Wednesday, September 28, 2016
  • Friday, Jul. 20, 2001
Don't Try This At Home: Buddy Lee Saves The Day

Pint-size spokesdoll Buddy Lee is back, and in the latest Lee Dungarees spots from Fallon Minneapolis, our hero has inspired his Lee-wearing fans to perform good deeds. But Buddy Lee is a professional, so "Apartment," "Suburbia" and "Street"—directed by the Traktor collective of bicoastal/international Partizan—detail the mayhem that ensues when rank amateurs attempt to be like him.

"Street" begins with singer Junior Brown intoning, "I want to be like Buddy Lee, and help out everyone I see," off camera, as a young man wearing Lee Dungarees saunters down a street, pausing to feed a coin into a parking meter and to open a door for a woman clutching two heavy shopping bags. Then our do-gooder ambles on unawares, as a roller-blader careens through that glass door that he has left ajar.

The song continues, "I'd go to coffee with Chuck D, like Buddy Lee—" the young man passes a Chinese restaurant and waves to the rapper who is actually seated within, who nods at him. The music swells, "But at times it occurs to me …" as the camera angles up to suddenly reveal Buddy Lee, giving the diminutive doll an imposing appearance. The Lee guy halts on the sidewalk, realizing that Buddy Lee has put himself in harm's way to save his follower from injury: The profile of the doll is shown against the (comparatively) enormous roller of a street-sweeper, which then runs over Buddy. Junior Brown drawls, "It might hurt to be like Buddy Lee …" as the street-sweeper explodes, then explodes again, and again. But Buddy Lee, though dwarfed by the flames, remains unscathed. You can't bust the jeans, or the spokesdoll.

According to art director Harvey Marco—who with copywriter Dean Buckhorn created the spots—"We take it [Buddy Lee and his exploits] very seriously, and that makes it ridiculous." After all, Marco observed, "The reality is, the doll's not doing much. He gets himself into these volatile situations and that's where the comedy comes from."

To maintain the irony of having a baby-faced doll serve as an action hero, the creatives looked for directors who could depict both reverence for Buddy Lee and a tongue-in-cheek view of the details of daily life—the roller-bladers and street-sweepers. Traktor, whose work tends towards the bizarre and humorous, fit the bill—the collective's credits include MTV's "Jukka Brothers" campaign, out of Fallon New York; and Levi Strauss & Co./Levi's Cords' "Badger" via TBWA/Chiat/Day, San Francisco (SHOOT "Top Spot of the Week," 11/24/2000, p. 10).

"Traktor has a different take on Americana, and we wanted to get that effect," said Marco. "They add a little bit of quirkiness to things that makes the spots original." Traktor's expertise really came into play with the explosions, Marco pointed out: "We didn't expect to be able to blow up the street-cleaner, but Traktor insisted on it."

To create the blasts, "We basically stripped down and then rebuilt a Honda Civic from the frame up, and then we loaded it with explosives," reported Jim Bouvet, Traktor's head of production and the spots' producer. "The thing only had to work for one day, but it had to really appear to suck Buddy Lee in violently and reliably. Very little was done in post other than compositing our actor in [so he would seem] close to the exploding sweeper—safety first," he added.

The troublesome part of the shoot came from a more prosaic factor: the weather. During the second and last day of filming "Street," Bouvet revealed, "It poured rain nonstop. But you'd never know: We had lights and tents for the actor, and just out of frame were the crew—soaked." In fact, the inclement weather forced the creatives and Traktor to come up with one of "Street" 's silliest gags, noted Bouvet: "We invented the roller-blader bit on the day [of the shoot]. It was supposed to be a scene with a taxi, but the rain kept us from shooting out near the street."

The poor conditions didn't cause too much trouble in post. According to editor Gordon Carey of FilmCore Santa Monica: "Because of the weather problems, Traktor wasn't able to get as many wide shots as they wanted to when Buddy is run over by the street-sweeper and the sweeper explodes. So that was a little challenging. But I think most people would never know that [Traktor had struggled with getting a wide shot], which is always the end result we're looking for."

The commercials are dialogue free, which makes their music—a mix of stand-up and electric basses, guitars, drums and an organ—all the more memorable. "Be Like Buddy Lee" was written by musician/producer T-Bone Burnett, who also composed and produced the soundtrack for the '00 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? The creatives wanted what Marco described as "vintage, retro music that was very 'Americana' in spirit. … We wanted a sound that felt believable, as though it had been in the vault for a while." After much research, the team came across the soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou? Impressed, the creatives contacted Burnett's agent. After the composer got to know Buddy Lee (the creatives sent him previous campaigns), Burnett agreed to pay tribute to the doll in a song. Additional production was completed by Larry Pecorella of Chameleon Music, which has merged into Comtrack, Chicago (see story, p. 7).

On set, Buddy Lee lived up to his reputation for toughness, despite his demanding schedule of saving lives and surviving explosions. According to Traktor's executive producer, Ole Sanders, "We sent him the script early, so he knew what was needed of him." Once, however, Sanders reported, "He asked for an aspirin—but we didn't have any."