You thought Craig Ferguson was history, or so he claims in the majestic, call-to-arms image spot for his new History show Join or Die, debuting tonight at 11/10 p.m. ET/CT.

Of course, few fans of the irascible comic really thought he was history following the demise of his Late Late Show on CBS, because Ferguson’s personality is too irrepressible to keep off the airwaves – a trait the above promo taps into with reckless abandon.

“He’s really fun,” said Krista Liney, VP of brand creative for History. “He’s kind of irreverent. He’s got this energy that’s really infectious and it seemed the crazier we got, it would kind of suit him, and I think it does.”

Knowing they wanted to work from an image of Ferguson being cradled by the Lincoln Monument with “some big, crazy, bombastic scene going on around him,” Liney’s team culled a list of characters and situations from across the broad swath of world history, aiming for a “a good cross-section of everything, from generally almost every era,” she said.

“We spent a great deal of time working out which historical characters would inhabit this world,” said director Dan Appel, whose creative agency Bacon & Sons produced the spot. “Not only did they have to be right for the show we were promoting, but each had to have an identifiable action and be someone who could be visually paired up against another historical figure – all the while trying to find the humor.”

In the end, History and Bacon & Sons settled on characters such as Kim Jong-Il, George Washington, Queen Elizabeth II, Napoleon and Jimi Hendrix with his flaming guitar. “Identifiable actions” included Cleopatra lounging in a milk bath, and Muhammad Ali reenacting his famous takedown of Sonny Liston… only with Adolph Hitler.

To help facilitate the raft of motion graphics involved with surrounding Ferguson with this quirky crew of colorful icons, Bacon & Sons brought aboard the production studio Iron Claw to partner on the VFX implementation.

“When [Iron Claw] founder Sean [Koriakin] showed up on the pre-light with the Columbia Pictures vanity card as a reference for how he saw the sky – with its dramatic clouds and deep oranges and blues – I knew right then and there that I had found the right guys for the job,” Appel said.

Creating the footage for a computer graphics-heavy piece like the Join or Die spot is all about timing of the different elements therein.

“This wasn’t a traditional VFX shoot where you take the actor and composite them into a 3D world seamlessly,” said Sean Koriakin, founder of Iron Claw “You’re taking individual elements that are basically flat and doing a 2D-3D move on them.”

History’s in-house team’s unofficial title for the promo was “The Living Painting,” and not just because its rich hues and stately composition recall classical illustration. The spot functioned as a living painting on the technical end as well, with each component part a malleable and adjustable 2D object within a 3D processor. The first part of the spot is a practical camera pull-back from Ferguson’s face to the full scene, whereupon the real-world footage “basically stops,” said Koriakin, “and the 3D world camera move takes over. Assembling that world required shooting each historical character practically then piecing them all together in post, a process Bacon & Sons and Iron Claw prepared for by doing a pre-visualization that used found images to lay out what the spot’s general composition would be.

They then had one day to shoot all of the actors, whose individual motions would replace each still image when the spot was brought to life. Some of the details, such as the horse ridden by Joan of Arc, were captured on set via green screen, and layered in later via 3D. Other elements, such as Cleopatra’s milk bath and tub, were real-world objects. Either way, “most of the comedy came on set,” Appel said. “It was when we were filming our first set-up, Kim Jong-Il, that everything began to make sense. We knew we wanted him and George Washington to be our flag-bearers, but when I asked the actor to pivot, then wave and smile… It was phenomenal. The cackles from video village confirmed that this was gonna be something special.”

A few comedic moments were discovered after the shoot because they involved components that were created entirely in 3D, such as the astronaut and the jet that draws Ferguson’s attention as it soars overhead. When Iron Claw was creating the jet, Koriakin realized they could use the G-forces from its engine as a catalyst for the spaceman’s bobbling movements. Such moments allowed Iron Claw to bring a level of artistry to their technical expertise that is highly visible onscreen.

In other moments, the fruits of their labors are less noticeable. The greatest challenge during post-production, for instance, was “transitioning from the 2D Ferguson to 3D manipulation,” said Koriakin, “because if you look at the piece, that’s where your eye line is. You’re looking right at him and if it doesn’t feel grounded and real, it just ruins the illusion of it.” That seemingly simple effect “required a lot of little bits of animation and stabilizations and painting” to pull off, he said.

All those little touches, whether visible or not, resulted in a promo that tonally captures the union of a manic comedic force like Ferguson and the sweeping power of history’s all-consuming arc.

“Ultimately, we knew we wanted something that could at once be eye-catching but also convey Craig’s unique and somewhat twisted relationship to historical discourse,” said Appel. “So we went about creating this insane, surreal world inhabited by this motely crew of lauded and reviled characters all vying for attention.”

LIST OF CHARACTERS

- Teddy Roosevelt vs. Joan of Arc

- Queen Elizabeth II vs. Napoleon

- Geo. Washington & Kim Jong-il, flagbearers

- Muhammad Ali & Adolf Hitler re-enacting Ali’s take down of Sonny Liston

- Jimi Hendrix on the flaming guitar

- Cleopatra bathing in milk

- Sigmund Freud weeping over a Mother’s Day card.

- Astronaut Ed White floating in space

ENVIRONMENTAL DETAILS

- Space Shuttle launch

- MIG-29 fighter jet

- The Hindenburg

- Wright Bros. plane

- Eiffel Tower

- Statue of Liberty

- Atomic bomb blast

- Fireworks


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