Behind the Work in association withThe Immortal Awards

Your Shot: Saving Private Ryan Spirit Hits Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games

London, UK
Director Phil Brown and FCB Toronto Creative Group Head Jeff Hilts discuss epic athlete invasion

Hearing the creative and production story behind this film was pure joy. When listening to Untitled Films Director Phil Brown and FCB Toronto VP, Creative Group Head Jeff Hilts, the passion, effort, time, love and excitement that went into it exudes out of them. Created for the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games, the film features a proper war-like city invasion – the twist being that these soldiers are actually athletes. We see horses hurdling through outer Ontario towns, baseball players line up aim on the city streets, and kayakers and swimmers pounding across Lake Ontario with a threatening looking CN Tower in the distance – a shot that proved particularly tricky for the team. LBB’s Addison Capper chatted with director Brown and creative Hilts to find out more. 

Untitled Films' Phil Brown

LBB> Why was the brief from FCB something that appealed to you?

PB> It was a fantastic brief from FCB, the kind that every director dreams of. We were literally going back to the days of Ben Hur with legions of extras and great cinematic locations. The concept was quite simple – loads of athletes invading Toronto and the area around it. It was one of those briefs where the ideas start to flow as soon as you see the script. As far as the agency was concerned, nothing was off the table, so they were very open to ideas. It’s very rare these days that a script like this comes along, so I grabbed it with both hands. 

LBB> I really love the whole ‘invasion’ thing that’s going on. How tricky was it to instil that sense of military attack into the various sports? What tricks and techniques did you use to pull it off? 

PB> You are right, ‘invasion’ was the theme. The real trick was to try and take a step back and not be too contrived or setup, even though our setups were quite ‘mega’. I tried not to be too in your face with the camera. Most of the shots you see are handheld. It was also hard for production because I didn’t want to be too structured in my approach. I used films like Saving Private Ryan as a reference for the swimmers and kayakers sequence, even shooting with a 45 degree shutter to achieve more energy and realism in the shots. For the soccer scene I was influenced by the charge scene from Gladiator. The trees created an amazing strobing effect as the players ran through them. We also used a lot of smoke for atmosphere, which in commercials we very rarely get to do. I wanted this to be a true cinematic experience, so I used as many tools in my arsenal as I could but without getting too bogged down in the circus that comes along with them. I also cannot underestimate the use of my trusted 7D, which captured images on the fly and got me little moments that you just cant get with larger cameras.

LBB> There are quite a few shots taken from the POV of sports equipment (fencing stick, baseball bat). Was that a GoPro that allowed you to achieve that?

PB> Yes you are quite right. My brief to my GoPro guys was to stick it on anything that’s moving. We didn’t do too much experimenting. We literally were trying things out as we went along. It’s very simple technology, but very affective. It also gives an epic spot something very intimate. I think we had about six to eight GoPros going at one time. It’s pretty hard to monitor what you’re getting simply because you have to rely on a wifi connection to monitor on your iPhone and that rarely worked. So we just crossed our fingers. We knew we were getting great stuff though.

LBB> The spot's pale/dark tone colour grade is super moody, in a really effective way. Why was that essential to the spot? How involved were you in that process?

PB> Colour and tone were vital in the spot. I didn’t want the film oversaturated and I definitely wanted it to feel different from the usual tourism spots. Once again, we wanted it to be more real and honest. We wanted it to stand up to anything Nike or Adidas might produce. I wanted this to be able to stand out in any marketplace and make it a true international piece. Eric Whipp at Alter Ego was our colourist and he did an amazing job with the grading. We were all involved all the way through. As a director you don’t often get the chance to be involved all the way to the finished product, but on this one it was important I was there all the way. 

LBB> How was the shoot in general? How much was in camera and how much post? Where did you shoot and how long did it take?

PB> The shoot itself was a lot of fun. We tried to do as much as we could in camera, but we knew at some point we would need the help of post. For example, for the horse scene we only had seven horses, so we knew we were going to clone a lot of horses in our ‘charge of the Light Brigade’ scene. The key was not to be held hostage to post FX. My brief to them was it’s not about making it easier, it’s about making it good, and that most of the stuff we were doing would be hand held and include lots of movement. The guys at Fort York FX did an amazing job. It was important not to be too obvious with where FX was used. We shot in Toronto, Oakville, Hamilton and the Escarpment area. We tried not to be too Toronto-centric as we wanted to capture the area around Toronto. We also didn’t want it to be typical tourist shots. It was shot over seven days, however in truth it was a little longer than that as I went out with my 7D to capture B-reel footage and that was over about five days.

LBB> You’ve shot some properly iconic bits of Toronto city and the outer Ontario area for a very area-focused campaign. Did that add any pressure for you personally, or was it more enjoyable? Why?

PB> We didn’t want to shoot your typical touristy shots of Toronto and its surroundings. The client was totally on the same page and pretty much gave us carte blanche to show what we wanted. They had a few ‘must sees’ but not many. I wanted people to see Ontario differently – a little more honest, a little laid bare and more moody, but still, I wanted to see incredible images with great composition. It was tremendous fun. It’s one of the few projects I’ve worked on where the images we got really lived up to the ideas we had at the beginning. We were also extremely lucky with the weather. We shot in early September and I was hoping it wouldn’t be sunny because I wanted this early morning invasion feel. We had a lot of dancing around with schedules, but we dodged a few weather bullets. I have to say, the client and the agency were brilliant. Everyone was on the same page from the start and there was a lot of trust, which, of course, has its own pressure because if it all goes pear–shaped you have no one to blame except yourself. Because the project was so big, you found everyone was running on adrenalin and going the extra mile to do a good job. It’s also because this kind of job is not commonplace in Toronto.

LBB> What were the trickiest components and how did you overcome them?

PB> The trickiest part of the commercial, without a doubt, was the swimmers and kayakers on Lake Ontario. We knew that would be a big hurdle to overcome. Athletes in water, cameras in and out of water and helicopters, what more could you ask for? We were worried the lake would be too cold for the athletes, but apparently the water was quite warm. We had about 30 kayakers and six swimmers, and of course we worried about collisions etcetera. We also had a lot of crew and camera boats on the water, so it was a big deal. I wanted the shots to appear as though they were at water height, so we used a snorkel lens off the boat on an arm. It was amazing. I knew by lunchtime that it was going to work, so it was a big relief. The next trickiest part was trying to do plate shots from a hovering helicopter, but once again we got it done. That was a very satisfying day.

FCB Toronto's Jeff Hilts

LBB> What kind of brief did Ontario Tourism present you with? What were you thinking when you saw it?

JH> It was a really inspiring brief. The brief was about capturing the emotion of the games with Ontario as the backdrop. But it was less about what was written on the page, more about what the client said. They said: “We want goose bumps.” That’s a pretty great brief!


LBB> It’s a properly epic and bold film – what inspired the whole ‘invasion’ idea that we see? 

JH> We wanted to capture the scale of what’s coming to Ontario. The sheer magnitude of the games – all the countries, all the athletes, all the sports that will be on display during the games. This isn’t the kind of event that happens every day – this is big. And it’s coming our way.


LBB> And the ‘Epic Is On’ strap line – can you talk us through the strategic thinking behind that?

JH> We were looking for more of a rallying cry than an actual line. Again, it’s about the scale of what’s coming. ‘Big’ just didn’t seem like a big enough word. So we thought what’s bigger than big? Epic. If you look up the definition for that word, it’s really perfect for what we’re trying to communicate.


LBB> This is obviously a film for the PanAm Games, but its aim is also to drive tourism in Ontario. How tricky was it weighing up each factor when developing and producing the concept? Was that a big talking point? Did one aim outweigh the other at all?

JH> This isn’t your typical ‘tourism ad’ – and the client understood that from the beginning. But it still shows off Ontario as a place to come and experience. So yes, it’s about capturing the intensity, drama and power of the games, but also that there’s no better, more diverse or exciting time to experience Ontario.


LBB> Given that this is for the 2015 Ontario games, how was it for you personally working on this campaign? Did doing the province justice bring any added emotions/pressures?

JH> I’m a massive sports fan and I happen to love my province. The whole experience has been a career highlight.


LBB> What were the trickiest components and how did you overcome them? 

JH> Casting and co-ordinating hundreds of athletes and actors – from building rooftops to Toronto Harbour, from Dundurn Castle to roadways and forests. It was – fittingly enough – an epic production. And I think pulling it off is a testament to what we can do here in Ontario.

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