People expect certain things to be bland: saltine crackers, the DMV, CSPAN, high school reunions more than 20 years after high school, and financial commercials. Are these kind of ads just uninteresting because finance itself isn’t particularly exciting? Or is it possible that advertisers just haven’t given these ads the chance to be meaningful?
This was the question Zandrak got to tackle this past month during our latest spot, "Where First," a commercial for Dale Frank Financial Services. Going into this project, we were prepared for the massive challenge of trying to find something personable about finance and retirement planning; but what we quickly found out is that the challenge was really only an imagined one.
Finding the Story
"Where First" began as a series of words on a whiteboard, the debris of a brainstorm about any and all things financial services. This is how we begin any project- coming up with a massive list of words, and then narrowing it down to just five central ideas. Our earliest group of words read like a bank brochure, with examples like "security" and "planning" amongst a series of other buzzwords we must have absorbed while waiting in line for an ATM. These were the words of a financial service, sure, but we had set out to make a piece for the people that the service helps- their words were the ones we needed to find. We started to examine these initial words, and ask "what do these really offer?" What do words like “retirement” and “security” really mean to someone planning for them? Our list of words quickly began to grow, filling up our board with the aspirations, hopes, conceptions, and worries that people hold about financial planning. We began to get a vision for two characters, youthful in spirit despite the years they had spent together, who were reaching a new step in life that might allow them to be adventurous in a new way. Retirement was no longer a title of a banking pamphlet, it was the promise of new memories to be made.
The Right Team, the Right Place
With our characters' lives in mind and a commercial to make, we set out to Martha's Vineyard to shoot. Thanks to the hospitality of friends and family we'd met during our Everything is Story shoot, most of our logistics had already been figured out before arriving on the island. Central to this was the attic space in which most of the story’s action takes place. We loved this space, nestled away on top of our director’s cousin’s house, primarily because it was small enough that we could dress it elaborately for each locale, but also because it was a generally unique space to invite our viewers into. This was the sort of space we needed to tell the story we wanted to. In this room, our characters were free to dream and make their own future, to share their lives in a way that still benefited from financial planning, but with an emphasis on what made their planning special and personal. We had the perfect, unique space to create our DIY adventures. All that was left to do was collect a team of equally unique and DIY-minded collaborators.
Now if we wanted to create worlds out of a tiny attic, we were going to need a world-builder: enter the ever talented and multi-faceted Rachael Currie. We met Rachael back in 2013 during a shoot for Harpoon brewery, and ever since have found every excuse we can to bring her up from Texas to help us out. You might recognize her from the film as the young wife, but what you don't see is all the hours of designing, prepping, and dressing she did to create our sets! From the sea to the rainforest to the mountains, Rachel's production design is what brought our plans for a DIY traveling couple to life.
But then of course we needed someone able to capture our story, and do so given an odd (tiny) space and a lot of technical tomfoolery: our man for the job was the truly inventive and super savvy Kunitaro Ohi . Kuni is a cinematographer from Washington DC who we met on set in Toronto (this is actually the first work of his with Zandrak you've seen, as the other project he worked with us on is soon to be released). He's incredibly versatile, and with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things camera related he was perfect for meeting the challenges of the shoot and achieving the aesthetic we needed. All it took was his creativity, expertise, and his suggestion of a new camera, to bring “Where’s First” to screen.
An Old But New Tool
So we had our story, our location, and our team, which meant the last thing we had to do was equip them. We knew ahead of time that we wanted there to be a distinct difference in quality between the present day footage and the past footage of the couple's adventures. This presented us with two options. We could shoot the past scenes on the Red Epic we used for the modern day parts and then add considerable film grain and color correction in post, or we could get a second camera that would enable us to practically take more vintage looking footage that would require less editing. We wanted to avoid any approach that “left it all to post,” so we decided to go the practical route and get a specialized camera; wherever possible, practical over post seems the stronger approach to us anyway.
Instead of going off the deep end and shooting on an actual film camera, we went with a suggestion from Kuni and got our hands on the recently released Digital Bolex. This camera is a modern update to the classic 16mm Bolex that you have probably seen before even if you didn't know what it was called. The Digitial Bolex proved to be an invaluable tool, as it was able to capture footage that had the character of an old, film based camera without disrupting our otherwise entirely digital workflow. On top of that, the Digital Bolex has a c-mount that can fit much older style lenses than most modern cameras; so we looked around and dug up an old set of Swiftar Primes with just enough damage and imperfections to give us that final personal touch of classic, at-home filming. In this way we were able to minimize the amount of post-processing that would need to be done to keep the modern day and “remembered” scenes visually distinct.
The Right Time for the Right Everything Else
The last complication to consider for our shoot was timing. We ended up shooting on the weekend of Mother's day, a conflict which ideally we would have liked to avoid but became unavoidable as production moved along. But knowing this to be case, our director Charles got an idea. Remember the lovely woman in the end? The one ready to set off for adventure, suitcases packed? Well she happens to be Charles' mom, and when we finished rolling on Mother's day, the team got a chance to thank her for helping us out, and Charles got to surprise her with flowers and gratitude for much more than just acting.
We had all sorts of fun making "Where First," and the whole Zandrak team is itching to make another project that finds an engaging way to present commercial work. You can check out our last blog about branded storytelling for more about how we're approaching our work and some cool examples of other artists that are doing it. And if you have any questions or thoughts about the spot, let us know! You can talk to us in the comments below, on Facebook, Vimeo, or by email!