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The story behind the dancing mattes.

(Note: Reader response mail follows the article)

I watched Grease last night and noticed something. There is a scene where John Travolta goes into the diner and sees Olivia Newton-John eating with the "football guy," just prior to John going out for all the sports. Behind them on the wall is a large painting that is completely blurred out. You can however make out what appears to be a Coke Cap in the lower right of the picture. I was wondering why this is blurred out? Olivia stands in front of it and its fairly obvious that there is some effect blurring the picture. The only thing I could think of is that the picture was on the wall, and when they asked Coca-Cola to pay for this "advertising spot" Coke said no. So they just blurred it out. What do you think? One last thing, in the same scene you can see a big Coke machine in the back, not "obliterated". - Chris Murdock


This was discussed in '78 when Grease came out, and you basically hit on the correct answer yourself. It was before 'product placement' was big biz - now there are special people at every studio and many independent producers whose job it is to get 'consideration' for the use of products and logos in films.

It can be very annoying to watch a movie and find your attention being directed to such marketing ploys . . . an example that comes to mind are the soft drink cans that Jeff Goldblum tosses into recycling bins in Independence Day. In that case we are being hit in the face not only with a blatant Coke ad, but also a message about recycling and saving the Earth. The audience I was with loved the movie but groaned out loud at these propagandistic product placement scenes.

At the other end of the spectrum, it is well-known that producers and moviemakers abuse to the limit their ability to place products in movies. Most independent producers I've worked for had cases of soft drinks and all manner of goodies around, often donated with just a hope of getting a freebie placement in a film. And the low budget film producers I've associated with have all learned to halve their craft service crew snack budget by promising to place a Coke here, or a Pepsi there. The producer had his own closet full of goodies! This has been known to extend as far as computers (Gee, we could show our hip teen star on a Mac instead of a PC, but we really need that Mac for our accountant and we were thinking...). A particular film I worked on had a picture car donated by a sports car manufacturer. The director borrowed the car for a non movie-related date at the end of shooting, and, naturally, had an accident. He had to pay for the repairs himself!

But back to Grease. Savant read at the time that the producers filmed the Malt Shop scenes with the Coke signs prominent and only later did studio lawyers ask if clearances had been obtained. Uh, no, why? This meant that Coca-Cola had to be consulted, and with the scenes already in the can, The Pause That Refreshes was in a unique bargaining position. Their decision to say no was made on grounds of taste, not cash. After seeing the raunchy content of Grease they declined to allow the display of their logos in such a trashy film. This same problem griped 1941 when the Crackerjack people didn't want their candy-coated popcorn product used after reading the script. That's what made writer Bob Gale invent 'Popper Jacks'. Same goes for the 'Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man' in Ghostbusters, Savant surmises. Obviously the Pillsbury Doughboy didn't want to be R-Rated. Crackerjacks probably never regretted their choice to say no to 1941, but Reese's pieces clearly chose right when they said yes to E.T. The Extraterrestrial three years later. In the media storm around E.T., Reese's gained a market foothold impossible to buy at any price.

So what were the producers of Grease to do? Apparently bringing the stars back and reshooting the scenes was economically out of the question, so the only other choice was to bring in the special effects people to obliterate the Coke signs with those funky grey rectangles.

In 1978 this required optical mattes that wiggled because the original footage wasn't locked down still. That, and clumsy rotoscoping every time something moving occludes one of the signs, make the gray rectangles pretty obvious. Without the custom traveling rotoscopes, anyone walking in front of a Coke sign would disappear behind a gray rectangle. A good example of this can be seen in The Man Who Would be King, specifically where the adventurers see the Sacred City from afar. The tops of the native guides' walking staffs, the ones that look like hockey sticks, disappear behind the painted City, giving the game away, matte-wise.

Nowadays, digital artists would just scan the offending shot, throw it up on their computer monitors and carefully matte out the Coke signs with undetectable masking. The fix would be impossible to spot, in the same way that wire removal and subtle image cleanup have lately placed in doubt the 'reality' of any and all screen events in the films we see. While they were at it the artists could even substitute the ugly gray rectangles for Pepsi-Cola signs, if a deal could be struck with the competing company. That possibility might convince Coke to change their minds, and perhaps avoid the expensive alteration altogether.

When Savant saw the 1998 Godzilla a thought came to mind while the mind wandered, so to speak, during the Madison Square Garden scenes. Substantial screen time is spent in tunnel-like halls lined with large advertising posters. I wonder if the executives thought of leaving the posters all blank, and then previewing Godzilla for a roomful of potential product-placement suckers, I mean, prospects. If everyone thought the film would be the biggest smash in movie history, the studio could sell advertising space on those posters after the scenes were shot. Then the digital effects people could paint in the appropriate ad images lickety-split. Since the posters could be changed at will, different advertisers could be contacted for the video release, or other evil schemes to maximize PP revenue could be employed. The mind boggles, Scotty.

To wrap up the Grease story, a similar optical 'fix' takes place in Elia Kazan's 1960 film Wild River. Montgomery Clift takes a group of sharecroppers who have never seen light switches into some TVA prefab houses, and they wonder at the electric lamps. One of them clicks on an overhanging light bulb, and then off, and then on again and smiles at the 'miracle' of electricity. Well, the original scene began with the light accidentally left on, ruining the whole point of the scene. To make it look as though the bulb were not lit, an optical grey bulb had to be matted over the lamp until the sharecropper hits the switch. It's very obvious, for the same reasons as the Grease mattes, and required an almost identical 'fix'. In both cases the producers decided that some less-than-perfect optical work was preferable to costly reshooting.


A lot of the mail on this topic brought up more examples of optical fudging seen or suspected in movies:

"Enjoyed the new article re Grease. Another example, along similar lines: In Brian DePalma's Phantom of the Paradise, evil record mogul Swan's record label , for the bulk of the film, is "Death Records." But in a couple of shots, it's "Swan Song" records. (The "Swan Song" label is visible, out of focus, for example, in the record storeroom in which the Phantom's head gets squashed.) Unfortunately, "Swan Song" was Led Zeppelin's record label and, apparently, there was an "issue" raised: in the scene at the airport where Swan introduces his new hitmaker, Beef, the "Swan Song" logo on the podium is obliterated by an extremely clumsy matte of the Death Records dead bird logo." - - "Ari"

"I'm sure you also remember Eraser with Schwarzenegger where the name of the evil company had to be changed, just a week before it hit screens. There's only one noticable shot where you can see the new digital "sign" up and that's because it has some bushes waving in front of it that don't quite sync up. Not quite product placement, but your article reminded me of it." - - "Taggart"

"Your neat new column reminded me of the optical masking they had to perform on those record labels and company logos in Phantom of the Paradise, as well as the aggressive product placement in the Superman films, (Cheerios on Ma Kent's table, and Marlboro references all over Supe II). There was even a 20/20 feature on the latter film and its cigarette connection, with everyone playing dumb - Great Caesar's ghost!)." - - Bob Gutowski

"I enjoyed your column of the Coke sign in Grease, and it reminded me of a scene in GoodFellas. Near the end of the film ( on the DVD version, anyway ) Ray Liotta's character is in his kitchen holding airline tickets. There is a gray bar placed across the airline's name. What airline didn't want their name shown? Thanks." - - "Mike"

"The last Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies is completely made up of product placement. The movie wouldn't have been made without it." - - "Chris"

"Another recent example is Happy Gilmore which recently aired (again) on ABC. During the climatic golf "shoot-out" at the end of the movie, Adam Sandler's "Happy" character is wearing a Subway t-shirt underneath his other, unbuttoned shirt. About one third of the time, the Subway logo is plainly visible but the rest of the time, the brown stripe is simply "filled in". I checked out the video from my local Blockbuster and there it was Subway all the time so they must have had to do it for commercial TV so as not to **** off other paid advertisers. While my memory is not the best, I think I remember seeing the Coke sign in Grease in its original run and then noticed it was "gone" on video and the subsequent, 20th anniversary theatrical re-release. Thanks." - - "Billy"

Savant also received this informative letter from a person with direct knowledge of Product Placement. His defense of the practice makes perfect sense to Savant, who acknowledges that PP is a necessary practice which can be beneficial to all parties: My article was one-sided, at least where practical realities of making films are concerned.

"I do have an opinion of the article which is obliquely contrary. There's one aspect of entertainment marketing you may have overlooked - - realism. For (one particular movie), I had a number of billboards made available to the production. I didn't ask the manufacturers for fees, nor did the production request them. It's not just the matter of the billboard advertiser underwriting the cost of the ad concept, design layout, and actual physical production of the billboard, although that is a significant cost savings. For a filmmaker who wishes the audience to believe that their story could happen in the "real world", it is much less intrusive to have advertisements for real products than fake ones. An advertisement for a fake product is much more likely to make the audience stop and think, "Hey! I've never seen that product. It doesn't exist! Oh, right, I'm watching a film." For this reason, I disagree that abusive placement occurs "if you notice it". (note: An idea put forward by Savant) "In The Client, Tommy Lee Jones offers the child star "Sprite?", and then uses the can to take fingerprints. Imagine if he'd asked "Soder Cola?" or "Bubblepop?" It would have diminished the scene. It's this kind of reasoning that prompts prop masters to create greeked items which resemble name-brand counterparts (like "Shasa" or "Puppi" soft drinks). Abusive placement, in my opinion, is placement which is deliberately intrusive without furthering the plot. Even then, big-studio filmmakers are frequently very sensitive to how those kinds of placements can damage their plot. It's the little guys who are more likely to commit such a "sin".. and Tim Burton, for one, refuses to have any real-world brand appear in any of his films." - - (name withheld)

Finally, the following letter was a big surprise. It came with an entire article from The Washington Post that Savant can't post. but may be reachable online. The writer responded to my daydream about digitally plastering ads in the posters in Madison Square Garden in Godzilla . . . it's already being done in Sports broadcasts.

"Dear Glenn, I've enjoyed your column very much in the past. Wanted to bring something to your attention: This (digital product placement) is not so speculative as you might think. Witness the article below, which appeared in the Washington Post last year. I don't know yet of any of this 'virtual ad' technology being used in film....If it were applied, it would have to be in the digital domain . . . Quite do-able, though not terribly affordable just yet. I can think of situations where the business motivation might be there. (You could slot in local products when shipping a film out to the international market, for instance.) This is assuming, of course, that you take a rather business-minded approach to the whole subject. It's a cool technology, while at the same time being a rather stomach-turning idea... "

'Finding Versatility in the 'Virtual' Ad', By Paul Farhi Washington Post Staff Writer Tuesday, August 18, 1998; Page C1

( Note: The article discusses the actual practice of digitally adding advertising to live sports events, such as putting logos on the floors of basketball courts and replacing banners in baseball stadiums.)

"If you want to see images of this 'virtual advertising' (as well as some very sophisticated realtime graphics that are used for virtual instant replay, diagramming and analyzing plays & the like) you can check out the website of Orad Hi-Tec, a virtual set systems company. I don't follow sports myself, but apparently this kind of stuff is being heavily used in soccer broadcasting in Europe. Cheers. - - 'Anne'

Text(c)Copyright 1999 Glenn Erickson

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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