Calabrio HELP on Call

By Barbara Goldman

Creating images that are not real but have believability is the trademark of Minneapolis-based photographer Curtis Johnson. Johnson loves the process of creating something in many different pieces and then watching it all come together. His is a style that is not overly caricatured or even manipulated − humorous and a touch of whimsy may be the best way to describe it.  Johnson has been a winner of numerous awards, including the CA Photo Annual, Archive 200 Best, CA Ad Annual, Graphis, One Show, CLIO Award and a Kelly Award winner.
Recently Johnson was approached by Creative Director Steve Mitchell, Writer Doug Adkins and Art Buyer/Producer Rich Gonzales of ad agency Hunt Adkins, also of Minneapolis, Minnesota, to help them with a new project for their client Calabrio.  And the word “help” is truly operative here. Calabrio is a company that specializes in workforce-optimization software for call centers, including call recording, quality management, workforce management and speech analytics. Hunt Adkins came to Johnson as they have had a very good working relationship over the years. Both agency and photographer are known for bringing a unique and innovative approach to solving their clients’ marketing issues.

Johnson loves viewing things from an overhead perspective and the Calabrio project became all about perspective. The concept had to show a call center that was in need of help, a center that needed Calabrio software.  It was an extremely technical and visual project that required a major amount of pre-production to ensure all the pieces would all come together in the end.

For this campaign campaign, CD Steve Mitchell was inspired in part by the work of Aneta Grzeszykowska and Jan Smaga   The Polish photographic duo are known for their bird's eye view of images that investigate a space. They had done a series of photos of small apartments that look as though the ceilings were taken off. They achieved this effect by taking dozens of photos from above and then merging them together. 

The concept for Calabrio was a visual that had to represent a call-in center that is not utilizing Calabrio software. The obvious feature of the room would be the configuration of the cubicles to spell out "HELP." The less obvious would reflect the inattentiveness of the employees. Many are daydreaming, asleep at their desk or socializing with fellow employees. It is just another typical day in the life of a call-in center yet unbeknownst to them they are clearly sending a message.

This was an extremely challenging shoot from the technical and logistical side of the production. There were  several different words and messages with symbols that were needed to create all of the various headlines for the campaign.  “We needed 19 different letters and symbols to accomplish this. I spent a few days creating our letter and cubicle configurations using schematics and sketches I made,” says Johnson.  By using the individual cubes as the building blocks for the letters, Johnson was able to simplify things down to four different cube configurations that were built to allow him to create all of the letters and symbols needed.  Letters like H, E and L were easy. Letters such as X and W were a different story.  “Logistically, we needed a studio space with 35- foot ceilings to achieve a camera perspective that gave us a ‘parallax neutral’ image,” explains Johnson. A perspective that presented minimal distortion was extremely challenging. Johnson considered an airport hanger and eventually found a studio space that was perfect.

However, since it was not in the budget to build a room set full scale, fill it with custom cubicles, place a person at every cube and shoot it from a helicopter, Johnson and team had to opt for a more budget friendly method.  With this in mind, Johnson would shoot individual work cubicles, but this required a set with a very tall ceiling. “I had hoped that Curtis would have to hang 40 feet in the air from a flimsy harness but he got away with just mounting the camera up there and operating it remotely,” adds Mitchell.

Shooting various one- and two-person cube configurations they were able to capture enough variations of people and cubes to pull it off.  In the end, they shot 50 people with four different cube-desk configurations.  Johnson also worked with well-known, Minneapolis-based producer Sally Mars, and she along with Johnson’s crew all put in three long days to get the project to completion. Retouching by Erik  Pawassar  at Jellysquare also brought the whole thing together and was very instrumental even before shooting. Jellysquare contributed great and very creative ideas to simplify the production and the post work needed.  Each person at his or her cube and the individual sitting across from them is basically one shot with numerous layers to create the final image.

The other logistical issue was creating enough variety in the talent so that there were no duplications in any of the final images. They achieved this by using the 50 chosen people and then changed their hair styles and wardrobe at least three to four times for the varied effect.  As Mitchell attests to Johnson’s work “In order to accommodate the many people needed to fill all the chairs we redressed everyone several times to give them a unique look. Curtis is in there too. He's the 70s German pop star/call center manager that's strutting around. All in all it was quite a mathematical shoot. The many cubicle configurations had to be shot perfectly so that they could be retouched together into a legible word. My hat is off to Curtis for pulling the many aspects of this shoot together.” 

Calabrio’s HELP campaign is being used as print ads and as a Web microsite that has many interactive features tied to it. The microsite is where many of the various word and message configurations come into play and can be seen in all their detail at

“Thankfully the people at Hunt Adkins were able to sway their client from going with illustration on this one,” says Johnson.  Anyone could have done this as an illustration but. only a photographer of Johnson’s caliber could actually shoot it and pull it off.  Seeing is believing, and you can see more of Curtis Johnson’s vision, humor and peculiar slant on life at

Client: Calabrio
Agency: Hunt Adkins - Creative Dir.: Steve Mitchell, Writer: Doug Adkins, Art Buyer/Producer: Rich Gonzales
Photographer: Curtis Johnson


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