With global lockdown laws around the world bringing much of the world’s production industry to a halt, there are very visible - and understandable - trends in the type of work being released at the moment. Much of it is either pieced together from stock footage, relies on CGI or animation, or utilises user-generated content. But Craig Brownrigg, a director at Toronto company FRANK Content, wanted to create something that was original, funny and felt fresh. Something that didn’t begin with a voiceover referencing “these uncertain times…”.
He, the team at FRANK and Toronto agency Juliet have pulled off exactly that with this campaign for TABIA (Toronto Association of Business Improvement Area) and Distantly.ca (a website that people can go to to donate money to their favourite local business). The campaign is made up of three spots that show people in tricky situations in their homes, attempting to do things professionals would usually do. The real feat though is that the films just feel like well produced ads - in the best possible way. They were produced in lockdown, required particularly meticulous casting, and the actors also had to play production designers, camera operators and a whole host more roles. But you’d never guess when you see the films.
LBB’s Addison Capper chatted with Craig, Danielle Kappy, owner and executive producer at FRANK, and Laurent Abesdris, creative director at Juliet, to find out more about this feat of production.
LBB> What was the initial brief / script that you received and what were your thoughts when you initially saw it?
Craig> The brief was pretty simple; make some spots that will help remind people to support small businesses during this time. The second part of the brief was to create ads in isolation that showed the type of work that was possible these days. Most new content right now is comprised of only CG or animation, or uses existing footage or user generated stuff. But we knew we could execute original, new, and funny scripted spots - now we just had to do it - and then show it to the industry.
Danielle> It was a little unconventional, we wanted to make some spots that helped remind people to support small businesses during this time and also make them laugh.
We had to figure out a way to create them while in full isolation. Together, with Juliet Creative, we wanted to show that we can create and execute original content remotely during a lockdown
Laurent> Wouldn’t call it a brief exactly. I think the idea fell naturally out of a desire to do something for small businesses in a time when so many small businesses are struggling. When Danielle at FRANK Content brought us the idea, we immediately loved it. It was funny and had the potential to make an impact. Being a small business ourselves, we jumped on it.
LBB> What were your next steps from there? Laurent, you needed to write the campaign - but I guess you also needed to think about the feasibility to shoot it? How did that impact the process?
Laurent> FRANK Content had scenarios in mind when they approached us. We refined the scripts and paid special attention to WHAT we were asking people to do in the end. Partnering with Distantly.ca was key since it allowed the messaging to be about doing something today while waiting for small businesses to reopen.
In terms of the shoot itself, FRANK Content came equipped with a plan. They hadn’t tried it before but they were eager to test out a new, remote process. It sounded difficult but, importantly, it sounded doable, so we were thrilled to take part and learn right alongside them.
LBB> Comedic campaigns are few and far between at the moment, whereas I feel like I need a laugh more than ever. What were thoughts on that at first? Was it a different process to writing a comedy campaign for a 'normal' time?
Craig> Yeah that’s true. At first all of the new advertising work we were seeing was pretty serious in tone. I completely understand that. As a brand you certainly don’t want to swing and miss (ever), but particularly during this time. And when things are serious in the world it’s a natural instinct to mirror that tone in your ads and communications.
At the same time almost right away after the lockdowns started all the late night shows and comedians and comedy people were doing all this really funny stuff. SNL came back with shows that were really very funny and incredibly successful. That proved to us that people actually need a laugh now more than ever. So we figured we should approach this project with a lighter comedic tone. Certainly we didn’t need to see another spot that starts with a somber VO saying “In these uncertain times…”
Most of the work I have done in the past is comedy. So working on comedy spots comes pretty natural no matter what is happening in the world. It’s all about walking that fine line and finding the perfect tone that’ll make people laugh but not go too far and make it offensive or inappropriate considering what people are going through right now.
Laurent> I think what people ‘need’ as they navigate Covid-19 is constantly changing. At the onset, they needed reassurance and calm, which is why so much advertising focused on togetherness and caution. I think that need state quickly evaporated and that what remained was a desire for levity. That was always in focus as this idea came to life.
LBB> The casting for this campaign was particularly interesting. For example, you needed an actor with a dog, you couldn't just cast any actor and then a dog to feature with them. Tell us about that process!
Laurent> Not just that, our casting was also our location scout and tech scout since we had to shoot where our talent lived. Taking all of those things into consideration was really challenging but Mann Casting nailed it regardless. We were sent options that checked every box. They were talented. They had a partner who could shoot for us. They had a location/room that was perfect for the shoot. They had technical know-how… That’s A LOT to account for but they made it happen.
Danielle> Casting was definitely an interesting process on this project. We worked with Casting Director Steven Mann @ Mann Casting to find the best comedic union talent that fit within the specs of the scripts. Not only did they need to be great comedic actors but they also had to have a good understanding of technology. The talent was amazing to work with.
Craig> Casting was interesting on this one because usually all I am looking for are great comedic actors. But in this instance, we needed great comedic actors who also had to have other very specific sets of criteria. They had to understand how difficult technology worked for the video uploads, they had to have certain criteria in their own homes for us to shoot in, and of course in one case they needed a particular type of dog. It narrows the talent pool down fast. Thankfully we found some incredible actors who fit all of those casting specs perfectly.
LBB> There are extra laws in place in Canada right now to safeguard around shooting etc. Can you speak about those and how they influenced your approach to this project?
Danielle> At the moment film production of any kind, that is not related to news or specifically related to Covid, is considered non-essential. The city does not want us on the street filming even if we are properly distancing. Under these restrictions we decided to come up with a way of creating content with everyone dialing in remotely and still being able to film everything live.
LBB> And then the production - how did you make this work? For want of a better phrase, the films look like ads! They don't look self-shot, etc. They just look like well produced films. How did you make that possible?
Craig> That was my number one priority before we started this project. I said straight up that ‘if we can’t make these look like proper, beautifully executed and finished ads, I don’t want to do it at all’.
Even though literally all of this was done remotely in isolation, we still treated this exactly the way we would do any other shoot.
We had a great team of people get involved in the production and with post just like we would on any job - which helped make that a reality. Steven Mann did the casting to get the best actors. Brett Van Dyke was our DP and he helped make the spots look great. We had Darren Snowden doing the sound on our shoot day. Matthew Kett from School did the edit and led the post team. We did a full colour transfer and online. And we did a full audio session and sound mix.
Laurent> A lot of effort and a little luck. On shoot day, our DOP Brett Van Dyke was painstaking with his remote setups. He calmly walked our talent through camera positioning as well as lighting and in-app adjustments. After that, it was Craig’s job to bring out the funny, which he did incredibly well. Thing is, all of that set-up took a lot of time, so we didn’t have the opportunity to get a lot of takes. That’s where the luck came into play. Great performances over and over again.
What we learned on this shoot will help the set-up process go way faster next time so we envision more shooting and less set-up when we try this again. Once the shoot was over, the films were handled exactly the same way more traditionally shot films are handled. Editing was done remotely, and beautifully. Finishing was carefully considered, as was sound.
Danielle> Making the films look like ads was a big priority for us. The team worked really hard on making sure that they looked like real spots. We had a great DP, Brett Van Dyke, an amazing editor, Matt Kett @ School Editing, and a post audio team that we worked with at postRevolution, they were all a big part of making the spots look and sound great.
LBB> I imagine the actors needed to set up each production themselves. Craig, how did you oversee this to make sure that you got the shots you needed without making it too difficult for the actors?
Craig> Yeah the actors did way more than just act in this one. They were all amazing actors but also production designers and prop people and camera operators and I guess even craft service people (assuming they ate while on set).
We had to do a full ‘tech scout’ day before we did the actual shoot. It literally took longer than the shoot itself. We had to teach the actors how to operate the cameras and walk them through every single aspect of the shoot - which of course we never do. That’s all for the crew people to take care of regularly.
But on the shoot day, I just did exactly what I always do when I’m directing on set - I just did it over Zoom. The nuances like adjusting the camera positions and camera moves were tricky to be sure. But overall we tried to keep the set-ups and coverage simple so all we had to focus on the shoot day was the performances. I would watch their takes and give them notes just as I would any other time on set.
LBB> How did you find this way of directing / producing? What was the overall production like and how long did you spend on each film?
Craig> It was a challenge to be sure. But this is exactly what we do every day in production - we find creative solutions to problems. These days we have a new problem which is we aren’t allowed to all get together in the same place. So the amazing producers at FRANK sat down (in their own homes) and figured it out.
I’m making it sound simpler than it actually was but we knew early on there was going to be a way to make this great. We made a few mistakes along the way but we learned a lot and we’ll apply that learning to the next one until we're all allowed to go back to set and be together.
I’m not sure if this is going to be the future of production or not - that’s an entire other conversation. Right now we’re all still just guessing and speculating on what the future of production looks like. But to me this is proof that there is definitely a way to make great, funny ads, in the meantime.
Danielle> It was a challenge at the beginning as we worked through the best tech to make these spots so great. As a production company we are tasked with figuring out creative solutions to problems every day in production. Everyone at FRANK sat down via Zoom and we figured it out. We definitely learned a lot through the process. We filmed the three spots in one long day but we were only able to do this because we had a long technical rehearsal a couple days before that helped work through things with the talent and the agency.
LBB> And Laurent, how did you find creatively directing a production like this? What did you enjoy / not enjoy?
Laurent> From start to finish, this moved incredibly quickly which, while challenging, was also rewarding. Problems arose, decisions were made and actions were taken. Zero delay. How refreshing is that?
LBB> What were the trickiest components and how did you overcome them?
Craig> The trickiest component was the technology side. Things like how to get the footage uploaded from the actors’ phones so we could review it in a timely fashion. As you know, on a shoot day you have to keep stuff moving and this part slowed us down a lot. Thankfully that aspect, which was the biggest challenge, was actually the thing that had the simplest solutions moving forward.
I loved being a part of this project and taking on this new challenge. And I am really happy with how the spots turned out. I hope they will help the 40,000+ small businesses in Toronto that are struggling during this time.
But I will say that I missed being with the crew on set. Aside from just how much I like all of those people on a personal level, every one of the crew members brings something to each job that helps make it great. I wish they could all have been a part of this one too.
Danielle> Figuring out the tech side of things was the trickiest. We have learned from this shoot and have found solutions to any hiccups we had on the day. A project like this usually has at least a 45-person crew, taking on some of those roles or having to do without some of them also made things a bit tricky and we look forward to being back working with all of them again (hopefully soon).
LBB> Any parting thoughts?
Laurent> While trying to do good for the community, we also set out to prove that this production method is not just possible but viable. I think we’ve managed to do that here and that’s exciting, not just for our clients but for the production community at large. Here’s hoping more clients decide to go this route.