Saturday, 10 April 2021

Playhouse's Ford Dog

Some of the cleverest and best-looking animation in the 1950s was on TV commercials.

There were top-flight small houses on both coasts where a number of animators, layout artists and background painters took refuge from the major theatrical cartoon studios.

The commercials were hits, and well known to TV viewers of that era.

Here’s one example that was profiled in the June 1959 edition of American Cinematographer. It’s a shame the photos are low resolution, but they’re the first time I can recall seeing pictures of Chris Jenkyns (ex Sutherland, later of Jay Ward), Sterling Sturtevant (ex-UPA) and Bill Higgins (ex-MGM and Sutherland).

Note: Mike Kazaleh points out that Sterling Sturtevant is not in the second picture. It's actually Ade Woolery, who owned the studio.

...and how it was produced

It started as a gag, according to Bill Melendez, director for Playhouse Pictures, producers of television film commercials in Hollywood. “When Tom de Paolo of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency asked us for some new ideas for the TV spot campaign of the Ford Dealers of Southern California, we worked up one or two story boards to submit to the agency. Then, in somewhat of a brain-storming fashion, we hit upon our ‘Thinking Dog’ as a gag. We liked it, sketched it out, and sent it to de Paolo along with the others for a chuckle.”

Two days later, Playhouse Pictures received the word that the choice had been made. It was the “Dog.” And that was the beginning of the one television commercial everybody is talking about.

Playhouse has created and produced commercials for the Ford Motor Company for the past five years, ever since the popular “IT’S a FORD!” commercial—probably the only other spot that has created as much comment for the company. But aside from the fact that the “Dog” was the most talked about commercial locally, it was not destined for greater exposure until the news of its success spread to other branches of the J. Walter Thompson agency that represent local Ford Dealers associations. In this manner, it caught on exactly like its predecessor of five years ago, and has zoomed to national prominence.

Within two weeks after its debut, the agency was besieged with requests for prints for use in San Francisco, Salt Lake, Seattle, Boston, Pittsburgh and other cities. It was shown nationally on the Ford Show, NBC-TV, and is being considered by the New York office of J. Walter Thompson for showing on an expanded schedule.

The success of this 20-second spot led immediately to its characterization in other media. The Dog has appeared in direct mail circulars, radio spot announcements, newspaper ads, posters for Ford Dealers’ show rooms, and 35mm prints have been made of the spot for showing in Drive-In theaters in the San Jose-San Francisco area. Doggy banks have been ordered by Ford Dealers as a give-away item for the kiddies. In fact, the commercial sparked a whole new campaign which will feature the Dog character in subsequent spots.

For those who may not have seen the commercial, it opens with a dog dusting a Ford and being queried by an off-stage voice. John Hiestand is the announcer; Hugh Douglas the voice of the Dog. The dialogue goes like this:

Announcer: “Ah, you there. What are you doing?”
Dog: “I’m dusting a Ford.”
Announcer: “Oh, are you a Ford owner?”
Dog: “No. I’m a dog.”
Announcer: “Do you think everyone should be a dog?”
Dog: “Well, that’s something everyone should decide for themselves . . . but I do think everyone should be a Ford owner, don’t you?”
The dog then enters the car and drives off.

Much of the credit for the commercial’s success is due to the J. Walter Thompson agency and to the agency’s Tom de Paolo who sold the idea to the Ford Dealers. For they had faith enough in the spot to purchase a saturation campaign in prime time to exploit the commercial.

The artis[t]ic and creative credit goes to Playhouse Pictures’ director Bill Melendez; Sterling Sturtevant, for layout and design; and to Chris Jenkyns and Ed Levitt, story and story sketch.

Including time for story development, planning and final approval, it took eight weeks to produce the 20-second spot. A variety of production problems arose during its animation and shooting. The first 300 drawings that went to make up the commercial were discarded after the pencil test, because the dog looked more like a porcupine than the canine that was desired. More drawings ensued, and eventually a character was conceived that animated more readily and looked more like the shaggy dog the production staff had in mind.

After it was animated, Melendez decided that the picture had to be entirely reanimated to develop more subtle and funny movements for the dog to better fit the voice on the sound track. So, another 300 drawings were discarded; and with air time already purchased for the commercial and the date drawing dangerously near, a new technique was tried to save valuable production time.

This time the dog was animated with pencil directly on frosted cels, thereby saving the time that would be required for inking in the conventional animation method. However, the dog had to be painted on the reverse side of the cels in order to appear as a solid figure against the Ford in the background, so this stage could not be skipped.

After the third set of 300 cels were checked and arranged in sequence by the scene checker, cameraman Allan Childs took about six hours to shoot the finished production, not counting eight hours of pre-production camerawork for pencil takes and changes. The production schedule had been met, and 16mm prints were ordered and delivered on March 21st for the air date deadline of March 23rd.

Perhaps the most difficult problem of all in the production of the commercial, was the search for the Dog’s voice. It had been earlier decided that the Dog’s voice had to be different, yet not irritating or rasping, and not imitating numerous voices of other cartoon dogs —rather, a welcome visitor to the family living room for its client, Ford.

Over sixteen well known character-voice actors were interviewed and auditioned. Hugh Douglas, CBS staff announcer, was chosen to give voice to the dog. This has led to casting him in a number of other commercials, and as the voice of a dog in an upcoming motion picture feature by Hal Wallis. John “Bud” Hiestand was cast as the offstage announcer who queries the dog. A cartoon character has since been developed for him that is being used in the sequel spots that are to follow the original “Thinking Dog” commercial.

The Ford Dog has skyrocketed Playhouse Pictures into national prominence. The studio, which was founded in 1952 by Adrian Woolery, a former partner at UPA, is now ranked one of the top five producers of animated commercials for television. But “Ade” Woolery is the first to point with pride to his talented staff. Almost all of them received their training in major studio cartoon departments. Sterling Sturtevant, layout and design for the dog, did the same work for the Oscar-winning animated cartoon “The Day Magoo Flew” at UPA. Chris Jenkyns was the story originator of the “John and Marsha” Snowdrift commercial. And Bill Melendez was nominated in 1958 for the highest award bestowed by the National Society of Art Directors.

All have worked on the many award-winning commercials Playhouse has turned out in the past, including the Gold Medal winner at this year’s Los Angeles Art Directors Club Exhibit, “Energetically Yours,” a color industrial film designed by Ronald Searle, which was produced for Transfilm and the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey. In all. Playhouse has been the recipient of six gold medals for its commercials, ten other first place awards, and over 40 certificates of merit or honorable mention prizes during its six years of operation. The studio has produced over 2,000 animated television commercials, business and entertainment films, since its founding.

Has the Ford Dog spot established a trend? In satirization perhaps, but more important, it has increased the value and prestige of the production studio as a story consultant for television commercials. Rare indeed are the times when a studio has the opportunity to lend an assist in a large campaign such as this. But it is in the field of story and story ideas that more studios are specializing in creating television commercials and utilizing the drawing wealth of experienced talent in the Hollywood entertainment field.

TV viewers throughout the country will he seeing more of the Ford Dog. A 20-second animated sequel now being televised in Southern California, Arizona and Las Vegas, Nevada, features for the first time an animated cartoon character along with the shaggy mutt. The dialogue in the sequel runs like this:

Man: “Sit Up! ... Roll Over! . . . Speak!”
Dog: “Ford, Ford, FORD.”
Man: “No . . . say. Bow, Wow, Wow!”
Dog: “Oh . . . Ford, Ford, FORD.”
Man: “Look . . . Why can’t you say, Bow, Wow, Wow! like other dogs?”
Dog: “My mother came from Detroit.”
Man: (Resigned) “See your Ford, Ford, FORD dealer, today.”

Judging by its reception, this spot, too, will probably be seen nationally in the footsteps of its predecessor, for it generates a whole new series of gags, speculating on the exact ancestry of the popular Ford “Thinking Dog.” ■

1 comment:

  1. Of course, not long after this article appeared, Ford and Playhouse embarked on a new series of commercials featuring another white "thinking dog" along with his round-headed owner. And thus a global licensing behemoth was born.