13 years ago I watched the first 'advertainment' ad I can remember and I absolutely loved it. T-Mobile (dir. Michael Gracey) filmed a flashmob with 350 dancers in Liverpool Street station. At that time ‘Dance’ was the longest TV ad ever in UK. It was penned by the immortal Paul Silburn with Kate Stannners, Rick Dodds and Steve Howell during what was arguably Saatchi Charlotte Street’s zenith years.
Millions like me really did happily watch a 2 minute 40 second ad. It was only when I realised that we would smash that record with Range Rover Sport (agency Spark44, director Lino Russell) that I started to appreciate what it would take.
Here’s why I would advise anyone to think twice before taking on anything like it.
It’s a risky business
The Spillway project was awash with dangers from the start, and with at least one life-threatening stunt every shoot day. Long-time James Bond stunt coordinator Jim Dowdall said what we achieved was “easily as crazy as anything we did on Bond”.
The location covered 50 acres, more than half of it was a dam wall at a 45° angle. The spillway itself had 750 tons of water a minute cascading down it. If anything happened the crew, stunt driver, safety divers and car could be washed away and drop 90 metres into a canyon. Shit can happen in a split second so a long list of dangers had to be managed and mitigated every minute of every shoot day. And, to add another level of personal peril, producers can be held personally liable for accidents on set.
Don’t make any personal plans
We started working on this in April 2021 for a shoot ‘sometime in August’. A fortnight before we were due to travel, we had to bring everything forward a week. Then, suddenly, weather issues slashed our prep time on location from seven days to three. We had no choice – we were being chased by the increasingly unpredictable rate of glacial melt.
Our new favourite 1st AD, Matt Lawson, performed a Herculean task to get the shooting schedule together in time, and then to keep it in shape throughout the ‘excitement’.
But the change in schedule led to colossal problems in finding crew. Iceland is a country of only 372,000 people (roughly the size of Stoke on Trent) and 65% of them live on the other end of the island from our location. Almost half our crew wasn’t available to suddenly shoot four days earlier than planned, so Kidda Rokk and Steinarr Nesheim from service company Polarama called everyone they knew to get a crew for us. High season for filming meant there were precious few available. Peak season for tourism meant hotel rooms were impossible to find. Crew were arriving last minute to find they were bunking in campsites, trailers and spare rooms of private homes. Luckily they are a tough bunch, and not prone to grumbling.
Nobody expected this to be a stroll in the park. The Káhahnjúkar Dam was nine hours’ drive from Reykjavik and two hours’ drive directly into the middle of nowhere so the logistical challenges were immense. Unit moves were between 1.5 and 4 hours each way and we were shooting until 10.30pm. Dinner at midnight (smoked puffin anyone?), quick scheduling meeting, bed. Up at 5:30. Repeat.
But the combination of exhaustion and terror meant that I didn’t sleep. Each new day came with arcane and unique problems driven by weather, time and money.
Nobody was getting any beauty sleep on the agency or client side either. Fresh challenges arose daily for the creatives to solve. Creative director Lee Aldridge and art director Jamie Woodington kept us sharp and always reaching for more through the whole production. Unflappable agency producer Corin Kiddy was tirelessly fielding curveballs, from budget pressures to meteorological data and creative hurdles – passing remarkably few anxieties on to us.
Craft and more craft
Of course, there’s no point putting yourself through this if the creativity is compromised. The instant a film starts to sag, people will switch off. As Kate Morrison wrote so eloquently
, craft is vital to effectiveness. So every damn second needed craft and love. Lino, 2nd unit director Rory Mckeller and DoP Stefan von Borbely needed to think through each set up so that the light was right, the shadows not bisecting the Range Rover Sport and working in the story sequence. Each shot had to be given the chance to be brilliant even though we’d only get to see it after the grade has been done. We couldn’t hit and hope – there would be no chance to pick up shots later. Some set-ups could only be done once and there wouldn’t be time on the day to check the footage from all the seven cameras. There had to be trust from the agency and client.
More is not enough
I’m sure it’s obvious but, if you thought you need to shoot a lot of footage for a 30 second commercial, then you’ll need over 14 times as much for seven minutes. And it’s all got to be of the same high standard. It’s quality – not bulk – you’re after. We didn’t know the end result would be as long as this, but we knew we had to achieve the worryingly long shot list for the film to make any impact. Plus there are three separate supporting films as well, each requiring new material.
Doubling up and splitting into more units wasn’t an option. There was only one hero car and one hero driver, Jess Hawkins – and what a hero she turned out to be. Several times were shooting with all seven cameras
which had to be prepped, linked to playback, and naturally, couldn’t be in one another’s shot.
In truth, I’m astounded we pulled it off, without dropping a single shot from the board. Lee, the creative director, was kind enough to say he didn’t know another production company who could have done it. In good conscience, I really wouldn’t recommend anyone ever taking on something as bonkers as this. But would I do it again? Yep, I think I’m free that week.