Nikita Mishra
Nov 30, 2023

Jolin Tsai joins McDonald’s Taiwan in a nostalgic and innovative 40th anniversary campaign

EXCLUSIVE: Leo Burnett dabbled with AI, got a C-pop queen to compose a rhythmic soundtrack, and used Taiwan's biggest virtual studio for an ambitious 40th-anniversary film. McDonald's Asia CMO Brenda Kou and the creative team explain their thoughts behind the process.

If fast food had a love language, it would be McDonald’s. The sizzle of the fat, the burst of flavour, the thrill of salt-dusted indulgence—the 'Americanness' with a local twist. 40 years ago, McDonald’s marched into Taiwan and like everywhere else the fast-food giant has laid its foundations, it successfully etched a fellowship with the sesame bun.

40 years is a true milestone. One that McDonald’s Taiwan wasn’t going to let pass unnoticed. To commemorate the occasion, the marketing team led by Brenda Kou—former Taiwan vice president of integrated marketing group and now, the regional CMO for the Asia business unit—has prepared a bevy of activities. The centerpiece is a 1:35-minute film that spans four decades, beginning in 1984—the year McDonald’s Taiwan first opened its doors. It features the ‘Queen of Chinese-pop’ Jolin Tsai, who has sold over 25 million records to date. But the star-studded affair is not even the coolest part.

That would be the use of a virtual studio for production, where the audience might think they know where the actors are; the actors see their surroundings, but the surroundings aren’t actually there. So, where are the actors? “They can be anywhere,” quips Benjamin Tzang, Leo Burnett Taiwan’s executive creative director, who worked on the campaign along with chief executive and chief creative officer Kevin Yang.

Or nowhere at all.

“When the lights turn on, you realise you’re not in an actual set but in a room with a giant LED wall,” Tzang continues.

“We needed to build a set that is extensive, spans four decades and five different eras. And build this effectively, build it fast. A lot of the Happy Meal designs that we use in the campaign aren’t accessible anymore. That’s why we decided to tap into generative AI and use the virtual studio,” Tzang continues.  

Before we delve into the nitty gritty of virtual productions and what makes the tech in this campaign quite cool, watch the behind-the-scenes film to quell your curiosity.

Simply put, a virtual studio is a cutting-edge, budget-savvy innovator that blends live-action and CG imagery so actors can see their surroundings, such as a forest or a desert, but the surroundings aren’t actually there. All of it is just LED screens displaying backgrounds pre-made in a video game engine. So immersive and real is the experience, that actors no longer have to imagine their surroundings in front of a green screen, or place backgrounds in post-production. Directors and the crew can see it live and in action for themselves. To give you an idea, the virtual set constructed for season one of ‘The Mandalorian’ was 75 feet in diameter and 21 feet high, along with a ceiling composed of LEDs. Look at the photo below for reference.

Virtual production was already coming down the pipeline before Covid, the global shutdowns and lockdowns were a big boost for the tools and techniques to mature. Disney’s ‘The Mandalorian’, where actors roam in different galaxies without leaving the studio, was an early adopter. Incorporating real-time effects—so no more static scenes or inserting background magic, and post-production making impactful use of a LED stage allowed them to swipe away the 2022 Emmys in VFX and cinematography categories.

So, how is this different from the humble green screen, we ask? Leo Burnett’s CEO and CCO Kevin Yang explains that with a green screen, the CG backdrop was added in post-production, but now with the help of software that’s come out of the gaming sector like Unity and Unreal, artificial backgrounds can be added whilst the filming takes place.

“Actors don’t have to imagine the scene in their head anymore. That’s just one benefit,” Yang says. With fewer staff of the sets and a complete control over the environment (spatial or weather), it’s now possible to breathe life into worlds that were previously challenging, he explains. There’s the added bonus of cutting down on travel and set construction costs, and the innate ability to allow immediate location swapping are all other major advantages.

“Production is both a science and an art, and the latest technology offers some interesting solutions for brand marketers when storytelling in film. Virtual production solves many challenges that filmmakers and producers are used to facing. For example, it provides perfect replicas of outdoor landscapes so any producer can dictate the schedule, instead of natural light or weather,” says McDonald’s Kou.

The idea of being able to deliver Hollywood-quality content without a massive budget is an attractive proposition. LED screens move with the camera’s eyes and Leo Burnett’s ECD Tzang highlights that the revolutionary benefit to them was the realistic, dynamic, and uniform light transitions throughout filmmaking.

The concept behind ‘Simple Happiness’ is to create a “happiness time-machine and revisit the memorable moments of simple happiness over the past 40 years,” says Kou.

Behind-the-scenes from the film

The film traverses through villages and cityscapes with the nostalgic embrace of McDonald’s leaping from 1988 when the first Happy Meal was launched through to 2024.

For the same, the team meticulously recreated the iconic Happy Meal packaging that wasn’t available in the physical form anymore with the help of AI and image restoration technology. The use of a virtual studio is notably a first in Taiwan. Director Hsiao Ya-chuan describes the process of creating distinct settings with 3D modeling and large LED screens for greater control, flexibility and stimulation. The lighting transitions that Tzang is talking about are authentic and smooth over the reconstructed eras shown in the film—something which is hard to match in post-production in a green screen.

“We have a ‘test and learn’ approach at the brand. Just like doing anything for the very first time, shooting in a Virtual Studio requires a mindset change from the whole team. And onboarding and engaging the team is critical: they are going to embark on a new journey that will require extensive testing and problem solving along the way,” quips Kou.

Reckitt Benckiser Group—owner of the Dettol, Durex and Finish brands—recently announced that most of its marketing production projects will move to virtual production. The phenomenon is catching on, but for medium-ticket or small players, the initial investment in a virtual set like McDonald’s in Taiwan is huge. However, the creatives involved here claim the logistical and operational savings can make the investment worth it.

And for a brand with a heritage like McDonald’s, creating a replica of a nostalgic restaurant from 30 or 40 years ago became so much easier,” says Kou

As with any new innovation, there is this fear that virtual screens constrict or negatively hinder creativity. The creative team behind this project who’ve actually tried the technology feel otherwise.

“There are challenges. We encountered several. Like achieving the perfect interplay of light and shadow through the eras, simulating outdoor sunlight within an indoor studio, and ensuring seamless harmony between the 3D scenes on the LED screen and the physical set’s lighting. It was all formidable for our technical team,” says ECD Tzang.  

“Additionally, the on-set studio has thousands of precise sensors, creating a highly sensitive environment. Even a minor issue in a small area can lead to a system shutdown, which would require a reboot and restart of the entire process. Therefore, in preparation for the formal shoot, the entire team devoted approximately three days to continuous trial shoots, adjusting and fine-tuning with the entire studio setup. But when used properly, you are only restricted by your imagination,” he adds.

And what creative wouldn’t love to see their imagination on screen instead of being killed in pre-production?

Well, to that we can sing: ‘I’m lovin' it.’ 

Jolin’s song, “OH LA LA LA”, will be released on Spotify in early 2024.  

CREDITS 'Simple Happiness' 

Client: McDonald’s Taiwan 

CMO, Asia Business Unit: Brenda Kou
CMO/AVP, Integrated Marketing Group, Taiwan: Cindy Lin
Director, Integrated Marketing Group, Taiwan: Gloria Li 

Agency: Leo Burnett Taiwan 

CCO: Kevin Yang
ECD: Benjamin Tzang
CD: Ariel Liu
ACD: Jenny Hsu
ACD: York Tsai
AAD: Paian Huang
Strategy VP: Roger Hong
Strategy Manager: Lily Kuo
Account VP : Ruby Shen
Account Director: Nicole Lin
Account Manager: Kart Jian
Account Executive: Xuan Tan
Producer: Evans Kao 


Production House: Milk & Honey 
Director: Hsiao Ya-chuan 

Song & music video: 

Composer, Songwriter & Talent: Jolin Tsai 

Campaign Asia

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