LBB’s Addison Capper speaks with Biscuit Filmworks’ Noam Murro and McCann’s Piper Hickman and Shayne Millington to ponder our increased relationship with animals during lockdown, casting the perfect “soulful pound dog”, and the challenges of capturing his performance on camera
Microsoft's 2020 Christmas ad is essentially the story of two dogs, the best of pals, who serve as a metaphor for all our lives this past year. It’s a joyful piece of filmmaking that also manages to make some sense of some of the happenings of the past nine months or so. If I ever I need to make sense of a sticky situation in the future, perhaps I'll attempt to see it through the eyes of Finn, my own best bud who is asleep awkwardly in my arms as I attempt to type these letters, lapping up the benefits of two parents working from home, day in, day out. These may sound like the ramblings of an insane man who has spent too much time with a non-verbal animal, but it'll make sense once you check out the ad below, which manages to perfectly strike the balance between being outright fun (there are dogs flying planes in Flight Simulator) and a really sweet and honest piece of commentary on 2020 - and the role that a brand like Microsoft has had in helping people get through it.
The campaign, entitled 'Find Your Joy (A Dog's Dream)', was created by McCann New York and brought to life by Biscuit Filmworks director Noam Murro. To find out more about it, I spoke with McCann ECDs Piper Hickman and Shayne Millington, and Noam.
LBB> What was the initial brief like from Microsoft and how did it wind up in the idea for Rufus?
Piper> 2020 has been anything but normal. It's challenged us in just about every facet of our lives: professionally, personally, emotionally, physically and so on. We've seen tragedy as well as resilience, ingenuity and glimmers of a future reinvented.
So, as a brand, how do you wrap up such a unique year and make a nod to the holidays, too? That was our challenge and our brief - and to do so while staying true to Microsoft core values. We knew we had to strike a balance between remaining true to what 2020 has shown us while at the same time creating space for some holiday cheer.
Now, we know we've all been stuck at home for some time. But we're not alone. Early on, the notion of using our pets as a symbol for ourselves, came to light. And eventually, through Rufus we were able to express some humanity. Just like us he wants to be with his buddy, he wants to actualise his dreams and he wants to express himself. We let him do that, all through the beauty and wonder of the worlds of Microsoft.
LBB> There's been increased attention spent on dogs during Covid - owners at home more and people choosing to adopt. Did this factor into the strategy at all?
Shayne> The increase in dog ownership over the last few months did factor into our approach. More of us have dogs now, for sure. And those of us who already had dogs are spending more time with them than ever before. We're getting to know them in deeper, more meaningful ways. We get to observe them more, and perhaps overlook them more. There are a lot of dog owners on the team and this is a truth that we all can speak to, and drew inspiration from. Personally, my dog, Luther, has spent a lot of time over the last few months snoring loudly in my Teams meetings and I find it highly entertaining.
LBB> The press release reads that each year you "try to build on a core product or brand truth and how that intersects with and amplifies the sentiments and needs of the season". Can you speak to that, and how you went about building on last year's Christmas campaign?
Piper> It's Microsoft's mission to empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more. This year that mission was tested in unforeseen ways - at a time when we may have felt trapped and unable to do what we want to do, Microsoft gave many of us the tools to prove otherwise. Teams, in particular, was invaluable to many people and organisations during lockdown. Being able to connect via Teams has enabled many businesses to continue doing business and realise new and interesting ways forward.
Building on Microsoft's mission, this year seemed an excellent opportunity to delve into a variety of products and the worlds they allow us to explore. Sure, our actual world may have seemed smaller in 2020, but even in quarantine Microsoft invites us to explore. Minecraft, Halo, Flight Simulator and, yes, even Teams are ways to venture out beyond quarantine and get inspired by what we find.
The spot ends with a holiday message and then the message: 'See you out there.' We meant that to be a hopeful invitation to us all. We'll see you out there in Microsoft worlds and eventually, of course, in the real world, too.
LBB> Noam, why was this project something you were keen to get involved in?
Noam> I loved that this spot was an opportunity to use a dog’s psyche – with all its desires, fears, and fantasies – to show us ourselves as social creatures that need connection. As a mirror of how we interact with each other and the world, especially now that we’re living more online. One that filters our fun escapes and endless Teams meetings through the dream life of a dog. My dog Max is my constant companion—and closest confidant—and he gave this one a thumbs up.
LBB> Once you’d got the script, what were your next steps to bringing this to life? What were your initial lightbulb thoughts?
Noam> We knew that we had to strike the right tone - not cute or fantasy, but honest, emotional and understanding of where we all are. It was about grounding the humour in the nuances that we all now recognise, like the endless video calls we’ve done in 2020. We wanted it to be approachable and familiar - a real family, and real dogs, that we could all connect with.
LBB> When it came to 'casting' your dogs, what was that process like? (Other than a great joy of course.)
Shayne> Noam, as usual, was a joy to work with and his expertise as a director and storyteller made producing an ambitious spot like this during Covid a lot less stressful. He stressed early on that it's more about the trainer than it is about the dogs. And while we all offered up our own dogs as potential talent, once we got to casting our two eventual stars stood out from the pack.
It helped, too, that Noam is a dog lover himself. Fun fact – he got a new puppy during production!
Noam> The heart of this story is the bromance between our hero and the dog across the street. Casting the dogs really wasn’t about pedigree, but personality. I was looking for a soulful pound dog. A charmer that - for some reason you can’t put your finger on - wins you. He may not be Best-in-Show, but he’s Best-in-Heart. The yearning in his eyes, joy in his step, and trepidation in his body language when he encounters one of his fears. It was indeed a joyful, dog-filled day. Max was maybe a little jealous, but he got over it.
LBB> Piper and Shayne, when it came to capturing their performances - how did you work with Noam Murro on that and what were your main aims and ambitions?
Piper> There was some back and forth on which dog would play Rufus and which would play Sam. And it was a last minute call by our client, Kathleen Hall, that sealed the deal. She was spot on – Rufus is the star of this commercial and we needed the audience to feel for him. Brisby (Rufus's real name) is able to emote so much feeling just from walking into a room and raising an eyebrow – we all instantly fell in love with him.
Sam, on the other hand, is the ultimate sidekick. He needed to be spunky and fun – the type of dog who's up for playing anything, anytime, anywhere. He needed to have an infectious energy and a zest for life. Rukus (Sam's real name) jumped right into his role with enthusiasm and seemed to have a lot of fun on the set.
Noam knows dogs. This was key in our choosing him and in our trusting his instincts. There are certain things dogs do that intimates different things, from the turn of a head, to how they lie down, to the twitch of a paw during sleep. These very real nuances were as important to him as they were to us and we're so glad to have that attention to detail. Our hope is that every dog owner sees their dog in Rufus - my dog's name is Roy and I'm sure if I could read his little canine brain he'd have some things to say about the last few months in our house.
LBB> Noam, are the dogs fully digital or a blend of actual animals and CG? With that in mind, how did you go about capturing their ‘performances’? What were you aiming to achieve and how did you pull it off?
Noam> The dogs are all real with the exception of the Halo and Minecraft portions - which were CG based on the dogs we actually cast. The CG dogs perhaps took my notes slightly better, but everything else was the real dogs. We were really lucky to work with trainers that I have known for years who helped us get those great reactions. In that process, there’s lots of back and forth and collaboration. The dog across the street was in a previous spot I did, so I was happy to work with an old friend.
LBB> From a production standpoint, you also had to work with all the various Microsoft products that are featured, putting Rufus into Flight Simulator, Minecraft, etc. How did that process work?
Piper> Getting to work with and know the people from all the various Microsoft branches was one of the more interesting parts of pulling the spot together. It was like when you date someone and then you start meeting their family!
We met with the different partners as early as we could and debriefed them on the spot. Then we took a deep dive into their worlds, learning as much as we could in a short period of time. Once the relationship was established, each partner brought so much to the process. Minecraft helped dream up the land of Dogtopia and then suggested actually creating it and making it available in the marketplace. Our kids were thrilled! Our Flight Simulator partners were instrumental in helping us build the planes Rufus and Sam fly as well as integrating these actual planes into the Flight Simulator game. And the Halo team schooled us on all things Master Chief and what it would mean to have dogs in his realm.
We tried really hard to be true to each individual brand and eventually we left the experience with so much respect for what each entity brings to the Microsoft table.
Noam> In so far as Halo and Minecraft, we spent a lot of time envisioning and crafting these worlds, but we didn’t film for them. For Minecraft we needed to create a world that would win a nod from hardcore fans. True to Minecraft Pets, our dogs were fully CG, pixelated versions of themselves, but instantly recognisable.
For Flight Simulator we filmed both dogs on green screen so they could be placed in the simulator in post. We wanted to emulate the eye-popping real-time 4K look of the game and its insanely realistic and detailed landscapes. So even though there are dogs in the cockpits, it’s still the proprietary language the fans love – from the landscapes and plane models to the perspectives – objective, first-person/cockpit, down the plane’s nose, and profile.
For the Teams portion we filmed 9 dogs on a stage against green screen for our post production partners to work with. A mosaic of dogs, sitting in silence in a ‘super-serious’ Teams business meeting, you can almost hear them thinking ‘Please, not another Teams Meeting today’.
LBB> Overall, what was the production process like?
Shayne> Shooting during Covid is different, yet doable, especially through the power of Microsoft Teams. I guess you could consider the entire shoot an amazing demo and testament to the product.
We found a great house and proceeded from there. No one from the client or agency traveled to the shoot. We all met on Teams and Biscuit transmitted the live feed through to us. In a strange way, you could say the larger team had more access to the director than we may normally have. It took some adapting at first, but after the first few takes it worked seamlessly.
I will admit, though, that we all did miss certain shoot perks like craft service and wrap parties!
Noam> For this one, we were lucky to have all the safety measures in place to have the whole production team physically be there in person. Agency and client joined remotely. Max Facetimed in as a consultant. He’s an expert in napping.
LBB> One of my colleagues is convinced that Rufus is a metaphor for all of us and our lives in 2020. What are your thoughts on that?
Piper> Your colleague is spot on. We all have a Rufus inside of us. And we're all spending more time at home, perhaps with family members we never expected to spend so much time with. Maybe we should all approach 2020 from a dog's perspective - get as much sleep as you can, go for walks and, when in doubt, ask for a pat on the head.
LBB> What were the trickiest components and how did you overcome them?
Shayne> Everything this year has been tricky. We have had to rethink so many of our concepts and assignments from beginning to end. But we're fortunate, the relationship between Microsoft and McCann is a true partnership and because of that we have been able to find solutions to some really challenging obstacles.
Noam> The trickiest component was probably dealing with the performances of the animals - it’s never an easy feat. But we have incredible trainers and relationships and with a lot of communication and patience we got great performances.
LBB> Any parting thoughts?
Shayne> We knew we had a special story to tell with Rufus and Sam, one that you can only tell during a global pandemic. So with this concept it was this year or never. We're beyond psyched that our client let us tell this story and that Noam partnered with us to create it.