Montefiore Einstein’s 2023 holiday ad, from agency Alto and director Tom Hooper, deftly frames medical advancement as a portal to childhood wonder—through the story of a boy with cerebral palsy whose use of eye tracking technology unlocks a world of imagination.
Inside Montefiore’s magical holiday ad about a boy’s epic flight of imagination
A two-minute version of the spot from the hospital system aired during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on NBC last Thursday. But the larger campaign—a full five-minute film and related digital experience—rolls out today.
The film stars a real boy with cerebral palsy, not an actor, who takes a fantastical journey with his brother over New York City on a giant inflatable dog—a flight of fancy made possible by the eye tracking technology, which helps him communicate, engage and embrace his creativity, and transports him well beyond his immediate surroundings.
Working with Hooper, an Oscar winner for “The King’s Speech,” the cinematic film was scored by composer Alexandre Desplat, who has two Academy Awards of his own, for “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “The Shape of Water.” Visual effects were done by The Mill.
Casting the hero role
Hooper, whose past work has focused on King George VI’s stammer in “The King’s Speech” to Lili Elbe’s gender dysphoria in “The Danish Girl,” felt it was important to cast a real child with a disability, not an actor, for the Montefiore project.
“Representing underrepresented groups on screen really matters—yet for so long, severe disabilities have tended to be represented by able-bodied actors,” he told Ad Age. “People are scared of the ‘what if’—especially with kids. What if the child gets tired after only an hour and the shoot day is over? What if they are overwhelmed by being on set? What if they don’t give the ‘right’ performance?”
In the end, none of those so-called risks materialized. Working with casting director Kathy Foronjy and her team, Hooper found a boy whose energy and enthusiasm were remarkable—then worked to make him feel safe on set as they filmed.
“Of course, children in this position don’t have agents and wouldn’t expect to have this opportunity to act, so we had to try every possible channel to find the right child for the hero role,” Hooper said. “We realized we might find someone great who lived out of state who, for medical reasons, wasn’t able to travel. So we really couldn’t believe it when we found the extraordinary Solo, who lived locally—in Queens—for this very New York story.”
During the shoot, Hooper and the team at Smuggler were careful not to overwhelm Solo or make him feel isolated for any shots. It helped that his loved ones were always nearby—his brother Ayon, who co-stars in the film, and his mother Shay.
“We created a relaxed and intimate atmosphere where Solo’s family and carer were not only welcome but encouraged to be around the camera,” said Hooper. “I had a wonderful first AD [assistant director] in Peter Jackson, who, from the moment he offered to carry Solo up to the third floor of the walkup apartment where we were shooting, created a great bond. At all times Solo was surrounded by those he loved, and those who quickly realized how lovable he was.”
Hannes Ciatti, founder and chief creative officer at Alto, has been steering Montefiore toward long-form content for years—from the 48-minute short film “Corazón,” which screened at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, to last year’s holiday spot, “Caring Makes Magic,” which was almost three minutes long.
This scope of this new story lent itself to a similar approach, he said.
“We treated this project like a short film and created a virtual writers’ room,” Ciatti said. “Our starting point was that the holidays are a time when communication, compassion and empathy—amongst families and friends—is so important. It is an ideal setting for this story of a child with disability and the powerful, magical world of his imagination.”
It was Loreen Babcock, chief marketing officer of Montefiore Einstein, who originally suggested the focus on eye tracking for the story. She connected the agency with Dr. Mark Mehler, a leading neurologist at the network, to learn more. Then, through a series of drafts of the script, the agency wove the technology story into a visually and emotionally rich family tale of togetherness.
“Working with Tom, it became clear that this story is about Solo’s journey to become closer to his brother, be his superhero, and the dream language allowed us to have some fun,” Ciatti said. “Why not chase a squirrel on a flying dog and get squeezed by trucks, and a moment later the old man who’s walking the Dachshund turns up as the gas station attendant, inflating and patching up the dog?”
“Perhaps the best decision I made at script stage was the introduction of Solo’s brother as a character,” Hooper said. “The bond Solo and Ayon had on set, and on screen, was magic—Solo is very social, so the best way to bring him out was to have him act opposite a contemporary who he really liked. I definitely had to adapt my directing style, as I realized creating the right context around Solo was everything—context defined performance.”
The digital experience
Along with the film, the campaign includes a site, MagicInAllOfUs.org, where visitors can experience what it’s like to use eye tracking to make art. This extends the theme of empathy and further raises awareness of innovative technologies in use by Montefiore.
Some 4 million people in the U.S. face challenges with their ability to speak, according to Montefiore Einstein, where neurologists pioneered the use of eye tracking technology to transform communication for some of these patients. Patients are able to use the technology to express themselves, revealing their hidden potential and giving them a voice.
“When I first saw eye tracking, it was enchanting—in part because these kids are so misunderstood ... almost like lost islands of internal thought,” Mehler said. “Seeing the level of joy that eye tracking brings out, and how it opens their world, is enchanting in a way few things are.”
Raising awareness will lead to better access to these innovative technologies, not just in the U.S. but worldwide, said Tara Fray, head of strategy at Alto.
“The statistics highlight the urgency and importance of this technology,” Fray said. “There’s some 50 million people worldwide who are unable to communicate without assistive technology. An estimated 2% currently have access to necessary communication aids. The other 98% remain silent.”
Along with raising awareness of eye tracking, Hooper said he hopes the film also makes a strong argument for featuring more people with disabilities onscreen.
“There were the usual production challenges—how to shut down 6th Avenue, how to frame for a vast balloon that wasn’t there, how to navigate shooting multiple scenes in dawn light, and the usual familiar adversaries of time and budget,” he said. “Yet for me, what could have been perceived as the central challenge was not a challenge, and I hope our story inspires more people to cast disabled actors as a matter of course, to give them a voice and much-needed presence on our screens.”