Behind the Work in association withThe Immortal Awards

How Chicken Licken Uncovered the ‘SoulSister’ in Us All

Production Company
Johannesburg, South Africa
Darling Films’ director Slim tells LBB’s Nisna Mahtani about what it means to have a sassy alter ego which comes from the influence of Tina Turner and James Brown

‘There’s a SoulSister in all of us’ according to South Africa’s popular Chicken Licken food chain. In the restaurant's latest campaign by agency Joe Public and production company Darling Films, the idea of a SoulSister (or SoulMister) is explored through the genre of music and dance. 

Looking back on the terminology of what it means to be within the Soul movement, it all stems from two overarching factors: the attitude you have and the leading creators of the musical genre. Channelling their best Tina Turner and James Brown, the cast in this spot was chosen for their ability to naturally embody the ‘Soul’ feeling and showcase it through the movement they create with their bodies. Accompanied by Bomba Estereo’s ‘Soy Yo’ in the background and a wardrobe department to match the aesthetic, the dancers were able to let the music take them to a soulful place. 

Darling Films’ director Slim tells LBB’s Nisna Mahtani about why he chose to shoot at night, on an Alexa 35 rig and how he created a sense of magical realism around the actors. 

LBB> What were your first thoughts when you saw the premise for this campaign? 

Slim> I immediately fell in love with the idea. Chicken Licken and Joe Public (the agency)  have a history of creating really entertaining spots, something the public has come to look forward to, and although this idea lives within their brand tone, it was a departure from their traditional comedic and narrative formats. So a narrative element was something we strove to include to ensure that it wouldn’t just be a “dance video” but would still retain some expected storytelling.  

I won’t lie, it was also pretty overwhelming to pull off the right tonality as a typical dance spot like this can quickly become either too slapstick, contrived, or fall into the trap of trying to be too cool and trendy. Casting amazing talent and finding the right piece of music really kept the tone in a good place. 

LBB> Did you immediately know music would play a large part in the spot? And did you have ‘Soy Yo’ already in mind or did it evolve as you began shooting the piece? 

Slim> Music was always going to make or break this piece. It was one of the key factors we immediately started searching for from the original agency briefing. It was clear that we didn’t want to venture into the expected Soul genre as the brand’s intention is to broaden its market reach and accessibility. This still opened up a wealth of genres and music possibilities which we trawled through for weeks, searching for a track that needed to deliver an inherent rhythm for the dancers and a broad appeal - transcending anyone’s subjective taste. We had originally tried to get a big-name track and looked at the likes of Missy Elliot - but these were out of our financial league.  

We eventually stumbled on Bomba Estereo’s ‘Soy Yo’ music video while looking at performance references (it’s all about a sassy, but nerdy little girl who breaks out into dance while cruising her hood). The song immediately stuck, although we only knew we officially had it after we started shooting - which was a bit of a stress as all the dancers relied on its timing and beat. 

LBB> At what point did you know that dance was going to be part of the expression in the campaign? How long did it take to create the choreography and hone that part of the spot? 

Slim> Dance was the core theme from the get-go: the idea of unleashing one’s ‘SoulSister’,  one’s repressed, sassy alter-ego, could only really ever be expressed through dance.  

We chatted to Kryptonite Dance Academy quite early in the process through a  recommendation from our casting directors. Eugene [Baloyi ] and Zoyi [Lindiwe Muendane], our phenomenal choreographers, immediately sold themselves as our very first chat was purely about the type of characters, body animation and the tone of the story, which made me feel comfortable and excited that they got it - they weren’t just out to make a dance video. They understood the story and idea and wanted their choreography to support it. Zoyi is also the final character in the Chicken Licken spot who undergoes about 17 different emotional reactions to the SoulSister meal in less than three seconds! 

We cast via a lot of self-tapes and TikTok videos and then did our callbacks in the dance studio together with Eugene and Zoyi. So essentially we were casting incredible dancers and letting their unique styles define their character.  

After this, we had a couple of rehearsals with the chosen cast to create short sections of choreography per character, to the intended music track. Although some dancers were just too amazing to lock into a small piece of dance, and we ended up letting them pretty much freestyle on the day and just rolled on them.  

LBB> You’re breaking stereotypes in the campaign by showing that everyone has a  SoulSister within them, regardless of gender. What were some of the things you wanted to include to show this inclusivity? 

Slim> As much as the idea of a SoulSister feels inherently feminine, we looked at the historical backstory of the Soul movement to find a hook or single-minded aspect that would translate across gender or demographics. And that quite simply came down to the ‘attitude’  of the genre and its champions.  

We approached the casting and performance by briefing our characters to let out their inner Tina Turner or James Brown. Immediately the idea clicked with them. It’s subtle within the story, but definitely there. Our two bus kids actually brought it home most naturally on the day. 

Beyond this core idea, we concentrated on casting choices as well as wardrobe and setting. The memorability would always come from watching seemingly real, everyday and authentic people, whose bodies were taken over by their SoulSister alter-ego: essentially letting the viewer see themselves in our incredibly talented characters.  

It’s the principle that drives shows like America’s Got Talent, where you’re rooting for the everyman or woman who is able to do something extraordinary or exceptionally unexpected. 

The challenge was to avoid any one character breaking this illusion by them feeling like they were some stereotypical dance character (whatever that may look like). This obviously included casting wide across genders and ages, to push the sense that any and everyone can be affected by the SoulSister. And then we tried to make sure we had a good cross-section of characters that painted an overall view of a typical day in South African life. 

LBB> Talk us through the locations you used. How did you find them and why were they the right fit for showcasing each of the characters’ epic dance moves? 

Slim> The locations came down to the same thinking as the characters – creating authentic spaces that the characters fit in believably, allowing for an unexpected, visual contrast to their behaviour under the magical SoulSister effect.

We tried to let our cast define their characterisation and setting as much as possible. But realistically we didn’t have the luxury of time to completely lean into this approach and had to define locations quite early before we had final cast choices.  

So what became key was to utilise local urban settings that were completely recognisable to the viewer. These were also based on the idea that they should be realistic areas one would expect to find a Chicken Licken store in - as if the store we end up at was kind of the ‘Ground Zero’ of this SoulSister outbreak.  

For some reason, a theme of public transportation made its way into the story through the train, tow-truck, bus and taxi depots we used. It just made sense as spaces or scenes that would again heighten the contrast of quite unexpected actions within typical public spaces. 

LBB> The lighting also aids in building the atmosphere of each shot, as the scenarios all take place at night. Why did you choose to shoot in the evening and what were some of the lighting decisions you made to ensure your vision was achieved? 

Slim> We chose to shoot at night for a number of reasons. The first is that I just love night shoots. And now the crew hate me for it. But the main reason was that it would just allow us to control the look of the story a whole lot more than daytime, using our lighting and colour palette to play into a subtle feel of magical realism around our SoulSister characters. We strove to balance this mood and realism without ever getting caught in over-stylised visuals, like wetting streets down or placing neon tubes all over the place. 

We were also the guinea pigs to shoot on the Alexa 35, which really allowed us to not overthink the lighting but rather embrace the natural ambience within locations and supplement simply around the key characters. 

The early evening staging also just made a lot of narrative sense around the idea of public spaces where people are making their way home after work or school and would typically grab a quick Chicken Licken takeaway en route. 

The last factor is that shooting at night really opened up our choices of spaces in and around  Jo’burg, as pretty much every location we used wouldn’t have been possible or accessible during the day.  

LBB> The edit would have been where the music was synced with the footage and the piece was made to feel like one consecutive shot. What was the most challenging aspect of this part of the process? 

Slim> Although a lot of our dance choreography ended up being quite organic and free-styled on the night, we always knew that the visuals needed to flow hand-in-hand with the soundtrack. The challenge was ensuring that while shooting we had a few little tricks up our sleeve to pre-empt the edit transitions between scenes. These were specifically planned, but we also had to trust that edit transitions and the flow of pace would present themselves just by the nature of the dance and the dynamic movement delivered by our characters.
We obviously rehearsed to the music track and also had playback on set so that every scene was choreographed and captured in time for the edit. 

I think the biggest challenge, as I mentioned, was having to be responsible with the dance moves, knowing we had specific timeframes we were locked into. We could have so easily just shot the shit out of every character as they were all incredible to watch. You also know things are going to be ok when you’re on set and the entire crew is smiling and jamming to the beat at three in the morning.

LBB> How has the South African market reacted to this spot? Have there been any surprising responses? 

Slim> I honestly don’t really know at this point, but I have seen some commentary on  Chicken Licken’s social media. And there seem to be quite a lot of really enjoyable and complimentary reactions from the public - which was thankfully always the intention. 
There was one particular Facebook comment from a mother, that struck home and made me really appreciate what I get to do (screengrab below). This just reminded me that advertising can and should have an emotional effect on people, and that it’s quite a responsibility we (and brands) should always be striving towards. 

LBB> Is there anything else you’d like to share with us? 

Slim> Nope, thank you. Unless you want me to bombard you with pictures of my ridiculously cute dogs…

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