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Behind the Work: “It’s No Exaggeration to Say the Film was Co-written with the Paralympians”



4creative ECD Lynsey Atkin talks about the stories, writing and craft of Channel 4’s highly human Paralympics 2020 campaign

Behind the Work: “It’s No Exaggeration to Say the Film was Co-written with the Paralympians”
In 2012 Channel 4’s ‘Meet the Superhumans’ marked the moment in history when the world started valuing the Paralympic Games on a level with the Olympics. A phenomenal piece of creativity and filmmaking, it set a bar that the British broadcaster has aimed for ever since. In 2016 they hit that bar with ‘We’re the Superhumans’, turning the focus to the talents of amazing non-Paralympians with disabilities.

For the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games (delayed to 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic), Channel 4 and its in-house agency 4creative have taken the concept to a new place. ‘Super. Human.’ is directed by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bradford Young and explores the sacrifices made and low points reached by Paralympians in their pursuit of sporting glory.

The focus of the campaign is on the fragilities and day-to-day difficulties these elite athletes battle with – putting the emphasis on ‘human’ over ‘super’. Some barriers are physical and some are emotional or psychological. But watching the film you can feel all of them. Topped off by an end line that punches the wind out of you, it’s a piece of work that leaves its mark.

Set to the Bugsy Malone classic 'So You Want to Be a Boxer', re-arranged and recorded with vocals from British artist Jay Prince, the film features a cast of British Paralympians including Ali Jawad, David Smith, Ellie Simmonds, Jody Cundy, newly crowned Wimbledon Ladies Wheelchair Doubles Champion Jordanne Whiley, Kadeena Cox and Kylie Grimes.

LBB’s Alex Reeves asked 4creative executive creative director Lynsey Atkin about what went into making this potent campaign.

LBB> In 2012 it was Meet the Superhumans, 2016 - We're the Superhumans. Why was 2021 the time to shift the emphasis back to the human rather than the super aspects of Paralympians?

Lynsey> Well, the world has changed a lot in eight years! It’s worth remembering that in 2012 the Paralympics had very little profile, Channel 4 was the first of any broadcaster to put it on the same footing as the Olympics. ‘Superhumans’ then, was about totally redefining how the public thought about the event and its athletes, changing perceptions through a bold point of view. 

2016 broadened out this story to show amazingly talented people who just happened to be disabled. 

2021 was then the right time to reframe the narrative given that the world was different, but the media representation of people with disabilities was staying the same – as either idols of inspiration who could do no wrong or figures of pity.

It should go without saying that it isn't helpful to continue to define a group of people in only one of two ways given how complex we are as human beings. So, the opportunity became to flip the coin and explore the human side of superhuman – and as the film resolves in the smashing of ‘super,’ our emphasis is clearly on the athletes as people, above all else.   


LBB> Marketing the Paralympics has changed so much around the world over the past few years, as the wider understanding of representation and inclusion has also opened up. What do you feel are the biggest shifts?

Lynsey> Quite simply and quite rightly it is given far more weight – budgets are being spent and broadcasters and brands understand that inclusion and (the right kind of) representation is fundamental in progressing society towards a place of equality.

LBB> Where did the idea begin? What was the key decision that laid the groundwork for the campaign's focus?

Lynsey> The line. Eoin [deputy executive creative director Eoin McLaughlin] showing me that was an instant “that’s it”. 

We had work to do in unpacking it more – being really clear about what we meant by it and how we could communicate that clearly, but with that exploration came how we might start to tell a story – a journey made up of emotional markers, not physical ones. The line became our temperature check for everything – does that scene serve the line? Does that tone fit with the line? It was our North Star and kept everything very single minded, which on a campaign with this level of expectation and scrutiny was a great gift.


LBB> That must have been a long time ago, considering the Games are a year late. What are the biggest ways that the idea changed over that time?

Lynsey> It didn’t change. We firmly believed in the single-minded idea, based on a robust strategy that after the 18 months of challenge we all faced, felt more relevant if anything. 

There are nods to the ‘extra year’ in the film – the postponement of the games being a moment of free-fall, the visual of Boris Johnson in a Covid briefing – as it would have been conspicuous by its absence, but ultimately the overarching idea remained unchanged.


LBB> Although they're heightened, each moment feels authentic to the real lives of Paralympians. There's a mundanity there that makes the film more powerful. How did you get to that? 

Lynsey> We spoke to around 20 Paralympians and everything you see in the film is inspired by the stories, feelings and home truths they generously shared with us. We then worked with the athletes featured on each of their scenes to ensure they were true to them – it’s no exaggeration to say the film was co-written with the Paralympians.


LBB> What was the key to finding the balance with the realness and the more fantastical depictions of the struggle to become a Paralympian?

Lynsey> The challenge with flipping to ‘human’ was how to make that as entertaining as your usual hyperbolic sports ad. The truth is that a lot of the daily grind (of anybody’s daily grind) is that it’s mundane – too much of that and it’s not interesting, but conversely if you try to make everything too fantastical then you miss the point and people don’t relate. The more surreal elements of the film were all designed to quickly represent something psychological you couldn’t do with realism – an anxiety or a fear, such as the weight of past success or the constant hum of defying medical advice. So, the fantastical scenes are never surreal for surreal's sake, and bar the opening nightmare we didn’t want them introduced too early in the film, as to allow the viewer to ‘settle in’ before switching things up visually.


LBB> Can we talk about the track? How did you settle on it? It's a classic that fits the tone perfectly!

Lynsey> Scott and Andy, the creatives, had this super early on and we’ve stuck with it since. It’s both at once incredibly naive in tone but quite adult in its lyricism. It posed challenges in that the original doesn’t really ‘go anywhere’ and we know we wanted a significant lift at the end, but in the re-record we were able to layer in brass parts created by our composer Guy Farley, to lift the final section and rearrange instrumentation throughout to fit the different story points. Having it early on allowed us to create a couple of sync points in filming, so the whole thing deliberately feels like more of a character than a soundtrack.


LBB> As has been the case since 2012, the craft is exquisite on every level. What details would you most like to draw attention to as people watch and rewatch?

Lynsey> Our craft partners were exceptional, Amanda Jones at Final Cut, Ant and James at Factory, Leo and his brilliant team – as well as Simone – at Time Based Arts all gave this project a huge amount of love and we’re incredibly grateful for their creativity and talent. 

I’d hate to tell people which bit to focus on most, but one of my favourite scenes is probably the underwater moment of Ellie Simmonds being weighed down by this huge anchor of a medal. It was one of the last scenes we finished in post and I love it for its apparent simplicity but sense of creeping unknown as the edges fall away to darkness. Oh, and the hamster. That was one expensive hamster.


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Genres: Drama, Action

Categories: TV and Radio, Media and Entertainment

Channel 4 - 4Sales, Tue, 20 Jul 2021 13:27:51 GMT