John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace, tells LBB’s Alex Reeves about the many twists, turns and moments of luck that have made its recent animated campaigns so impactful
Watching the exquisitely crafted animated films that have formed a central pillar of Greenpeace’s campaigning in recent years, you might assume that every step was meticulously planned by some singular mastermind.
Back in 2018, the environmental campaigning organisation shifted the dial on products containing palm oil with Rang-tan - a phenomenal work of animated storytelling courtesy of Passion Pictures. In the last few days it followed up with a sequel featuring another furry animated star - Jag-wah, animated by Cartoon Saloon - that hopes to make a similar impact on the global conversation around industrial meat production. In between the two, Greenpeace also worked with a third legendary animation studio, Aardman, to tell a story of a family of turtles that broke hearts around the world.
So who’s behind this great orchestration to leverage the best global talent in animation to further the earth-saving messaging of Greenpeace? Ultimately, the buck stops at Greenpeace executive director John Sauven. But although he could easily say he “came up with this brilliant idea in the bathtub” and then just executed it exactly how he envisioned it, he insists this successful run was nothing quite so strategic.
In fact, most of the journey was a series of serendipitous moments, drawing on a vast reservoir of goodwill. It began with a donation and an open brief. “We basically got a promise from a donor that they would fund something big and bold, without us knowing what that big and bold thing was,” he says. So they started looking through the several issues Greenpeace were working on.
One issue they knew needed more attention was the impact that agricultural commodities like palm oil were having on the rainforest. “This was seeping into everyday products in our life,” says John. “And nobody really knew about this. I thought that if they did know, they might care, and we might be able to get some action taken.”
Having settled on a target, they went to Mother London - an ad agency they had a long and fruitful relationship with - with a pretty open brief: “we wanted to do something that was big and powerful and transformational,” says John.
A sprawling brainstorm began, with a range of ideas thrown around on ways to make a big impact. One idea that didn’t get particularly far, John remembers, was for people to wear orange noses, like the red noses for Comic Relief. You know... orange, to save the orangutans whose habitats were being destroyed by palm oil production. That didn’t go particularly far.
It was copywriter James Sellick at Mother who ended up providing the breakthrough they all needed - a story about a displaced orangutan that John remembers he “kind of had in his back pocket”. It ticked all the boxes. Greenpeace knew this was the story they wanted to tell.
World-renowned animation company Passion Pictures soon got on board to help bring Mother’s script to life. Specifically, Salon Alpin ended up directing the film. Simon Greisser, half of the directing duo, was so enthused by the idea that he flew from Lisbon to London at his own expense to present their vision. “He was so passionate about the idea,” says John. “He was really concerned about what was happening to the environment. There was that passion right from the beginning, in terms of the people behind it, and that really showed through.”
That willingness to push creatively even extended to household names like Emma Thompson, who John knew was reliable and “would drop anything to do it”. What he didn’t know is that Emma had been to Borneo and spent time with orangutans. For her, providing the voiceover for Rang-tan was an intense experience. “She was actually in tears,” says John, remembering the recording session for the voiceover. “She was so emotionally connected to and engaged with it. I think that that's what really came across and she gave it her all.” Having spent hours in the studio, she even decided to come back another day to give it a second go. “She said she wanted to do it better,” says John.
It’s this superlative enthusiasm between world-leading creative individuals that John attributes the magic of Rang-tan to. And it paid off. The film had soon been watched over 20 million times.
Then came the Iceland subplot in Greenpeace’s animation saga. John knew Richard Walker, managing director of UK supermarket Iceland. The two had been to Indonesia together to see the destruction being wrought on the rainforests there for palm oil production. “He wanted to get out of palm oil and is very committed to doing that,” says John. Richard had seen Rang-tan, was floored by it and asked John if Iceland could use it on TV as part of the supermarket’s 2018 Christmas campaign. John told him he was welcome to it as long as the Greenpeace branding was removed. He thought it would be great if that meant the message reached “a couple of million more people who would otherwise not see it.”
But that’s not exactly how things went down. “Of course, what we didn't know was it was going to get banned,” says John. Which, eventually, led to way more than a couple of million extra views. The ban caused millions of people to sign a petition to let Iceland put the film on TV and around 20 million views soon rose to almost 100 million.
Schools even got involved in the cause, with in excess of 1,000 asking Greenpeace for teaching materials on the subject. Other brands soon made pledges, with Ocado launching a palm oil-free aisle, Selfridges getting rid of the ingredient in its own-label range and many others committing to sourcing sustainable palm oil.
“We came a long way from talking about sticking an orange nose on people to where we ended up. And I can't say that that was a straight line, that this was all pre planned,” says John.
The flow of serendipity and goodwill continued into 2019 when Aardman, the animation studio renowned for creating Wallace and Gromit, asked Greenpeace, out of the blue, if it would like a film made for one of its causes.
Greenpeace was (and still is) running a big campaign to get a global ocean treaty to give our oceans the protection they urgently need, with the aim to build a global system, a “one-stop shop”, for creating and effectively implementing ocean sanctuaries on the high seas. That was the brief they gave to Aardman and the studio came back to them with Turtle Journey, telling the heartbreaking story of a turtle family heading home through an ocean that is under increasing pressure from climate change, plastic pollution, oil drilling and overfishing. Characters in the film are voiced by Oscar winners Olivia Colman and Dame Helen Mirren, along with Game of Thrones’ Bella Ramsey, Stranger Things’ David Harbour, Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter, and comedian Ahir Shah. So that all slotted into place quite nicely. “I think that also clicked really well,” says John.
Moving forward, industrial meat production was another subject Greenpeace was getting increasingly concerned about. “I saw industrial meat like I saw coal,” says John. “It’s destroying the planet, it’s killing the rainforests and many other forests. It’s causing huge pollution, massive biodiversity loss, huge climate impacts, it’s having big health impacts.”
He continues, “when you look at the vast soya prairies across Argentina, the savannahs of Brazil through the Amazon rainforest, just to feed our pigs and chickens. The destruction is on such a horrendous scale.”
Rang-tan had worked so well that John had been wondering for a while if there could be a sequel. The power of animated storytelling was clear to him. “The beauty about animation is it gives you enormous freedom. One of the arguments that we had when we did Rang-tan was ‘will people emotionally connect to a drawing?’” That wasn’t in question anymore. “We'd worked our way through that. Of course, animation is amazingly powerful, incredibly emotional. And people do strongly connect to it. That was the great thing about Rang-tan. It brought tears to people's eyes. We realised animation has got phenomenal power and can work really well, but also gives you amazing freedom.”
John found himself with a creative director friend of his in a pub in Highgate, London, with these ideas converging in his mind. They were discussing the world-beating power of animated stories like the Tiger Who Came to Tea, the classic children’s story by Judith Kerr that had recently been reworked into a cartoon for TV and had found huge success.
John was thinking about another big cat. The range where jaguars live, he had learnt, maps closely onto the belt where soya is being produced on a mass industrial scale for animal feed in South America. John and his friend wondered if the Rang-tan could be the Jaguar Who Came to Tea.
Soon Greenpeace was back at Mother, who “leapt at the possibility”. But by this time Covid-19 had hit, adding an extra layer of complexity to the story. There was a lot to get across in this story. The fact that pandemics are so often zoonotic - linked to the vast industrial production of animal products - intersected with biodiversity loss and climate change. As John saw it, there was “this triple emergency that we're facing against this backdrop of the industrial meat corporates.”
The key was to keep the message simple, a story centred on the destruction wrought by industrial meat processes. The new narrative mirrors Rang-tan, with our new nuisance at home - Jag-wah - driven out of its rainforest habitat by this destruction, literally bringing the issue home to us.
Finding another expert animation studio to match the bar they’d set wasn’t going to be easy, especially with live action production grinding to a halt in many countries, causing a surge in demand for animation. Irish studio Cartoon Saloon were quite busy enough working on ‘Wolfwalkers’ - a hand drawn film from Oscar-nominated Irish director Tomm Moore. But even though they were “up to their neck in work”, they couldn’t turn this one down.
Greenpeace was lucky enough to be fighting for a cause that had the best creative sorts on side. Many of the team at Cartoon Saloon are vegetarians and vegans and were already very much in the anti industrial meat production corner. “We just happened to come across a group of people that were not only the world's best animators, but they were totally and utterly into this issue,” says John.
The result is a film worthy of the bar Greenpeace had set. “This is beautifully crafted, really thought through, right down to the tiniest detail. And the reason for that is because this was their passion. This is what they believed in,” says John.
And there are plenty of tiny details to get excited about. The joy of animation’s blank creative canvas means there are nods to the complexities of the issue throughout - one John points out is that one of the drivers of a big machine is “coughing his guts out”. It is indeed “a film for our time,” as he puts it.
Another scene to watch out for is the appearance of Paul McCarney in a crowd with his guitar on his back. In yet another display of goodwill, he and his Meat Free Monday campaign are supporting the campaign.
As the campaign focuses on the destruction of Indigenous Peoples’ land in South America, the visuals have a strong indigenous influence. One person who works at Cartoon Saloon happened to be related to indigenous Peruvians, so the boy in the film is actually modelled on a real character.
Star talent was, naturally, necessary in the voiceover department too. And it’s pretty safe to say that Wagner Moura - a huge Brazilian actor and famous voice of Pablo Escabar in Narcos - fits that description. With Brazil such a key area to this problem, the film needed to hit hard there. “We really needed this to work in Brazil as well as internationally,” says John “So that Latino and Brazilian influence was really critical to the success of this film.”
All of this name dropping and revelling in the craft might seem frivolous to some, in the context of the serious threat that Greenpeace is trying to tackle, but John is adamant that craft and entertainment are vital to reaching the audience the campaign needs for it to make an impact.
“You don't want to hit people over the head with a sledgehammer,” he says. “You need to entertain people. You need people to be wowed. I know people that say each time they see it, they see something new. Even I still see little touches. Because those animators are so good, you'd have to see it still by still really to get every little tiny detail of the things that they put in there.”
The hope is to get tens of millions of people watching and acting how the film makes them feel.
John lays down the ultimate goal of this beautiful, horrifying piece of animated storytelling: “What we want people to do, and particularly companies and governments, is to shift from a mainly meat-based to a mainly plant-based diet. We need to protect the rainforests. We've got to allow the forests to be restored and store the carbon to prevent climate change. And we need to rewild in order for biodiversity to begin to start thriving again. Because we're facing an ecocide at the moment. We're in the world's sixth mass extinction. We've got to give space back to nature.”