On Reflection: Rogier van der Ploeg on a Pachyderm Punch
CZAR Amsterdam director Rogier van der Ploeg remembers his 1996 Grand Prix-winning spot, Rolo Elephant.
CZAR Amsterdam director, Rogier van der Ploeg, looks back on pachyderm punches and the beauty of simple in his 1996 Grand Prix-winning spot
When I got the job, I had very little commercial experience, though I’d been making music videos as a one-man-band for a long time. My passion was to make things come alive in moving images, and commercials seemed like a nice and lucrative sidestep.
There wasn’t even a real budget for Elephant, as Lintas, the agency, had another Rolo script [for Cinema, which also won a gold Lion] that was more important. It was our first time working with the agency, so we went all out to make it work. We tagged the Elephant shoot onto the Cinema shoot and, with a mini-crew, me doing my own camera work and the animal handler tossing in a free camel, managed to shoot it in a simple way.
The elephant’s revenge is such a classic story, and somehow combining children and animals seemed like a nice challenge for a film production. Whatever the saying, neither animals nor children tend to overact in commercials, and therefore I find both of them rewarding to work with.
Casting the kid (and his older ‘self’) was a challenge. We had a lot of kids in, but one stood out: he was really cocky and wasn’t fazed by the cameras. Finding an ‘older’ version was harder. The actor that finally nailed it managed to get the same look in his eyes. Of course we helped [the resemblance] a little by giving them both a funny knitted waistcoat.
The shoot itself was blessed with sunshine (which is unusual for Holland!). The opening scene was at a zoo in Ede, where a baby elephant had just been born. There was no budget for any animal training; the zookeepers just followed my directions and helped move the elephants around. I had made a very simple shot list, which left room for improvisation because we couldn’t foresee how the baby elephant would react. Finally, we asked our kid to hold out the Rolo. As if by magic, the elephant came over, looked at the kid, and immediately after we had the shot, fell asleep. You need to be lucky in animal photography…
We used a school group on their lunch hour as free extras for the parade scene in Nieuw Sloten [an area of Amsterdam]. We had an animal handler who brought the adult elephant and a ‘free’ camel. He had a black panther, too, but when we noticed he had a huge bandage on his left arm and asked him how he got it, he said the panther couldn’t always be trusted. So we kept it securely caged.
Normally in commercials the story has to be made as inoffensive as possible. In this case it was the opposite – the main man from Nestlé told us that the final blow to the head by the elephant should be vicious. We happily complied, and pummelled our poor British actor numerous times with a fake elephant trunk. To save money, we put him on a flight back to the UK that same afternoon. He must have arrived home with a very swollen face.
We had no idea if the commercial would be a success. In fact, we asked random people to step into the edit to see if they ‘got’ the story, and when it was finished I was reluctant to put it on my reel, as I felt a little embarrassed about my camera work. But in the end I think the simplicity of the visuals was key to its success.
I had always dreamt of shooting in the US, so after Elephant aired I went over to LA in 1995 to visit 10 big American production companies. Although people laughed at the spot, they also commented on the lack of production values. So, in the end, I left the US with no representation. Then came Cannes 1996, where Elephant won the Grand Prix, and CZAR won the Palme d’Or for best production company. This time I went back to the States with only a rep, a producer and my own production company, and shot something like a hundred commercials in a couple of years.
Last year Elephant was voted the best commercial of all time in Holland, which seemed a bit much, given the great campaigns from [insurance company] Centraal Beheer. But we gladly accepted it. For me, success in advertising is always a shared effort (as is failure) and Elephant is a good example of that: a script with great potential, a client that lets you run free and a production crew that pulls out all the stops. The final lesson? A simple little story told in a simple little way can result in something big.
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