The "Big Sister" Ad: Did one guy make it, in his apartment, in 6 hours?

Keying off a couple of liberal blogs, Patrick Ruffini challenges the official story on the Hillary 1984 ad. Pat asks:

Did Phil de Vellis just cop to a “crime” he didn’t commit, or had only a minor part in committing, to advance his career (it’s working) or cover for the real perps?

And then quoting Buckeye State Blog:

Also, where was De Vellis’ “Big Sister” ad of the Brown campaign. Where’s that one piece that hinted at Phil’s creativity? Where is something – anything – that shows a high level of technical skill with video editing/manipulation. If you’re still looking, stop. I couldn’t find anything either. In fact, there’s nothing, I repeat NOTHING, from Phil’s work on that campaign (or any other work he’s done elsewhere that I’ve tracked down) that even leaves one to hope that he is capable of the pure genius that is “Big Sister”. I remain skeptical.

An artist’s past is usually a good clue to his capabilities, though breakout performances are always possible. And if previous jobs never let De Vellis stretch out in this way, that’s not necessarily his fault. He could have been working for unimaginative directors and producers.

Phil De Vellis claims he made the ad on a Sunday afternoon in his apartment.

I made the ad on a Sunday afternoon in my apartment using my personal equipment (a Mac and some software), uploaded it to YouTube, and sent links around to blogs.

Using only “a Mac and some software,” he says he made this ad:

Here’s the original ad, for comparison.

On the Mac side, your editing choices are Apple Final Cut Pro, various Avid products from XPress DV all the way up to Symphony (very expensive high-end HD plus a whole lot else), and a couple of compositing programs, Shake and Adobe After Effects. He’s probably talking about Final Cut Pro, but he could also have something more powerful to work with. He could be talking about Adobe After Effects (my preferred effects tool) or Shake, both of which are serious compositing apps (think Photoshop + video and animation capabilities, amped up to 11 and then multiplied by 42). Shake is an Apple product, it’s cheap, and is far more adept than FCP at creating scenes like this one, from the Hillary ad:


Here’s a grab of the same scene from the original for comparison:


Look at the top one, and look at the bottom one. They’re the same shot, altered. The shot of Hillary in the top one has been distorted so that it fits the perspective of the movie screen, but not perfectly. It has been color corrected to blue to match the scene, but again not perfectly. Close enough is good enough in both cases, though. There are heads in front of Hillary, just like the original. They’re not real heads; they never move. In the original, they’re real, moving heads (the guy in the foreground moves a little). And look at the slapdash shape of that guy’s ears in the top shot. That’s a quick and dirty matte that the artist made by pulling a still from the original and Photoshopping it to let the Hillary screen replace the original one. That much, he did in haste or that guy’s ears would look better than they do. There are a couple of scenes like this one, that have the heads of the audience layered over the movie screen. Watch them closely, and you’ll see that the heads never move at all in the Hillary version, and the cutouts look terrible in that version versus the original. He created both scenes the same way, by pulling a still from the original and Photoshopping around the heads so he could put the Hillary vid into the scene. The artist went to all that trouble to sell the idea that all of the real people you see in the rest of the ad are watching Big Sister up on the screen. It’s a sell that works very well as long as you don’t look too closely. Shake can do this, and so can Adobe After Effects. But it could have been done in Final Cut or Avid or Adobe Premiere Pro (if he was on a PC). There are quite a few effects going on at once–color correction, distortion, alpha keying (putting the heads in front of the screen)–along with the editing itself, but all of those apps can pull off an edit like this. This edit is less groundbreaking than it appears at first viewing.

He also pulled one other slick trick, at the end. The original ad finishes with a camera truck showing row after row of slackjawed zombies, with text rolling over them. The Hillary ad zooms in while the truck maneuver is going on. That gives the editor time to roll the end text without the original text getting in the way. That move is easily done in most editing apps, and isn’t a big deal. It’s a cheat, but it’s clever.

The artistry doesn’t stop with the visuals. The artist had to take the original ad’s audio and replace it, pretty much entirely, with the Hillary audio. In the original, the Big Brother character’s voice runs throughout, rendering much of the underlying sounds useless for mixing with Hillary’s voice. To get the signature recurring whine sound, the Hillary editor probably isolated one clean instance between Big Brother’s words and re-used it throughout his edit. No big deal. The ambient sound is harder since BB’s voice is on top of most of it, but not impossible. Decent sound fx libraries have tracks like that. Or he could have recorded street noise and manipulated it, slowing it down, adding echo and chorus, things like that. The marching feet sound also probably comes from isolating one clean instance in the original and repeating it, though he could have gotten it from a sound library. However he got those sounds, a decent sound editor program could mix it, and over that he edited in Hillary’s track and added reverb to it where needed.

Can this be done in one day? On a topped-out Mac or PC with the right software, yes it can. It’s unlikely that he went from idea to finished product in one day, but the actual execution in one day is possible for someone who knows how to do this sort of thing and knows what he wants the end product to look like. And if he has thought through the mechanics of how the edits will work.

So if this were an episode of Mythbusters, my ruling would be: Inconclusive to Plausible. Certainly not busted based on the evidence at hand. There’s nothing in De Vellis’ past work that says he’s capable of this kind of work, but that’s not a show-stopper. Some editors are good for one really brilliant piece of work, or a breakthrough piece after discovering some new trick. This could be a case of that. The editing and effects can be done in a day, start to finish, by an accomplished editor with the right tools at hand who knows what he wants from the final piece. Is De Vellis that editor? I have no idea. He says he is, and what he says isn’t impossible for me to believe.

More: I’m not a great matte maker, but the one I made for this still could just as easily be used to make a movie. I did a better job on the ears than De Vellis (or whoever) did.


One more: Got a photo editor that understands layering and transparency? Then make your own 1984 rip-off with this.

Update: The iPod wasn’t in the original ad from 1984. But it was in this update, from 2004.