Worth the effort: how DNA Seattle and Portland’s HouseSpecial came together to create breakthrough work for PSE

Creating work for a utility can be downright challenging. It’s a category that isn’t necessarily tailor-made for fun or whimsy. But, when the unique sensibilities of the Pacific Northwest are in play, it can become a canvas to develop something that makes its point, while retaining its sense of place. Such was the collaboration between DNA Seattle and HouseSpecial of Portland for Puget Sound Electric (PSE).

The agency really hoped to break through the clutter by taking a different approach — and DNA turned to HouseSpecial for their unique history and expertise in creating a clay animated world. They collaborated on three separate characters who embodied the essence of the Pacific Northwest.

“The characters are whimsical depictions of customers in the Pacific Northwest,” explained Kammie McArthur, Creative Director at DNA. “Clay animation allows us to exaggerate situations and emotions to drive home the idea that PSE is looking out for customers. And does it in a fun and memorable way that is unique in the category.”

In a behind-the-scenes video, Mark Gustafson, director at HouseSpecial and Gesine Krätzner, a designer there, discussed how the process went from pages and pages of drawings to the characters, finally having the “eureka” moment of the final choices.

Additionally, Krätzner pointed out how helpful the brief was from DNA in building out the characters. “These characters came with a description from the agency which is really, really helpful for me,” she said. “There are details about them in the written description that you will never see on screen but it helps me to think about who they are and what they would look like.

One character in particular, Gloria likes “to tango and salsa,” said Lianne Onart, DNA senior art director. “And maybe some aerobics.”

“And Jazzercise,” added Shannon Burke, DNA senior copywriter.

When picking favorites, everyone had an opinion.

“Dan, to me, is just so relatable because he's just chilling, just doing his thing,” said Abigail Elliot, social media program manager at PSE.

Onart and Burke weighed in with paunchy Art as their favorite while Krätzner had no reservations.

“It's got to be Gloria. She's just so spunky and fun.”

The results are more than just meets the eye. Every aspect of the campaign and work was truly handmade, with HouseSpecial creating every single element, from the characters to the pictures on their walls to the coins that pour from the refrigerator, from scratch.

“HouseSpecial has this amazing breadth of work and the amount of time and effort that they've put in to even building all the sets, little mini things for this fun little world has just been really cool,” noted Onart. “We wanted for the production to feel handmade. It's interested because when I look at these guys it's like you can feel the artists hands.”

HouseSpecial, in its previous incarnation, was known as Laika/house (prior to that it was Will Vinton Studios), the commercial arm of Laika Entertainment, founded by Nike founder Phil Knight and responsible for films such as Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls. It was spun off in July 2014 to its own entity and the company has worked with a raft of brands such as M&Ms and Kellogg’s — no matter the work, the craft is vitally important and the PSE work was no exception.

“This is about as old school as it gets in terms of the clay animation process,” said Gustafson. “These characters literally have clay heads and animators will be sculpting them into expressions as they go. When you see the character finally come to life, it's fantastic.”

Elliot, of PSE agreed — and acknowledged that work from energy companies don’t necessarily break through — until now.

“Sometimes your energy company just might not be that interesting, so doing something that's someone's going to be like, "Wait. What? Did I see that?" It caught their attention in a way that we haven't been able to do so in the past.”

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