When Sogei Inc., a Japanese advertising agency, wanted to shoot a dog food commercial, it spared no time or expense. It sought out Victor Haboush, the king of directors of animal commercials (Kibbles 'n Bits and Tender Chops dog foods), hired some the best performing dogs in Los Angeles and spent five days on location on the beaches in Malibu and the Disney Ranch in Placerita Canyon.
The result: a series of 30-second TV commercials, showing only in Japan, for Vita-1, a Japanese brand of dry dog food. Until recently, the Japanese fed table scraps to their pets, according to Gary Omura, vice president and executive producer at A. T. & Cosmo, a Los Angeles production company. "The concept of buying pet food at supermarket is new . . . nobody knew how to direct dogs in Japan because they never had an (pet food) industry before."
When it comes to shooting television commercials, it is at least one instance when the Japanese still look to the United States for its expertise in film, special effects and talent. The Vita-1 spot is one of hundreds of Japanese TV commercials that are shot somewhere in the United States.
Japanese advertisers are plopping down their yen to shoot products from cosmetics to cars against backdrops that range from Death Valley to the subways of New York. "The Japanese like to have American locations," explained Haboush. "They are not trying to imitate Japan."
Today, as many as a dozen production companies such as A. T. & Cosmo, Chiari Cook Co., Unix Enterprises and Lumination--mostly in the Los Angeles area--are specializing in shooting commercials for Japanese clients. Business rose significantly a few years ago when the yen fell against the dollar, making it cheaper for Japanese directors and ad executives to come to the United States for commercial shoots.
The volume of production work shot in the United States by Japan's two biggest advertising agencies--Dentsu and Hakuhodo--alone runs in the tens of millions of dollars a year. The cost of an average shoot is about $100,000, but can rise to $1 million with the use of special effects or celebrities.
Dentsu Inc., Japan's largest ad agency, spends about $20 million to $30 million annually on shooting about 100 commercials in the United States, according to Takashi Nakamura, president of Dentsu Los Angeles. Hakuhodo shot 24 commercials in past six months, spending about $7 million on U.S. productions.
"This is one way we are getting some of the money back from Japan," said Jared Cook, whose 5-year-old production company, Chiari Cook Co., operates in Culver City.
As Japanese consumers become more sophisticated and worldly, advertisers have to work harder to grab their attention. "If you see the same type of commercial over and over on the domestic monitor (TV), you get kind of fed up and go to kitchen and make sandwich," explained Yuzo Takagi of Unix Enterprises, who arranged the first Japanese commercial shot in the United States for Fuji Film in 1970.
"We don't want to lose attention from the monitor," he added. "To do so, we have to show something different--different scenery, different people, different animals--different things to keep the people's eye on the monitor. The United States was always a popular country in Japan."
Takagi said Japanese ad agencies are now looking to locations in Africa, Europe, Australia and New Zealand and the Soviet Union. "Japan is a small country, good locations have been used and overused so they are looking at wide open spaces," explained Omura, a former operations manager for Northwest Airlines who went into the production business 10 years ago. "It is easier to shoot here because of the way everything is set up--Hollywood being the film capital of the world. . . . You can never shoot a Japanese car commercial on streets of Tokyo because it is too busy. It is easier get a permit to drive a Toyota down Rodeo Drive or Sunset Boulevard."
Helicopters are also easier to charter in the United States. Japanese viewers also like to see deserts (there are none in Japan) and California homes with ocean views and pools.
When it comes to talent, "Japanese are always looking for exotic talent, meaning non-Japanese talent," which is easily available in the United States, explained Omura. Unix, for example, was one of the first to use American celebrities such as the late Steve McQueen in Japanese commercials. One Japanese advertiser even hired an American for his specialization: dancing hands. "Why not do it Japan?" asked one production company executive. "They said 'Japanese hands are not big enough.' "
When Japanese agencies, including the Tokyo arms of J. Walter Thompson or McCann Erickson, shoot commercials in the United States, they usually send a director, cameraman and account executive. They hire independent American crews, who get the business mostly by word of mouth and by developing business relationships that are almost familial in their loyalty and continued patronage. The ad concept is usually developed in Japan with input from the U.S. production companies. All post-production work is done in Japan.
The assignments are varied to say the least. Chiari Cook has shot giant cups and saucers in the middle of desert for Fuji Film. They once tried water skiing elephants for a Matsushita Electronics commercial, "it didn't work," Cook said.
One assignment took the crew on a nocturnal watch to Oregon for a week for a shot of an owl that turns its head 360 degrees. "We got about a 270-degree turn," recalled Cook, who was doing a commercial for a brand of videocassette recorder sold only in Japan. "Another commercial for a Japanese soft drink called Mets involved having bicycle messengers riding across roofs of cars in San Francisco.
"The most expensive thing we ever did, a commercial for Toyota, was to build a water fountain in front the Pacific Design Center," Cook said. "Then we decided we didn't want the Pacific Design Center and we moved (the fountain) in front to the Biltmore when there was a parking lot there. It required a lot of art direction and money for the fountain."
Americana themes, such as cowboys and Huck Finn are popular. One Japanese noodle maker invested the time and expense of going to Kentucky and building a raft to recreate a campaign around the popular Mark Twain character.
In some cases, location is less important than Hollywood expertise. One commercial shoot for Mazda involved one car and a sound stage, but cost $700,000. The shot required a tremendous amount of special lighting--lights were shipped in from as far as England and the Philippines. The commercial simply showed the car fully illuminated by the special lights.
When Haboush went on loan from Paramount Image to do the Vita-1 commercials, his cast of dogs included a Dalmatian, Jack Russell terriers, bulldogs, foxhounds, beagles and even a mutt. Working with a Japanese director who had never filmed animals, Haboush shot the animals frolicking in the surf at Malibu, tumbling out of a truck and playing in a lake. The scenes were used with a voice-over in Japanese talking about the dog food.