The creatives, director and VFX supervisor reflect on a pre-lockdown production that brought them face to face with “the De Niro of the bovine world” and gave them the chance to release the Kraken
The latest campaign for MoneySuperMarket is one of those ads that reminds us all of how much fun working in advertising has the potential to be. Just watching the Money Calm Bull progress through an increasingly absurd series of amped-up situations, staying chill af throughout, you can tell that everyone involved in this ambitious production was having a lot of fun.
That’s not to say it was a cakewalk. Putting this real two-tonne beefy boy into the wacky situations the team at ENGINE had envisioned took some creative problem solving and careful planning, not to mention a lot of VFX sorcery.
To find out what it took, LBB’s Alex Reeves asked ENGINE creatives Charlie Gee and Tian Murphy, creative director Chris Ringsell, Untold Studios head of VFX David Fleet and Blink director Nick Ball.
LBB> Where did the Money Calm Bull idea come from? And when did you realise it was something worth running with?
Tian & Charlie> The idea charged toward us very early on in the creative process, over a burrito. We asked ourselves ‘what’s famous for being the opposite of calm?’ Then all we had to do was antagonise a two-tonne bull for 60 seconds. It’s a simple idea, masquerading as a ridiculous one, so we knew it would be fun.
Chris> When Charlie and Tian first presented the idea I had instant love for it, simple, funny and effective! It sailed some rough waters of a few presentations but always kept a hoof in the mix! The bull then came into its own when we did some initial research on a couple of concepts and we were off.
LBB> What was the process of coming up with the various scenarios the bull would be in?
Tian & Charlie> Once we’d found our idea, it was relatively easy to think of different scenarios, the tricky bit was whittling them down and selecting the most entertaining and effective situations. They needed to be quick reads, ranging from the everyday to the epic, spanning across the different genres of stress, whether it was a social anxiety or a terrifying fear of imminent death. Or just bloody annoying. As long as it would wind up a prize-winning bull, it was fair game. Many of these scenes were simple one-liners until we got into director’s treatments, which Nick and Blink turned into some of the most memorable scenes of the ad, such as the bull on a window cleaner’s cradle dropping out of the sky.
LBB> How did you settle on Nick Ball as the director?
Tian & Charlie> Nick’s obsession with cinema and comedy leapt off his treatment and slapped us round the chops. His enthusiasm for the bull, and where he wanted to take him, had him frothing at the mouth; that kind of energy and intensity is hard to say no to. To seal the deal, he offered to change his name to Nick Bull, but we’re still waiting to see proof he did.
Chris> Even during our first conversation Nick was insatiable, he was so into the idea and had such enthusiasm to push it. His work is great and Blink were right behind him desperate to make the madness a reality... and they did. We were still building on the ideas during the shoot, I'm sure this was the point the Kraken came into play in the spot.
LBB> Nick, what were your first thoughts when you saw the script? What did you want to push or make sure you got just right?
Nick> I loved how single-minded the idea was. It’s awesome when you get hold of an idea that is so clear that you can really push the edges of it to maximise the concept and the funnies at the same time. For me it was important to have a narrative arc to the Bull’s journey. I seem to remember (it was a looooong time ago that I first read the script!) that originally it was a series of vignettes that were kind of interchangeable for each other - but I wanted us to make something that started super small, and ended up super big and flipped the script on the whole 'bull in a china shop' thing. I felt that by doing that, we’d invest in the character of the Bull a bit more and be able to elevate every scene to greater heights both conceptually and cinematically.
LBB> What was your vision about how it all looks?
Nick> Ultimately I wanted it to feel like we were somewhat subverting the tropes we were playing in if that makes sense. I didn’t want it to look like a traditional Blockbuster style parody commercial of Michael Bay style movies - but instead a more gritty and grounded approach to the cinematography and production design so it felt more naturalistic and leant into the idea that this stuff could really be happening. I think by doing this it kind of feels different to what would be turned out 9/10 by just ticking the parody box.
LBB> How did you go about producing it? Did you do it before lockdown or did you have to work around restrictions?
Tian & Charlie> Luckily, the shoot was before lockdown in January. The final stretch of post production happened under lockdown, so like everything else these days, much time was spent on Zoom with Untold making sure the Money Calm Bull looked as resplendent as possible.
Nick> It’s been a long time coming, this ad - but it did feel like we had the right amount of time on the ground to produce it. It was a slog as all big productions are, but we managed to continually push to bring all the production value to the screen. It felt like we were making an ad from those glory years that none of us worked in but we’ve heard stories about!!! I can’t give enough love to my team throughout this thing who were all pushed to their limits by the intensity of the shooting schedule and oppressive Uruguayan heat inside an old car factory!
LBB> What were the biggest challenges and considerations on the shoot? And how did you beat them?
Tian & Charlie> Right from the beginning, we knew the bull had to feel real, not a CG character, so we needed to get as much in camera as possible. The main driving force behind the production was where we could find the perfect breed. He needed to be absolutely huge – really imposing – and they’re harder to find than you’d think, especially in Europe. So we knew early on it would be either Argentina or Uruguay. They know their beef.
Once we had found our prize winning two-tonne bull in Uruguay we actually had to go and make it... I remember the first scene as he walked onto set. We all stood there in silence, holding our breath looking at this huge, imposing, powerful bull thinking, what are we doing...? Thankfully he was really calm and had a wonderful relationship with the handler (who was very protective)!
Chris> The team on hand were so careful with our bull and we had to all ensure that none of the stress, and anxiety we were hoping for in the final film was there on set. He is a legend in our hearts already…
Nick> Obviously any time you’re working with a real animal doing entirely unnatural things that’s going to throw some spanners in the works. I wanted to ensure that we started every shoot day and every scene with a view that we could get the bull into the scene we were shooting and shoot him in there live interacting as you would see in the finished film, We had a backup plan with the VFX legends at Untold Studios in case of emergency, but ultimately though, the bull was incredible and what you see is all real bull doing all those real things - (with a bit of VFX smoke and mirrors thrown in for good measure...).
LBB> Can we talk about all the VFX? There's an awful lot. What were the biggest jobs in that regard?
David> We were lucky enough to work with Nick and the teams at Blink and ENGINE from an early point in the project process, allowing us to help tell his story and ultimately do what we love - which is getting great ideas made. This meant we had oversight on how the whole project would come together from concept. It helped us understand what we would need to do and just as importantly when, in terms of post production, allowing for creative conversations to happen at every step of the process rather than just towards the latter end of the execution.
There was a lot of work on this spot, but not as much work on the bull as there could’ve been had we not found the De Niro of the bovine world.
From day one our recommendation was to find and cast a real bull with the aim of capturing as much action as possible in camera. The plan was to augment his performance and clean him up to look glossy and beautiful for his closeups. We built a fully CG replica of the bull for any shots that were impossible to shoot for real, like on the back of the trawler for example. There are a handful of shots where his head was in the perfect position, but his body was not. In this case we used a hybrid approach of a CG body mixed with his real head.
The trawler scene was always going to be a big VFX sequence with lots of fluid simulation for the ocean, rain, lightning and the bull itself. But then Nick had the great idea of switching out the little octopus that was supposed to hit the bull in the face for a giant Kraken. We were going to make tentacles anyway, why not make them huge? Tricky shots, but worth the effort.
LBB> And how did you make sure you got it looking just right?
Nick> Craft. Time. Lots of wine. Endless conference calls.
LBB> There are tonnes of nice little moments. Do you have any favourites in the final film?
Nick> I am just super stoked (and relieved) with the bull’s performance throughout the piece to be honest. We spent a lot of time convincing the client that the bull was best when he did nothing at all with no real acknowledgment of what was going on in these scenes. I’m glad we stuck to our collective guns on that. I think it would’ve been a very different feeling commercial if he was more active and looking around and winking and nodding and smiling and wearing a cape and smoking a pipe (all things that were honestly discussed at one stage…)
Tian & Charlie> There’s a real temptation with an ad like this to make the bull a whimsical character and have him over-perform. The strength in the idea and the film was such, that the less the bull did, and the calmer he was, the funnier it got.
It’s impossible to pick a favourite moment, however, making an ad where we start with a bull in a china shop and he ends up on an asteroid is a pretty good highlight.
Chris> I do love the drill sergeant scene, leaning heavily into that movie trope with a two-tonne bull in the line-up was a splendid thing to shoot and watch. Our hero was completely unfazed and what you see on screen is his genuine reaction. What a bull.
David> I really enjoy the way this spot builds. From the unusual, yet plausible, china shop scene through to the straight-up extraordinary scenarios like the window cleaning cradle, the fishing trawler and the asteroid scenes. It’s difficult to not find the window cleaning scene funny. I mean, what’s a two-tonne Bull even doing there?
LBB> Anything else you'd like to add?
David> At Untold Studios we love to get involved as early in the process as possible so we can share ideas and find the best route to making them happen. This project was truly collaborative from the beginning. Riffing ideas with Nick and his team and the guys at ENGINE was a real pleasure.
Nick> I’m standing by for the inevitable scripts from Lamborghini, Lois Jeans, the entire country of Spain… well, anything with a bull in it I guess. But in all seriousness, this was one of the most fun productions I've ever had the pleasure of being involved in. The creatives were as passionate about the job as I was, and my team that worked their arses off on this thing were incredible. I think that is what shows in the work too.
Chris> This was a pleasure to be a part of, there was a real shared vision, enthusiasm and spirit across the whole crew, as we saw it come together during the shoot days we all new how great it could be.
We also had an incredible team on the art direction and set design under the guidance of their relentless leader Olly Williams...bravo.
It’s rare to work with a team who’s so committed to going above and beyond to make it great.