Joe Public United creative director Martin Schlumpf and They Shoot Films director Grant De Sousa on the cinematic ‘Legend of Big John’
Chicken Licken is a South African fast food brand that’s fostered something of a cult status locally – and its latest campaign is already grabbing headlines, just three days after launch. This time, the brand is pushing the boat out, if you’ll pardon the pun, with an ad that follows the exploits of a 17th century explorer from the tip of Africa.
The eye-catching campaign has a grand sense of scale and is an ambitious, comedic production – but it also tackles a massive and potentially controversial topic: colonialism. The spot sees the explorer ‘Big Mjohnana’ (or ‘Big John’, named after Chicken Licken’s signature burger) head to Holland, where he immediately claims and names Europe as his discovery. It’s all done with a wry wink and a sense of humour that perhaps represents a country able to face up to its colonial past, and a consumer that’s willing to be challenged.
An epic odyssey, the spot was created by agency Joe Public United, produced by They Shoot Films and there’s some real movie magic from post house Chocolate Tribe. LBB’s Laura Swinton spoke to creative director Martin Schlumpf and director Grant De Sousa to find out how the spectacular story came to life.
LBB> What was the brief from the client and how did you reach the idea of Big John's ocean-crossing adventure?
Martin> The brief from client was to create an integrated communications campaign led by TV including digital and outdoor for their Big John Top Deluxe meal offering.
The Big John Burger is a relatively well-known product, but not a lot of communication has been done on it in the past. During the creative process, a question was raised as to where the burger gets its name from, or who, if anyone, is it named after? The mystery around the name is where it all started and so ‘The Legend of Big John’ was born. We loved the idea from the start as it opened up a very rich creative territory for the product going forward. From here we just needed to fill in the fun bits, the bits that would portray a big hunger and ultimately someone conquering that hunger.
LBB> The campaign feels really cinematic in its storytelling - why did you want to create something with such scope?
Martin> The idea is really a metaphor for life: if you’re hungry enough, nothing or no one can stand in your way, you will conquer your hunger and perhaps even change history while doing so. Legends are always exaggerated and so the idea lent itself perfectly to the cinematic feel the director gave it. It’s also something we’ve strived to do with all our work on the Chicken Licken brand, as the commercials almost have a cult following with people waiting in anticipation for the next one. If you tell a story in an entertaining enough way you’re bound to capture people’s attention, their imaginations and ultimately sell product.
Another thing we strive to do with our Chicken Licken commercials is to put ordinary South Africans at the fore and to inspire them to reimagine what they can be. We’ve already created an afronaut, an archaeologist, a science teacher who builds an AI version of himself and now, our legendary explorer Big Mjohnana.
LBB> Grant, what were your thoughts when you saw the script?
Grant> To be frank, we were blown away by the original idea. It was a fantastic opportunity from Joe Public United and came with great creative thinking. Not only with the whole colonialism twist but also the opportunity to tell a story about this guy’s crazy adventure across the sea in a way that has never been told before - from an African perspective that is.
We were also excited about working on such a great brand. Chicken Licken is locally known for their bravery and empowering creative freedom and it shows in all their work. So, for a director in South Africa, Chicken Licken is the holy grail, work-wise. But it also comes with a certain amount of pressure as well… because all eyes are on you.
LBB> The film takes a really satirical view of colonialism - something that I imagine is a hot topic in South Africa - and flips the script in a way that's comedic but not overblown. What sort of discussions did you have with each other about striking the right tone?
Martin> Colonialism is a big and touchy subject in South Africa and this was the perfect opportunity to turn it on its head and put South Africa on top, literally. South African consumers are maturing, they want to be challenged, they want to be entertained and they want to laugh, even if it is at themselves. Having said that we know we can’t please everyone all the time, responsible risk-taking with the correct tone and humour is vital.
Our work on Chicken Licken has always had a quirky but cerebral type of humour, something that our director Grant got from the word go. The challenge was to tell our story with all its sensitivities in the most entertaining way. A story that would make all South Africans proud, something that would transcend race and culture, something South African – and I believe that with Grant’s help we did exactly that.
The casting is also worth pointing out. All the cast members were great, especially our Mjohnana character. He’s fresh, honest, likeable, and just down-to-earth South African, traits which were vital for a commercial like this.
Grant> To be honest it is somewhat of a hot topic. We, as a country, are doing our best to move past it all. This spot was a good opportunity to make light of just how ridiculous colonialism was as a concept. The beginning of my treatment was this painting which we had all seen in textbooks here. It was this insane depiction of these glorified Europeans, namely the Dutch, rocking up on the shores of South Africa, and “rescuing” these poor African villagers.
It’s such an insane image and I said I wanted to turn that image on its head and present the concept in such a way that it shows how ridiculous it is. At the same time, it utilises humour, so tonally it could never really take itself too seriously. It’s all essentially told from this old man’s overenthusiastic imagination. It gave us plenty of creative license in all areas. It’s ultimately this old man telling a crazy tall tale and impressing this so much that he influences his listener into ordering a Big John as well.
LBB> The spot feels like a movie - how did you achieve that look and scale?
Grant> I think from the onset we felt that this story deserved a certain level of scale. So we approached the production from a place that always had this in mind. Further to that, we had to ensure we commissioned the right post production team. We felt that Chocolate Tribe were the best company to take on this role and we were confident that they would knock it out of the park. We feel they did just that. So we worked very closely hand in hand to ensure things worked out as smoothly and seamlessly as possible.
My DOP, Alard De Smidt, and I had a great relationship on set and in pre-production. He got involved early. His great eye and subtle nature really kept me on my toes at all times. We had worked together on my short film before this and we wanted to ride the wave together.
There were so many factors that all pulled together and I would be foolish not to highlight production – and how tirelessly they worked to bring our vision to life. It was a crazy turnaround and ultimately something quite ambitious. But I think it’s safe to say that we are all so proud of the outcome. We truly had the A Team on this job.
LBB> There are some really great little details and ideas in the production design and the costume - what are your favourite details?
Grant> We were blessed with a great team, especially this time of year in Cape Town, as season is in full swing.
Our art director/production designer (Wil Boyes) and wardrobe stylist (Bronwyn Cruz) truly made this their own, which I encouraged as much as possible throughout.
Some great examples I can think of offhand were Will’s boat design. I challenged him to create a boat that felt uniquely African. We discussed at length introducing ideas with African ingenuity in them. We crafted the idea of the sail and how that needs to feel innately unique and functional. Wil landed up designing a boat that, in essence, was completely functional.
With regards to wardrobe and styling details, I’d have to say it is difficult to pick a favourite as I felt Bronwyn did such a great job with the African villagers – finding a great balance between uniqueness and aspiration. Like the world of Wakanda, we wanted to create our own, and I feel Bronwyn did just that. It’s tough to choose a favourite...
LBB> There's some really nice post and VFX work - the grade does a really good job of conveying the shift from Africa to dreary, grey Holland! And there are crazy creature shots - the panther and the whale especially! What was the post process like?
Grant> The grade was a threefold process and I don’t want to give too much away. But what I will say is that we heavily involved the colourist upfront. Nic Apostoli did such a fantastic job and he poured himself into it. He, the DOP and I met upfront and discussed references and also the idea that we wanted to make it feel unique. Based on that we set a look and shot with that look in mind, and as you pointed out, that look helped the sense of journey. Achieving dreary Holland involved two key elements. Firstly, there was the grade, and then also the post production sky replacements that Chocolate Tribe expertly implemented. A lot of work went into the skies and pre-rendered matt paintings.
Chocolate Tribe love their creature work and we were both very excited to go to town on this one! I must say, at first the Kraken scene was debated, but due to me, our visual effects director, Rob van den Bragt and and the brave creatives, we managed to make it happen. Most importantly, it made the final cut.
Special mention has to go to the editor (Evi Katz) as well. His craft, from a comedy perspective, was second to none. His understanding of comedy and post was invaluable.
LBB> What were the most interesting challenges on the spot and how did you overcome them?
Martin> The biggest challenges were sticking to the budget as well as to the timing. These two things have a way of affecting the entire production, but luckily for us everyone involved gave it their all and wouldn’t settle for anything less than perfect. The entire production happened over eight weeks and if I recall correctly Chocolate Tribe, the visual effects and animation company, only had six weeks to do their part, which they did amazingly. The only way to overcome issues like these is when everyone is equally passionate about the project, and we had a lot of that, a lot of passion and some patience too.
Grant> The biggest challenge was time and budget constraints! From shot list through to pre and post production schedules, it was tight. We also needed to ensure that, at all times, we made the film feel grand and packed full of imagery. This comes down to three things:
Firstly, clever creative problem solving. A combination of solid production (thanks to my producer Darren Gordon and his team and their constant out-of-the-box thinking) to achieve the crazy things I threw their way. Secondly, an amazing crew. I can’t thank them enough. Our Assistant Director (Nick Lorentz) was our Sergeant General, he ran a well-oiled machine which had so many moving parts and challenges that we overcame with ease. He and our DOP, worked really well together. It’s so important that crew work well together. I’ve said this before and I have to say it again, we truly had the A Team on this job.
Finally, there was a great collaborative effort. An agency and client who trusted in my treatment every step of the way. Everyone pulled in the same direction.
Brand: Chicken Licken®
Client: Chantal Sombonos van Tonder
Agency: Joe Public United
Group Chief Creative Officer: Pepe Marais
Chief Creative Officer: Xolisa Dyeshana
Executive Creative Director: Roanna Williams
Creative Director: Martin Schlumpf
Art Director: Mphela Mamabolo
Copywriter: Galaletsang Kgoathe
Strategy: Leigh Taylor
Account Management: Amber Mackeurtan
Agency TV Producer: Yash Raidu
Digital Agency: Joe Public Connect
Senior Digital Designer: Michael Carvalho – Senior Digital Designer
Executive Creative Director: Dylan McLean
Techinical Director: Ben Krawchuk
Senior Digital Developer: Neil Coetzee
Senior Digital Designer: Henno Reyneke
Copywriter: Jeanne Lloyd
Design Director: Aldo Pulella
Senior Project Manager: Ronel Landman
Business Unit Director: Emma Dougherty
Senior Digital Designer: Andre Lopion
Social Media Manager: Phike Mokuene
Head of Social Media: Kalliebree Keynerd
Production Company: they Shoot Films
Director: Grant De Sousa
Director of Photography: Alard de Smit
Executive Producer: Darren Gordon
Lead actor: Lusindiso Zondani
Stylist: Will Boyes
Post-production: Left, Chocolate Tribe, Tessa Ford Production
Production House Producer: Shannon Gloynne
Editor: Evyathar Katz
Colourist: Nick Apostoli
Online Operator: Simone Dokic
Music: Audio Militia
Audio: Lorens Persson
SFX: Choc Tribe Team
Visual Effects Supervisor / Producer: Rob van den Bragt
Lead Technical Director: Tiaan Franken
Compositors: Jannes Hendrikz, Johan Scheepers
3d Artist: Lionel Glenn Ewan, Casey Chelchinskey, Derik van der Berg,