The world of production, like so many industries, has been upended over the last few months, and will almost certainly continue to be for… well, it’s anyone’s guess. As we scramble for new ways to work and adapt to new methods and, really, lives, there’s one thing we can be sure of – we’re a resilient industry. We’ve certainly never faced anything of this degree before – a pandemic, who could imagine? But we have all faced seemingly insurmountable challenges, and barrelled through, coming out on the other side stronger and more experienced. If it offers any consolation to anyone, we’d like to share our worst nightmare to date, one that assures us that we and Birth will come out bigger and better. But this isn’t a message just about us and our company – we’ve all had similar experiences - this is a message intended to offer hope, and maybe a chuckle. There’s nothing funny about what we’re going through now, of course, but it will hopefully offer some reassurance to those starting to despair.
The year was 2016 and we were working with Rosapark, one of the most creative agencies in Paris, on a truly unique project for Europcar and Mercedes. It was a daunting project, but one that was certain to draw attention. The goal was to set up an immense carousel, 12 metres in diameter, in an iconic London location – the Tate Modern – to display Mercedes’ most recent collection, five brand new luxury models. This was a carousel for adults, with cars in the place of horses, that allowed visitors the chance to experience the luxurious interiors, and go for a one-of-a-kind ride. With the three-day operation set to begin in two weeks, everything seemed on track. Until it wasn’t.
First, the museum reorganised the construction schedule on some work they were having done. Our location was gone, months of planning thrown out the window in a single afternoon. As we scrambled to find a new site, the FIFA European Cup was looming on the horizon, which meant brands were running operations all over the city and seemingly every location was taken. Two weeks out we had to find some place that was open to hosting us. This was no kiosk handing out tote bags, this was a 15-ton carousel. Thanks to the help of Charlie Somers, one of the UK’s best location managers (he worked on several seasons of Game of Thrones), and his crew, we finally found a spot in Finsbury Square. Problem solved, right? Not exactly – the building council had incredibly strict regulations and wouldn’t sign off on anything until the prototype was actually built.
To speed things up, we turned to one of the world’s best engineers who had experience working on several blockbusters, including building a rotating corridor for the film “Inception”. But, we soon discovered, the key part of any carousel – the turntable – was no longer available because we had had to alter our dates to accommodate the new location. We were now down to one week and we had to find a turntable that was big enough and strong enough to support five cars. We had two days to find a new one, to call virtually every turntable specialist in Europe. We found one in Spain that could support the weight, but it was only 10 metres in diameter, then we found one in Belgium that was large enough, but couldn’t support the weight, another in Holland, and so on… Finally, we came across someone who had what we were looking for and, thankfully, was just outside Paris. We sped out to his workshop and met Michel, a 70-year old mechanic who escorted us over to a pile of rusty pieces covered with an old tarp. There it was, our turntable. We had brought three different production designers with us to look everything over, and we all stood there in the pouring rain, agape, on the verge of tears. Two fled, and the one who was with us halfheartedly began inspecting the pieces. Naturally, there were no plans, just a rough sketch in pencil. Asked if it could handle 15 tons, Michel assured us that in 1984 it had been featured in a circus and had supported the weight of several elephants so he was ‘pretty sure’ it would work. The production designer was a tad more optimistic than our team, and offered to bring in a crew to work day and night for the 48 hours. But there was another problem – no one in his crew spoke English, which would be essential for coordinating with the UK crew. Back to square one.
At last, we got a lucky break. One of the many turntable specialists we had reached out to, a German company called Bumat, could save us from our disparaging dilemma. These were THE experts and they had found one that met all the specs... 12 metres in diameter – no problem. 15 tons – no problem. 2.5 turns a minute – no problem. You can be in London the day after tomorrow – no problem. Saved by the Germans! They were professional, spoke English well and had all the plans (in ink!).
We won’t say things went off without a hitch after that but nothing like what we had faced over the last few days. Birth worked day and night during the three-day event, helping produce the operation while catching up on the filming and shooting we had hoped to do before things got started. The result, if we do say so ourselves, was breathtaking – but without the help of our connections, our hard working crew, a number of exhaustive searches, and a great deal of confidence in the face of this desperate situation, we wouldn’t have pulled through.
So, you see? Virtually anything is possible. Budgets will be cut, shootings cancelled, but we’re a clever industry, a tenacious group, and we all have plenty of lessons we can draw upon to surmount this pandemic. Don’t despair, we will pull through.
*And, even years later, we must offer my most sincere thanks to Europcar, Mercedes, Rosapark, Vincent Rodella, Eytan Jan, Caroline Habchi, Tarquin Glass, Sasha Nixon, Charlie Sommers, Miren Maranon, Benjamin Fatras, Loic’h Lambert, Footprint, Bumat and the whole crew who helped us through this memorable series of crises.