Bouncy balls

This has been linked from everywhere ad nauseam, doubtless, but since I’m frighteningly busy I’m somewhat behind with the blogosphere again. Plus, I have something to add: Sony have a new advert out for their latest Bravia LCD TV (which I saw on Tottenham Court Road the other week, and is indeed quite lovely in a ‘why would I conceivably want something that large in my lounge?’ sort of way). The ad involves a quarter of a million bouncy balls being released down a street in San Francisco, all filmed in glorious superslowmo and almost certainly hi-def too. There were lots of Flickr posts about the event at the time (surprisingly hard to find now – interesting) and a post on BoingBoing, and now the secret is revealed. It’s a lovely ad, and is probably being hailed as the best thing in ad breaks since that Honda spot a couple of years ago where one thing knocked another thing, and so on.


I don’t personally think it’s that good an ad – certainly not in the Honda league. But that’s a personal thing. The longer version is distinctly better than the shorter one, fair enough, but even then… it just doesn’t quite hang together for me.

This is partly because it has something else in common with the Honda ad, apart from being ‘event’ advertising – it’s not an original idea. The Honda ad was, famously, inspired by an old German art film called ‘The Way Things Go,’ which has its flaws but is basically magnificent. This Sony ad was clearly inspired by a whole genre of experiments done by avalanche researchers, who have a penchant for saving vast amounts of computer time by… er… chucking ping-pong balls down dry ski slopes. Here’s a paper from 1997, and a whole bunch of other articles. And yes, that last one is on BoingBoing, from January 2004.

What I find a tad frustrating is that Sony’s repetition of the experiment replaces the ping-pong balls with latex superballs, and to my mind the result is less photogenic. The effect is to spread the balls further apart – in model terms, they behave more like a gas than a liquid – and I just don’t think it’s as pretty. I can see why they’d have thought it would be better, but really, I believe it was a bad move. There’s nothing like the complexity of flow front and detail that the ping pong balls produced – it’s just a bunch of balls bouncing down a street. Sure, it’s a lot of balls bouncing down a street, but the beauty of the ping pong balls lies in the unexpected complexity and subtlety, all of which is lost in Sony’s ad.

Sure, it’s beautifully shot, but… nah, I’m sorry, I’ve been wanting to do that for two years, and (a.) they’ve ruined it for me now, and (b.) I’d have done a better job of it than they did, dammit!


8 thoughts on “Bouncy balls”

  1. There was an even earlier film of the avalanche/continual motion thing that Fischli and Weiss exploit in their film The Way Things Go. Though I’ve never been able to track it down. It had ice melting and wax melting and rollers covered with treacle and not so many chemical foam reactions. Also I seem to remember not as many possible/probable edit points. Made some time in the early eighties I’d quess, or even late seventies judging by the rust on some of their stuff…

  2. Interesting. The Fischli & Weiss film quite clearly has edits – some of the chemical reaction stuff involves slow mixes, and from the light coming through the warehouse window it was evidently shot over a couple of days and nights.

  3. I made a TV pilot baseed on the German film last year, for Lion. It was called Chain Reaction – two teams had to make a crazy Chain Reaction to do something simple at the end – in the pilot it was “drop an olive in a martini…”
    I thought it worked quite well – we had a good tag line too “Chain Reaction – it’s just one damn thing after another” (over shots of the team’s reactions as their lovingly created chains failed).
    But the BBC didn’t go for it.
    Hard to film, because the teams of course didn’t think about camera positions as they created their extravagent chains. So we had to shoot it once through tite and wide; then reset it to shoot CU’s of all the bits we missed.

  4. In August there was a lovely sunset in London, and it was incredibly hard to find photos of it on Flickr. Which was silly, because they have
    a) date information from EXIF and upload
    b) tag information for where something was taken (usually)
    so you should be able to do a date-bounded search for the tags “london” and “sunset” and bingo, there’re your pictures.
    I finally started coding up a little CGI to access the Flickr API to do this in September, and found it wasn’t working. Turns out that date-bounded searches “temporarily” (ie for three months) have been disabled, unless you limit them to a user. Which is, er, a bit useless, since I want to search all photos.
    My point is, I suppose, that if that bit of the API worked, and I had polished my script (didn’t seem much point), and you could figure out the day the shoot happened (tricky) and then stop the search down by tags.
    Oh well, maybe when Yahoo! fling some more money at database servers…

  5. Patrick – if it’s any consolation, I chum of mine spent years trying to sell various broadcasters on the idea of a short art film based on the same sort of idea as the Fischli/Weiss film. Famously, one commissioner said ‘Oh, don’t be ridiculous. Nobody would watch this for even two minutes!’ The following week the Honda ad premiered. Pyrrhic.
    Paul – interesting. That explains how I managed to find that one picture (linked), but not the motherload, even though I know the date and place – I couldn’t work out how to do the right sort of search from within Flickr. Worse, the search seemed to return spuriously null results, which was odd. Shades of Technorati from a few months ago?

  6. Oh, and – have we all seen ‘Simply Complicated,’ which went out on… er… drat, you know, I forget which channel. BBC3 or 4, anyway. Clearly attempting to be a latter-day Great Egg Race, I’ve only seen one episode, and to be absolutely honest I can’t remember what the challenge was. Pouring champagne, I think.
    They had a similar problem to Chain Reaction, and to Mechannibals, in that the machines were engineered to more-or-less work rather than designed to be filmable. It’s a big problem with all these shows, I fear – one never gets anything like a clear view of the finished machine.
    The problem, of course, is that competition element. But everyone seems convinced that’s necessary, so… round and round and round it goes.

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