How Ohio Crafted the Perfect Visualization of Why Social Distancing Works

Real Art's Andy Nick describes the shoot

There have been dozens of PSAs in recent weeks about how social distancing can halt the spread of coronavirus. But none have visualized the value of giving each other space as clearly and memorably as the 30-second spot below, released this week by the Ohio Department of Health.

The video features dozens of mousetraps and Ping-Pong balls being used as a metaphor for how the virus spreads like a chain reaction among humans—indeed, an explosive chain reaction when people are gathered in crowds.

Dayton agency Real Art crafted the spot, which you can see here:

Flatten The Curve

Andy Nick, design director and video team lead at Real Art, directed the spot. He tells Muse that helping the state of Ohio with its messaging around public health and safety has been the agency's focus since the COVID-19 pandemic started.

For the latest spot, Arundi Venkayya, chief communications officer at the Ohio Department of Health, didn't give the agency a specific brief beyond communicating the value of social distancing. 

Chris Wire, CEO of Real Art, who founded the agency in 1993, had the idea to visualize a 1950s-era "nuclear fission" experiment with mousetraps, but apply it to the spread of a virus. (Disney famously used the mousetrap metaphor in its 1957 film "Our Friend the Atom.") Wire also envisioned the PSA having the kind of simple, powerful messaging of the famous "This is your brain on drugs" PSA from the '80s. 

"That was the entire pitch," says Nick. "All the details had yet to come, but the core was strong enough to get the project greenlit."

To respect social distancing themselves, the agency used a core team of just a few people to execute the spot—three people on the first day of shooting, five people on the second: director of photography Philip Heiss, producer Alison Westfall and IT specialist Cody Curtis, in addition to Wire and Nick.

They shot at a theater owned by Dayton Live, the city's performing arts association and another Real Art client. "Not only did they allow us to set up shop, they gave us access to their stage lighting. Huge bonus," says Nick.

We asked Nick a few more questions about the shoot itself:

Muse: It must have been crazy setting up that initial shot.

Andy Nick: I like to make a clear distinction between "pressure" and "stress." I'm under pressure a lot at Real Art, but it's rare that I'm under real stress. But setting up 500 traps myself—and then placing a Ping-Pong ball on each one—that was straight stress. The first day, we only got one shot. It took our entire eight-hour shoot day just to set everything up one time. I caused a minor chain-reaction midday that set us back by an hour or more. As if I wasn't nervous enough.

That night, we decided we needed to change plans. I wrote a proper shot list for the next day, with very specific time windows for each setup. We built smaller grids of traps, focused on close-ups and chaos, and also captured some of the signature "ball drop" moments.

The second setup, with the traps spaced apart, must have been easier. How did you get the ball not to hit any of the traps?

Another thing we decided after day 1 was that it was just too dangerous working with live mousetraps that could cause a chain reaction. Our schedule no longer had room for error. And so, we made the call to freeze all our traps with super-glue at noon, after we had all our "explosion" shots. With the traps frozen, we could move them around quickly, build new configurations without fear of chain-reactions, and most importantly, we could throw a ball through our "distanced" setup without worrying about hitting a trap.

That said, I based our setup around the idea that it would be impossible to make the perfect throw the first time. And guess what? We made the perfect throw the first time.

Truthfully, though, even though we had a great first throw, we filmed a lot of options. Several people have pointed out that the first ball to drop came straight down, and in the distanced shot, it was thrown sideways. We tried dropping the ball straight down, but it didn't have the same impact as a strong directional throw, where every bounce feels like it could hit a trap.

The spot has gotten such a great reception. Is that because it's such a clear metaphor?

Our client was really brave to let us convey a message with this much importance with a metaphor. If you watch the final video, but you stop it halfway through ... what value did it have? It didn't relate to COVID-19. It didn't promote social distancing. It didn't even name the Ohio Department of Health.

Arundi and her team trusted us to make something that was stunning before it was meaningful. And we pushed ourselves to make sure that the payoff was worth it. We're really glad that people have responded well to it.

Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd was editor in chief of the Clio Awards and editor of Muse by Clio from 2018 to 2023.

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