Reel Virtual

Wired 2.11, November 1994

The dancing cars in this summer's Shell Oil ads, the flying dagger in The Shadow, and the effects for The Last Action Hero are the work of R/GA Digital Studios, the hand behind 2,000 commercials and 300 feature films. R/GA's director of computer animation, Joe Francis, designed the image at right to represent the essential tools of the computer animators' craft - hundreds of tiny coffee cups, reels of film, and magazines.

Started by Bob Greenberg and his brother Richard in 1977 with US$15,000, the original company, R/Greenberg Associates, made a name for itself "flying" the opening titles for Superman. When the film premièred in 1979, audiences clapped after the first 20 seconds. Today, R/GAhas 175 employees and grosses $35 million.

Restructured in 1992 to resemble a flexible network of nodes, R/GA is made up of seven independent companies. Each specializes in one area of visual imagery, from print to interactive entertainment. If a project uses more than one medium, the companies turn to each other for help. The result: a one- stop visual-effects house.

Also in 1992, Bob Greenberg opened RGA/LA to compete with West Coast firms like Industrial Light & Magic. Soon after, R/GA mastered the difficult task of placing a young Clint Eastwood next to President Kennedy for Columbia's In the Line of Fire. But it wasn't the first time Greenberg brought the dead and the living together on celluloid - he'd done it before in Woody Allen's Zelig and in Diet Coke ads pairing Paula Abdul and Cary Grant.

Bringing the dead to life is part of R/GA's next big creative push in advertising. Interactive advertising, Greenberg thinks, can benefit from taking celebrity endorsement to the next step, where celebrities communicate with customers on an individual basis, creating a personal dialog. Greenberg is negotiating with the estates of famous actors for the rights to reanimate them as high-cachet virtual hosts. The first interactive ad, for Chrysler, is being released at Time Warner's interactive test site in Orlando, Florida. Another, for the US Postal Service (no kidding), is scheduled to follow.

by David S. Bennahum