Find Out The Story Behind Award-Winning Short For "Coke Habit" By Dress Code

We all know that this industry is built on talented creative types utilising their immeasurable artsy skills to bring beauty and heart to brands, but sometimes it’s important that those abilities be turned inwards and allowed to focus on their own passion projects. Such is the ethos of Dress Code, who funnel profits made from commercial projects into more individual content.

For their short ‘Coke Habit’ the team took the cautionary tale of Mike (a lad whose fondness of cola caused migraines, dizziness, blind spots and tunnel vision) and turned it into a dazzling, stark, surreal animation visualising the narrator’s plight. Utilising the colour-scheme of the titular beverage, the film’s remarkable impact comes not only from the imagery but also the impressive weaving of scenes, leading to a kaleidoscopic nightmare… of the very best kind!

We loved the short, and loved the fact it picked up a Best Animation award at The One Screen show, so grabbed CD & Co-Founder Dan Covert to chat all things Coke.

How did the film come about? Was this a cautionary tale you knew of already or were you in search of an animated story to tell?

Part of our business model is to take the profits from doing commercial work and create original content. By doing so we’ve made 10+ films over the past few years. While the commercial work we do is animation, live-action or a combination of the two, all of our original content has been live-action focused up to this point.

We are always on the lookout for good stories and the seed for Coke Habit began as an off-the-cuff story our editor Mike told us years ago for some laughs about his Coca-Cola addiction as a kid. We had a collective desire to make a fully animated short, so we all started to pitch ideas and Mike’s story rose to the top of the pile. When a story stays with us for that much time, we are usually on to something.

What were the early stages? What were the initial decisions that had to be made and how did you make them?

The initial decisions were; is this story worth the amount of effort it would take to create, how we should structure the narrative and what should it look like.

Structuring the story was by far the biggest challenge, which was very unexpected. We started the process by interviewing Mike, like we would any documentary subject, about his experiences. This gave us all the solid story beats we needed and lots of little flourishes we hadn’t heard before. But for some reason our edits kept falling flat; they lacked the soul and the energy of that first time Mike told us the story on set.

We almost gave up on the piece a few times because the whole team wasn’t convinced this story was worth the effort it would take to bring a fully animated piece to life. It took a lot of time, trial and error, and hitting our head against the wall, going back and forth between the story and the visuals, before things really started to click.

Was it always the idea to depict the entire film in the stark red, white and black of Coke? How did the designs grow once the aesthetic was chosen?

Most of our staff at some point or another has traveled through the world of graphic design, so all our work tends to be aesthetically minimal, with a strong care for art direction and design.

But you are right that we looked to visual language of Coke, which is designed so well. By consciously limiting the color palette, the entire piece became more iconic, striking and impactful. We used the color red, which is ubiquitous with Coke, as an easy way to calibrate the viewer's mind to think about the brand, even on a subconscious level. Throughout the history of design, the color red has also been used in agitprop posters and protest art. This dichotomy between the two associations of the color seemed fitting, since our film is somewhere between a testimonial and a piece of propaganda.

How long did the animation process take? Did the film change much through the creation?

We conducted the first interview with Mike in August of 2014 and kicked out the final render in December 2016. So, all in, this project took about two and a half years to create, working in-between commercial jobs whenever we had a moment. And then a little more time on top of that spent on legal mumbo jumbo.

At the beginning of the process we were very literal in representing the story with our visuals. But as the project evolved things became more interesting as we leaned into a more surreal language of illustration, pushing things metaphorically to create a world that could properly visualize the struggle inherent in Mike’s habit and something that would ultimately be more memorable than a see-say representation.

What software did you use to create the film? It has a lovely hand-drawn feel to it, but there are neat digital flourishes (particularly in depicting the migrane!).

A lot of the heavy animation lifting and compositing was done in After Effects, we did the cel animation in Flash and in Photoshop and did the final edit in Premiere.

Our original character design was pretty tightly drawn and required very intricate cel animation but that process was taking way too long since we were working on this between paying client gigs. So we had to go back to rethink our approach. We used it as a challenge to rework the character style. Limits like this can often lead to unexpected and solid results—this time was no different. By necessity, the final animation language is much looser and liquidy than where we started, but this accentuates the rawness and struggle of Mike’s story. And in hindsight we think it also looks cooler!

The imagery conjures up a number of stylistic influences (Russian propaganda, Magrite, MC Escher). Were there key stimuli you wanted to incorporate or did the style just match the quick transition / nightmarish quality of the story at hand?

Nice eye! Were certainly influenced by Russian agitprop posters, Magrite and Escher. But also Frank Miller’s Sin City and the film Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo were in our minds throughout.

Did you ever have a call from a prominent cola brand asking you to remove the film? Or from another (rhymes with Shwepsi) thanking you for your hard work ;-)

Honestly, we were decently afraid our film might go out in the world only to be squashed pretty quickly by Coke. This was obviously the last thing we wanted after working on something for a few years. So before it was released we spent a decent amount of effort and resources getting our ducks in a row from a legal perspective. But luckily we haven’t had any issues.

In all honesty, did you chug a lot of Coke in the making of the film?

Haha, no, there may have been a few cans floating around here or there, but probably more coffee was consumed than Coke! But the creation process certainly wasn’t Coke free by any means.

The film was released online a few months ago – what’s the plans for it? Are you entering any festivals / competitions?

We were stoked to premiere the film with Vimeo as part of their Staff Pick Premiere program. They have been super supportive of our work over the years and have honored our films with 7 Staff Picks. But yes, we are continuing to enter it in other festivals and competitions. And last night we actually won best animation at the One Screen Film Festival, a spinoff of the One Show, which was pretty surreal to get such a high honor after toiling away on this for so long.

What’s up next for you?

In the new year we are going to be signing a few animation and live action directors to build out a tight knit roster of talented folks. And we will continue our love of creating commercials for agencies and brands while making original content. On that front we have four short films in development, a few of which should be released sometime in 2018.