Making a commercial for a monster game franchise comes with its own particular challenges. On one hand there’s an extent to which you just need to get out of the way and not actively annoy fans; on the other, the sheer muscle of the game demands something that isn't limp in comparison.
L.A.-based agency 72andSunny got the call earlier this year to create the launch campaign for Activision’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, which goes on sale, officially, November 8. To help the title top the staggering sales results of past COD games, the agency needed to expand the franchise to new players while offering something engaging for hardcore fans. The result is "The Vet and the N00b," a guns-blazing live action production number complete with multi-city sequences orchestrated by a proven action director and three visual effects companies, with two A-List stars toting the weapons.
The launch campaign centers on a 90-second trailer based on the veteran/newbie premise, starring Sam Worthington and Jonah Hill and directed by Peter Berg. The film begins with Hill (Get Him to The Greek, Superbad, Moneyball) bumbling through a burned-out New York war zone, with Worthington (Avatar, Clash of the Titans) as the battle-hardened foil. As the armed action progresses, through a Berlin skyscraper, the streets of Paris, and the interior of an airborne plane, Hill acquires skills, and ultimately, veteran status and swagger. It’s an accessible narrative for the real newbies in the audience, but the sequences also provide layers of meaning for COD vets—Hill’s uniform patches, for example, change through the spot as they do in the game, and he makes the common noob mistake of using an RPG in a small space; Worthington uses the surface-to-air missile turrets that skilled players can access in the game.
The MW3 campaign is a continuation of the "There’s a Soldier in all of Us" positioning, introduced by TBWA/Chiat/Day L.A. last year via a much-discussed spot for Call of Duty Black Ops, which featured everyday people (and a few celebs) immersed in battle.
The business goals for the MW3 launch were unsubtle, and daunting, says 72andSunny cofounder and chief creative officer, Glenn Cole. "They didn’t want to just exceed last year’s results," says Cole; "they wanted to crush them." And these weren’t just any results; 2010’s Black Ops put the game franchise in the record books. That title was reported to be the biggest entertainment launch in history when sales topped $650 million within five days of launch and sales climbed to $1 billion faster than any other game. The previous record holder: 2009’s Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2.
The only way to make significant gains on an already huge gaming audience is to draw in new players, while being mindful of the sensibilities of millions of hardcore existing fans. "’The Vet and the Noob’ is almost a literal realization of that objective," says Cole.
The project was a plum, if gut-roiling gig, made more challenging by a schedule that was minuscule relative to scale of the production. Practical shooting took four days; the majority of the sequences were shot in camera on a Universal backlot. The extensive VFX production was "three months compressed into three weeks," says Cole. A consortium of VFX shops, including Digital Domain, Ring of Fire, and Kilt Studios, were recruited to enhance backdrops and explosions and help bring to life scenes like the one in which the two actors appear to be floating in zero g while firing weapons. Dan Kaufman, a veteran of effects stunner District 9, served as visual effects supervisor.
Cole says the original vet/newbie premise didn’t include a celebrity element, but as the team fleshed out the idea, they started talking about recognizable actors to bring the two characters to life. Hill and Worthington were the names that floated to the top of the team’s wish list and, fortuitously, the two were available and enthusiastic about the project (and with all those potential movie ticket buyers represented by COD’s demographic, why wouldn’t they be?)
Berg, whose action credits include Hancock, The Kingdom, and the upcoming Battleship, was the immediate choice for director, and he joined the production before the actors came on board. "We selected him first and foremost for his way of telling stories—his action is visceral and raw. We were dealing with very in-depth understanding of weapons and explosions. He’s comfortable with all of that. He’s also great with talent—that was icing."
After going through gun training, Hill handled the action sequences like a pro, says Cole. "He had to bring the moments of levity to it; it’s tough to get that right tonally while there’s smoke and things blowing up around you."
The 90-second trailer debuted November 6. Different versions of the spot will air in the U.S. and Europe, and the campaign also includes banners and large-scale outdoor posters. An interactive version of the spot will appear on YouTube, allowing viewers to access tips and Easter eggs.
Client: Activision Publishing
Product: Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3
Title: "The Vet and The n00b"
Activision CEO: Eric Hirshberg
Activision EVP, Chief Marketing Officer: Tim Ellis
Chief Creative Officer: Glenn Cole
Creative Director, writer: Jason Norcross
Creative Director, designer: Bryan Rowles
Writer: Walter May Director of Film Production: Sam Baerwald
Production Company: Pony Show
Director: Peter Berg
Editorial: Spotwelders, 72andSunny
Visual Effects: Kilt, Digital Domain, Ring of Fire, Spatial Harmonics
VFX Supervisor: Dan Kaufman
Audio Post: Lime Studios
Online: Method Studios
Music Artist: AC/DC
Song: "Shoot to Thrill"