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How whales took to United's friendly skies

Orca whales seem to swim in the friendly skies secure in the cabin of a water-filled jumbo jet in a new United Airlines commercial.

But nothing is what it seems in this arresting ad, which made its debut during the Winter Olympics telecast on CBS.

The whales are made of metal and plastic and move on computerized commands. The cabin is a scale model of the 747 models United uses to cross the Pacific. And the water in the cabin is only a smoky illusion.

The commercial is drawing mixed notices. Some viewers find it odd and disturbing. But others are enchanted. "A tour de force is what this is," wrote reviewer Bob Garfield in Advertising Age.

The ad was created for United by its longtime ad agency, Leo Burnett USA in Chicago, with a big technical assist from Boss Film Studios, a Los Angeles production house that worked on feature films such as Ghostbusters.

Roy Monaghan, the Burnett executive who wrote the commercial, and Bud Watts, another Burnett executive who directed the art for it, came up with the idea for the ad nine months ago.

"United wanted a commercial featuring its expansive 747 fleet," Monaghan recalled in a telephone interview last week. "They are big wonderful planes with plenty of room to get up and stretch on transoceanic flights."

Watts said the best transoceanic travelers he could think of were whales, and he drew a few scenes on how they could be used to illustrate that idea.

They presented the idea to United and got the go-ahead.

John Rukaak, vice president of advertising and promotion for the Chicago-based carrier, said the approach not only demonstrated the size and comfort of the planes, but also broke away from the typical airline approach to that message.

The sight of whales gracefully gliding through the cabin was something viewers were more likely to remember, he said.

There was concern some viewers might think the plane was underwater. To address that, the first scene in the ad shows the plane is clearly on the ground at a busy airport.

A whale is spied through a window and the camera moves inside to show two whales gliding above the seats in the main cabin, then drifting up a staircase to the second deck and back to the main cabin level again. One seat leans back after one whale brushes by it.

Monaghan said it was clear from the inception that live whales wouldn't do, as it would be all but impossible to control their moves or capture the action with a submerged camera.

"Besides, they don't speak the language that well," he joked.

But the ad makers wanted to make the ad look as real as possible, without any sign of trickery or exposed wires.

They hired Boss Film. They studied real whales' movements. And they built models of the cabin, seats, windows and whales to scale.

The 4-foot-long whales, weighing 70 pounds, had 10 motors inside. The moves were choreographed using a computer and photographed frame by frame. A single scene took six hours to shoot. The shooting was done at irregular intervals over more than three months.

Special machinery was used to produce smoke and keep it at a consistent density to make it appear the whales were moving through water.

George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, which has used for years as United's theme music, adds to the langorous feel of the ad.

Ruhaak declined to say how much United spent on the commercial, but he is happy with the reaction to date.

"It has caught the public's attention," he said.