Behind the Work in association withThe Immortal Awards
Your Shot: Greenpeace Is Burning Paintings to Tackle Shell’s Arctic Exploits
London, UK
Don’t Panic London and Greenpeace on following up last year’s D&AD White Pencil winning LEGO film

Last year Greenpeace teamed with agency Don’t Panic to launch ‘LEGO: Everything is NOT awesome’, a striking animation that attacked LEGO’s affiliation with Shell. Since then the film has been viewed over seven million times, has won a Webby award and a D&AD White Pencil. Oh, and LEGO cut its ties with Shell. In the wake of Shell’s impending drilling in the Arctic - a precarious move that doesn’t just jeopardise our snowy north but living life as we know it - the charity and agency have teamed up once again, this time to launch ‘A Song of Oil, Ice and Fire’. The film was directed by Partizan’s Martin Stirling, who also helmed last year’s LEGO spot, and features three iconic landscape artworks burning away to expose a grim dystopia, created by British montage artists KennardPhillipps. LBB’s Addison Capper chatted with Don’t Panic creative director Richard Beer, and Ellen Booth and Mel Evans of Greenpeace’s Arctic Team to find out more.

LBB> When you were developing the idea behind the film, what was your starting point?

EB&ME> Shell’s threat to the Alaskan Arctic was our starting point. We wanted to expose how Shell is jeopardising a precious place – the Arctic – and how that affects all of us. In less than 40 days, Shell could start drilling for oil in the Arctic.

This film tells the story of what Shell wants to do and why we should all get involved in stopping it. It features classic American landscapes and shows how they would look if destroyed by Shell and the oil industry. We wanted to create something that explained the risk Shell is taking in an intuitive way, as well as visually referencing the damage caused by the oil industry globally such as by the BP Gulf of Mexico disaster or the Exxon Valdez spill.

It’s an artistic representation of the risks Shell plans with the Arctic, and the impact that will have on all our lives. It isn’t literal, but it does reflect the severity of the threat we’re all facing if we don’t urgently address climate change and the onward, ever more extreme, march of the oil industry. We wanted to expose how Shell’s vision for the future, and its plans to drill for oil in extremely risky Arctic conditions, will keep us on the path to climate destruction. 

RB> Our brief from Greenpeace was to address Shell’s continuing threat to the Alaskan Arctic. They wanted to help people understand just how critical this issue is for all of us, not just people who live in the Arctic, and just how pressing it’s becoming: Shell could be drilling there within 100 days.

The idea came from a couple of places. Firstly, we wanted to do something with art. Art has a long history of protest and social comment, but Shell and other fossil-fuel companies are increasingly using their sponsorship of the arts to hide their true nature; we felt it was time for art to fight back. 

Secondly, we wanted people to really understand that drilling in the Arctic threatens so much more than just the Arctic; it threatens our way of life. And what represents our way of life more deeply and emotionally than art? Art is the universal language. Which is also pretty handy when you have a global message.

LBB> Can you talk us through some of the research that inspired you to make the film?

EB&ME>  Over the past couple of decades oil disasters on land and at sea have felt almost countless – from tanker spills to rig explosions, refinery fires and pipeline leaks, the damage wreaked by the oil industry is global and on an epic scale. KennardPhillipps searched through thousands of these images to create the new artworks.

And yet Shell’s decision to go to the Arctic to look for oil is one of the riskiest projects currently being undertaken. The extreme Arctic conditions, including giant floating icebergs and stormy seas, make offshore drilling extremely risky. The US administration itself acknowledged a 75 per cent chance of a large oil spill over the lifetime of the wells. And scientists say that an oil spill in the Arctic would be impossible to clean up, endangering the Arctic’s unique wildlife.

Shell’s past attempt to drill in the Arctic in 2012 was plagued with multiple operational failings culminating in the running aground of its drilling rig, the Kulluk. Yet Shell will return to the remote Chukchi Sea this summer with the same contractor, Noble Drilling, which pled guilty to eight felonies following its last Arctic venture with Shell. And with its second rig contractor, Transocean, which was found partly responsible for the Deepwater Horizon disaster alongside BP.

The risk posed by Arctic oil drilling is simply too great to take – and that’s the risk 'A Song of Oil, Ice and Fire' evokes.

RB> The initial idea was to create dystopian, oil-industry-blighted versions of much-loved and iconic landscapes as a metaphor for the threat Arctic drilling represents to a) the Arctic through uncontrollable spills, and b) everywhere else because of its contribution to climate change.

There aren’t many people who know more about the history of oil disasters on land and at sea than Greenpeace. Most of the oil imagery used in the dystopian versions of our paintings was from Greenpeace’s library. They’re all real.

But creating new versions of a bunch of paintings does not a video make, so we knew we had to come up with some kind of transition from the originals, something that would help us construct a narrative. It was actually one of our junior creatives, George McCallum, who came up with the idea of burning away the originals to reveal the dystopian versions, and as soon as we nailed that, everything else fell into place.

LBB> Last year’s Lego film led to the brand cutting its ties with Shell. What’s the aim with ‘A Song of Oil, Ice and Fire’? 

EB&ME>  'A Song of Oil, Ice and Fire' tells the story of what Shell wants to do and why we should all get involved in stopping it. And now really is the crucial time to act. 

Shell thinks its billions have bought it a pass to Alaska, but the one thing the company fears most are ordinary people taking action to stop it. We want everyone to watch and share this video, to show Shell it won’t get away with destroying the world we love. 

And a mass global movement is prepared to defend the Arctic from the oil company: already in the past weeks, activists climbed onto a Shell rig as it travelled across the Pacific, and hundreds of local ‘kayactivists’ protested Shell’s apparatus where it is docked in Seattle ready for the final move north.

LBB> You collaborated with British montage artists KennardPhillipps - what did they bring to the final production that others couldn’t have?

EB&ME>  KennardPhillipps are an incredible duo, and their artworks have always been spine-chillingly evocative and inspiring for us, so we're delighted to have had this opportunity to work with them. Their work is incredibly precise and painstaking in the details – they used thousands of images from the Greenpeace photo library as part of the process to construct these montage artworks. That dramatic dystopian shift is a work of genius – all taken from real-life images and events of the oil industry's many catastrophes.

RB> KennardPhillipps, who have a wonderful history of protest art and are about as close to experts in the field as it gets, searched through thousands of Greenpeace’s images to create the new artworks (and we contributed a few pop-culture elements of our own, which we hope people will enjoy finding!).

We also brought in Martin Stirling and Partizan, who immediately set to work on figuring out how to tell our story of oil, ice and fire. Fortunately, Greenpeace have their own warehouse and fire marshall, so we were able to conduct a number of test burnings to see what worked best before actually setting fire to the amazing replicas (12 paintings in total) that Andy Gent and his Arch Studio team constructed for us.

LBB> The film is quite brutal in its approach but still manages to look gorgeous and be compelling. How tricky is it to strike that balance and how did you go about achieving it? 

RB> It’s always a challenge to communicate a serious message in an entertaining and shareable way, so we always try to make life easier for ourselves by working with scarily talented people who understand the story we want to tell and can bring our vision of it to life.

Fire, it turns out, was a useful medium for this dichotomy: it is hypnotically beautiful and frighteningly destructive at the same time. 

EB&ME>  As soon as Martin Stirling got involved, he wanted to create an almost nauseating, scary experience for the viewer, while at the same time focusing in on the sheer beauty of the flames.

This dual nature runs through everything: the iconic and comforting nostalgia of the original artworks and the horrific devastation of KennardPhillipps' reinterpretations; the allure and beauty of the flame and the rawness of its destructive power; the traditional idyllic Arctic scenes, and the unexpected juxtaposition with the modern American Dream.

LBB> What are the three paintings referenced in the campaign and why were they chosen to feature? 

EB&ME>  The three main artworks are:

Andrew Wyeth – Christina’s World

William Bradford – An Arctic Summer: Boring Through the Pack in Melville Bay 

David Hockney – Pearblossom Hwy

Each is iconic in its own way, and offers a different perspective on the classic American landscape; we chose to focus on American landscapes because Shell is drilling in the Alaskan Arctic and has been given conditional approval by the Obama Administration. The brilliant artworks featured in this film epitomise the precious landscapes, homes and parts of our cultures that we could lose if we let Shell and other oil companies have their way.

LBB> What is the media plan for the campaign? 

EB&ME>  Greenpeace offices around the world will share the film with our supporters. From there it’s a case of seeing how people respond to the film and keeping our fingers crossed that they are moved to share it with others.

LBB> What were the trickiest components when developing 'A Song of Oil, Ice and Fire' and how did you overcome them? 

RB> Creatively, we needed to find a way to burn the paintings in a cinematic way. Fire doesn’t always behave the way you want it to: it’s too quick, too slow or in all the wrong places. A lot of trial runs by Martin and his team with paraffin, beeswax and a number of other substances told us what we needed to know.

Logistically, one of the biggest problems we had was finding somewhere to film the burning of 12 huge replica paintings. Each had individually made frames, exact replicas of the ones surrounding the original paintings in the galleries. As you can imagine, there was a lot of smoke involved. Fortunately Greenpeace is familiar with making the impossible possible.

LBB> Any parting thoughts?

EB&ME>  After the success last year of LEGO: Everything Is Not Awesome, which pushed LEGO to break off their relationship with Shell – and which so far has won a Webby and a D&AD White Pencil – we are really happy to collaborate with creative agency Don't Panic again. In fact, the collaboration between KennardPhillipps, Don’t Panic and Greenpeace on a film working with classical artworks has several nice precedents. In 2013 Greenpeace attempted to install a large painting of Shell’s rig the Kulluk washed ashore in the Arctic at the National Gallery during a Shell corporate event there. The previous year, Don’t Panic’s television show ‘The Revolution Will Be Televised’ managed to install a print of Peter Kennard’s famous artwork ‘Haywain With Cruise Missile’ into the same National Gallery around the time of a corporate event held for Italian arms manufacturer Finnmecanica. So this collaboration really has been waiting to happen. In less than five weeks Shell could be drilling in the Alaskan Arctic; this is the perfect moment to throw all of our creativity at keeping its risky gamble in the spotlight.