I found it tough updating my blog from November 2011 until now (Nov 2012) due to reasonably high volume of work and very little down time. Much of it was based in countries that made it tough to regularly blog from so I apologies to those who wanted to follow along. Its always good to be busy so I guess its a welcome situation but I do want to share with you now some of my experiences.
After completing a Commercial for Minute Maid Juice (China) with only a day to spare, I flew from Singapore to Shanghai. The final presentation, on the 25th of November, had gone very well and it was to be the last time that Damien Yang and myself were to work together, out of Post House Blackmagic Design Singapore, since that companies withdrawal from production work. Landing in Shanghai on the 26th of November, I stepped into preproduction meetings with Production House The Loft Films and Agency Leo Burnett. The script had been handed to me while I was still in Singapore and I had written a comprehensive treatment for it, adding both scenarios and enhancements to the storyline. The Agency was very receptive to my ideas and our initial meetings proved to be very fruitful. My producer, Geok Lem supplied me with a fantastic assistant director, Stella and we set about planing a multi day shoot in Beijing. On the 28th of November, Geok, Stella and myself presented our game plan, at Coca Cola’s Shanghai office. The Client was very enthusiastic and by the afternoon, Stella and I were on a flight to Beijing. Luckily, Geok had previously taken me out to Decathlon – a huge and inexpensive outdoor clothing company – where I was able to buy myself some high quality, cold weather climate clothing and shoes. Beijing was fast entering the depths of winter and temperatures during the day were hovering around the 0˚C! When we arrived in Beijing late in the evening, we received a warm welcome from the local production assistance who immediately took us out for dinner. A massive pig was promptly BBQ’ed before us and a lot of food was consumed!
For the next few days, Stella, Geok and I visited many locations around Beijing, met with most of the crew and generally prepared for a difficult shoot. The weather was showing all the signs of becoming a problem with a huge dumping of snow onto Beijing on the 29th! To be honest, I was amazed at how different Beijing looked after a snowfall and took the opportunity to go see the Forbidden City & Tiananmen Square whilst under snow!
The TVC required a lot of background plates for a fast paced walking sequence. For this, I had been shooting plates with my 5D2 in Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia. Now it was time to film more in Beijing. So Geok sent me along with a local fixer and using my slider I was able to film quite a few plates suitable for our project. The TVC is based around the concept of Chinese superstar athlete Sun Yang making his way to the London Olympic Games with a little help from Coke! So we see him relaxing with friends at a party before heading off on his journey across China and then across the world. Its a sort of visual metaphor for his hard work, to make it to the games with scenes involving him evading bad weather, the press, catching cabs, avoiding distractions while always marching forward along his journey. For me it was an opportunity to play with visual rhythm, seamless transitions and compact a lot of story in a short amount of time. I had great support from Agency creative Colin Lee, who actively involved himself into the project. Another person joining us in Beijing was Damien Yang, now representing his new company Voltfx Shanghai! He had made the switch and had moved to Shanghai lock stock and barrel and was energised to start his first real job with me on this Coke TVC. Also from Singapore was DOP and friend Goh Meng Hing, who arrived in Beijing in time to see the locations with us. Goh had previously shot my Ponds TVC for Jakarta and I truly value his expertise as Cinematographer. He could also speak Mandarin fluently which turned out to be incredibly handy. However its his creative ability that I enthusiastically embrace on each project. We think alike when it comes to filmmaking and in a logistically challenged environment like this current project, that counts for a lot!
With a large crew, cast of a many and a horrendously early start, we began production on the 4th of December 2011. The temperature at 4am was -22˚C and Geok had organised massive blow heaters, tents and good catering to keep us all happy! The first scene we shot was our London arrival scene. Shot in central Beijing, we dressed the street with bollards, post boxes, a London Cab, a Phone Box and signage to suspend disbelief that this was London in the middle of summer! In post, Damien and Nuke artist Garth O’Brien replaced parts of the shot and included “Big Ben” and other London buildings and tracked in additional signage plus other enhancements such as a hint of sun! The scene had about 40 extras milling about some of whom had to be dressed in summer outfits. One particular girl from the Ukraine wore a very short mini skirt and blouse as she rushes out from inside the phone box! I still don’t know how she managed not to freeze! At times, Damien and his team had to remove the effects of breath in freezing cold conditions to stop the visual betrayal of winter! In any case, the shoot was quite a challenge even with a huge supportive crew to help make it happen!
Still on day one, we moved up the road to the next location where an even bigger challenge awaited – the “rain scene”! Twenty or so rain towers had been setup with a long hose emanating from a large tanker truck parked along the street. The tanker still had snow all over it as it began to pump freezing cold water into the air! Fifty extras with umbrellas began to run as we follow Sun Yang along a 20 meter section of track. He is momentarily distracted by a beautiful and skimpily dressed woman who passes him by drinking coke, but soon begins to run to avoid getting wet from the rain! It was a very large scene involving a lot of work to get the right visuals since it was filmed in a very public place. The location was well suited to our needs though and provided some nice depth and realism.
After several takes, we finished that scene and moved on again. “The paparazzi scene” involved a precision “wipe” past a lamp post which transits us to a fast paced scene, where Sun Yang dodges the press to catch a cab. The camera had to land exactly in front of the Cab (a Beijing taxi) so that we could match frame it to several other Cabs in a rapidly cut sequence. At the end of day one, we shot several more cabs on the back of a low loader to complete that sequence, by driving them around central Beijing. That was another particularly freezing experience!
Our schedules for each day were highly vulnerable to weather conditions and had to incorporate the extremely short shooting day due the low height of the Sun. In total I think we really only had 4-5hrs per day of usable light! Add our location moves, huge cast, special effects requirements, weather etc and it was quite a challenge! The end of day one saw the abandonment of one scene in particularly.
Day two started with another extremely early start. We drove out to a location on the outskirts of Beijing, to a place that looked quite rural. Unfortunately the scene we shot there was eventually deleted as it felt too much out of place. Timing wise, the TVC was already jammed full and the scene really needed a lot more time for it to work. I hate cutting scenes after they are shot due to the waist but this one was necessary. The images we shot though were none the less spectacular. It was a very nice scene – it just didn’t fit the rhythm of our TVC. In the scene, we see Sun Yang walking along a country road when a tractor overtakes him. He chases after the tractor but is soon left behind. The scene was there to show the struggle Sun Yang had to face to make it to the games. A couple of images from that scene are below.
The temperature that morning was torturously cruel with a figure of about -25˚C reported by someone! In any case, we pushed through that mornings schedule and moved on to a Swim Centre where we shot the interior of Sun Yang’s arrival at the London games. At least the temperate was super warm in comparison! Typically though the pool was surrounded in blue mats and generally had the corporate colour scheme of a competing product so Geok had organised through the Art Department, to replace giant sized lengths of rubber matting with red ones! The Agency and I had pushed Coke for access to real Olympic venues since they were indeed official sponsors of the Games, however gaining access to any of the Beijing Olympic venues was almost impossible. We did shoot exteriors of the Birds Nest, Olympic Swim Centre etc as background plates but they were all removed during Post. Instead, Damien Yang was asked how he could make the Swim Centre location more “grand in scale” by perhaps including a bigger grandstand, flags etc. In post, Garth and Damien worked miracles by tracking in 2D photos of a grandstand, generic flags and adding lighting enhancements to complete the illusion. It looks great but was a lot of additional work.
The last scene for Day two was a scene dubbed “Unicycle”. Leo Burnett wanted to add a “surprising” element to the script where something unusual happened and we wrote in a scene where Sun Yang comes across some Unicyclists. I wanted to use the overlapping wheels coloured the same as the Olympic rings but again that idea was quashed for legal reasons. Somehow, later on during preproduction, that scene became a delivery mechanism to give Sun Yang a 300ml bottle of Coke. We had attempted to shoot the scene on day one in the afternoon, but bad weather had set it and the while we had gone to the trouble of setting up all the art direction, staging and dolly track, the images we shot that day were awful!
So attempt number two was very well rehearsed! Of five unicyclist, two were told to sit out to avoid legal issues. As usual what appears to be a simple scene turned out to be quite difficult as one rider was rather novice and struggled to remain in formation.
On the last day of the shoot, day three of Main Unit production, we shot the opening sequence of the TVC – a rooftop party scene! Again the weather had turned on us and was now delivering snowfalls on the outskirts of Beijing. Client and Agency had negotiated an outdoor BBQ party location for this scene, despite our concerns about weather. Several other venues had been rejected as Beijing’s trees had gone into winter hibernation and no longer looked green and much of the ground still had snow drifts from the earlier snowfall. So our location manager found an open space on a rooftop cafe that ordinarily would have been perfect. Only on this day, it was probably one of the worst places we could have been! Large snowflakes began to fall just as we began to roll cameras! Goh had to deploy large 20′x20′ and 12′x12′ scrims to keep the set free from snow, but they eventually had to be emptied of snow to avoid collapsing under the weight. the production stills show the extent of the situation quite graphically I think. Damien, during post production, had to remove falling snow flakes out of that scene and put in anything to suggest warmth! We ended up playing with the Grade, adding sun flares and all sorts of tricks to make it work.
Now would be a good time to explain something quite important. Up until now I’ve described shooting with our hero Sun Yang as if he was actually there with us all the way! In fact, we had him for only 4 hours and on one day only! Originally I was told that I could have him for a least two days but thats not what eventuated. Sun Yang is China’s leading swimming star at the moment and was very busy training both in Beijing and in Australia (Brisbane/Gold Coast) for the London Olympics. Unsurprisingly having him for more then 4 hours would be impossible. So how did we manage to shoot what appears to be a seamless one shot commercial featuring Sun Yang?? I was forced to shoot with a double for most of the time. I had designed my shots so that mostly we see Sun Yang from the side, walking and running. You can get away with a lot by simply staging however at times we had to go a bit further.
Damien Yang was tasked with the job of replacing our doubles face with Sun Yang’s! So finally when we arrived at the studio on Day3, we spent much of the day shooting the end scene in the locker room and all the elements that Damien needed to go about replacing the doubles face! That meant shooting him against green screen on a treadmill, on a chair which we used as a crude turntable to enable Damien to acquire enough angles of SunYangs face. I kept performance simple as a result to enable the face replacement to be successful but it was limiting to some degree. Incredibly I think what Damien was able to achieve is remarkable. Given our ridiculously short post period, the Christmas break approaching, Damien’s move to China and the setting up of his post house Voltfx, the weather conditions, limited shooting time etc etc I’m very proud of what we achieved as a team. I would like to especially thank Geok Lem for her support right through this production. Her knowledge and expertise guided us through the many pitfalls of producing a TVC in the middle of winter in China as well as putting together an excellent team to handle virtually any request.
The final leg of this story ends with a shift to Shanghai for Post. For the next few weeks we cut the Offline at Attic Post with Terence, graded the rushes from the RED Epic at PO Shanghai with Kit and then moved to Damien’s new digs at Voltfx. Damien and I have worked on so many projects together but this time things were different. He was operating under his own terms and I still relied heavily on his ability to deal with all the technical challenges of putting this TVC together. In many ways it required an army of post production people and yet Damien and Garth essentially handled it all on their own. That’s pretty incredible given the amount of rotoscoping, morphing, stitching, tracking and other routines they performed! So to Damien – thank you as well! What you did was incredible!
During my postproduction time I managed to go see (with Damien) Zhouzhuang just outside Shanghai which is quite amazing. They shot part of Tom Cruise’s “Mission Impossible 3″ there as its water canals are often referred to as the Venice of the east! There are quite a few ancient towns and cities that look similar in China including around Hangzhou and Suzhou but this place was quite spectacular. Finally we presented to Agency and Client and we had the approval to finish the TVC. So on the 17th of December, I flew via Melbourne to change out my bags, pick up my family and fly directly (on the same day) to Bali Indonesia for a well earned family vacation. I was still approving final renders whilst celebrating Christmas in Bali but at least the temperature was now nice and warm! Some would say extreme given I had just flown from -20˚C to +30˚C! However for the next two weeks I enjoyed being with my family before flying back to China to begin the next adventure!
Agency: Leo Burnett Shanghai
Client: Coca Cola Company China
GCD: Colin Lee
ECD: Amanda Yang/Gordon Hughes
Agency Producer: Christine Chen
Production Producer: Geok Lem
Director: Karl von Moller
Assistant Director: Stella
Cinematographer: Goh Meng Hing
Post Production: Voltfx
Lead Compositor: Damien Yang
Nuke Artist: Garth O’Bryan
Audio Post Production: The Gunnery Singapore
Composer: Ben Rosen