A penny for your thoughts makes it very hard to get by in this economy.
A Tale of Two Shoots
Recently I was working on two ads that, as deadlines would have it, were filming within a week of each other. Beyond the fact they were both shoots and all the similarities that entails, they couldn’t have been more opposite ends of the style spectrum. Now they’re both on air and I’ve had a chance to catch up on my sleep (20-year-old location-drama floor-runner me would be embarrassed), here’s a brief comparison of the two.
First up was Heriot-Watt, a university in Edinburgh who wanted to get more applicants for their courses, having not advertised as much as their competitors in recent years. The brief had different elements they wanted to promote, including their heritage, range of courses and employability. Their current campaign is “Be Future Made,” which provided a good kicking off point. The client also had a strong idea of the kind of adverts he liked, inspiring, emotional and voiceover led. After a round of scripts, it became a little bit of A and a little of B, then we were swinging into production.
Heriot-Watt is an entire university and, therefore, huge. Meeting the client to discuss the script was so useful as it turned into a subterfuge recce, almost entirely informing the shot list. You never can know a client well enough until you get out and understand their world. We also firmed up the aims of the ad, to showcase the range of courses on offer - mostly scientific and engineering, but also including finance, social sciences and textiles, reference their international campuses in Dubai and Malaysia, and highlight the diversity of the students coming from a whole range of backgrounds. So, quite a lot to do in 30 seconds.
Time was always the concern on this job, trying to balance everything that needed to be included and in timescales that were not the most generous. Things that aided us were we obviously already had a location and in most cases it was pretty photogenic; Heriot-Watt had a group of student ambassadors we could use for filming, essential as we couldn’t have done it without them; and we assembled a good crew of seasoned pros able to work on the fly. To check the script was working I made an animatic from recce photos and internet images, along with my best epic VO, something I try to do for every job, and though quick, all was flowing fine.
In no time it was shoot day, a 06:15 call time to get to the location in Edinburgh. We had 10 unit moves around the campus to capture as many of the courses as possible, the shot list pruned from 40 to 25 shots and the production coordinator and runner had spent a day orienting themselves and making a movement order so we wouldn’t lose precious time getting lost in identical looking corridors like kids on the first day of high school.
The shooting style had to be as light as possible. Handheld, battery powered lights and everything needed to be set up in preparation for us arriving. When shooting in a well lit area, we dispatched the gaffer as a makeshift B Camera for pickup shots of exteriors, particularly during dry spells as the weather, of course, was nowhere near as cooperative as on the beautiful recce. The staff around the uni were a great help, setting up experiments, coding programs we needed and teaching a student how to operate heavy machinery. Phil (prod coord) and Barnum (runner) were terrific at keeping everything running and getting the students I was looking for where we needed them to be, myself not being able to see them before shooting (thanks GDPR). On Phil’s pedometer he clocked over 34,000 steps for the day, over 30km.
Not only did we get everything we were after, without having to compromise on quality, but we wrapped 10 minutes early, getting back into Glasgow at 20:30. With it all happening so fast it was hard to see the wood for the trees, but reflecting back that we got to film with lasers, lathes and a fist bumping robot, this was a particularly fun, interesting job. The client was a great help, throwing himself into it full heartedly, and I was delighted to hear that in the first week of running searches for Heriot-Watt increased by 600%. Plus I got to see it on the big screen (my first cinema ad) right where The Rock’s face would soon be in Hobbs & Shaw. Back pats all round.
Meanwhile, as all this was going on, another ad was in production for a client that has grown with us over the last 18 months, Carrington Dean. They were looking for a new branding ad that was to bring their new campaign, “Don’t let debt become your elephant in the room” to TV. For several reasons, timescales, the nature of the shoot and that I had only polished the script from someone else’s concept, I was to shadow the director on this one.
The idea behind this one was a woman in her house starts seeing elephants everywhere, as debt starts playing on her mind. Therefore pre-production was totally different, even discounting the lack of actual elephants. We had to do castings, art directing and location scouting, all of which had been provided on Heriot-Watt. This meant we had far more control over what the ad was going to look like, but also a lot of work in making it happen.
For this ad the main challenge to consider was tone. We didn’t want debt to seem trivial or to be made light of, even though loads of elephants suddenly appearing could easily be made funny, while at the same time not making it appear scary or insurmountable. The director did this by casting an actress with good expressions and timing, without going too large or comedic, and aiming for a more absurdist style.
Perhaps the most tangible difference between the two jobs was that while one was filming an entire uni campus, this was filmed almost exclusively in one room. While some of the crew was doing half marathons on Heriot-Watt, the only moving we were doing on Carrington Dean was from the living room set to the front door of the house we were using for some much needed fresh air; the 10 grown bodies, lights, smoke machine and summer sun (seems to always be nice when filming indoors…) creating quite the atmosphere.
To justify my presence on set, I appointed myself script supervisor, before also being asked to help as a 1st AD. This put me in the very contradictory position of saying, “Come on guys, we’re going to have to speed this up, we’re ten over, but also are you sure you got that, was the eyeline is maybe a bit off, should we do another one?” Being contained in one room meant more control over how everything would look, but naturally also led to procrastination and tinkering. Plus as this was one sequential scene, continuity was much more important, both for props and costume, but also the arc of setup, descent into elephants, and resolution.
As time got away, after spending more time on the key scenes/emotions, we started thinking creatively and logistically about what scenes were vital, if they could be cut/condensed, and if actions could be moved to where we already had a lighting setup. In a final deviation from my shoot the week before, we wrapped ten minutes over, both vastly different shoots having ended up filming around the same amount.
Post production on was equally different. Heriot-Watt looked much like my original animatic (though obviously much, much better), whereas a lot of experimentation went into Carrington Dean. Since it was building a narrative, it needed to tell the story in a very strict, short timescale. Ultimately the script ended up moving around, with payoffs becoming setups and full sequences cut to create a more cohesive ad. The sound sessions had totally contrasting priorities too, Heriot-Watt requiring a lot of direction on the driving voiceover while Carrington Dean built a soundscape of elephant roars as the cherry on the metaphor of debt.
Carrington Dean also got a great reception when it launched, the client telling us they had their busiest Monday/Tuesday ever (this from a company whose staff we made work weekends after a previous ad campaign - they must love us), and imagery from the shoot is popping up on billboards around the country. The client is lovely, and puts a lot of stock in our advice, so great to see them continue to have great results with us.
It’s the old waiting on a bus thing, we might not have a shoot for months then two come along in a week. But what is always the case is the clients and the jobs are never the same, each one bringing its own challenges and solutions. The great thing about this job is you never know what will come across your desk. Next up I’m filming a toilet getting interviewed.
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