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Johnny Foreigner’s Director CJ on “Letting Comedy Breathe” and Mixing Categories


CJ spoke to LBB’s Zoe Antonov about why he decided long-form comedy is the best format to highlight this year’s collaboration between Aruba and the Commonwealth Games, with the help of Guz Khan

Johnny Foreigner’s Director CJ on “Letting Comedy Breathe” and Mixing Categories

As director CJ (Christian James) at Johnny Foreigner put it, Aruba are the “big guns” behind the networking infrastructure in place at this year’s Commonwealth Games (CWG) in Birmingham. When met with the brief to highlight Aruba’s partnership with the CWG, CJ knew he was met with the challenge of having to “sell AI solutions to the fintech industry whilst at the same time, appealing to a wider audience.” This is exactly why he chose to do it through a series of long-form sit-com-like episodes, featuring Guz Khan and devised and created by Daniel Tremayne-Pitter. Although when thinking of Guz Khan one might not immediately relate him to fintech, this is exactly what CJ played on by putting the comedian at the centre of the series as a “fish out of water,” trying to find his way around the pre-games event, starting off as a massive Perry (the mascot) fan and moving swiftly into the role of a star employee.

Between four and six minutes long, the episodes will stream across Aruba’s social media platforms, including YouTube and VOD, and will stand as an example of mixing categories like a pro. It especially highlights doing comedy in a long-form advertising format, which is something we see less and less. Although less common, long-form advertising, especially mixed with comedy, to CJ has a much longer “shelf life” than any old 20-second spot, as well as it offers more entertainment as a valuable currency. 

LBB’s Zoe Antonov spoke to CJ about overlapping categories and playing on the pros of long-form advertising.

LBB> What was the brief for this project and what were the initial ideas behind it?

CJ> The brief: Highlight Aruba’s partnership with the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games. Aruba are the big guns behind the networking infrastructure that will be in place at the CWG venues during the 2022 games.  

By the time I boarded the train, certain ingredients were firmly in place Guz Khan, Perry the Mascot and the three stadiums - Edgbaston cricket grounds, Sandwell Aquatics Centre and Alexander Stadium.

I had previously collaborated with Daniel (Tremayne-Pitter) and the Darkmatter team on an ad series for Hewlett Packard Enterprise, the parent company behind Aruba. ‘Get Ahead’ straddled the tricky two hander of having to sell ‘AI’ solutions to the fintech industry whilst at the same time, appealing to a wider audience/customer who may not fully grasp AI terminology. So no product shots and plenty of tech jargon to juggle…but the long form ‘sit-com’ approach worked perfectly, so it seemed like a slam dunk way to sell the partnership of Aruba and the CWG. 

A key driver for Aruba was to feature Guz within the Aruba Network, but Guz’s irreverent style doesn’t necessarily fit the tech guru mould – so the fun challenge was finding a way to throw Guz in at the deep end (literally in Episode 1) and be amongst the ‘Tech’ crowd.
The setup is a simple ‘fish out of water’ story, Guz, who’s a huge Perry fan, attends a pre-games event. Thanks to a distracting superfan, Guz finds himself in the wrong place at the right time. Smelling an opportunity to get closer to Perry, he hustles his way into the Aruba tech team. His renegade take on the tech space catapults him quickly into a star employee. 

This concept was in play from the start and fortunately for me, it’s a narrative theme I’m a huge fan of (A Bug's Life, Edge of Tomorrow etc) films where your protagonist is essentially winging it. In this concept, Guz and the excitement toward the games were all firmly in my director's wheelhouse. 

LBB> What was it like working with Guz Khan and why did you think he was best for the role?

CJ> Guz was a key component from the outset, having an association to the games via some previous voice-over work during the launch, plus he’s a midlands lad, so geographically he’s on point. Also, he’s the perfect fit as a conduit to your casual games viewer.  He’s got passion for the games without having aspirations of being an athlete, he represents the positive attitude of the general audience in every way.  

I appreciate this sounds like bog standard director fluff – but Guz was genuinely one of the nicest, most committed performers I’ve had the pleasure of working with. The biggest downside of collaborating with Guz is the sheer volume of options he gives you in the edit! I also have to highlight Lucy Farrett’s performance alongside Guz. He’s a HUGE personality so casting his sidekick is surprisingly challenging. 

Lucy plays the ‘company person’. A very, very tricky role to balance as it’s often the punch bag for the best jokes in this format, so we were always conscious that Aruba/the client was also represented by Lucy. She has to be both hoodwinked by Guz and the smartest person in the room at the same time, a BIG task for Lucy and one that involves a cacophony of reaction shots to cover all bases. 

LBB> Talk to us more about the meaning of long form advertising, especially in relation to brands - what are the pros and cons, is it difficult to execute and how do you strike those crucial balances?

CJ> Part of the attraction of a 30 or 60 second spot is exactly that, it’s so concise you can meticulously design every facet.  Longer form feels like more of a leap of faith, the greater volume requires the ability to improvise and be prepared to change with the tide.  
Fortunately, thanks in part to the covid fallout, I’d directed some multicam projects just after the first lockdown. To be honest, this was more of a ‘needs must’ situation – but out of that I honed a few skills I didn’t know I needed that were a blessing on this shoot. For me, with long form, you have to be prepared to let things flow and find their way, especially where comedy is concerned.  You need a bold client and agency and both of those boxes were firmly ticked with Aruba & Darkmatter Media.  

In terms of the benefit to brands, I believe that long form offers greater opportunity to entertain, which is perhaps the most valuable currency when looking to engage eyes. I would also suggest it has a longer shelf life too as the initial entry point is story, not product.  I fully understand that might be anathema to any brand but if you’re prepared and patient enough to reward the audience, I believe they’ll accept a harder sell. 

Long form works best when the product and its results are more opaque, it awards you time to create a World that benefits from the product. And it’s this that benefits Aruba the most. Hero shots of high end (giant) wireless routers don’t get potential buyers salivating, so for a project like this, where brand collaboration is the showcase, form really comes into play. 

LBB> How long did the project take from start to finish?

CJ> I can’t speak for Daniel (Tremayne-Pitter) and the wider team at Darkmatter, as they had to package this all up way before I was involved – but director related creative talks started early 2022, prep’ ramped up mid’ March and our first shoot day (of four) was mid April. It was an incredibly fun shoot.  When you have a personality like Guz, that helps set the tone of the set.  If your star is giving everything and then some, that feeds into the wider team – each member giving maximum effort. 

The edit was the most time consuming as there are a lot of options & combinations to pick with Guz expertly setting up gags and Lucy bringing everything in to land perfectly. 

LBB> What were the hardest parts to execute and what were the most fun or memorable ones throughout the process?

CJ> The shoot days were a little staccato as we had to tango around Stadium construction schedules – so there’s some visual trickery in play to have them appear as ‘games ready’ as possible.  

Scheduling logistics was easily the most critical piece of the puzzle – that was the unenviable task of producer Josh Peacock and his team – but they pulled it off. Once I was handed the reins on set, things were pretty smooth as we had revised all the visual sequences and allowed time for the dialogue scenes to breathe and cast to improvise. As always, an extra hour – or two, would’ve been nice but if you give me 12 hours, I’ll just ask for 13.  

Every now and then, the cast and crew would be beautifully in sync but the schedule dictates that you HAVE to move on or lose something elsewhere. I pride myself on being efficient and making my day – so there were a couple of internal struggles for me but I know we got the best of everything and then some. 

Most memorable was seeing Guz and Lucy whip up the audience in the ‘lecture theatre’ scenes. As a director, it’s great to set something up and watch it find a life of its own – we were getting great takes and everyone was having a blast.

LBB> When it comes to long form advertising, what do you think brands are missing currently and what should be the aim in terms of content for the future?

CJ> I LOVE making them but I do think the strict 30 second slot is somewhat archaic and the product of a time when we had way more eyes over less channels. So many slots now have the broadcast version and the longer (more effective film) online. 

I was invigorated when Volvo released the ‘Epic Split’ film in 2013 – things were really going to change, but despite the power of that campaign, brands still aren’t there…yet. I guess some of that comes down to repetition in our Industry and the need just to ‘service’ a brand.  But I understand that if you’re on an account full time, there’s nothing more frustrating than another director who wants to reinvent the wheel when your client just needs a short/sharp solution.  

I felt IGTV etc slightly dampened the trail that projects like ‘Epic Split’ and ‘The Man Who Walked Around the World’ blazed, but there will always be an appetite for both roast dinner and pudding, you need BOTH.

I’ve been on several projects where there’s been incredible potential for the longer format but if the client gets cold feet, rather than guiding them through the scary forest, it’s easier just to cut the forest down…. And you just know that with a smidge more handling and TLC we could hit that target.

LBB> It's no secret that attention spans are shortening with platforms like TikTok being on the rise - what are the advantages of long form in a world where people are less likely to engage with it, and is that even true, or have you observed something different?

CJ> I hear the argument about shortening attention spans – and I get that, to some degree.  But if you put out great content, it will be consumed regardless of the length. I can’t ever recall watching something amazing but turning it off toward the end because it was too long.  

TikTok is just a different flavour of content – and I feel audiences of all ages are getting adept at going where they need depending on how they feel in that moment. A common conversation in our house now is ‘are we in a Disney+, NowTV or Youtube mood tonight?’  Depending on our day, we might watch back-to-back funny animal videos or we might watch Succession. So I feel brands can pinpoint and target the ‘mood’ of their viewer more effectively now than ever.

Netflix and Amazon prime etc are on the right path with shows like Ozark – each piece is as long or short as it needs to be depending on the narrative at play. I appreciate these platforms negate commercial breaks within the show but I feel the theatrical format of commercials up front is far more effective and a fair contract between viewer and distributor. 
If Hotpoint interrupted Breaking Bad and tried to sell me a washing machine – they’re not selling to me when I’m in the best mood. 

LBB> Tell us more about how you think comedy can be nailed within a long form medium. 

CJ> Comedy needs to breathe – there is an ebb and flow to the format. You need space for a joke to land and time to launch the next… and don’t get me started on the importance of a good reaction shot. Long form gives you the required space. Although I must stress, even though we use the term ‘long format’ I still think we need to be very, very mindful of our runtimes when we’re selling something - there’s a critical balance there.

LBB> How does your directing style shine through the project?

CJ> Olivia [Hirschberg] and Karen [James] (my agents at Johnny Foreigner) maintain that my style isn’t necessarily a specific genre – it’s the tone of my work. And I totally agree. I’m very much a glass is half full person and look to have a positive/upbeat feeling about my productions and the films that are borne from them.  

Guz is an insanely positive person, his attitude and compassion are second to none – so this feeds into his performance and meshes with my visuals perfectly. 

Speaking of visuals, before I sign off I need to shout out my DOP – Ben Pratchett, who had the unenviable task of mounting anamorphic lenses onto the new Ronin 4D camera system.  Due to the construction logistics at all locations, we couldn’t lay dolly track or sliders. We tech recce’d locations but they were radically changing between prep and shoot days, so we had to be as agile as possible. A gimbal system was our best option.  At the time of shooting the 4d was a unicorn – and I wanted two of them so we could multicam the dialogue yet dive into slick visuals in a heartbeat.  

Fortunately, Ben and his team love a technical head scratcher and relished improvising ad-hoc gear additions to mount our lenses and get the look we wanted. I loved the fluidity and speed of this setup. I like to have a lot of takes and options in the edit. This combination enabled us to shoot faster than I’ve ever shot with anamorphic before. Despite this setup being a budget buster and inventing kit solutions at the 11th hour, Darkmatter believed in us and supported the effort – which comes back to being bold, backing up your DOP & Director decisions as they know it yields results. 

This leads me back to style, I love a slick aesthetic wrapped around a fun/comedic piece.  I started my career journey in edit suites and trained initially as an editor, so I’m always looking for a smooth edit, slick/punchy visuals combined with a film that puts a smile on your face. 

LBB> Any final thoughts?

CJ> Your glass is always half full….always.

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Johnny Foreigner, Thu, 21 Jul 2022 16:21:39 GMT