the last decade, it’s doubtful we’d have much nostalgia for the way things once looked and sounded. The successful reboot of the James Bond franchise courtesy of Casino Royale and A Quantum of Solace was due in large part to the fact that these films avoided the garish CGI of 2002’s Die Another Die. That film, if you recall, featured Timothy Dalton glacier surfing through a computer-rendered backdrop so horrid that even Max Headroom called it cheesy. Casino Royale, meanwhile, contains a mesmerizing 10-minute sequence featuring Daniel Craig chasing a bad guy through a construction site. You can’t get much more lo-fi than that. (As if to solidify his commitment to realism, Craig accidentally sliced the tip off one of his fingers during the filming of Quantum).
The death of manipulation leads inevitably to the recent Old Spice commercials. Despite a slick social media strategy and a smart viral campaign, the television ads pay homage to the decidedly unmodern, over-elaborate contraptions of Rube Goldberg. During a recent appearance on Attack of the Show, ex-NFL wide receiver Isaiah Mustafa explained the secrets behind his second TV commercial for Old Spice (a.k.a. “swan dive”). The commercial was done in one take (not unlike many OK Go videos, another example of contemporary Rube Goldberg-ism) and necessitated a hidden wire and harness. (Buster Keaton would not be amused.) However, Mustafa refused to explain how the final trick (which involved donning a pair of jeans in a hot tub moments before it collapsed) was accomplished.
This was refreshing, because for the first time in a long time, the answer to the question — How Did They Do That? — wasn’t CGI. Instead, it was creative ingenuity applied against the constraints of the physical realm. This makes the line “I’m on a horse” (from the first Old Spice commercial) not only a punch line, but a reminder that Mustafa is really, actually, sitting on a living, breathing horse.
The return of the real has arrived just in time. In a July 12 interview with German photographer Julian Faulhaber for The Morning News, Nozlee Samadzadeh noted that Faulhaber’s images of parking garages and supermarkets under construction look unreal. “What does it mean to say that reality looks Photoshopped?” asks Samadzadeh.
It means it’s time to make Photoshop look more like reality.