Framestore’s William Bartlett on taming the beasts of British politics with a mix of crafty compositing, clever CG and comedy for The Times and Sunday Times
The Times and Sunday Times have taken the phrase ‘political animal’ pretty literally in their current campaign – and given the shit-flinging on display in various centres of power around the world we can’t say we blame them. Devised by News UK’s agency Pulse Creative and brought to life at Framestore, the campaign focuses on the zoological antics unfurling in the British Houses of Parliament. We caught up with Framestore Pictures' BAFTA-winning director William Bartlett to find out more.
LBB> What was it about the idea that really appealed to you and made you think 'yes, I want to do this'?
William> There were several things. First there was the script and the simple truth of the idea. It was funny because the animal metaphors sat so easily with the political behaviour we have all got used to seeing. The chance to take such a solid framework and build it into a forty second sequence was a great opportunity and not one that I wanted to let pass by. Then of course there is the brand. 'The Times' is an iconic paper and the chance to work on a big advert for them was a real honour.
LBB> The spot revolves around the little speaker dog (err... John Bark-ow?) struggling to keep control the menagerie - he feels like the viewer's way in, particularly as the camera pulls out from him. How did you develop that character?
William> Yes, you're right, we thought the speaker was a good way in. Partly because he is quite a character in himself, and he is neutral (sort of), and we liked the idea that during the opening seconds of the advert you might think it was just a dog on a chair only for us to then drop the camera back to reveal the whole chamber packed with animals. John Bercow has a big voice but is not especially big in stature so the comparison with a small dog seemed like a good match.
LBB> What sort of research did you do observing the behaviour of MPs in the Houses of Parliament?
William> Nothing specific for this job although I do follow politics quite a bit so I had a reasonable knowledge of what has been going on. Most weeks I listen to John Pienaar, Andrew Marr and Andrew Neil while riding my bike to work!
LBB> And how did you whittle down which animals to use?
William> This was a combination of specific animals that we wanted to use and the practical realities of what we could shoot. Some of them, like sheep, rats, vultures, the lion and the unicorn, and so on were critical to the jokes and the narrative so had to be included. Beyond that there were many animals who make up the rest of the chamber where we just wanted a variety of interesting looking creatures. We shot most of it in the UK but I did also fly down to South Africa to shoot the ostrich and the hyenas. We added in a few CG creatures: bears, wildebeests and reindeer, that were too big and impractical to shoot, we wanted a few larger animals to bulk up the feel of the crowd.
LBB> From a technical perspective, what creatures were the most challenging to work with? And did getting the scale right between all the species present any issues?
William> The way we designed the edit at the previz stage was to be as flexible as possible in terms of what we shot. Most of the 'crowd' was shot on two cameras at once with generic angles. One camera was straight on and one at forty five degrees. The frames in the edit had been designed so that one of these two camera positions would be what was needed for any shot. This way whenever any animal did something that was funny or appropriate for one of the shots from a storytelling point of view we had it shot at an angle that would work for the background it needed to go in. This way we were pretty efficient and rattled through all the material we needed. We just concentrated on the widest variety of performance we could get knowing that we could fit anything into any shot - we even finished an hour early.
That said some were harder than others. The fox was very shy and the hyena wanted to eat everything in sight. For the hyena the studio had to be cleared with only the DP and me allowed to stay, but we were inside a cage for our own protection. Luke, the handler, who had realised 'Lola' since she was a cub, was the only person who could be out with her.
We varied the scale of the animals quite a bit from reality but we did some tests before shooting to check this would be OK. We roughly split the difference between each animal’s real size and the size of a human so small things got bigger and big things got smaller. That way everything would sit fairly well on the benches but you would still keep a bit of scale variation.
LBB> The set was constructed in 3D for the spot - how did you go about making sure that this iconic House of Commons chamber was faithfully recreated?
William> Luckily for us there is good reference online with many photographs to help us out. I did take my kids on a tour over Christmas to check it out from the inside for myself and asked a lot of very specific questions that slightly confused the guide (I think she was getting security concerns...) but unfortunately you are not allowed to take your own photographs. The team at Framestore did a great job and putting together the CG environment in an astonishingly short space of time.
LBB> The spot is full of humorous touches, from the scuttling rats to the cackling hyenas, the whooping gibbons, but the humour feels kind of wry and not 'wacky' - how did you strike that balance?
William> We wanted the tone to be funny without being either mean or slapstick and this fed through into the choices we made all along the way. The idea was to make observations that resonated and were funny because they had a ring of truth about them. We weren't trying to make personal remarks about particular politicians but rather more general comments on their behaviour as a group. I think in a way by making it less personal you can be a bit stronger with your metaphor as it doesn't seem spiteful.
LBB> It's a spot that manages to capture the mood of the nation and the frustration felt towards politicians generally without taking sides or getting bogged down in what are some fast-developing, complicated issues - was that a tough line to walk?
William> We didn't want it to be personal or mean spirited and we certainly did not want to say one side was better or worse than the other. To be honest I actually have a lot of respect for politicians and believe the vast majority are working hard doing their best to resolve a very difficult problem. We can all shake our heads from time to time, and be less than impressed by what goes on, but I am not someone who sees this through a prism of cynicism.
Sure, we are poking fun and making jokes at their expense, but we always felt that the spot would be more successful if it made people laugh and shake their heads rather than get angry and stamp their hooves...I mean feet.