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19 Birds, 36 Feet of Blue Material, and Only One Camera
A How-to Guide to Corralling Penguins for a “Spaghetti Western” Commercial

Chattanooga, Tenn. (July 18th, 2007) – “How did you get that penguin to ride up the escalator at the Tennessee Aquarium?”

That’s one of the most asked questions the Aquarium has been getting since the latest Penguins’ Rock commercial began airing.

An Idea Hatches
The challenge for this :30 second commercial was letting viewers know the Tennessee Aquarium is home to some awesome looking and fun penguins while showcasing some of the other amazing animals and exhibits at the same time. Greg Newberry, writer and director from Animal Instinct Advertising, came up with the “Spaghetti Western” concept. “This was one of the most challenging shoots we’ve ever done. Although the commercial looks like a penguin ‘hombre’ is walking through the Aquarium and checking out the various exhibits as the new guy in town, he never actually left his exhibit,” says Newberry. Sub-Antarctic penguins like gentoos and macaronis must stay in their climate controlled environment, so a special technology was used to give the illusion our black and white buckaroo was wandering around both the River Journey and Ocean Journey buildings.

Basic Blue, Black and White
From the earliest days of television weather to Hollywood’s latest version of Spiderman 3, the “blue screen” technology has allowed viewers to see meteorologists appearing in front of maps, and Tobey Maguire swinging on a thread as Spidey. Now you can also see a gentoo penguin checking out some of the fun things that the Tennessee Aquarium has to offer. But having a blue screen and group of lively penguins is one thing. Getting them together, adding lights and a camera is another.

Blue Is Not My Color – Or Is It?
One week before filming was to begin Atomic Films in Chattanooga delivered 15 feet of blue screen material to Aquarium penguin keeper Amy Graves. Amy placed the material in the back-up room where most of the commercial would be filmed so the penguins could get used to the new blue floor covering. “It took a couple of days before any of the penguins would even touch the blue. They would stretch their necks out and look at it, but they wouldn’t actually touch it. At the end of the second day one penguin finally went in, touched it and turned back around and headed out,” remembers Graves. But penguins like to play follow the leader, so once the “ice was broken” the rest seemed to think nothing of wandering into the back-up room and walking around on the blue material.

Lights, Camera, (and Hopefully) Plenty of Action!
There’s an old saying about leading a penguin to the blue screen, but you can’t make him act. Actually that’s just been made up, but there is a real saying in Hollywood that urges filmmakers never to work with children or animals. Cinematographer and co-owner of Atomic Films, Bobby Stone, reports filming these birds was cool. “Shooting blue screen requires very precise lighting. And we were working in a very small space that had to be kept at 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Despite the challenges the penguins were a joy to work with. They are just about as cute and lovable as any animal could be. Amy was very helpful in getting the penguins to ‘act’ for us,” says Stone. The penguins were filmed from several different angles and elevations with the gentoos and macaronis walking toward and away from the camera, as well as side to side in front of the lens.

No Penguins Were Harmed
Penguins have a natural curiosity that helped guide them into the makeshift studio. A penguin keeper with a pan filled with their favorite fish helped any reluctant “actors” hit their marks. Graves was impressed with the way all of the birds responded to all of the new elements. “The thing I liked the most about it was we didn’t stress the birds. We left the keeper door to the exhibit open at all times. That way the penguins were able to come and go as they pleased during the entire shoot.” “We filmed both gentoos and macaronis and had actually hoped to use the macs because of their unique look,” says director Greg Newberry. “But at the end of the day, the cute little gentoos were more animated and gave the better performance. After this, they’ll probably want agents, their own trailer and caviar instead of smelt.”

That’s A Wrap
Once the penguin blue screen filming was complete, the various galleries at the Tennessee Aquarium were filmed on the second day of the shoot. Background scenes of the toothy sharks, alligators, butterflies and leafy sea dragons were carefully set up and shot from angles that would match the penguin action in the foreground. Each location had to have special lighting and coordinated action such as releasing butterflies into the scene.

Now Add a Little Magic
The rest of the magic was performed in the editing suite where the birds were electronically dropped in front of the Aquarium scenes. But just placing them in the scene at the correct angle and perspective wouldn’t make the penguins look realistic enough. Command X Digital Media had to add lighting details and shadows with the computer during the editing process. “For instance, you can see our little hombre’s shadow when he enters the building or walks past the doormen. And especially check out the reflection of his beak on the glass when he looks at the gator,” says Newberry. All of those special effect magic tricks used during the editing process add to the realism.

Finished With an Original Score
Like all great western movies, our little hombre needed the perfect musical soundtrack to set the mood. The “spaghetti western” music was created at Sound Images. Hopefully this new ad will not only entertain, but also inspire people to come to the Tennessee Aquarium to check out “the good, the bad and the ugly” of the natural world. Fortunately, pardner, Chattanooga is a big enough town for both of us….gentoos and macaronis.

Video, images and more about the making of this commercial >>


The Tennessee Aquarium inspires wonder and appreciation for the natural world. Admission is $19.95 per adult and $10.95 per child, ages 3-12. Each ticket purchased helps support Aquarium conservation programs. The IMAX® 3D Theater is next door to the Aquarium. Ticket prices are $7.95 per adult and $5.50 per child. Aquarium/IMAX combo tickets are $24.95 for adults and $14.95 for children. Advance tickets may be purchased online at or by phone at 1-800-262-0695. The Aquarium, located on the banks of the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, is a non-profit organization. Open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas, the Aquarium and IMAX are accessible to people with disabilities. Members enjoy unlimited visits and other benefits. Call 267-FISH to join.

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