The making of Apple’s HAL
I used to devote hours to feverishly writing up my annual Super Bowl ad review. And then, one day, the thrill was gone.
Between the lack of surprise (so many spots are released early now) and the general mediocrity, it became more chore than fun.
That said, I refuse to lose my Big Game spirit. So — how about a little story from Apple’s Super Bowl past?
What follows is the tale of HAL: Apple’s 1999 Super Bowl commercial starring the malevolent computer from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
HAL became Apple’s first Super Bowl appearance since 1985, when the ill-conceived Lemmings commercial ran. That, as you know, was the follow-up to the previous year’s amazing 1984 commercial — arguably the greatest commercial of all time.
Read on if you’re interested in learning how ads were often born in Steve Jobs’s Apple. The process was not at all like what you find in most big companies today (including Apple).
The birth of HAL
Fans of 2001 trivia know that the computer HAL was born in Urbana, Illinois, in 1992. Apple’s HAL was born — conceptually — in the summer of 1998.
At this point in time, Apple’s comeback was barely beginning.
Out in the real world, fear was spreading about the turn of the century. It was revealed that there was a flaw in the design of the first computers. The machines recognized years as two-digit numbers, and the change from 99 to 00 had the potential to cause global havoc.
The press became obsessed with what was called the Y2K Bug. Hundreds of millions of dollars were being spent worldwide by companies determined to avoid a meltdown. The year 2000 was more than a year away, but no business could afford to ignore it.
I was the Apple creative director at TBWA/Chiat/Day at the time. In a phone conversation with Steve Jobs, the topic of Y2K came up. Steve cheerfully pointed out that Macs didn’t have a Y2K problem. They were designed with more foresight, and would function perfectly until the year 29,940. (No exaggeration.)
“Maybe we should do an ad about this,” he said.
There was no talk about Super Bowls, TV, magazines or billboards. Just “an ad.” Steve was more enamored with the idea than where it might run.
So I went off to think about it. The Mac’s immunity to Y2K was interesting, but how could we turn that into a brand ad that would appeal to the mainstream audience?
Many writers and artists keep a notepad by their bed so they’re ready when inspiration hits. I never did. (Which might explain my dubious output of brilliant ideas.)
While trying to fall asleep that night, I had a flash about HAL and 2001. I suppose all that thinking about the year 2000 reminded me of 2001, being the sci-fi fan I am. It struck me that because HAL lived in the year 2001, he could actually look back at what happened in 2000. On the topic of the Y2K Bug, HAL could literally be the voice of experience.
I liked the idea enough that I was sure I’d remember it in the morning. But, not trusting myself, I dragged myself upstairs to my office and put a yellow sticky on my Mac: “HAL and Y2K.”
It was a good thing I did, because the next morning, it was only that note that made me remember. Duly reminded, I hashed out a script.
In those days, I lived in NY and commuted to the agency in LA every other week, and as fate would have it, I was on a plane to LA the next morning. Upon arrival, I asked our incredibly talented art director Susan Alinsangan to be my partner on this idea, and she eagerly joined in. (In later years, Susan would be responsible for the groundbreaking iPod Silhouette campaign.)
The first order of business was to create a storyboard to share with Steve. We weren’t scheduled to visit Cupertino for another week and I didn’t want to waste time, so our presentation would have to be done by email and phone.
We were okay with that because the idea was so simple. The entire spot would consist of a slow move in to HAL’s red eye as he speaks to astronaut Dave, just as he did in the original movie. Production-wise, it seemed very doable. The challenge would be getting the necessary legal approvals — but that would all be moot if Steve didn’t buy into the idea.
The storyboard was done within hours, and I emailed it to Steve in the afternoon. I planned to call Steve at home that night for his reaction, but instead he called me within minutes of getting the email.
“I love it!” he said.
I would have been euphoric if he had simply stopped at that, but he kept going. “Do you think this would make a good Super Bowl commercial?”
Remember, this was happening in the summer. The Super Bowl was many months away. I wasn’t thinking about where the commercial might run, but if you want to set off a frenzy in any agency creative department, you only need to mention the words “Super Bowl.”
Steve asked us to see how realistic this idea was, and the agency production team sprang in action.
Making it legal
We learned that using HAL would require approval from two separate entities. MGM owned the rights to the concept and Stanley Kubrick owned the rights to the character he had created.
MGM turned out to be a piece o’ cake. You want to make a HAL commercial? Sure, be our guest. (Not quite that simple, but close.)
Stanley Kubrick was a potential deal-killer. His attorney informed us that Kubrick was very difficult to get a hold of. He only checked in when he wanted to, and he was currently in London, consumed by the post-production work on Eyes Wide Shut.
The attorney’s suggestion was that we put together a package explaining the project. He would send it to London, and if Kubrick was interested, he’d call back. There was no predicting how long this would take. It could be a week, or it could be months.
Well, any chance is better than no chance, we thought. So we set about the task of putting together a package to entice Stanley Kubrick into giving us his blessing.
We’d need to make a demo of the commercial as scripted. It was easy enough to create a slow move in on HAL’s eye, but doing the voice was a serious challenge. To save time, we went with the first HAL wannabe we could find. Embarrassingly, that would be me.
But we’d need more than a demo to make an impression on Kubrick. So we did what any hungry and obsessed ad agency would do. We made up a story that stretched the truth a bit. We created a cover letter and package presenting the HAL idea as an extension of our Think different campaign. Included was the Crazy Ones launch commercial and a collection of Think different billboards featuring people whose brilliance had changed the world.
The package went out. We dug in, wondering if and when we’d hear back from the unpredictable Kubrick. Then, surprise of surprises, we heard back in a matter of days. Kubrick had reviewed the package and given us his enthusiastic approval.
Good lord. Now we’d actually have to figure out how to do this.
With Kubrick’s approval, Steve was ready to go full speed ahead. As usual, he didn’t “direct” us to do anything. He trusted us to apply our skills, and only ask for help or opinion if needed.
There were only two main elements in this spot: the visual and the voice. But both were absolutely critical. Falling short in either effort would make the commercial useless.
Mark Coppos was the director behind our product commercials. He was a master of lighting and rigging, and could make any object look terrific. He was also a Mac enthusiast and a terrific guy. Easy decision there.
But what about the voice of HAL?
The obvious solution was to go with Douglas Rain, the original voice in the movie. The obvious problem was that in 1998, the classic film was already 30 years old.
We didn’t worry that he would turn us down, but we worried a lot that the voice wouldn’t be there anymore. So our producer came up with a plan.
She tracked Rain down to his Canadian home, where he spent his time doing community theater. She set up a phone call with Susan and I listening in. While they talked business, we’d try to assess his voice as best we could.
He actually sounded great, but that turned out to be moot. Rain was an angry man. He wasn’t at all interested in lending his talent to our cause. Somewhat agitated, he claimed that Apple had contacted him years before and he had told them “Never!” (This was news to everyone at the agency and at Apple.) He resented that we were intruding on him.
Our producer tried every argument she could. It was a Super Bowl ad, it was a brand ad that didn’t sell a product directly, and most important — Kubrick himself had given us the green light. But Rain was unmovable. He was an artist, and he didn’t stoop to doing commercials.
This created a problem, but not an insurmountable one. Surely Hollywood was brimming with talent who could do an admirable HAL.
Well, not so fast. We had a casting agent put out a call for HAL imitators, and the results were disappointing. Reel after reel came in, and a good HAL was harder to find than I thought.
In desperation, I continued to hone my own HAL imitation, going so far as to record it in a sophisticated studio where an engineer could enhance my voice as necessary. That didn’t go too well. (Another dream dashed.)
Then the good news. After listening to HAL auditions for hours on end, I found our man: Tom Kane. Tom was a major voice talent, having played the part of several characters in Star Wars video games, including C-3PO. So he had some solid experience in space.
He had (and still has) an amazing ability to capture the nuances that make voices sound totally real. He explained that an essential part of HAL’s voice was the slight touch of a Canadian accent. It hadn’t struck me, but Rain was indeed a Canadian actor, and even when playing a computer, elements of his accent came through.
Tom was not only a great talent, but he was a terrifically fun person to work with. Recording this commercial turned out to be the first of several HAL-related adventures we’d give him (as you’ll see later in this article). He would also become a voice talent in a number of Apple TV and radio spots to come.
I was so excited about Tom’s read that I couldn’t wait to play it for Steve, which I did in our next meeting. Steve listened a couple of times and said, “It doesn’t really sound like HAL, does it.”
“What??” I said. “It sounds exactly like HAL.” This was one of those times when Steve played the bad guy, but then changed his mind during the course of debate. Maybe it was my point about the Canadian accent that won him over. Whatever, by the time our meeting ended, Steve felt that Tom was a pretty good HAL after all.
So check that box. Now we just had to make it look good.
The resurrection of HAL
The Coppos production team could find a great way to shoot anything, and they were eager to sink their teeth into the HAL project. But HAL did present a number of challenges.
In the movie, HAL’s eye itself was a lens, and a most special lens at that. Had an “ordinary” lens been used, it wouldn’t have the same quality. Coppos rented a $100,000 lens to portray that menacing presence as Kubrick had done.
He even made sure that the reflections of fluorescent lights in the lens were property recreated. Lights of the right size were meticulously hung so they would reflect as they did in the movie.
Of course, Kubrick’s HAL eye didn’t exist in a vacuum. It was mounted on a wall, surrounded by displays monitoring various ship systems.
Though MGM granted permission to re-create the movie scene, it would not allow us to use the exact computer images that appeared in 2001 or its sequels. Coppos’s team had to create new computer animations that “felt” like the originals, but differed in significant details.
The style of the animations is so perfect, nobody ever accused us of not being faithful to 2001.
On one big sound stage (where we were actually filming other commercials at the same time), our HAL was set up in a small section to the side. Just a single wall, featuring HAL and his adjoining computer screens.
At the end of the day, when most of the stage lighting had been turned off, I sat there staring at HAL. I’m not the type who scares easily, but there was something very spooky about what Coppos had created.
I imagined I was in a horror film in which some innocents inadvertently brought a menacing presence to life. I felt like HAL’s eye might flicker back to life all by itself when nobody else was looking.
But hey, we all lived to tell the tale. HAL remained a perfect gentleman throughout.
To HAL or not to HAL
Even when we were filming HAL, we weren’t certain when and where it would run. Yes, Steve had originally suggested the Super Bowl, but he hadn’t yet seen the finished product. Minds can change.
Everyone on the agency team had poured their hearts into this production. No detail went unchallenged. You’d be surprised how passionately people can debate the nature and volume level of the “space hum” heard in the background.
I hand-carried the final version of HAL to our regular marketing meeting, where Steve had his first viewing. To our delight, he loved it even more than the original storyboard. Kane’s voice, Coppos’s craftsmanship and just the right touch of space hum were a perfect combination.
Steve was ready to put HAL on the Super Bowl on January 31st, 1999 — at a time when the press was heavily focused on the Y2K scare.
I was amazed, given how this spot came to be. It was born from Steve’s offhand suggestion, a flash in the night and a hastily drawn storyboard emailed to the CEO. There were no middlemen. (But then we never had middlemen when dealing with Apple’s advertising.)
But, as we know, all good things must come to an end. Before long, we realized that we had broken a cardinal rule of creative work: never give decision makers too much time to think.
At this point, the Super Bowl was still months away, so there was plenty of time for second thoughts.
Lee Clow, the agency’s hall-of-fame creative chief, started to question if HAL was too quiet for the Super Bowl. Would the beer-drinking crowd pause to listen, or would they need something with more visual excitement?
It was hard to argue. The Super Bowl is what it is. HAL had no loud music, or women in bikinis, or special effects to offer. All we had was a single slow-moving shot and an intelligent script.
So Lee gave us a new directive, with Steve’s blessing: let’s try to outdo ourselves. After all, there’s no harm in trying. Over a period of weeks, we generated many alternate ideas, but none felt like the killer spot Lee was hoping for.
One would think that the lack of a good replacement might clear the way for HALto get back on track, but such was not the case. The very fact that we were searching for a new spot seemed to diminish HAL‘s value. When the dust settled, it was decided that there would be no Super Bowl spot.
This, of course, was hugely depressing for all of us who had spent endless hours finessing our dear HAL.
The question now was: If not the Super Bowl, where does HAL go? Does he even fit anywhere?
With Macworld San Francisco looming at the start of January, a new idea struck: let’s use HAL as the show opener, putting the crowd in the mood before Steve takes the stage.
This was going to be an excellent Macworld, with Steve unveiling the Power Mac G3 and the five colors of the super-successful iMac.
Here is the HAL video again, this time in context of the show. The audience gives the spot a rousing reception and Steve Jobs is happy to have shared it.
But we didn’t stop there. If HAL wasn’t going to make it to the Super Bowl, then dammit, we’d help HAL expand his sphere of influence in other ways.
With the HAL video opening the show, it made sense to bring him back a little later as well — when Steve and Phil Schiller present the Power Mac G3. But this time, HAL could actually interact with Steve. How fun that would be.
So I wrote a new script, leaving spaces where Steve’s replies would be necessary. We brought Tom Kane back for a new read, and then re-cut the HAL footage to give it a different feel.
Soon after, I presented the finished idea to Steve. Ever the showman, he bought the idea instantly, seeing it as one more way to entertain the audience while delivering his news.
Unfortunately, there were a few little issues in the live performance. The backstage people didn’t hit the Play button quickly enough, leaving some dead space in which Steve and Phil could only stand and wait. And our timing guesses weren’t perfect, with the audience drowning out some of HAL’s lines near the end. But it was a nice treat for the crowd.
Here’s how it went down:
When it was over, HAL seemed to be history. Apple fans were downloading the video. The Super Bowl dream had ended.
But we all know that it’s never over until the fat lady sings.
Super Bowl or bust
Emboldened by the reaction of the live Macworld crowd and lots of positive comments floating around the internet, I sent Steve an email.
I remembered the story about the agency getting Steve to run the 1984 commercial on late-night TV somewhere in the Midwest before the end of 1983 so it could be entered into the 1984 award shows.
I hoped Steve would let us do the same thing. It would be good PR for the agency if we could win some awards, and HAL would need to make at least one TV appearance if we were to accomplish that. I told Steve it would be a shame to waste the good will HAL had generated.
Steve agreed. And then he added, “But what do you think? Would it be crazy to put it on the Super Bowl? Maybe we should.”
By the time that conversation was over, HAL was back on his feet, so to speak. He was headed to the Big Game, now just a few weeks away.
The icing on the cake would be the work done by the agency’s media chief, Monica Karo. Not only did she get us into the Super Bowl — she secured the best positioning in the entire game. HAL would be the first commercial after kickoff.
We also needed to preserve whatever surprise might be left. We pulled HAL from the Apple website and replaced it with a 10-second video. Clicking on the HAL image would now start a new message to the effect of: “I’m sorry, I’m not available right now. I’m busy getting ready for the Super Bowl.”
HAL struts his stuff
So, despite all the drama, and early attempts to tackle him, HAL had his run on the Super Bowl.
During the game, I found a website that provided instant ratings for Super Bowl ads based on real-time responses from groups equipped with voting devices. After the first hour, I looked to see how HAL was doing. As I went down the list, I saw it wasn’t in the top 10 … or 20 … or 30. Alas, poor HAL was mired in the #43 position.
Talk about the air being let out of one’s balloon.
However, that was just one site. Far better news came the following day. MSNBC offered up its critiques, naming HAL the most intelligent commercial on the Super Bowl. Another site rated HAL in its Top 10 of all. Clearly, HAL was no 1984, but he certainly had his moment.
Even more important, Steve Jobs was gleeful. The day after, he told me he was really happy that we did it, and that the investment was worth it. He was thankful that we all stuck with the idea.
He was also quite tickled by a phone call he received that very morning. Stanley Kubrick had called to congratulate Steve on the HAL commercial, and thanked him for doing such a good job with the HAL character.
I guess he liked the final HAL better than the version featuring my best imitation.
HAL’s second wind
Like the guest who wouldn’t leave, HAL actually made one more appearance before he hung up his lens.
It came at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference a few months later. Steve wanted to start his WWDC keynote with something fun, and felt that the developers in attendance were geeky enough that they’d enjoy a HAL reprise tailored for that audience.
One new script and a Tom Kane recording later, HAL was ready to for his encore. You can see Steve’s June 13, 1999 keynote here, which begins with the HAL video.
HAL didn’t exactly earn a place in history as one of the greatest Super Bowl ads. While every advertising or Apple enthusiast is familiar with 1984, I doubt that many even remember our 1999 effort.
The Super Bowl has evolved as an advertising event, and I’m not sure Apple will ever participate again. One could argue that it shouldn’t, for the same reason it doesn’t participate in the Las Vegas CES show. Yes, there is a vast audience, but there is also a very cluttered environment.
To me, though, the lesson of HAL isn’t about the Super Bowl. It’s about the advertising process. Some companies labor for months, with multiple levels of approvals, testing concepts and analyzing them to death, even testing the finished commercial before it airs.
For us, it was always a small team of creative people dealing directly with Steve. One level of approval. He was willing to hear our ideas any time, any place. He did not force us to follow a rigid process, even after we went into production. Few people were asked for an opinion outside the room of active participants.
Had it been any other way, neither HAL nor many other Apple efforts would ever have seen the light of day. That’s something I wish all advertisers would appreciate.
I hesitate to add anything else to what is now officially my longest post ever. But just one more thing. Go Falcons!
(Additional: we did a Y2K newspaper ad based on a headline submitted to Steve Jobs by Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Pretty sure I’ve shared it before, but it’s one of my favorites — so here it is again.)