A Slow Burst

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When it comes to advertising soda, most brands, unsurprisingly, go for the sweet and saccharine approach, made to attract legions of kids (or adults wanting to feel like kids) to their particular brew of sugar water. Familiar devices include cartoon characters, celebrities and whimsical song-and-dance numbers. Schweppes, however, is a bit different. Seeing as the brand's carbonated offerings are limited to ginger ale, tonic and soda water, its Happiness Factory would have to include whiskey, gin or vodka. And we're pretty sure you can't make booze cartoons. That said, George Patterson Y&R and director Garth Davis created "Burst," a whimsical spot happy enough for kids and nostalgics while remaining thoughtful and visually compelling enough for the tipplers.

We spoke to Davis about technical and creative challenges of creating the spot. And, of course, about water balloons.

What was the brief for this spot?
I wasn't given a script, which was pretty cool. I was given what we're calling an "ideas document," and in that the agency had discovered this high-speed camera and knew it would capture exploding water balloons in pretty amazing ways. So I thought it was a great technology and great way to express that moment of opening a bottle of Schweppes. They did have a script that they showed the client to give them an idea of what might happen, but they were adamant not to show the director. They really wanted me to interpret the idea so it wasn't contrived and had a certain artistry to it.

What kind of tech was involved in filming the spot this way?
It was shot with Photron cameras, which shoot up to 10,000 frames per second, so it was a whole new journey for me since I'd never worked with these before. The DP had worked with an earlier model of the camera but they'd since improved it. It used to be that there would be this flicker when you were shooting above 5,000 frames per second but we managed to get that addressed and fixed. It was a major challenge and I could go on about it forever. Everyone's familiar with popping water balloons–you've seen it, I've seen it, kids see it, grandmothers see it–but they've never seen it like this before. I think what's so exciting about the camera is that it doesn't contrive anything, it just shows you something you're familiar with but in a completely different way. That's where technology like this works, instead of inventing the reality in a CG sort of way. Viewers will love it because they'll know it's real and still can't believe that's what it actually looks like.

How were the balloons punctured? Did that differ from scene to scene?
I broke the spot up into themes like popping, dropping and exploding and most of the balloons we used are standard ones that you'd buy in a shop. So you either pop them with needles or you chuck them at someone's head or you drop them on the ground. All pretty simple, human ways of popping them as you would normally. But when you're shooting them at 10,000 frames, suddenly they become these very beautiful things. Also, obviously, scale was something I wanted to explore and we tried to get the biggest balloons we could but there's a point when the mass of water is far too much for anything resembling a store-bought balloon. So we explored that a bit and we found some that got up to about a meter in diameter, which we'd drop out of cranes and detonate in the air with explosives inside. So all that was highly challenging, but I really wanted to get some large balloons in there so I could open up the landscape more.

How much of the spot was visual effects?
The entire thing was shot in camera. The only post was in painting out the crane rig but other than that, every single shot is in camera. There's no compositing. Even the guy in the forest. He was actually running at the same time that the balloon blew up. It almost looks like he's standing still, but he's actually running.

What were some of the biggest challenges? Any scene in particular?
I think the biggest challenge was coordinating a moment of action that was only a second to two seconds long, and then in those seconds I had to make sure I had the emotion of the performances and the water being in sync. For instance, that shot with all the kids' feet, I can't tell you how hard that was. Even if one kid jumped a millisecond later than another, at 10,000 frames it might as well be a minute later. So to try and get all the feet lifting off the ground at the same time was really hard. I'd have the slow-motion shot planned out in my head, but to make that actually happen was incredibly difficult.
The exposure was also difficult. Even though the cameras are really good with shadows, there's a moment when water explodes that it can blow out so the exposure had to be set to that. So when you're looking at the monitor, it looks nearly black. Luckily [with this camera] you can underexpose shadows massively and it still comes out beautifully. There was a lot of time looking at the screen and hoping it would be all right, just trusting the camera.

Did all this coordination, in terms of getting all the timing right, require a lot of takes?
Not really because the reset time was quite big. With detonations, we only had a certain amount of budget and the reset time can take 40 minutes to an hour. And the scene is just a second long–you drop a massive balloon out of a crane and it explodes, which only takes a few seconds to happen. It's almost a bit unsatisfying at the moment of directing it because it's over so quickly. Also, to save a shot it takes 10 to 20 minutes. So it's not like film where you just keep shooting and shooting.

How did that affect your working style?
It just slows everything down because there's all this crap attached to you. You've always got an umbilical cord. The most frustrating thing was, with film, the DP and I can jump in my car and go to the next location with a box of lenses and a camera to eyeball the next shot but with this you can't. There is no optical view-finder, you've got to plug in a monitor and it's got to be connected to a computer. So that was the most frustrating part, limiting that energy you can have with film where you can just muck around and find frames. With this you've got to drag everyone along and plug everything in...it just forces you to be very patient.

Your spots always have a strong visual element, but tend to be either big, wide-open productions like Toohey's Catapult and the Xbox 360 "Cops and Robbers" or more introspective like Sony's "Kiss" and Herringbone's "Henri." Where does this one fit?
Yeah, this was definitely in the realm of Sony "Kiss." It's almost like an inward focus, where Xbox and all that other stuff is just massive and very free with high energy, giving it an exhilarating quality. This is much more technical and focused, and the restraint is smaller and more inward. So that was really interesting.

Do you prefer one style over the other?
Well, I feel more at home shooting things that happen more freely but I was really excited about taking on the challenge of this and not just making it a visual effects ad. I really saw something different in it, just a different way of looking at things.

Did you have a favorite scene during shooting?
One of the highlights was the water fight we constructed with all the people in dinner suits and dresses. The client really wanted to see a sense of friendship and for me, the only way to get a real performance like that with water balloons is to have them throw the balloons at each other. So when (the actors) came down all dressed up, they didn't know what was going on. Then we started handing out all these water balloons and said, "We're all going to throw these at each other's heads." And they all got so excited, like little kids. So it was just this gloriously fun moment.
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