BBDO Germany’s Steffen Gentis and Knucklehead’s Max Fisher and Tim Katz tell LBB’s Alex Reeves how an extreme exercise in trust filled this truly global lockdown production with warmth and humanity
Many brands have found themselves less relevant to people’s lives in the pause to normal life that Covid-19 has caused, but Dr. Oetker isn’t one of them. While we’ve been cooped up in our homes protecting ourselves and society from the spread of a virus, the dinner table has maintained and even enlarged its special role as a place where life happens. And Dr. Oetker’s home baking products and pizzas have continued to be a source of solace and joy at that dinner table.
So the German-born brand didn’t have to deliberate for too long before deciding it was a good time to put out some global brand messaging in response to our newly mandated at home-ness, celebrating the place where their products come into their own. It began in the first week of lockdown for BBDO Germany. At the time, shooting commercials felt like a serious challenge, but an idea soon formed and production had to go forward quickly. The creatives approached BBDO Germany’s chief production officer Steffen Gentis with the challenge to put together a shoot of families with their lives newly centred around the table at home under lockdown, with the added not to “have it on air in a flash”.
Part One was made to be aired during lockdown.
Back in March, before we all got acclimatised to remote shooting and crowd-sourced ads, that was an interesting challenge. With shooting in other people’s homes out of the question, Steffen suggested they use the locations and talent accessible to directors and DOPs - their own homes and families. BBDO had used this approach for a baby brand before, with DOPs or directors filming their pregnant partners as their due dates approached. Steffen remembers it would get “closer, more authentic images than a fully kitted out film team could ever shoot in a day. So an approach that worked brilliantly for pregnant mums and especially babies, I was sure would work here.”
That meant the final commercial would be the work of 16 directors’ hands. So who directs the directors? BBDO selected one to guide the overall vision: Knucklehead’s Max Fisher. Steffen explains his selection: “Beyond being a superbly authentic performance driven director, Max is the perfect gentleman and has the most phenomenal social skill set (from his background as a trained social worker) so he was the perfect choice to lead a group of awesome individual directors under these extraordinary remote circumstances.”
Behind the scenes was also Tim Katz at Knucklehead, who stepped in to assemble an A-Team (“activating his all-star network” as Steffen puts it) including directors like Charlotte Regan, DOP Luke Jacobs, Cut + Run’s Rebecca Luff, The Mill’s James Bamford and the voice of Niamh Webb at Yakety Yak. Fortunately, with all their work cancelled by Covid, this elite team was free and ready to get to work.
“Steffen was very much the ‘Hannibal’ to our A-Team,” jokes Max. “One of those brilliant producers who is always ready to be brave and to trust and empower his team. He was always there for us if we needed guidance and not shy to tell me if an idea was no good. I learned a lot from him on this job.”
Putting together this team wasn’t just about finding the right directing talent though. It was a casting and a location scouting mission at the same time. They’d need a good mix of cast members - this was a global campaign and needed to feel universal. Max conducted location scouts, going through the keyhole of directors homes. In the absence of gaffers or lighting rigs it was important work out what time of day a certain spot would get the best natural light. “Sometimes it was about dressing a space, or just shooting in a corner rather than the tennis court size living room,” he says. Of course, shooting outdoors wasn’t out of the question everywhere in the world, so having access to a global network of production contacts meant that the team could work with countries where there was slightly more freedom of movement.
Max wasn’t wholly comfortable ruling with an iron fist over 15 other directors, so he took a characteristically touchy-feely approach. “Steffen decided early on that someone would need to lead our band as we rode into this uncharted territory, but of course, no director wants to be told what to do by another director, and I didnt want that either. Most importantly I didn’t want this to feel like a competition where we were all trying to outdo each other… we were a band of brothers and sisters working hard together and that was key - so I set up a WhatsApp group where I encouraged everyone to share all their ideas and their success and failures and funny experiences they had. This had the effect of bringing us close together very quickly. If someone wasn’t getting it quite right - then I would manage that on a side channel or a phone call, the group was all about togetherness and celebrating our venture. For example, I called my DOP friend Luke at one point to ask his opinion on the lighting on one of my shots - he said - you must knock out the front light - so I had to move fast before my kids lost the plot - my black out was guerrilla at best!”
All of the directors had to take a jack-of-all trades approach, actually shooting the video themselves - something Max hadn’t done professionally for at least five years. But they also had to perform every other on-set role themselves. As they were about to turn over on one of his own scenes, Max’s wife said to him, “I’m not having people seeing our windows that dirty.” Max protested that he’s not shooting towards the windows. “She just handed me the mop,” he says. “After this delay I decided I had to put my foot down rather meekly and said to my wife, ‘errr people don't usually talk to me like this on set my love’ - she just laughed and told me I'd missed a bit.”
All of this was very much against the clock, too. Max had to be in constant contact with the BBDO producers as well as the creatives as well as 15 directors. “I literally didn't see my family for two weeks, which was kind of funny as we were sharing a house,” he says.
Keeping it all coherent was a key priority Max wrote a style guide about how they should shoot - the dos and don'ts - and shared various reference films so that people could see where he wanted to take the film. “All heart, authentic and personal - nothing overly lit - no high frame rate, no crazy wardrobe… up close and personal and above all real. If your kids hate lockdown and are losing their shit - then shoot it. If you try a Skype call and it doesn't work, shoot it.”
The BBDO creative team Kristoffer and Veikko had written a set of vignettes, which were allocated to people based on their available cast - but Max was evangelical about improvisation. “Just catch those moments around a table which speak to lockdown. Lots of the best scenes were suggested by our team based on their own experience of lockdown arounds their family tables.”
It wasn’t just a muck about though. Max knew that this was a global ad campaign for a huge international brand and he was determined to make a film that defied the working restrictions Covid imposes. He drew endless storyboards and acted out many of the scenes with his own family to give the other directors guidance on camera angles and moves. He’d shoot them on his phone and ping them over.
It was possible to fire files around the world like this in huge volumes. As the footage started coming in, Max and editor Rebecca Luff started to build it into a film. “It became clear what was working so we could focus more on that - there is actually a real advantage of these very light shoot days,” says Max, “because you can get into the edit and you're not stuck with what you've got because it would cost you 100k to go again. So we could shoot to order once we had a rough cut, which was really a great advantage.”
Max is eternally grateful for Rebecca’s help in this process. One of London’s top editors, she’s cut almost every commercial he’s shot. “She is literally the hardest working person I have ever met and did herculean hours bringing their material down. I think I originally asked the directors for no more than 15 minutes of selected (which would of course have still been hours and hours) - in the end she had over a dozen hours of rushes from the first pass before we even started shooting pickups. Rebecca has a fantastic voice and she understands the heart which I want to bring to my films. I can't recommend her highly enough or overstate the key role she played.”
Part Two is a version for after lockdown ends.
The directors were shooting on everything from bulky Alexa Large Format cameras to old iPhones. Max was surprised that this didn’t end up being too much of a problem. “In the end it didn't seem to matter,” he says. “In fact, the less fussy the shooting style - the more attention they could pay to performance and vibe which is what this gig was all about.”
“Warmth and humanity are the most important elements of any film for me,” says Max. I set out to make films with deep human connections and for every frame to draw us closer to the characters and to empathise with them and feel their journeys. This was something we talked about a lot during shooting and worked hard on in the edit. A lot of the warmth of a film comes from its cast - of course for the most part we couldn’t cast so we had to find ways to put our families at ease and shoot them in situations which felt natural to them.
“I think it's really important to credit the brilliant directors and DPs who shot this job when it comes to the vibe - they all gave so much of their time, effort and love. Sure this is how I wanted it to turn out - but the warmth and the vibe and the love which shines through on screen is absolutely down to the brilliant team and their hard work.
“Part of it for me is to give ourselves room to interpret a script. Of course every script sets out to sell something but if we let ourselves get caught up in that thing we’re selling then we miss the most important thing which is to create a human connection. Here we all are in lock down - and sure we’re baking and eating pizza - but what we really long for is to connect with the rest of the world and the other families who are living the same experience. Once we’ve achieved this emotional connection, then sliding Dr. Oetker products in is the easy bit.”
From a producer’s perspective, one thing Tim has seen on all of the lockdown jobs Knucklehead has been doing is that the honesty of the relationship between client, agency and production partners is ever more vital in terms of making sure everyone is talking openly and moving in the same direction. “Creating a piece of film is a subjective thing,” he says. “Everyone’s optics are naturally different and so the process for all of us has always been to try and shape something in a way that we see it, whilst making sure that it’s going in the same direction that other people want. Getting that balance is where the magic happens - directors challenge creatives, producers challenge directors, directors challenge DOPs. It’s not a bad thing - the creative challenge is what makes a job more than the sum of its parts. This has to happen, but when you’re working remotely, talking through video, everything is one stage harder. So you have to make the communication more open, more fluid, more trusting to offset that. And I think it’s something that worked extremely well on this job.”
Likewise, Steffen would define this whole process with two words - collaboration and trust: “Collaboration and trust between the directors and their families, getting in closer to people than any ‘normal’ production could. And families trusting their directors to show something honest and respectful; collaboration and trust between different directors, spread around the world, and Max; collaboration and trust between CraftWork (BBDO’s in-house production) with Knucklehead, Cut + Run and The Mill; and collaboration and trust between the productions and BBDO and the client.
“It was really interesting to see how that trust always worked in both directions. And while all film-making is based on trust, this model relied heavily on it and the results resonate accordingly. So this is definitely a production model that is one that we will continue to explore and refine, particularly as we move forwards after lockdown, into the next phase of production landscape.”
Directors:Anastasia Kovalchuk, Arne Totz, Augusto de Fraga, Charlotte Regan, Christofer Vibenius, Dominik Wieschermann, Eric Yealland, Florian Meimberg, Job van As, Kris Debusscher, Luke Jacobs, Mario Feil, Mikko Lethinen, Niels Grabol, Sven Schrader
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