Trends and Insight in association withSynapse Virtual Production

Backstage with the Talent Behind Barclays ‘Football Reunited’ with Dion Dublin

Post Production
London, UK
LBB sits down with director Tom Barbor-Might and ENVY Advertising to discuss the return of football and what it was like to work on one of the first post-lockdown spots
During the height of lockdown, football fans across the nation sat with bated breath waiting to hear when their beloved sport would be back on TV. As well as the excitement of the game itself, football creates a sense of community and belonging - something Barclays explored well in their spot ‘Football Reunited’. As Aston Villa fan Tim reflects over what football means to him, he prepares to join a video call with fellow supporters ahead of their first game back post-lockdown. As he sees many of his friends for the first time in months, he is surprised to see former football player, Dion Dublin join the call. 

To find out how emotion and storytelling brought this spot together, LBB joins director Tom Barbor-Might along with ENVY Advertising’s colourist Jax Harney and Flame artists Martin Waller and Kieran Baxter.

Q > What were your first reactions to the brief when it came in - are any of you big football fans?

Martin Waller > In short, the feel good factor and a return to the things we’ve missed so much and had definitely taken for granted. We were in the height of lockdown and the thought of football returning made things feel like we were getting a little bit of 'normal' back. Hearing about the brief and the approach from early conversations and ultimately looking through Tom’s treatment, there was a real warmth about the project. I’m a big Arsenal fan so I think a lot of fans, regardless of what club they support, could empathise with it.

Kieran Baxter > As a football fan I was very excited when I first read the script - bringing football fans and friends together during this pandemic was something I knew I would enjoy and could definitely relate with. We knew the story would tell itself, we just needed to make sure we carried through the subtle elements that Tom required to tell that story.

Tom Barbor-Might > I like that Patricio Guzmán quote - “A country without documentary films is like a family without a photo album.” The brief had something of this potential in it. The opportunity to document something that millions of people across the country were simultaneously experiencing; the return of football during lockdown. We could use the ad to explore what that meant to an individual but also to a wider community.  

I also liked the fact it was going to be a real experience, shot live, during one of the very first premiership games back from the long, weird hiatus of lockdown. Millions of people, across the country were going through the same experience at the same time. So, it felt like an opportunity to really connect with our audience. To document and also reflect a shared experience. 

It was also an opportunity to explore the sense of community that football creates. How it connects people and what happened when the pandemic severed that connection. I think our protagonist, Tim said it best – “It’s not just about watching the game, it’s about watching the game together.” All of this made it feel like a unique opportunity to make a little record of our times.

Q > Tom, how did you spin the story and filming in order to bring out emotion?

Tom > First and foremost, I wanted the ad to tell a story. There’s a version of this commercial, where we could have focused more on the surprise and celebrity - made it more like a stunt. I was keen not to do this and instead lean into the character and story. I felt strongly that this is how we were going to connect with our audience. We needed to see what was at stake for Tim. We needed to know what lockdown and football’s hiatus had cost him: the loss of community and that connection. Doing a little of his backstory allowed us to care about him. Root for him. That’s how you bring out emotion. Connect to the character and tell a story. I love the discipline of telling a story like this in 30 and 60 second spots. You can’t waste a frame.  

The other thing I felt was important was humour. I didn’t want to make a po-faced film. Warmth and humour are really important tools for engaging with a character quickly. Especially with documentary commercials, where you can’t fall back on casting archetypes as easily. So, I tried to leave in the personality; the cheekiness, the banter. If you like the character, then you are going to root for him. 

Q > Did the cast know that Dion was going to appear on the call?

Tom > We made it all for real. There’s very little artifice. It was shot in order, on one day – the day of the Villa game. Tim really hadn’t seen his mates since lockdown began. He also had no idea that Dion was going to join. They watched the game live, as it aired. It all happened just as it does in the finished ad. It’s hard to do this on set - to keep the experience authentic and keep surprises secret. You’ve got all sorts of scheduling nightmares - cueing Zoom calls, you’ve got to lock down the crew etc but ultimately it all made Tim’s experience real. The reactions you see in the ad are 100% genuine. Hopefully this authenticity means the ad carries a bit of an emotional punch. 

Martin Waller > Dion is a legend… and I think the reactions speak for themselves, it was brilliant!

Q > Jax, how was the grade used to aid the storytelling in this spot?

Jax Harney > We wanted to highlight a real difference between the loneliness of isolation during lockdown, this slightly darker, sadder, colder world versus the joy, happiness and warmth which comes from watching a game with mates. 

Q > Kieran and Martin, could you tell us a little bit about your role in the project and any obstacles you had to overcome?

Kieran > My role as flame artist and VFX supervisor was to advise on any issues or concerns that may occur during the shoot and to ensure there were solutions to prevent them. There were obviously a lot of considerations prior to the shoot, a lot of potential limitations that we wanted to remove or minimise. We were entering a complex shoot in a new and challenging environment and it was key to ensure we’d covered off all eventualities. Maddy (Easton) and the team at Rogue Films did a great job in making sure the shoot went smoothly and were extremely methodical in addressing all concerns/problems which made our jobs a lot easier.

Martin > Part of my role in the commercial was to re-create the Zoom-like interface and comp into the computer screens. We had to keep the look and feel as ‘generic’ as possible but with a light nod to the Barclays branding. As Kieran mentioned earlier, our role was very subtle, the film is a beautiful social observation so we wanted to ensure that our involvement was seamless and complemented Tom’s vision.

Q > And Tom, how would you describe your style of directing? 

Tom > I like to think that I make cinematic documentaries. That’s probably what all documentarians say but I don’t just mean shooting a documentary on a nice camera, with anamorphic lenses. The aesthetics are part of it of course but I am interested in borrowing storytelling techniques from narrative cinema. Hence my interest in character development.  

I hope to apply dramatic storytelling techniques to real life. Recently, I’ve been working on an international factual TV show that we shot entirely like drama. Very challenging but the result is really interesting and engaging. We even brought CGI characters into a documentary story. I really like blurring the lines between factual and narrative storytelling like this. I feel that if done right narrative techniques actually allow you to access the ‘truth’ of a situation in a different way. It’s the “creative treatment of actuality” after all.  

The other thing that I really hope comes through in my work is that the subjects, the people on screen, are open and warm, at ease on camera and completely themselves. In the same way as a drama director works with an actor to help them to be their best, it’s my job to do this with real people. And perhaps, more than anything else, as a director I am all about unlocking this ‘performance’. To achieve this confident, natural, witty and spontaneous performance they need to trust you. I do a lot of relationship building prior to production. You kinda just have to hang out. Then on set, it’s all about creating an environment in which real people can shine. I try to run a very informal set. I don’t lock things down. Life doesn’t happen inside locked off sets, so why shoot documentaries that way? 

I love creating space for things to happen - create room for happy accidents and spontaneous moments. This is how you get those surprising, funny and authentic moments that stay with an audience. So, I don’t ask my contributors to turn off their phones. I let the kids come home from school in the middle of a take. Don’t ask for the dog to be put in the garden. If the set is open, life can get in, and with it you get the fun, contradiction and backchat that happens all around us every day. 

Q > What are some of the lessons will you be taking forward from remote working?

Kieran > As with all jobs, but crucially more so now, maintaining and ensuring good communication with everyone is absolutely key. This was especially the case with all members of the project working and observing remotely. Not having ‘eyes on’ the project can bring uncertainty so it was key that we remained in constant contact with members of our team, with Tom and Rogue and the agency team themselves. Remote working can often leave you feeling isolated, so it’s key to have open lines of communication at all times.

Jax > I’ve been working remotely most of my career with a lot of clients based in New York,  so I’m no stranger to having multiple clients on a call all watching my screen. There is so much technology available now to make the client feel like they are in the suite during the grade, regardless of location. The workflows we have in place have really helped ease the pain of lockdown life.

Martin > Lockdown wasn't an issue for us, we are fortunate to have a great set up here - everything was in place from the get-go. You'll never remove the importance or enjoyment of one to one creative interaction but with experience and good communication across the project we ensured things ran smoothly.

Tom > Thankfully, I did not need to direct remotely. We were one of the first shoots back where we could run a socially distanced set as opposed to a remote one. We had limited numbers of crew and the agency and client were remote, but we were on set. That was great. 

However, a socially distanced set has its challenges. Especially in light of what I was just saying about keeping the set open and letting life in. We inevitably had to be more buttoned down and less spontaneous. It’s also hard to really connect with a contributor while wearing a mask but we muddled through. 

Q > What were your personal highlights during this project?

Martin > There’s loads to mention; the initial approach to the project and how it would be executed, the introduction to Tim and his friends who have endured months apart without their common interest of Villa, the reactions when Dion appeared and in general,  to be part of a commercial that gave a little joy to all football fans out there!

Tom > Getting out of the house and seeing the team for the first time in four months in three dimensions was huge. But more specifically I had this anxiety that Tim and his friends wouldn’t recognise Dion Dublin when he joined the video chat. I’d planted some seeds with the cast, mentioned Dion in passing, and they were all genuine die-hard Villa fans so they should recognise him. But you never know, they could have stared blankly at the screen. So, when he popped up, and they all started chanting his name, I knew we had the spot in the bag. 

Kieran > It was great to see a project involving potentially challenging circumstances delivered so brilliantly by a great team.

Jax > Working with Tom Barbor-Might for the first time, he was an absolute pleasure to work with!