In the Beginning, There Was Photoshop
What could make this masked man (almost) cry? A heavenly vision? An ecstatic encounter? No, it's a shot from “25 Years of Photoshop: Dream On,” a one-minute ad created by Adobe to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the company’s star software. For one of the 60 seconds, El Grand Chamaco’s artwork is prominently featured.
The video made its debut during the Oscars broadcast on February 22 and the critics immediately began bearing witness. Adweek and Ad Age proclaimed it among the top ads of the evening. Ad industry blogger Ken Segall wrote, “The Adobe spot is riveting and entertaining. It feels alive. It doesn’t need to explain itself. I watched it several times—not so I could understand it, but so I could enjoy it.”
Here’s what Ken liked: The ad didn’t talk about inspiration—it aimed to straight up inspire, harnessing mind-blowing visuals from 70 artists set to Aerosmith’s power ballad “Dream On.” And if that’s not inspiring enough, wait for the backstory: Adobe’s spot was created in a mere three weeks. Verily, an awards-season miracle.
THE BROTHERHOOD OF BLUR
You’ve heard of the Cult of Apple. But did you know about the Sacred Order of Photoshop?
“At Adobe we are all about our customers—they’re filmmakers, illustrators, designers, photographers,” says AJ Joseph, the executive creative director at Adobe who spearheaded the “Dream On” video. “The concept was really about celebrating their work.” The love runs both ways—Adobe users worship Photoshop, talking about the program in reverential terms.
“I used the 1.0 version for the first time when I was in school, and it blew me away. It used to take forever to do a blur, and this was instant. I was fascinated,” says Eddie Opara, a partner in the New York office of the design firm Pentagram. “Photoshop changed everything.”
Los Angeles-based artist Adhemas Batista, whose work is included in the video, also speaks of Photoshop in B.P. (Before Photoshop) and A.P. (After Photoshop) terms. “Photoshop is a master tool and has been part of my life for over 15 years,” says Ademas, the way one might talk about following a spiritual guru.
A.J. notes that Adobe rarely creates ads for television, but the 25th birthday of Photoshop on February 19, 2015, was just three days before the Oscars telecast. When an opportunity arose to snag a spot during the broadcast, it seemed like a sign. The problem? It was already January, and Adobe needed to produce something Oscar-worthy in just a few weeks.
To pull off the impossible, Joseph called on a higher power: Adobe's go-to agency, the San Francisco office of Goodby Silverstein & Partners. Led by creative directors Patrick Knowlton and Will Elliott, the team includes a dynamic duo whom AJ affectionately refers to as “the Brazilians”: Sam Luchini and Roger Baran, associate creative directors. Sam and Roger worked closely with AJ day and night to bring the initial concept to life.
While Sam and Roger both hail from Brazil, they met when working at Razorfish in New York. They moved to Goodby together and are the kind of work partners who finish each other’s sentences. Both have drunk the Photoshop Kool-Aid. “The Internet has only been around for 30 years—Photoshop and the Internet grew up together. Everything that surrounds you today is somehow impacted by Photoshop,” says Sam. Adds Roger, “The only reason we’re here today is because of Photoshop.” AJ hadn’t just given them a brief for an ad—he had invited them to be part of a pilgrimage to digital Mecca.
The team knew they wanted to create a story through images set to music and quickly landed on Aerosmith’s 1973 release “Dream On.” “We wanted something iconic,” AJ says of the song. “It has amazing guitar riffs and a lot of emotion. You can be young or a little older and it hits you the same way.”
With the clock ticking, a few factors were working in the team’s favor. First, Adobe owns Behance, the online portfolio site. For a previous Adobe project, I Am the New Creative, Sam and Roger had successfully scanned Behance as a source for artists. With AJ, they now set up a new “Dream On” library in Behance and began to pull in examples of potential content from over 100 portfolios.
“The main criterion for selection was Photoshop used in a breakthrough way to express creativity,” says Sam. Another consideration was using a range of artists, from those just starting out to those with established reputations. Next, the team deployed a secret weapon in the form of Jim King, Goodby’s director of graphic services and the resident artist whisperer. Tapping into strong relationships with artists around the world, Jim and AJ began making calls.
IN ADOBE WE TRUST
“It’s like being a priest and getting a call from the pope to tell you that you are doing a great job. It’s the best,” says Spanish artist Juan Carlos Paz (aka Bakea), whose wacky one-eyed creature is prominently featured in the spot.
When they phoned artists, Jim and AJ weren’t just asking for a flat image; they wanted the whole PSD file, layers and all. Sam and Roger planned to deconstruct the files and sequence the layers into an animation synced up with the “Dream On” lyrics. Taking a cue from the files themselves, they also wanted to show Photoshop in action, highlighting key tools.
“Turn over working files? Pull back the curtain on how I made the final image? Um, excuse me?” you might imagine the artists replying, or at least pausing to ponder the offer. You’d be wrong. “I didn’t hesitate a second,” says Bakea. Adds Adhemas, “There won't be a second 25-year celebration video, so it’s a rare opportunity for all the artists involved.” Also persuasive: the promise of 35 million-plus viewers. (“One of my biggest dreams as a 3D artist is to see my own spot as a TV commercial and show people around the globe my work,” admits German artist Fabian Flenker.)
Ninety percent of the art used in the video was created in the last five to 10 years—another timesaving production factor—but Adobe did commission a handful of new pieces for the project, including one from Fabian. He was tapped to create a custom 3D font spelling out “2015.” Transforming words into microphones, speakers, and vinyl records, Fabian says his original concept was to make the viewer to feel like “you could start a house or karaoke party” with the letters. In the video, Fabian’s numbers appear to pulse with the beat.
Adhemas contributed custom “Dream On” content, too, including a tweaked version of an image he first created for the French stock agency Fotolia (recently acquired by Adobe). A female figure set against a baroque explosion of yellow and orange elements was replaced with a graphic rendering of the word “sing.” Cued exactly to the “Dream On” lyrics sung by Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, it’s one of the climactic moments in the video. Adhemas also worked on the video’s grand finale: the portrait of Tyler himself.
A confession from Adobe: Adhemas’ Tyler, incorporated only two days before final delivery of the video, was not the original ending. During the process of licensing the use of the “Dream On” track, it occurred to AJ to close out by zooming in on an image of Tyler’s face. He envisioned a portrait by artist Jason Seiler (famous for his 2013 Time cover of Pope Francis) and an effect of the camera flying right into Steven’s massive jaws. Jason drew the portrait, but when Steven got a preview of the video’s proposed ending, he in effect told AJ to talk to the Photoshop hand. The 66-year-old rocker was not a fan of Jason’s hyperrealistic caricature. That’s when Adhemas got an emergency call to generate a more flattering portrait, this one of Steven circa 1973.
SEEING THE SIGN
The video celebrates the making of images. Like Masonic symbols intended as winks to the initiated, icons for commonly used tools like the Brush, Pen, Magic Wand, and Eyedropper dance throughout the layers.
In addition to the work of individual artists, images slip in from films that relied heavily on Photoshop, including Shrek, The Hobbit, Avatar, How to Train Your Dragon 2, and Gone Girl. This more familiar imagery makes for breathing room amid a fast-paced procession of outspoken art, allowing the video to feel a bit more accessible than it otherwise might to those who still walk in darkness (that is, who don’t use Photoshop).
The finishing touch? AJ thought this special Photoshop anniversary deserved a special logo, one that could be incorporated into the video and also work on its own. Alex Trochut, who reimagined Adobe’s logo in 2014, was asked to turn around a new 25th anniversary concept in a week. “It needed to connect to the brand in terms of color, so that meant blue,” explains Alex. Drawing inspiration from the use of gradients in Photoshop as well as iridescent minerals (think mica), he created a logo that speaks to 1990 and 2015.
In the end, the team decided on simple typography for messages in the video, and the logo didn’t make the final cut. But devotees should be on the lookout for it during this yearlong celebration of Photoshop, that High Holy Feast for the Eyes.