By Jennifer Walden
While there are some commercials you’d rather not hear, there are some you actually want to turn up, like those of Leo Burnett Worldwide’s “Mayhem” campaign for Allstate Insurance.
The action-packed and devilishly hilarious ads have been going strong since April 2010. Mayhem (played by actor Dean Winters) is a mischievous guy who goes around breaking things that cut-rate insurance won’t cover. Fond of your patio furniture? Too bad for all that wind! Been meaning to fix that broken front porch step? Too bad the dog walker just hurt himself on it! Parked your car in the driveway and now it’s stolen? Too bad — and the thief hit your mailbox and motorcycle too!
Leo Burnett Worldwide’s go-to for “Mayhem” is award-winning post sound house Another Country, based in Chicago and Detroit. Sound designer/mixer John Binder (partner of Cutters Studios and managing director of Another Country) has worked on every single “Mayhem” spot to date. Here, he talks about his work on the latest batch: Overly Confident Dog Walker, Car Thief and Bunch of Wind. And Binder shares insight on a few of his favorites over the years.
In Overly Confident Dog Walker, Mayhem is walking an overwhelming number of dogs. He can barely see where he’s walking. As he’s going up the front stairs of a house, a brick comes loose, causing Mayhem to fall and hit his head. As Mayhem delivers his message, one of the dogs comes over and licks Mayhem’s injury.
Sound-wise, what were some of your challenges or unique opportunities for sound on this spot?
A lot of these “Mayhem” spots have the guy put in ridiculous situations. There’s often a lot of noise happening during production, so we have to do a lot of clean up in post using iZotope RX 7. When we can’t get the production dialogue to sound intelligible, we hook up with a studio in New York to record ADR with Dean Winters. For this spot, we had to ADR quite a bit of his dialogue while he is walking the dogs.
For the dog sounds, I have added my dog in there. I recorded his panting (he pants a lot), the dog chain and straining sounds. I also recorded his licking for the end of the spot.
For when Mayhem falls and hits his head, we had a really great sound for him hitting the brick. It was wonderful. But we sent it to the networks, and they felt it was too violent. They said they couldn’t air it because of both the visual and the sound. So, instead of changing the visuals, it was easier to change the sound of his head hitting the brick step. We had to tone it down. It’s neutered.
What’s one sound tool that helped you out on Overly Confident Dog Walker?
In general, there’s often a lot of noise from location in these spots. So we’re cleaning that up. iZotope RX 7 is key!
In Bunch of Wind, Mayhem represents a windy rainstorm. He lifts the patio umbrella and hurls it through the picture window. A massive tree falls on the deck behind him. After Mayhem delivers his message, he knocks over the outdoor patio heater, which smashes on the deck.
Sound-wise, what were some of your challenges or unique opportunities for sound on Bunch of Wind?
What a nightmare for production sound. This one, understandably, was all ADR. We did a lot of Foley work, too, for the destruction to make it feel natural. If I’m doing my job right, then nobody notices what I do. When we’re with Mayhem in the storm, all that sound was replaced. There was nothing from production there. So, the rain, the umbrella flapping, the plate-glass window, the tree and the patio heater, that was all created in post sound.
I had to build up the storm every time we cut to Mayhem. When we see him through the phone, it’s filtered with EQ. As we cut back and forth between on-scene and through the phone, it had to build each time we’re back on him. It had to get more intense.
What are some sound tools that helped you put the ADR into the space on screen?
Sonnox’s Oxford EQ helped on this one. That’s a good plugin. I also used Audio Ease’s Altiverb, which is really good for matching ambiences.
In Car Thief, Mayhem steals cars. He walks up onto a porch, grabs a decorative flagpole and uses it to smash the driver-side window of a car parked in the driveway. Mayhem then hot wires the car and peels out, hitting a motorcycle and mailbox as he flees the scene.
Sound-wise, what were some of your challenges or unique opportunities for sound on Car Thief?
The location sound team did a great job of miking the car window break. When Mayhem puts the wooden flagpole through the car window, they really did that on-set, and the sound team captured it perfectly. It’s amazing. If you hear safety glass break, it’s not like a glass shatter. It has this texture to it. The car window break was the location sound, which I loved. I saved the sound for future reference.
What’s one sound tool that helped you out on Car Thief?
Jeff, the car owner in the spot, is at a sports game. You can hear the stadium announcer behind him. I used Altiverb on the stadium announcer’s line to help bring that out.
What have been your all-time favorite “Mayhem” spots in terms of sound?
I’ve been on this campaign since the start, so I have a few. There’s one called Mayhem is Coming! that was pretty cool. I did a lot of sound design work on the extended key scrape against the car door. Mayhem is in an underground parking garage, and so the key scrape reverberates through that space as he’s walking away.
Another favorite is Fast Food Trash Bag. The edit of that spot was excellent; the timing was so tight. Just when you think you’ve got the joke, there’s another joke and another. I used the Sound Ideas library for the bear sounds. And for the sound of Mayhem getting dragged under the cars, I can’t remember how I created that, but it’s so good. I had a lot of fun playing perspective on this one.
Often on these spots, the sounds we used were too violent, so we had to tone them down. On the first campaign, there was a spot called Deer. There’s a shot of Mayhem getting hit by a car as he’s standing there on the road like a deer in headlights. I had an excellent sound for that, but it was deemed too violent by the network.
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. Follow her on Twitter @audiojeney.