Follow the yellow brick road with Another Film Company, The Mill and Stitch as they give us a look behind the curtain
The latest ad for Halifax is impressive, in a good old-fashioned “how-did-they-do-that” kind of way. Building on the building society’s series of loving homages to nostalgic titles created by agency adam&eveDDB, from Topcat to The Flintstones, Scooby Do to Thunderbirds, this latest execution takes the brand to the legendary Emerald City, in the magical Land of Oz, where the very helpful Greg is filling in for the Wizard.
The script was brought to life by Another Film Company director Declan Lowney, who was shocked when the agency chose him to direct it. “What a great, clever and funny idea,” was his first reaction, followed by “why did they come to me?” Although his humility is admirable, we can see why. He has a track record of taking beloved cultural capital and putting a new comic twist on it, whether he’s working with Sly Stallone, The Muppets or on an homage to Pride and Prejudice for Warburtons, or helping TV’s Alan Partridge make the leap to the big screen.
Nevertheless, working with such a huge work of popular culture as The Wizard of Oz is a daunting responsibility. And Declan took it seriously, despite the lighthearted script. “We were very reverential to the source material,” he says. “And every element was carefully crafted to fit in as seamlessly as possible - lighting, costume design, set construction, music, grade, lens choice.”
It’s paid off, with the help of a lot of technical expertise from the smart craftspeople at The Mill, Stitch and 750mph.
Leo King of Stitch loved the idea straight away. “Working with such iconic footage and trying to integrate a new story and character into it was going to be challenging, but what a fun challenge to have. A lot of the work was pre-shoot,” he explains - a rarity for an editor. “We spent about a week going through the film pulling out bits that we thought could work well.”
During this process Leo’s gained a new-found respect for the film. “I can see how revolutionary it was for the time it was made,” he notes. “The effects are so well done and there’s some quite subversive comedy moments that you only see when viewing it in much more detail.”
“We then recorded guide voiceovers (Dec was an excellent stand-in for Greg [the Halifax character]!) and played around extensively with different structures, to make the best use of the footage, whilst making a story that worked and was as fun to watch as possible.”
With the test edit ready it meant that Declan had a really good idea of what he needed to shoot. Leo was on set at Twickenham Film studios taking a live feed while they filmed. He’d then drop the takes into the edit and fed back immediately. This meant they could tweak and fine-tune the timings as they shot, so were integrate the new footage with the old really well.
When it comes to new live-action component of the film, the role of Greg, played by David Rees Talbot, is a big pair of shoes (albeit not sparkly red ones) to fill. He’s the newest cast member added to a piece of film history that’s stayed the same since 1939. “David is fab, and he’s someone I've almost cast before,” reveals Declan. “But I bet he’s glad I hadn’t because this is a part to die for! My regular casting director Greg Kyle did a fantastic job sourcing a great many wizards before we settled on David.”
“It was then back to Stitch to fine tune and properly bring it all together,” says Leo. “It was a great process and I love the end result. I was concerned that people would immediately turn their noses up at the idea of WOZ being used in an ad, so we knew we had to win them back over as soon as possible. I think Greg’s performance really helped this, he's really engaging and draws you in. No mean feat when you are next to Dorothy, the Tin man, the Lion and the Scarecrow!”
“I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Barnsley at The Mill,” says Declan. “This is the third film I’ve done with Barnes in the last year and I’m determined to challenge him more and more every time - but he is quite unshakeable!”
The Mill Creative Director Andrew ‘Barnsley’ Wood was more than keen to be involved. “The Wizard of Oz is one of the most well-loved and technically groundbreaking films of all time, so we were really excited about being able to work with this classic piece of film and integrate it with the modern day, he says. “Of course, this also meant we had to do the original justice and make sure the result was as authentic as possible. We knew this was a pretty tall order and really wanted to get it right!”
To ensure the new shots felt at home in the old film, The Mill’s role needed to be way more than just post production. There was a lot to think about way before the cameras rolled. “The lighting and camera positioning was key,” explains Barnsley. “One of the most important things to get right was the eye level of the original cast and Greg. For this to look like a genuine interaction, Greg had to be looking toward the cast at eye level or else it would all immediately look off-kilter. The shoot was a real history lesson in how films were created back in 1939. In order for us to match the original shots as closely as possible, we had to look into the types of equipment used and the height at which the original was shot.
“Films from that era were either shot on 25mm, 50mm or 70mm film and all were shot at the same height. This was because the equipment at that time was so heavy and difficult to operate. Once all of this was determined we could then mimic this style of shooting when we shot Greg separately.” [see image below]
“The original film has a real theatrical quality so we also had to ensure Greg’s performance and look, once integrated into the film, stayed true to this,” Barnsley says.
A lot of behind-the-scenes work went into this to make this all appear as seamless as possible. As Barnsley explains, the crew had to film real-life Greg in isolation and then composite him into the scenes at The Mill, matching each of his corresponding moves to the actions of the stars within the film to achieve the best comedic performance.
Then it was the VFX team’s job to remove the wizard featured in the original film from the corresponding scenes and skillfully rebuild the backgrounds using matte painting techniques and 3D projections. “We then had to rebuild all the characters and subtly integrate Greg into the scenes, carefully adding shadows, chromatic aberration, flicker and matching film grain from the original film source,” says Barnsley. “A great deal of time was spent trying to match the imperfections within the original to mimic that iconic theatrical style.”
It was fascinating for everyone involved to learn how film language has changed over the years. “For example, in The Wizard of Oz they pretty much only cut to people when they have dialogue,” notes Leo. “So trying to find reactions was tough!”
In other happy news, Declan has recently turned a corner with regard to the original musical classic. “I used to hide under the bed when the witch first appeared, but my kids just dragged me back out and made me watch it. Now I’m no longer scared!”