Nick Spence finds out how Jamie Hewlett and Damon Albarn created the BBC's branding for this year's Olympics.
Among the many highlights of the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics are the BBC's trailers and titles that promote and bookend coverage across a full range of media. The combination of animation and music, the work of Jamie Hewlett and Damon Albarn, runs throughout a marketing campaign on TV, HD, radio, online, mobile and red-button interactive coverage.
The inspiration for the campaign is the tale of the Monkey King as featured in the 16th-century novel Journey to the West, thought to be written by Wu Chen-En. The Hewlett-designed characters Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy are seen participating in Olympic sports on their journey to Beijing and the Bird's Nest Stadium. Sports represented in the animated sequences include gymnastics, the hammer throw, sprinting and diving.
The BBC promises 17 days of round-the-clock reporting, delivering 2,750 hours of coverage of 28 sports played at 31 different venues. The campaign was the result of a word-of-mouth recommendation. "One of the BBC executive producers for the Olympics approached one of the musical arrangers we use regularly about possible ideas," explains Scott Branch, communications manager at BBC Sport.
"The arranger was, at that time, working with Gorillaz on another piece of work," he continues. "This led to a meeting with Jamie and Damon to discuss possible collaborations, and while still in the early stages the idea was run past the head of marketing who thought it could work for the trails as well. As a consequence it was agreed for Production and Marketing to fully collaborate and share images and music for the titles and the trails."
Hewlett's own company Zombie Flesh Eaters, advertising agency Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R and Red Bee Media then became involved in managing the creative process, ensuring the animation met the BBC's needs. Although the campaign bears comparison with the recent, critically acclaimed stage production Monkey: Journey to the West, which features set, animation and costume designs from Hewlett and a score from Albarn, Branch is keen to stress that the BBC Olympic campaign was specially commissioned: "While versions of these characters also appear briefly in the stage-based opera, the versions used by the BBC have been specially adapted for the BBC's campaign."
From the initial concept discussions with the BBC onwards, the project was structured as a two-minute short film from which Zombie Flesh Eaters could provide content across all the various departments and media formats. Those two minutes were then cut down to edits ranging from 10 seconds to one minute to meet the BBC's requirements, a task that required a fine eye for detail to decide what stayed and what got the chop.
"We produced 15 different cutdown versions of various lengths for the campaign for broadcast, both as promo trails and title sequences, and it was a very meticulous process working closely alongside the BBC departments and their partners," explains Cara Speller, producer of the campaign at Zombie Flesh Eaters. "Unusually, we started the cutdowns as soon as we had a working two-minute animatic. This was partly to reassure the client that they were getting everything they knew they needed within their budget, but also because when there is no bulk footage to create extra versions, we need to ensure that our two-minute film delivers workable versions to all the different briefs and within the different spot lengths - or if not, identify additional animation that needs to be created specifically to achieve that."
Flexibility was critical: the film was produced at HD resolution to enable usage from cinema to mobile phones and almost everything in between. "Working with high-def material tends to require an extra level of pre-production and asset management so the team isn't inundated with requests for re-versioning at the end of the project, at which point it is much more difficult and costly to accommodate," Speller points out.
In addition some of the characters were separated out to be used for online and mobile activity, while the music is being used for radio marketing. As well as the prepared edits the BBC plans to show the full two-minute sequence during the Olympic coverage. The involvement of Hewlett and Albarn was a calculated move. "The BBC felt it was important to try something different to bring in younger and harder-to-reach audiences," explains the organisation's Scott Branch. New opportunities and platforms such as instant messaging and social-networking sites have arrived since the last Olympics and are crucial for targeting this new audience.
"We know heartland audiences will watch the Olympics, but we really want the Olympics to resonate with younger viewers, particularly as the coverage across TV, radio, online, HD, red button and mobile will make it more accessible and relevant to this audience," adds Branch. "We knew we needed to look inside and outside the BBC to effectively reach these audiences. Both the BBC and the International Olympic Committee are keen to ensure the Olympics brand keeps its relevance for younger audiences for now, the future and obviously in the run-up to London 2012."
The campaign might also place new emphasis on the competition itself rather than the political and cultural controversy surrounding the decision to hold the event in China. Mindful of its role as a public-service broadcaster, the BBC conducted research to test a number of propositions for the marketing campaign prior to launch. "There are definitely guidelines which they have to adhere to and concerns that may differ from more commercial clients," says Speller. "But in terms of the story we wanted to tell and the visual style that we chose to tell it, they were very supportive and receptive to our team throughout. We hope people enjoy it."
Nowadays he's an all-conquering design giant, but it all started with a girl and her tank
Comic-book aficionados of a certain vintage will know Jamie Hewlett for his artwork for Tank Girl. The late 1980s comic book was a British cult classic that spawned a much-maligned US feature film in the mid-1990s.
Working from 11am to midnight each day on little more than a diet of cigarettes, Hewlett developed a style that was to win him many admirers and help cement early success. Various jobs followed, including projects for advertising companies who claimed to love his work but inevitably changed it before it went to print.
His art appeared on record sleeves, designs for TV shows and in more comic books. A flat share with Damon Albarn of Blur in the late 1990s led to the pair developing virtual band Gorillaz to great success. 2000 saw Hewlett borrow the name of an Italian video nasty, Zombie Flesh Eaters, to found a West London-based studio covering animation, illustration and design.
The Zombie team has since worked on major commissions including the Xbox 360, The Bees, BBC Sport, Lazarides Galleries, Alexander McQueen's label McQ, Monkey: Journey to the West and most famously Gorillaz. Hewlett was the Design Museum's Designer of the Year for 2006.