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Happy meal deal: two Indiana firms pull off a design project the "big boys' wouldn't touch.

Kennie Hill couldn't help being proud and a bit astounded every time he walked under the Golden Arches last month.

Right there -- on the McDonald's service counter and in the hands of kids all over the restaurant -- were pieces of his artwork. The burger giant could have picked any of the nation's big design firms to create its Nintendo Super Mario Bros. 3 Happy Meal boxes and promotional materials, and the job wound up in the hands of two burgeoning central Indiana companies. Who wouldn't be proud of such a coup?

Meridian Design Studio Inc. in Indianapolis -- of which Hill is president -- and Bean Graphics Inc. in Greenwood got the job because they had computer graphic capabilities that many of the national biggies either didn't have or weren't willing to use for the right price. The Super Mario Bros. images seen on the boxes and countertop displays were lifted right out of a videotape of the Nintendo game itself and manipulated on a computer screen to create the Happy Meal puzzles, mazes and games. The companies believe it's the first time such a process has been used to create promotional packaging and displays.

The whole idea was to try to get the feel of the video game itself,' Hill explains. There's a certain look and feel to it and that's what they were trying to capture."

Sam Bean, president of Bean Graphics, admits the project might have been much simpler had McDonald's and Nintendos imply asked an artist to draw the boxes. But, he says, that wouldn't do. It would look like it had been drawn. You can tell the difference between characters that are drawn and the ones that we pulled from the game.'

So the firms took the more complicated and innovative approach. They started with a videotape of the Super Mario Bros. 3 Nintendo game being played by an expert -- who, incidentally, was so adept at the game that he made it last about eight hours. Bean Graphics and Meridian Design Studio were provided with a 3/4-inch tape of the game, which they took to the indianapolis video production firm Telematrix inc. to transfer to a Beta format. From that tape, Bean was able to "capture" images for use on the boxes and promotional materials. Though he has such capabilities in his Greenwood shop, he opted to use Telematrix's computer system for the job.

Basically, the box art is a couple of pieces of art from different frames of the game,' Bean says. For the Desert Land box, for instance, we took a piece of ground from the game and extended it across the panel. We took a pyramid and enlarged it. Kennie did art direction as I created artwork on the computer.' Besides being able to manipulate the pictures in terms of size, the designers were able to change colors and perspective to yield special three-dimensional effects. They wound up with designs for four individually themed boxes along with countertop displays.

Bean, Hill and Meridian's Lou Byer were guided by sketches from Frankel & Co., the Chicago-based promotional company for McDonald's. They tried to get as much artwork as they could directly from the game, though the computer process wasn't able to make Mario do everything Frankel wanted him to do. There were a couple of poses that weren't in the video itself, so we had to generate some art, too,' Hill says.

As popular as video games and fast-food kids' meals are, no one apparently had ever tried to create a meal box in this manner. Most of these types of pieces are either straight-line drawings or airbrush,' Hill explains. There hadn't been anyone taking video games and pulling scenes out and making them into designs.'

But, says Bean, such 'image grabbing' is becoming more and more common in a variety of business applications that one might see as, well, a little more serious than Happy Meals. For instance, Bean Graphics captured images from a tape of a medical ultrasound procedure for a doctor who was giving a presentation. And one woman recently was preparing a business presentation using videotape, then decided to use slides instead. Bean was able to make slides from scenes she had already videotaped, saving her the trouble of starting over from scratch.

Meridian Design Studio has done other unusual projects, such as giving some Indianapolis Metro buses customized paint jobs for advertisers such as Steak n Shake, so Hill knows what it's like to do something fun and different at work. But the Happy Meal project was his firm's first truly large-scale consumer packaging program, and he's hoping it can lead to other such projects in the future. "I think this is going to be a real boost for us.'

Another boost, of course, is the prestige of completing a national project for the world's biggest hamburger chain. It's the most widely distributed work the firms have done in their short history -- Meridian Design Studio opened in 1986, while Bean Graphics was founded in 1987. As Bean is pleased to note, Two small companies in indiana pulled off what the supposed big boys could not.'

And while most children beam about their parents' work anyway, the Happy Meal deal has made Hill even more of a hero in the eyes of his 7- and 10-year-olds. My kids have fun telling their friends that their Dad worked on those boxes. There are quite a few Happy Meal boxes lying around the house.'

It's also a good ego booster for Hill. "I found myself going in there and standing back and saying Wow!' It's very exciting to have your packages in every McDonald's across the country.'
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Title Annotation:Media & Marketing; Meridian Design Studio Inc.; Bean Graphics Inc.
Author:Kaelble, Steve
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Date:Oct 1, 1990
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