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Why Mtn Dew created a 40-minute Bob Ross ‘lost episode’ to bring joy by painting

For generations, budding painters have consumed Bob Ross’ meditative step-by-step guide to landscapes, from its prime time heyday on PBS to its later resurgence on the web. After a year that saw people turn to his show ’The Joy of Painting’ to stay mindful, Mountain Dew decided to revisit the icon, bringing him back from the dead for full 40-minute ’Lost Episode’. The Drum finds out how the happy little painter came back to life.

For generations, budding painters have consumed Bob Ross’ meditative step-by-step guide to landscapes, from its prime time heyday on PBS to its later resurgence on the web. After a year that saw people turn to his show ’The Joy of Painting’ to stay mindful, Mountain Dew decided to revisit the icon, bringing him back from the dead for full 40-minute ’Lost Episode’. The Drum finds out how the happy little painter came back to life.

Part artist, part magician, Bob Ross built up his trade by revealing his secrets. While painting can feel like a daunting, high brow space for many, Ross democratized it, giving agency to those who never thought they could pick up a paintbrush, let alone paint a masterpiece.

While Ross enjoyed fame between 1986 until his death in 1995 with his PBS TV show ’The Joy of Painting’, his enduring popularity is thanks to the web, with old episodes on YouTube racking up millions of views. This year has only exacerbated his posthumous popularity, with Ross’ calming, methodological style acting as a tonic for the stress of the pandemic.

Keen to tap into Ross’ posthumous fame, this month Mtn Dew decided to ’resurrect’ the painter for a full 40-minute ’Lost Episode’.

“It felt like the right time to spread joy to remind people of this simpler approach to life that things continue to be difficult in our world, it’s chaotic out there, but Bob’s voice and style bring comfort and joy,“ explains Nicole Portwood, MTN Dew's vice-president of marketing. “There is something really powerful in his focus on the love of self and the natural world, especially at this moment in time.“

And so, 25 years after his death, the team pitched the idea of bringing the painter back to the Bob Ross Company, the firm Ross founded with his business partner. While an impressively complex technical challenge, a brand bringing a famed icon back from the dead can feel exploitative. Portwood explains that the partnership was critical in ensuring they handled it sensitively.

“There is a very fine line between honouring someone and making it feel self-serving,“ she admits. “Everything from the treatment of the video and the filters that we put it through to make sure it felt authentic, to the music at the end of the spot was deliberate. We wanted to recreate rather than parody Bob, and we never would have done this without the approval and partnership of the Bob Ross Company.“

After agreeing to work together, the Company worked “hand-in-hand“ throughout the process, alongside Mtn Dew's ad agency TBWA\Chiat\Day.

“It was really complicated,” Portwood details. “We used a whole bunch of different movie magic.“ Firstly the team started with a body double that looked as close to Ross as they could get, including facial structure, body shape and body size. And of course, beyond his singular painting style, Ross is perhaps best remembered for his curly ’fro, so they found a suitable wig, adding prosthetics to the double to get them as close to the painter as possible.

Beyond that, to ensure the episode as close to the truth, CGI was used to match it up to the original. “We used face mapping for the mouth replacement and augmentation of the face. And then parts of the body to closely match Bob’s. And then we map repaired all of that with actual footage from the real episode that Bob shot in painting this original winter scene before we added an Mtn Dew bottle to it.“

Next up, the team had to find someone who could lead the 40-minute tutorial. “We used a ’Bob Ross certified’ painter that we worked with the Bob Ross Company to find,“ Portwood explains. “He did all of the actual painting, so we knew it was would be in Bob’s signature style. And then we used practical shots that we captured.“

Finally, the team has to find a voice actor that had a tenor like Ross’, who was able to match his tone and his cadence of speech. “Even in some of the long-form, where he had to really ad-lib as he was painting along with the bottle, he used a lot of his catchphrases, like ’happy little droplets.’“

While Mtn Dew first introduced its version of Ross in an inspired ad spot, Portwood explains why they didn’t stop there. “We thought if we're honouring Bob’s legacy and integrating the brand in an authentic way, it felt like a must-do that we create this lost episode and give people an opportunity to engage with it in the same way that they would have engaged with one of Bob's real episodes.“

“A full length lost episode would allow people to paint along with Bob through the brand lens. The level of engagement is amplified when you pick up the paintbrush and paint along with him.“

Mtn Dew’s lost episodes arrive after a number of brands have recently made the decision to revisit old icons over fronting their ads with present-day stars. A strategy made famous by Galaxy’s Audrey Hepburn ad back in 2015, the NFL tmade the decision for this year’s Super Bowl to resurrect football legend Vince Lombardi to help it champion equality.

“Nostalgia is a very powerful emotional connection for people. Especially when you’re living through such a chaotic time where we still have so many unknowns. Nostalgia is comfortable, it brings joy, it creates a bit of order in a world of chaos,“ Portwood explains.

And it’s a tactic that Mtn Dew has visited many times before. Just last month, it reunited Gremlins star Zach Galligan with his best buddy Mogwai, while last Super Bowl it enlisted Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston to recreate a famous scene from The Shining.

“For a brand like Mtn Dew, a lot of what we do is bridge the gap between generations of fans,“ Portwood explains. “We're really focused on finding ways to leverage nostalgia so that it connects with our core fandom, but also creates a bridge to new fans.“

You can watch the full Lost Episode here: