June 26, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

Subject The moving freeze-frame, an eye-popping camera trick currently seen in commercials for Gap Khakis, Miller Genuine Draft, and Clairol.

Synopsis The Gap ad boasts a typical example of the effect: As a bunch of exuberant dancers bound through some high-energy swing moves, the action suddenly freezes. The camera then quickly pans around the static hepcats—one of them in midair. Then the action picks up again seamlessly, starting from the new perspective.

Back Story The effect has the murky origins of a good joke—everyone wants to say that they were the first to use it. Inventor/filmmaker Dayton Taylor, who has created moving freeze-frame spots for Miller, Samsung, and Blockbuster Video, claims that he came up with the idea for his Timetrack virtual-camera system (which uses a computer-controlled camera with 25 to 40 lenses) back in 1985, when he was a student at the University of Colorado. Meanwhile, a French special-effects company called BUF, Inc., claims that it developed the mobile freeze-frame technique; they unveiled its effect in 1995’s Rolling Stones video “Like a Rolling Stone.” BUF’s method, which uses 2 to 12 synchronized cameras, has recently been seen in the Gap ad, as well as in spots for Smirnoff vodka and Coca-Cola. “People can find other ways to make similar effects,” says BUF producer Pasquale Croce. “The difference is we have good experience.”

Cultural Significance Get set for the big freeze. “We’re getting many requests,” says Croce. “It is a golden moment for this.” Expect to see movable frozen frames pop up in everything from CBS’ new network promos to feature-film projects (Taylor’s system caught the fancy of Steven Spielberg, who wrote the inventor saying he was “trying to think about applications” for the technique in films). Which raises the spectre of overexposure. “I’m disturbed to see the idea is so popular,” says Taylor, “because people will get sick of it if it’s not done well.”

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