2020 has been a year of both dark clouds and silver linings, with a wealth of lessons to be learnt regardless of your default view.
We saw easy tasks become as difficult as President Ramaphosa found putting on a mask. Worse still, there remained things that were never easy to do in the first place. These graduated to mission impossible, except very few of us can lay claim to the innate agility of an Ethan Hunt in a life-threatening situation.
But being agile in thought and practice was what we needed to survive a minefield of a year like 2020.
NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART
Shooting a TV commercial can be a fulfilling experience. The process from brief to persuasive moving picture is often stressful but worth the effort, especially when the client’s customers are motivated to keep bringing in business.
However, this doesn’t mean that shooting a TVC is easy. In fact, creating a commercial video of any kind is a profound challenge. You have to keep track of all the moving parts and sustain a delicate balancing act of creative mastery that makes business sense.
After all, the client’s audience wants to see something interesting when they’re being interrupted during Uzalo or Isibaya. Better still, the client wants to see positive results in their sales reports after investing pretty pennies to get their message out.
It was always going to be an uphill battle to produce four TV commercials during lockdown, but that was what our client, Pres Les, needed to remind its audience of their role in society as pillars of women empowerment.
STAGE-FRIGHT FROM HOME
Portia, our lead character, sits on the well-draped bed. Visible frustration grips her youthful face as the director tells her that we’ll need another take. Portia has to try for the umpteenth time to convey the message.
They’re shooting in a humid room at a house somewhere in La Lucia, north of Durban. Space is at a premium, but the house is versatile enough for the ad’s four different settings and it came with an in-house dog, Willy.
As cosy as the spot was, it came with its constraints. We had to create four different sets in the same location to do all the videos and the stills. Trying to communicate four visually dynamic, stylish and appealing stories is a big ask.
Worse still, were the coronavirus restrictions we had to contend with. This led to the shoot being done by a rudimentary crew and limits as to how many people could be in a room at any given time.
NO ANIMALS WERE HARMED IN THE MAKING OF THESE ADS…
But a couple of pathogens probably were.
We observed all necessary safety precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and we are thankful that nobody on the production team was diagnosed with the illness during the shoot or immediately after production.
In hindsight, having the inescapable smell of sanitiser in the air throughout the shoot worked out for the better and this was by design.
We appointed a CSO (COVID Safety Officer), who marshalled the set, overseeing the crew and casts’ safety by reminding everyone to maintain social distance and keeping us well-doused in sanitiser between takes and breaks. Our CSO also made sure that the CVS (COVID Venue Sanitiser) kept the surroundings virus-free for our safety.
DON’T FORGET YOUR MASK!
Masks presented real difficulty when it came to communication on set. They limited the clear exchange of input from the directors and made shooting last longer than it otherwise might have. Nonetheless, everyone made it a point to keep them on to protect the talent who couldn’t.
BIG STORIES, BIG PRESSURE
After a mini-break and chat with Shaun, Portia comes back re-energised and happy to try again. Shaun was enlisted in pre-production to run the talent through how they could best approach the script. He joined us on-set to give live pointers between takes and keep everyone calm when frustration threatened to get the better of us.
In general, the atmosphere during shooting was one of calm. Everyone from the Collective to the crew and the cast was jovial and spirits were high because we understood that this was good work for a big brand.
Pres Les played their part and sent a brand rep who gave us valuable insights into the brand’s culture and what it means to their customer base. She shared inspiring stories about their business and the hyper-successful businesspeople who got a start through them. The pressure was now on us to capture these stories.
TICK-TOCK, NO VIDEO
This saw the nerves pile on as fast as the re-takes did. An inappropriate tonal switch here, a twist of the tongue there – we sometimes saw little progress being made for longer than we’re proud to say, which naturally came with agitation.
Time-anxiety wastes more time than taking your time does.
IT TAKES TIME TO MAKE TIME
Time spent off-camera is paramount in building trust and rapport with the cast. Although we didn’t have much of it to play with, the little we took to help us tap into the talent’s natural speaking cadences saw us make quick work of whatever time deficit may have developed.
In a similar way, when directors and talent start understanding each other, we see on-screen magic. Especially when it comes to the delivery of lines.
And these lines were special. As written by our senior copywriter, Patrick, the script used a low wordcount to express a succinct but powerful story, within COVID constraints. This meant Pat had to write:
- A script that wouldn’t go against virus-prevention logic. So, it had to portray an individual character’s thoughts, as opposed to their place among a group of people.
- A script for different coronavirus contexts. At the time, the country was still on Alert Level 3.1.5, which meant the script needed to resonate with the audience during lockdown but also beyond it.
Thankfully, we were able to agree on the ideal format for the ads to exist within the above constraints. With Pat’s stellar work in conveying the story of these characters, it was now left to the cast and directors to communicate these ideas for the finished product.
THE GOLDEN MOMENT
Portia now smiles as Willy joins her on the bed. The grateful canine wags his tail, mirroring the excitement in the room. “Yup, that’s the one”, says an indistinct voice heard cutting through the chatter. The director walks over to congratulate Portia on a job well done. Everyone was all smiles and the room buzzing.
Some may think Portia’s triumph over the script came out of nowhere. But looking closer, she was consistently reassured and guided through the whole process. She was given time to make mistakes. She was given time to do better even when she had already done well enough to not fluff up a take. This showed that we trusted her, which built her trust in us, allowing her to understand our vision and align herself with it.
We might have had a singular focus on our desired outcome, but we also understood the constraints around the situation and employed agility in how we viewed obstacles at various points in the shoot.
AND IT DON’T STOP…
The job is never done until the client’s order books are overflowing, but Pres Les was thrilled when the final product was presented to them. It portrayed the potential of what their product can do for the next generation of ambitious women, just as they had wanted.
The Whalley Collective can look back at these ads with pride because of what it took to get them done during a national crisis. Lessons were learnt, knowledge was gained and agility was displayed throughout the shooting of the commercial. Here’s hoping things will be easier next year.