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Heat magazine (3-9 April 1999)
Flat Eric: King of the World
He came into our lives in the passenger seat of a Chevrolet Chevelle nodding along to the radio and taking the odd draw on his fizzy drink. And now he's a national obsession. We profile the phenomenon that is Flat Eric
Who's Flat Eric?
A puppet that features in the TV adverts for Levi's Sta-Prest. He's had the British media in thrall ever since heat ran the first UK article on him at the end of February. Junior Boy's Own's Robin Turner is Eric's biggest fan. "It started as a word of mouth thing," he tells us. "I got some of the badges from the Levi's shop and then within a week or so it went m~d. It says everything about 1999. You've got the choice between Damon Albarn going on about his broken heart, or a yellow puppet. They're both muppets and I know what one I want. The fact that you can't actually buy a Flat Eric makes it all the better. There again, I'm sure we'll be bored shitless in six months and on to the next thing."
Why the name?
Eric's creator, video director/ musician Quentin Dupieux (aka Mr Oizo) says, "He's called at because he is. Well, his head is! Me and the creative people at !he Levi's ad agency (Bartle Bogle egarty) chose Eric because it is such an international name." One early idea for the ad involved Eric's head getting crushed flat by a car wheel.
When did he become a star?
After he appeared in the Levi's Sta-Prest advert. The ad was launched to a select group of fashion hacks in Jermyn Street restaurant Sartoria in February, just after Paris fashion week. Steve Coogan hosted. The ads broke on TV the week after and word of mouth did the rest.
How did the ad come about?
Quentin had shown F Communications boss Laurent Garnier a film he'd made featuring a puppet, Stephane, set to his own music. "Laurent knew people at BBH who were looking for the concept for a new Levi's ad. They saw one of my films with my puppet in it and really liked it. Three months later I was in LA shooting with lots of money."
"Well, the ad cost about two to three million francs whereas my original short film was only 15,000 francs (£1,500)," says Quentin.
How long did it take to shoot?
About three days. There were three puppeteers who moved Eric. There was always someone in the back of the car, controlling him and "when the cameras weren't rolling we'd mess about making up different voices for Eric," the ad's co-star Phillipe Petit (Angel) tells heat. "It was like being with a human actually because the puppeteer was so funny with silly voices for Eric."
Has this sold any more trousers?
It's too early to say but falling sales of Levi's (down 13 per cent) meant they had to look to other lines like Sta-Prest for growth.
Who made him?
The Jim Henson company (the people behind Kermit The Frog). "When they first made him he looked too much like Kermit," says Quentin Dupieux. "He had a rounded body which FE isn't supposed to have. It took 15 days to make him and the second puppet was too tall-he was like a small child and he wasn't funny. FE has to be little and small to be laughable, so I said no to number two. The third or fourth time he was just about right. He had to be redesigned several times before he created the same mood and feeling that I had with my first, original puppet Stephane."
How's Eric different from Stephane?
"Flat Eric can move his hands and Stephane can't. Flat Eric doesn't have ears, my hand puppet does," says Quentin.
How big is Eric?
About two feet tall in his Reebok Classics.
Does he have a nickname?
Flat. No, honestly.
What's he made of?
He is very complex in his makeup. Six different fabrics, including fake fur and fleece.
Is he flameproof?
Unfortunately not. He hates it if you smoke near him.
Don't even think about it.
Has he been around lonq?
Stephane has been around for three years. Flat Eric was made specifically for the Levi's ad.
Does he speak?
No, but he does squawk.
What's the connection with the record?
Not much other than that he's helped a techno record that sounds like a wasp buzzing round the inside of your head sell 100,000 copies, when otherwise it would have sold far less.
How do you describe the music?
"I call it dirty house because it's home-made music. I make it in a really simple way," says Quentin. "I only use three keyboards, a sampler, a drum machine and a computer. It sounds rough and cheap." Who's buyinq the record? HMV Oxford Street's James Reeves tells us, "As broad a mix you can imagine. It's businessmen on their lunch break, clubbing types and kids."
How did a puppet become such a star?
Developmental psychologist Dr Brian Young says, "Most of the theories on the impact of advertising concentrate on the impact an ad has on an individual and their relationship with that commercial. In the case of a cult figure like Eric, however, the conventional rules break down and a more post-modern approach is appropriate. What you find is that young people in particular construct their own reality and codes of behaviour, applying separate values to things in the world around us all. This ad neatly slots into that. In adopting Flat Eric, it becomes something they and their friends have discovered and achieves something of the role of a private language or signal between them. That is how cult figures are created." Wow! We thought he just reminded people of the teddy bear they had as a kid.
Was he "difficult" when it came to photographing him?
No, but his "people" were. Eric arrived ae the shoot in a cardboard box with a bevy of minders. heat's photographer couldn't shoot him below the waist lest readers see the metal rod that's stuck up his backside. Nor would they allow him to appear with champagne, a cigar or sunglasses. "He only consumes his soft drink Wizz and that's in LA," said a minder. He did, however, seem to enjoy heat's Oscars coverage.
What's he turned down?
Absolutely everything. heat is one of only two magazines in the world who've been allowed to photograph him.
Are there more ads?
"There's an old saying in the West. `If you flick a dime up into the air, pull out your six shooter, fire and you hit it, don't try it again'," says Flat Eric. We think he means no. However, the agency say they're contracted to work on another campaign in August.
So where can we see him meanwhile?
Surf the web. There you'll find unscreened adverts and a nifty "Alan Smithee" video featuring our yellow furry friend dancing around in the royal carriage.
Is there merchandise we can buy?
Only badges and posters so far but you won't find them in the shops. They were given away free and now the badges are fetching as much as £20 on the black market. A Levi's spokeswoman says, "We make clothes, not toys." We've managed to get our hands on a whole bunch of posters and badges to give away.
Is he rich?
Quentin and actor Phillipe Petit were paid a flat (inevitably) rate for the shoot, though Quentin is raking it in on the single. As for our nylon friend, do puppets have banks?
Is there Going to be an album?
Yes, it's called Analog Worms Attack and it's released by F Communications later this year