“He needs to stand higher on his legs. Can you get him to stand higher?” asks the director. “And we need him more in profile. He’s facing the camera too much.”
We’re on a closed-off road in Griffith Park in Los Angeles. We have rented the road for the day. We have rented a stunt driver for the day. And we have rented two squirrels and a squirrel handler for the day. Stretched across the road is a four-foot-high green screen. The squirrel handler is standing behind the green screen. He is holding a green stick with peanut butter on the end of it. Standing in front to the green screen is one of our co-stars for the day. The squirrel handler holds the green stick with the peanut butter on it a little higher. The squirrel stands on his hind legs to get it.
“Perfect!” yells the director. “Good take. Good take. Mark that. But he’s still facing the camera too much. We need him in profile. Okay, let’s go again.”
I don’t know. Maybe the squirrel considers his best side his front side. They continue to work on the shot.
It’s 2000. This is my first job as Creative Director on the Geico account. I am not the first Creative Director at The Martin Agency who has worked on Geico. And I am not the second. I am the third. I’m a little nervous. I have a lot to prove.
To add to the pressure, I have suggested we “nudge” the Geico humor just a bit. “Maybe a little less Benny Hill and a little more David Letterman,” I suggest. I’m not sure Geico understands what I mean. I’m not sure I understand what I mean.
This is a commercial about Geico’s claim service, available 24/7. “Accidents can happen anytime and anywhere. That’s why there’s Geico.”
We open on a squirrel sitting on the side of a road. He scampers to the middle. We hear a car approaching in the distance. The squirrel seems strangely unconcerned. Then from the opposite side of the road we see another squirrel scamper from his side. They meet in the middle. Are these squirrels deranged? The driver doesn’t see them. His car is barreling down on them. At the last second, the driver swerves, missing the squirrels by inches. The car “collides” with something off camera. The camera whip pans to the squirrels. They face each other, stand on their hind legs, and fist bump in celebration. It’s Squirrels 1. Car 0.
Obviously, no squirrels or humans were harmed in the making of this commercial. That’s what the green screen is for. First we shot the car and stunt driver without the green screen. Then, without moving the camera, we shot the squirrel performances in front of the green screen. This will be taken out later in post production and the action will look seamless.
The stunt driver does his thing in just three takes. Perfect acceleration, perfect position in front of the camera, and perfect swerve off camera. The squirrels however are not hitting their marks anywhere near perfectly. In fact, only Squirrel #1 is doing anything even close to what we need.
I don’t know. Maybe Squirrel #2 “just isn’t feeling it today.” Or perhaps he has a better agent, and he’s holding out for more money. Regardless, on this day at least, we prove to be smarter than a squirrel. We decide to use Squirrel #1 to play both parts. He sits. He scampers. He stands on his hind legs. And he works for peanut butter. With some heavy CGI and the camera whip pan to hide the edit, we’ll have everything we need to make one 30-second commercial.
Is it more David Letterman? I have no idea. But the spot eventually becomes a Geico and viewer favorite. As for me? Well, that’s one Geico commercial down, five hundred or so to go.