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Your Shot: How Hennessy VS and Droga5 Brought the Story of the First Black Chess Grandmaster to Life



Delve behind the scenes of the lovingly-crafted ‘Maurice Ashley and the Black Bear School’ with Droga5 NY’s Ruben Mercadal

Your Shot: How Hennessy VS and Droga5 Brought the Story of the First Black Chess Grandmaster to Life
If we were Hollywood producers, or, say, Netflix cheque writers, we’d be keeping a very close eye on Hennessy’s ‘What’s Your Wild Rabbit’ campaign. Cinematic and gloriously crafted, each and every wave of the campaign manages to unearth the story of a pioneer who’s achievements have thus far been overlooked by the mainstream and whose tale has gone untold for far too long. Each spot feels like a trailer for a feature-length movie that we would happily head to a Covid-safe cinema to take in.

This year’s raises the game. It follows the journey of Maurice Ashley, the Jamaican-American chessplayer who became the first ever Black Chess Grandmaster. It’s full of ‘80s and ‘90s flavour and visual creativity. And for an extra ring of authenticity, the team were able to interview Maurice himself – he shared the kind of specific details about his life that make a film feel real, but, more than that, he took the creatives and producers on a revelatory exploration of the psychology of chess and high-level competition. Maurice also came to the shoot in Mexico City, where he worked with the cast and crew to ensure they captured the physicality of the game.

The spot was created by a world-class team, bringing together Somesuch director Daniel Wolfe with a 1stAD who was straight off the set of the The Irishman and DP Diego Garcia. Ruben Mercadal, associate director of film production at Droga5 NY, talks us through the crafty details, the challenges and the astonishing highlights – while sharing some incredible on-set photos.

LBB > How did this year's Hennessy VS project evolve?

Ruben > Through the stories of extraordinary individuals, the Hennessy ‘Never Stop. Never Settle’ ethos brings to life the theme of pushing the limits of potential and the spirit of pioneering innovation. In previous years, the campaign has featured celebrities like Nas, while also shining a light on lesser-known historical heroes, like father and son explorer duo Auguste and Jacques Piccard, and our most recent campaign with cycling champion Marshall “Major” Taylor. 

Every year it becomes more of a challenge to unearth a lesser known candidate that crystallizes all the qualities we are looking for, but it is a challenge we love to undertake. We spent many weeks researching potential people, both historical and present day ones in all sorts of genres / professions. The creatives did a deep dive and we also worked with a film and historical researcher.

Image credit: Paul McGeiver at Second Child 

Our aim is to craft a beautiful, compelling campaign around the heroes we feature. We want to elevate their stories and hold them up as models of excellence, and, in doing so, inspire the target demographic and consumer.

When we started to learn more about Maurice Ashley, the Black Bear School and his rise as a first Black chess Grandmaster, we knew instinctively that he had all the right qualities that we were looking for. It all fell into place quickly, with the Hennessy team really supporting this as well as our scripts which were developed by our ECD Alexander Nowak and the creatives, Thom Glover (CD), Jason Gold, Ted Meyer, Kamal Collins and Emily Berger. David Droga was very much excited about the story as well. Maurice himself was excited about the partnership.  We wanted to tell a ‘Never Stop. Never Settle’ story of mental and intellectual greatness.

Image credit: Paul McGeiver at Second Child 

Image credit: Paul McGeiver at Second Child 

LBB > Tell us about the research that was done?
Ruben > We had in depth conversations with Maurice early on to unearth his story and we did a lot of research. He was very helpful with giving us a lot of details about the Black Bear School and putting us in touch with people from that era. It really helped us to discover a lot of information about the psychology of playing chess and the intense training that goes into it. Chess players burn thousands of calories in a single day playing in chess tournaments, very much like a sprinter etc or any other high intensity sport. Their training routine is as rigorous as any prizefighter.

Image credit: Paul McGeiver at Second Child 

We wanted the campaign to be absolutely authentic to Maurice and the time period we were bringing to life. A lot of time was spent building up a visual identity of that time we were looking to create and contextualising it with the historical facts we had from talking to Maurice and his old colleagues and our historical and online research.

Image credit: Paul McGeiver at Second Child 

LBB > Why did you work with Daniel Wolfe to direct this campaign?

Ruben > We had some incredible directors pitch on this project and all the treatments were absolutely wonderful. We loved Daniel’s treatment as he had this 80’s/90’s mixtape collage approach that was really fresh and it really captured the magic of the era in an absolutely authentic way.

The creatives and I loved how he had submerged himself into Maurice’s story and the visual flair and energy that he wanted to inject into a story of chess and bring it to life, so that chess didn’t come across as a passive game. We wanted the viewers to be drawn in from the beginning, to see the utter rigour and methodical training Maurice put himself under, in order to be the best in class. 

Image credit: Paul McGeiver at Second Child 

LBB > Where did you shoot and why?

Ruben > Before talking to production companies, I did my own research about where to shoot. The campaign was being shot in winter, so we needed a production centre that would give us good weather/light and long shooting days, given the whole campaign was being shot outdoors. We needed somewhere where we could authentically recreate Brooklyn in the 90’s on hot summer days.

We looked at various countries like South Africa and Brazil but quickly settled on Mexico City, as it’s a great cost-effective production centre with top tier crews and excellent production infrastructure. I had shot there various times over the years, and it’s a great place to shoot. We worked with the Lift as our local Service Company, who were fantastic.

Image credit: Paul McGeiver at Second Child 

Image credit: Paul McGeiver at Second Child 

LBB > What type of production team did you have?

Ruben > Daniel had an incredible team working with him. Shooting in CDMX allowed us to bring some world class key crew from the US like our 1st AD David Webb who had just wrapped on Scorcese’s “The Irishman”. Diego Garcia was our DP, who was also superb. 

Image credit: Paul McGeiver at Second Child 

Daniel paid a huge amount of attention to all of the period detail. That’s one aspect of Daniel’s work the creatives and I loved. When you look at his Chase and Status ‘Blind Faith’ video as one example from his body of work, it is like you’re watching a documentary, it is so realistically re-created. His passion for the Maurice Ashley time period we were creating really came through in pre-production. He engaged a graffiti artist from that era to create all the art in the film, so that it was absolutely authentic. Wardrobe selects were sourced from the time period. We didn’t want it to just feel like a period film, but a fresh take on the past that would be in keeping with the Hennessy brand. 

Image credit: Paul McGeiver at Second Child 

The brief from the clients was to create different content across all platforms, so that the shorter deliverables were all bespoke and there wouldn’t be media wearout. Daniel really embraced that, which is reflected in the wide range of content we have. He brought in Elliot Power who works closely with Daniel to direct the five minute content film about Maurice. 

The Mill also worked with us and Daniel closely in pre-production to ensure all the VFX and seamless post would work effectively. 

Image credit: Paul McGeiver at Second Child 

LBB > What were some of the production challenges that you encountered?

Ruben > Everything was meticulously planned by Somesuch and we shot on HD, VHS, DV Cam, and also a Phantom. Some of the biggest challenges came from the volume of content we had to shoot in four days to capture everything but Daniel shoots fast, and he keeps the energy high on set, and we moved through all the setups diligently and quickly. We had a few rain showers here and there so that put us behind a little, but we worked through them.

Maurice Ashley was on set with us. He taught all the chess players in the film various moves and how to hold the pieces correctly and how to hold themselves as serious chess players. There was some experimentation with exploding and falling chess pieces, which was shot at high speed.

Image credit: Paul McGeiver at Second Child 

We wanted the campaign to have an 80’s/90’s collage mixtape look and feel, whilst retaining high cinematic film qualities. We had originally wanted to shoot on 35mm but practically we could not, so we decided to shoot on HD etc and at the end of the production when all the VFX was completed, we output onto a 35mm film print, to give the campaign that final 35mm look we wanted. Simon Bourne at Framestore provided the final colour grade.

For me, the two key people that bring a director's vision to life is his/her DP and editor and I always try to safeguard their recommendations on both. 

Image credit: Paul McGeiver at Second Child 

One thing that became apparent during pre-production was that Daniel’s go to editors Tom Lindsay and Dom Leung were both booked for our dates (Tom was editing a Delta job that he was working on with Daniel). Nicky Barnes at Somesuch and I chatted and she had never had this situation before, so we started to talk about alternative editor options. I then thought about Paul Watts at The Quarry. 

Paul and I have been working together for nearly 20 years, both in my early days as a young Assistant Producer to most recently on newer projects. For me Paul is absolutely the best in class and I have learned so much from him over the years. He is a director’s editor through and through and directors love working with him. He has an uncanny ability to translate what’s in a director’s head onto the screen, coupled with managing agency and client needs in a very balanced manner. We have worked on great projects together that I’ve produced with directors like Frank Budgen, Jonathan Glazer, Derek Cianfrance and my gut was telling me that I thought the chemistry between Daniel and Paul would be fantastic. 

When I recommended him to Nicky, she had worked with him and Glazer on a Sony project when she was in London as an EP at Fallon, so she also had a good history. Daniel was really happy to work with Paul, so it all worked out great. Paul went to LA for the director’s cut and then he was in NY with us editing. It was certainly a very complicated project to edit, and it’s testament to Paul and Daniel collaboratively working together that the campaign was brought to life in the early stages of the director rough cuts. Paul was also instrumental with the different musical pieces and soundscape, as he laid it’s blueprint with Daniel. Q Department took what we had in the offline and composed each musical piece very carefully, adding to the overall mixtape and soundscape collage approach, along with Wave Studios.

Image credit: Paul McGeiver at Second Child 

LBB > How did Maurice Ashley’s story inspire all of you?

Ruben > We all felt very inspired by Maurice and his story. In talking to him, his laser focus and determination to not only play in the Black Bear School but in professional tournaments, ultimately led to him winning and becoming the chess Grandmaster and a trailblazer.

It’s been a really special project that has been a huge team effort from everyone at Hennessy, Droga5 and all our production partners and it was exciting to make this next chapter of the ‘Never Stop. Never Settle’ campaign. 


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Droga5 New York, Tue, 15 Sep 2020 15:22:07 GMT