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When it comes to this thing called digital media, no matter how savvy you are, it’s all too easy to feel like Wilma Flintstone sitting down to dinner with Jane Jetson. Unless you’ve spent every spare nanosecond keeping up with rapid-fire technological leaps, how do you even start the conversation? And if you add the problem—or creative opportunity—that the lines between entertainment, information and content in general, are blurring at a dizzying rate, it’s hard to sound smart in any discussion.

That’s when it comes in handy to have the right Tool (horrible pun intended). At production company Tool of North America, founded in 1995, digital was added to their already solid live-action slate in early 2009. Now, at their base in Santa Monica, California, and the satellite office in New York, live action, digital and integrated worlds are navigated with equal ease. Whatever serves the story—live action only; live action and interactive or digital only—is what the company will do.

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Tool co-founder Erich Joiner says, “The people here are all about the idea. Suddenly we’re having more freedom to tell the story. And one thing we know—if it’s going viral, it has to be entertaining.” With a full complement of live-action and interactive directors, the company takes on projects ranging from traditional commercials to interactive stories made just for the iPad to non-scripted online adventures where the outcomes are dictated by viewers.

Dustin Callif, executive producer/digital, says, “When people talk about digital, they could be referring to several different things they have in mind, and they’re all different from person to person. Most of the time the question we get is ‘Can this be done?’” Most of the time at Tool, the answer is yes. And then they work out exactly how.

It was particularly poetic when Y&R Chicago, the agency for Sears Craftsman Tools, awarded Tool a project to create an interactive reality series called Screw*d. The idea was to drop a hammers-and-nails neophyte into three remote locations to see if an amateur could survive by building his or her way out using Craftsman tools—whether by dune buggy, raft or what-have-you. The twist is that the online audience participates in real time while the show is being streamed live. Viewers tweet and post comments on Facebook that “help” the contestant survive. Sometimes the comments are just observations or unwelcome advice.

A casting call for tool-challenged people went out—you had to be willing to travel to parts unknown and complete tasks using said tools, and, if successful, you would earn a prize of $50,000. Thousands of online auditions poured in. Independent filmmaker and actor Alan Weischedel got the job. Throughout three shoots, Weischedel will have braved an alligator-infested bayou in Louisiana; a barren, blistering stretch of the Mojave Desert; and a mountainous thicket in California. In each location, he's sent a shipping crate filled with basics—food, maybe a windbreaker and a treasure trove of Craftsman tools tailored to the task at hand. Within 48 hours, he had to build his way out to survive, and then escape. Online episodes have Weischedel talking back to the audience, commenting on whatever message he’s just received, like the time he needed to build a dune buggy to escape the Mojave Desert. Part of the challenge was to find the vehicle’s tires, which were hidden from him. The online audience helped him find them with clues—a viewer tweeted, “The tire is southeast 100 paces.” The audience also asked Weischedel to do wacky things such as “Give us a fashion show” and “Sing us a song. Amuse us!” Viewer comments were streamed through an ever-present earpiece.

Live-action director Matt Ogens and interactive director Grant Skinner co-helmed the series, which was part reality show, part interactive adventure and part twisted infomercial for Craftsman Tools. Ogens says, “We spent six months on this before we shot, working between the live-action and digital departments, working everything out. With all the work we’re doing now, the technology gets better and better every day. We’re always testing things.” Skinner shows his interactive expertise by developing the systems that ensure the online audience will have optimal, seamless access to Weischedel. While a skeleton crew documented the action with handheld cameras, a portable LiveU backpack Weischedel carried augmented the footage with streaming video so the audience could watch the action unfold online. Only a couple of crew were anywhere near Weischedel; the rest of the crew was situated nearby, but out of his sight and reach.

I have always been drawn to ideas that resonate beyond a commercial or a piece of content, because they represent a memory, or a wish, or a dream. And when I read ideas like those, I am immediately engaged." —Geordie Stephens

For Joiner, expanding into digital seemed right, early on. He says, “For a creative person, the expenditure to do something like this wasn’t a numbers thing, it was an oh-my-god, we can do cool stuff with this.” Brian Latt, managing director, helped to usher Tool into the hybrid production company it has become, where live action and digital are interchangeable, again, serving the story. “The first year was like drinking from a fire hose,” he says. “But it turns out, there are a lot of similarities between live action and digital.”

Joiner began his career at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco as an art director and rose to associate creative director in two years. He worked on such high-profile accounts as Sega, Isuzu and the “Got Milk?” campaign for the Milk Advisory Board. A Southern California native, he spent his days going to the beach after school, a typical surfer kid. When he began as a student at Art Center, in Pasadena, he chose film as his major. While fulfilling his basic curriculum requirements, he took an advertising concept class and saw that there was big fun to be had. Switching his energies, upon graduation he looked around for a job in advertising and landed at Goodby.

In 1995, he opened Tool of North America, heading back to Southern California. What’s ironic is that he’s back to where he started—working in film and going to the beach. His streamlined, beautifully-appointed Manhattan Beach cottage, twenty minutes south of his Santa Monica offices, sits on the sandy boardwalk of a long stretch of beach. Surfboards and a skateboard are perched against a wall in the corner. His couch faces the waves. But it wasn’t just a yearning to come back to this ocean view that brought him back to Los Angeles. In fact, in San Francisco, he had managed to seek out dwellings with water nearby, one near the craggy Cliff House shore at a far end of San Francisco, and one in the hamlet of Sausalito. He had another reason to head south. “The talent is in Los Angeles,” he explains. “My casting happens mainly in Los Angeles and then in New York. We’ve tapped into such great up-and-coming talent through the years—improv, dramatic, whatever you want.”

Joiner and his team have assembled an impressive roster of directors. Joining Tool in 2002, Academy Award winner Robert Richardson, ASC, is known for his collaborations with Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino as a director of photography. For Tool, he’s directed spots for Kodak and SBC, among others. In a singular piece of gorgeous work, Richardson directed the American Express spot featuring Robert De Niro narrating his own musing on New York post-9/11. Geordie Stephens, who signed on at Tool in 2006, earned his BA and MFA in sculpture, installation and graphic design before moving into advertising over a twelve-year stint. Most recently, he spent three years at CP+B as an art director and creative director.

Like many of the directors at Tool, Stephens can relate to the creative teams on whose boards he sits, because he was once a creative himself. He says, “I have always been drawn to ideas that resonate beyond a commercial or a piece of content, because they represent a memory, or a wish, or a dream. And when I read ideas like those, I am immediately engaged. I want to know more about the idea...what inspired it and how the creatives imagine it coming to life. Through all the years that I spent sitting in an advertising office, late at night with my writer, I always wanted to make ideas that triggered something like that; something honest, original and more often than not, something that made me laugh.” Stephens’s projects at Tool, for clients including Sprint, Hewlett-Packard and BMW’s MINI, have a lively, fun quality about them.

Tool’s roster of interactive directors are a roll call of notable innovators, such as Alexx Henry, Graeme Devine, 3-D development team HelloEnjoy, led by Carlos Ulloa, and Seeper, an arts and technology group. Devine’s credits as a known game designer, writer and programmer include The 7th Guest, Halo Wars and Quake 3. Apple tapped him to run their IOS gaming division in charge of all gaming designed for the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad platforms. Devine departed Apple to join Tool and apply his gaming skillset and multi-touch gaming expertise to advertising.

For a creative person, the expenditure to do something like this wasn’t a numbers thing, it was an oh-my-god, we can do cool stuff with this.” —Erich Joiner

Jason Zada, who can only be called a hybrid digital/live-action director, took on a project for Leo Burnett Chicago called “David on Demand.” At the Cannes 2010 Festival, one of the agency’s creative recruiters, David Perez, spent the entire festival streamed live—his every move documented in real time—succumbing to tweets and messages from an online community that grew into the hundreds of thousands. Perez wore a LiveU backpack to stream his antics, was to do whatever the online community asked, including spontaneously bursting out in a love song, asking a complete (gorgeous) stranger to go to dinner, hijacking a Bentley, and—much to his mother’s horror—getting a tattoo. “The biggest thing that came out of this is that I’ve realized I really want to be a part of how messaging is changing,” Perez says. “Not even just in advertising, but in seemingly disparate venues—all kinds of content.”

For Leo Burnett, the stunt earned them press, as Perez appeared on morning talk shows and news shows. Perez claims that as a recruiter, it has opened up global channels for him. One has to wonder what would happen if a tweet came through that was even more invasive than getting a tattoo, say something of a lurid nature? “Jason and his team kept me safe and sane,” Perez says. “From the top down, Tool took major ownership of the project. We had no idea how the technology would work in a helicopter, a boat, a Bentley, but Tool made it work.”

For Latt, who joined Tool five years ago, helping to run the organization is a challenge that is ever-changing and keeps him learning. A graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he had tried engineering as a career but found it lacking, so he landed in special effects, eventually making his way to Tool. He says, “It’s been a very unusual path for me. I love the creative challenge here. We really are making mini art films. It’s our job to elevate the brand and it’s that artistic expression that excites me.”

Joiner reluctantly reveals a secret about Tool as the name of the company. One may think that it means having the right implement, maybe the brain is the ultimate tool—something like that. Or maybe some people go right to the other meaning of tool, which is the male part. They would be correct. Joiner says, “One day, our accountant, or someone on the business side, said we better come up with a name. We had no time and we thought Tool would be funny. Then the guy said, well, you better add something to it, so we can register it. He thought Tool of North America was great. And we thought TNA was funny.” Once a boy, always a boy. ca

Julie Prendiville Roux is cofounder of Handmade, a full-service creative agency based in Los Angeles. Alongside her work in advertising, she is a screenwriter and author.


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