Science fiction is all a bit gloomy these days. In an age where the standard response to any bad news is a nihilistic shrug and admission that we’re all screwed, we tend to assume the future will be a mess too. But that’s not exactly on-brand for mobile network Three that’s promising a brighter future through the technological advances it helps bring to people’s lives. Thankfully, that meant that Three UK’s latest ad campaign by Wieden+Kennedy London - a follow up to its relentlessly optimistic Phones Are Good message - was sci-fi with a refreshingly upbeat tone. As we heard from the team behind the sound of the spot, the name of the game was to “make it fun, crank up the energy, and bring it to life”. That’s exactly what Academy Films director Ian Pons Jewell brought to this film, cramming an all-encompassing view of Britain’s dazzling future into three minutes. Staggered by the scale of the project, Alex Reeves caught up with Ian, as well as The Mill’s ECD Jonathan ‘Wes’ Westley and VFX supervisor Adam Droy, to get the behind-the-scenes low-down.
LBB> Anyone can see this was an ambitious film to make. How did it compare to the previous Phones Are Good ad you did?
Ian> In terms of the production, it was an absolute beast. Jon Adams our line producer was incredible, along with the local team Radioaktive brought. We've worked so much together though it's almost like a theatre company, even the actors are ones I've worked with across various projects. Jon also produced Phones Are Good in Kiev with Radioaktive too. So it was a wonderful "sequel".
This one was definitely much tougher somehow, long shoot days and so much to pack in. We managed to do it in six-and-a-half shoot days.
The video game scene was its own commercial. On the day we were looking at each other thinking if we'd pushed it too far. The script originally just had a brief scene with a gamer glitching but I ended up fleshing out an entire action sequence once I saw the available location.
A lot was developed during pre production and much of the gamer scene worked out on the tech day, which I love to do and it's something only made possible when I'm with this team I know so well.
LBB> What visions of the future did you draw on for inspiration? It's an interestingly 'now' feeling future at a time when there's loads of retrofuturism about.
Wes> This was a key thing for Ian. Look back at London 50 years ago in the ‘70s and it still feels like London now apart from the buildings have gotten taller and the signage is more modern. We updated vehicles and devices but kept them in the realm of everyday life. Think about what your neighbourhood is going to look like in 50 years time - that’s how we, W+K, Robin Brown [the production designer], and Ian approached it.
Adam> Working with Ian is a very collaborative process, so we would often be talking together with everyone involved from the shoot, all the way through to final post. Open communication with Robin, who curated so much of the commercial’s style, for example, as well as with Mauro Chiarello, the DOP, really pulled on everyone's craft to produce the best possible picture.
Being heavily involved from day one, it was liberating to be part of the creative process, working closely with Ian and W+K to come up with refreshing story ideas. That was something the team fully embraced. For example, standing in a sandy bunker brainstorming how a gamer cat girl should fall from the sky, or how a privacy cocoon moves - not your average commercial discussions but ones we as filmmakers love to have. If it was a cool idea it usually made it into the commercial. We always tried to push the ideas as far as we could, even up to delivery day we’d be changing things to make them better!
Ian> The main focus was that this has to be a UK future - something mad, fun, but always drawing back to Britain. I had initially put in a lot of Total Recall imagery and also stuff from Judge Dredd as a reference point for the various departments. Not so specifically for the retro-future styling, but for the humour, richness of detail and total madness of those worlds. They're so intensely detailed and actually have quite varied styles within the film.
The thing none of us wanted to do was the usual clean white minimal future worlds you often see. It's unrealistic but also incredibly boring.
Ameena Kara Callender, our stylist, was simply in her element for this, it's a dream project for her and myself to work with such freedom and being able to do totally new designs. She should get an article written just on her process for this, so much of the costume is custom, she didn't just source and style, it's full on design work.
Robin also went above and beyond (as usual) on this. Something you hardly ever catch are all the products in the 360 shop. We came up with a lot of ridiculous products like coffee chewing gum, Marmite protein bars and the Emoji Pop was inspired by those sex drive tonics you find by the till in the newsagents.
There was just a lot of thinking through it all, rather than it being a superficial aesthetic design without any motivation. The driverless Uber was designed by Robin based on looking at quite a lot of car work and how styles are changing. Initially we had pushback that it was too retro, then the Tesla Truck came out a few months after we shot!
LBB> There are so many details in every shot. Are there any that you particularly like that we should watch out for?
Ian> The bus stop scene was a lot of fun, we rolled with the idea of a triple decker bus, so we had a bus stop with two levels, something you almost miss completely!
The plane was a beautiful design decision by Robin to go with these criss-cross window designs, but then also looking at EasyJet as a reference point for the vibe. It's funny because we had only recently done the Diamonds film
, which has a completely original plane design in it too. We had a robotic arm whizzing down the side of the seats intended to bring them meals and then kept more classic seats for it with a physical button for ‘binge mode’. We didn't want everything to be touch screen, it was a conscious decision to have a mixture of physical and in-the-air-displays.
The video game was all down to Ameena's incredible costume design, we just decided which animals to have them inspired by. Then also our make-up artist Marta just came up with the most incredible looks, also for the villain characters. I could go on, in short it was a huge team effort in which we allowed ideas to flow very freely.
LBB> The performances are spot on - heaps of dry British humour. What was key to achieving that, especially with such a huge cast?
Ian> Casting is key, finding the brilliant actors we did through my amazing casting director Kharmel Cochrane. Then it's about letting them play around, keeping open to changes. One of the best scenes wasn't able to fit [in the final cut] unfortunately. The performance between the couple (James Hyland and Kathlyn O'Reilly) in the home was originally a much more protracted back and forth as they get hornier, asking for more and more things from the homehub. It just didn't fit with the flow, but there was some real gold in there. That was a scene we really played around with in rehearsals and changed the camera right up to the last moment.
LBB> What was working with Shaun Williamson (Barry!) like? Any highlights from that experience?
Ian> An absolute dream. He was brilliant. Incredibly friendly, humble, and a brilliant actor giving gold take after take.
LBB> What were the big decisions and considerations you had to make in the post production stage? Obviously pretty much every scene is VFX-heavy!
Ian> The main thing with a job like this is meticulous planning. Water-tight storyboards, though they changed here and there, and some scenes totally re-done, are vital. It's a boring answer, but communication is key to make the most of every scene. It allows for design work to be done before, assets created before shooting too. The Mill were phenomenal.
Wes> Where to start? There are so many different things in each of the scenes which meant it was a real collaboration between Ian, Robin, the agency creatives at W+K and ourselves from pre-production stage right through to the last week of post.
That’s one of the most pleasing aspects of a project like this - being involved right from the outset and working closely with the production designer, editor, agency and director. But to try and answer the question some of the things that had the most discussion around them were the wide view of London when we are first transported into the future; the design of the multiple tech interfaces; the ageing face filter in the shop; the design of the emoji faces; and what the inside of a robo-footballer’s brain looks like.
Adam> Reading the initial script we knew it was going to be mental. Working on so many scenes but ensuring the same consistent style was one of the challenges we had to work with. How are adverts presented in the future in the same way music players, dating apps and TV screens are interacted with? We needed to make sure the visual language stayed cohesive throughout the spot despite each scene depicting something very different about the enhanced future. It was also key to make sure the future technology was fun and not a negative in the world. We are selling 5G afterall!
LBB> What was the single most challenging VFX task on the film?
Wes> There are so many different parts to this film that to pinpoint one is pretty impossible. I guess that is what was so challenging - the sheer volume of different VFX-designed elements that Adam and the team were producing and combining into the footage.
Adam> As each scene was wildly different from the next we rarely gained anything for free. There was no economy of scale with this one, despite working on over 100 shots over multiple edits. Every vignette told its own small story which required its own bespoke VFX technique. From complex camera stitching - going from a live action shot into a full 3D shot, back into another live-action shot, to full head replacements, environment creation, character animation as well as wormhole FX magic, our talented artists had their hands full with this one.
LBB> Do you have an absolute favourite moment from the finished film? Or any small details for people to watch out for?
Ian> Definitely the Emoji Pop moment.
Wes> I love the emoji faces - seeing how that evolved through the design process was great.
The first wide view of London works really well too - it sets up the rest of the film nicely.
And the gaming sequence was a fun one to put together and one I think stands out.
It’s a brilliantly bonkers spot and that’s credit to Ian and the way he is able to combine all the different elements into a coherent whole. We’re grateful to Ian and W+K for having been a part of bringing their fantastical vision of the future to life.