The magic of filmmaking is that it can elevate an ordinary, everyday experience, turning it into an escapist fantasy. It’s a magic that director Sam Coleman wields expertly in a recent Volkswagen campaign for the South African market. The campaign, devised by Ogilvy, for VW’s Golf GTI embodies the popular onomatopoeic phrase ‘Vrrr pha!’, so popular in South Africa that it even pops up in rap tracks. The gutsy, guttural sound is larger than life – and so too is the ad.
It features a man driving to work, and the high-powered Golf engine zooms him past seemingly everyday scenarios which have been transformed into slow-motion mini-epics. As Sam explains, most of the eye-popping effects in the spot were captured in-camera, recorded at an ultra-fast 800 frames-per-second. It’s a production that involved a high level of preparation and choreography in order to pull off the sense of effortless cool.
Sam talks through the production with LBB’s Laura Swinton, sharing behind-the-scenes photos and video clips to reveal the method behind the magic.
LBB> What was it about the script that appealed to you?
Sam> The idea of a car that is so fast that it makes everything else seem slow felt like an interesting challenge to bring to life. It’s like the car has a different set of physics that govern it compared to the rest of the world.
So, to capture both realities and sometimes simultaneously seemed like fun. It’s also the truth of the car – it is the boy racer’s dream car.
LBB> The ad is all about this idea of vrrr pha. What does it mean to you?
Sam> Vrrr pha! is the GTI personified in onomatopoeia basically. That sound, if you say it out loud, “vrrr pha!!!” is what the GTI sounds like. It’s the guttural roar of the engine. If you Google it there’s a lot of mythology about it. There are even hip-hop tracks in South Africa that have used it in lyrics.
LBB> From an art direction point of view, what were your inspirations?
Sam> I looked at a lot of observational street photography for this one. This was about catching moments, revealed by slo-mo in this case. Where street photography is already doing this in a single frame.
LBB> How did you approach these slow-motion set pieces – how much of that was caught in camera and how much was VFX?
Sam> It ended up being almost all in-camera. Except for a couple of moments where I had to show the car going faster than the rest simultaneously, like when the car goes past the little girl on the bench from over her shoulder I had to do as a split screen. A lot of it is just the driver’s POV. There’s a sprinkling of VFX here and there like the contents of the man’s briefcase spilling down the stairs but it’s all rooted in-camera.
I only decided to go right up to 800fps on the day when I could see how good it looked with everything in. It gives the ordinary a kind of grand scale, whereas before I thought we could get away with maybe 4/500fps.
LBB> And generally, there’s a really gorgeous sense of production values – from your point of view what’s the key to elevating production values?
Sam> I once heard Dougal Wilson say something like “You have to give everything some kind of glamour even if it’s a housing estate in England.” It’s a slightly strange thing to say but I know exactly what he meant. I try to lend things some kind of scale or make them larger than life.
Sam chatting with the post supervisor on set
LBB> The styling is amazing! Who did you work with and how did you build these bold, outlandish looks?
Sam> They’re all based on real “everyman” characters on the street. The fast-food vendor, the businessman, the slay queen walking down the street. I try to simplify them almost into cartoon characters for this.
Bee Diamondhead in Johannesburg is my go-to collaborator on styling, we have a great shorthand.
LBB> When it came to casting, what were you looking for and how did you find your everyman protagonist who wouldn’t get overshadowed by these bold side characters who pop up?
Sam> He’s exactly that – normal. But he also had this constantly stoned look as if he is unwittingly caught up in all of this like in The Truman Show but is slightly amused if not totally unfazed. That’s why I chose him.
VW old and new - one of the many playful details in the spot
LBB> All of the vignettes contain so much detail – what are some of your favourite details we might miss on our first watch?
Sam> Maybe the man who gets caught in slo-mo reading the newspaper then released like whiplash when the car moves passed or the fact that there’s an exploding bag of chips in the big street scene, or the that the contents of the man’s briefcase which is spilling out contains his own personal salt shaker which is spilling salt as he falls. What kind of guy keeps his own salt shaker in his briefcase?
The team planning out the complex moving shots
LBB> What were the most interesting production challenges in bringing this project to life?
Sam> The fact that the world had to be affected by the car and become slow as the car drives past, and at the same time the car had to look fast (but not irresponsible). On top of that, the atmosphere and performance of the driver is always very bemused and relaxed. This was a nice collision of different forces to play with.
LBB> The music is really cool! I hear the idea to record this well-known track translated in isiXhosa came late in the process – how did this moment of inspiration strike? And what was that translation and re-record process like?
Sam> Only in the edit room. I already had Edith Piaf’s famous “Non je ne regrette rien” (no regrets) on the table which was a great fit to the languid slo-mo and the attitude. We were playing with contrasting it with faster beats when I thought it might be great to try it in an African language and the thought took hold. I got excited about taking something from the museum of French culture and turning it on its head. The vocalist Nonku Phiri in SA has an interesting lineage and is in a way precious to us like Edith is to the French.
LBB> What do you think it brings to the track and the ad?
Sam> Just some kind of scale and gravitas. And a bit of humanity as the original is, in a way, quite touching.