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Behind the Work: How Director Greg Gray Turned South Africa into Mission Control for Pringle’s Super Bowl Spot


Director Greg Gray breaks down an out-of-this world shoot in Cape Town with LBB’s Laura Swinton

Behind the Work: How Director Greg Gray Turned South Africa into Mission Control for Pringle’s Super Bowl Spot
When Grey New York wanted to create a blockbuster-scale Super Bowl spot for Pringles, they tapped up one of South Africa’s most respected commercial directors to do so. The ad sees a pair of astronauts re-entering the atmosphere and bobbing about in the sea, abandoned by mission control, who have been distracted by stackable Pringles.

The spot was shot over the course of several days in Cape Town. That in itself isn’t unusual for a Super Bowl spot, but what usually happens is that a US production company would be commissioned, with a local production service company sorting out logistics on the ground. But thanks to the travel restrictions brought about by Covid-19, and a South African creative director in the agency, they decided to work with a local production company, Romance Films, and one of the top local commercial directors.

Director Greg Gray spoke to LBB’s Laura Swinton about this space-aged Super Bowl spot.

LBB> We thought it was really cool to see a Super Bowl spot not just shot in South Africa but shot by a South African director! How did you get involved in the campaign?

Greg> We were approached directly by Grey New York; one of the creative directors on the job is from Cape Town and was familiar with my work.

LBB> What appealed to you about the initial idea and how did you approach the treatment?

Greg> We realised we were onto something great when we first read the script. I particularly liked the dry, somewhat absurd, humour and the juxtaposition of the seriousness of the astronaut’s situation with the silliness of the stacking. We wanted an authentic, textured film with subtle comedic performances and contrasts, and I think we achieved that. 

LBB> How did you find the process of shooting with the agency and client back in the US? Did you have to add any additional measures etc to keep them in the loop?

Greg>  Shooting with agency and client remotely is not without its challenges, especially  with the time differences between SA and the various countries involved and reaching  consensus on performance nuances (humour being notoriously subjective). Luckily, we had a creative director from Grey with us in Cape Town as the agency representative and he was instrumental in consolidating all the feedback. Thanks to the advanced remote streaming systems available to us these days, we could also ensure that all those involved in the ad – whether here or in the States – were able to see what we were doing every step of the way.

LBB> Is this the first time you've directed a Super Bowl - and if so, how was it being part of such a massive part of the US advertising scene? 

Greg> Being a part of something so huge was pretty daunting but It was a really great, collaborative experience: everyone was on the same page from the get go, the clients were extremely supportive, and there was an incredible energy throughout the process. It helped that the idea was so strong and didn’t require much debate or deviation from the original script: we had our North Star from the start and stayed on track and true to that.

LBB> I'm really curious, was there anything in particular you had to do creatively or aesthetically to make sure that the spot appealed to US audiences and the big game contect?

Greg> The space-exploration/NASA trope is a familiar one and fortunately we had a lot of actual footage and material to use as inspiration and ensure a feeling of authenticity. Comedy is also a characteristic feature of the Super Bowl ad context (and Pringle’s advertising) so we were confident that the ad would resonate with US audiences. 

LBB> How did you keep the production Covid-safe and as a director how did you find working around the restrictions etc?

Greg> South Africa has strict Covid protocols which are controlled and monitored by the film industry’s regulatory body. Covid compliance officers on set and testing, sanitising and temperature checks, as well as mask-wearing and social distancing, are now necessary standard features of all our productions and something we are accustomed to working with. 

LBB> There are some big watery scenes - I'm curious how much of that was shot in camera and what was done with VFX?

Greg> Three of the five shoot days were filmed out on the Atlantic Ocean about a kilometre offshore and featured the space pod which had been especially built to be seaworthy. Other elements were augmented in post production: sky replacements, texturing of the pod, the flotation balloons, amongst many others. The South African visual effects company, Chocolate Tribe, did an outstanding job and we are thrilled with the end result. 

LBB> When it came to casting and working with the actors, what were you looking for and how did get the best performance from them, especially in the context of the Covid restrictions?

Greg> Restrictions on international travel in November and December last year due to Covid precluded casting in the US for American talent so we looked to Europe and South Africa for our actors and were spoilt for choice. Comedy is such a subtle skill and a sense of comic timing is so important for this kind of concept, but everyone nailed it. 

LBB> What are your favourite details in the film and why?

Greg> Designing and making the space capsule from scratch, and then getting it to float so that we could shoot it in-camera in the sea made all the difference for me. Our set builder is an experienced skipper and boat builder so the technicalities around how to make the pod seaworthy came naturally to him. We also have a world-class marine support team who worked hand in hand with us and the production design team to ensure everything we did was safe and compliant for crew and actors. 

LBB> More broadly, this spot shows one sliver of hope with the Covid situation - I know South Africa like most other countries has had its ups and downs when it comes to film production in 2020 - but it seems that it might make brands and agencies cast their net more broadly when it comes to working with directors based in other markets. What are your thoughts on that?

Greg> South Africa has some of the most skilled, hardest-working film crews in the world, as well as specialised craftsmen from production design to marine support to special effects and stunts. This is why the country is such an attractive destination for so many international commercials, particularly over our summer months. Like the rest of the world, we have been negatively impacted by Covid, but hopefully our continued strict safety shooting guidelines, will ensure that agencies and clients all over the world once again turn to our sunny and diverse shores for an all-round excellent film production experience. 

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