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It seems simple when you write it on a page, doesn't it: "A fella in speedos swims up a mountain".

However, the process of bringing the Fresh new hero of Coors Light's major new brand campaign proved to be a chilly head-scratcher for production and post alike, matching epic exteriors with green-screen studio shoots and photo-realistic VFX for a seamless dip in the drift.

We caught up with Pulse Films director Sam Pilling and The Mill VFX lead Ben Turner to find our just how they did it.

Coors – Keep It Fresh

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Sam Pilling - director, Pulse Films

How did you get involved in the project? What was it that appealed?

When I read the deck the guys at Havas sent over I instantly thought, this is ridiculous, hilarious and totally epic. But what really appealed to me about the idea is that it felt like a beer ad of old – an utterly simple and compelling idea, (hopefully) executed in a bold, visual way. 

These kinds of scripts are rare, so it was a no brainer really.

What were the early stages? What was the detail you had to nail in order for the rest to flow?

The first thing was working out how the f*** we were going to make a man swim up a mountain!

But the starting point is always the story – as fun as the concept was, I wanted to ensure that there was enough of a journey arc and that viewers would get emotion from our snow-swimmer. It was the sort of job where we really had to stick to the storyboards so after the initial drawings we sat down with Ben Fordesman (DP), Andy Kelly (Production Designer) and Ben Turner (VFX supervisor) to make sure we could actually bring the frames to life.

There was a lot of talk about the speed of the swimmer as the consensus was that if this was too quick, the whole gag wouldn’t feel real.

Understandably there were a lot of unknowns, so the first port of call was working out a basic methodology for the main bulk of the swimming action – both practically, and VFX-wise. 

There was a lot of talk about the speed of the swimmer as the consensus was that if this was too quick, the whole gag wouldn’t feel real, so The Mill rendered some rough sims with different swimmer speeds, and lens sizes, which meant we were able to determine what did and didn’t work.

This then became the blueprint for our camera speed, the equipment we would need for each shot, the speed of our actual swimmer, and indeed, how were going to physically achieve it.

How was the location chosen? Were there specifics you were looking for?

As we were filming at the very, very start of the ski season, the early stages were all about finding resorts that were high enough to have some snow. Sölden in Austria seemed to have the best likelihood of some good snow, but to everyone’s surprise, they had too much! In typical ‘scout curse’ style, the sunny blue skies and crisp untouched snow was quickly replaced with extreme winds, white-outs, avalanche warnings and closed ski runs.

The general approach was to look for the most epic-looking areas on the mountain that had a great sense of scale and visual splendour without being too unsafe or vertiginous. We also wanted to incorporate a more built-up wooded area into his journey as well as the typically expansive empty slopes. 

We were lucky enough to scout an area of the mountain called The Plateau that had an almost 360 degree wrap-around mountain view, and relatively easy access to it (I use the word “easy” with a strong pinch of salt!) 

The general approach was to look for the most epic-looking areas on the mountain that had a great sense of scale and visual splendour without being too unsafe or vertiginous.

The advantage of this flatter space was that it worked for many parts of the story. Simply by looking in a different direction it felt like we were on a different part of the mountain, which meant we could follow the sun’s path round the sky and plan our beats accordingly. 

We ended up filming a lot of the more elaborate in-camera stunts here, including the swimmer’s initial dive, his moment of pause, where he pops his head out of the snow and looks around, and his epic salmon jump across the crevasse.

Above: Sam Pilling in adverse conditions with Julian Richards [1st AD] and Andy Kelly [Art Director]


Without ruining the illusion, how much was on location and how much in a studio?

That’s for me to know and for Ben Turner at The Mill never to reveal. HA!

But actually, quite a lot of the specific beats were shot on-location. Having spoken to The Mill early on, we all agreed that in order for the snow to feel believable, the close-up moments where our snow-swimmer interacted with the snow, had to be captured in-camera. 

For the general travelling moments, we shot empty tracking plates on location (taking down the specific details of camera height, speed, lens size, swimmer’s distance from camera, his axis, incline etc etc etc…) and doing multiple takes. After all this we lay our actor in the snow and got him to pretend to swim on the spot so we had both a movement and light reference.

I think we all breathed a sigh of relief when the first two plates were crudely mixed together, and the angles matched!

Then we constructed a 10-metre long snow channel in a studio – that was basically an ironing board in a trench filled with ‘magic snow’ that was operated with a winch (when it worked!) so we could create the illusion that our actor was indeed swimming through, and actually interacting with the snow around him.

We then referred to our on-location notes and tried our best to match the lighting, camera angles, speeds etc…. using mix-and-overlay playback to get a rough sense of whether we were close or not. We also had Ellie Johnson (editor) on set, so that we could feed in specific shots and moments into the assemble, to see if they were working.

I think we all breathed a sigh of relief when the first two plates were crudely mixed together, and the angles matched! 

It goes without saying that simple garbage matte comps are very different from a finished composition, and a crack team of 2D & 3D artists at The Mill worked round the clock, adding snow sprays, textures, interaction elements, backgrounds etc etc… to bring the finished film to life!

Was the track, Fresh, known to be attached from the start? Did you work with it in mind?

There was some talk of finding alternate tracks, but nothing seemed to beat Fresh. 

We certainly didn’t choose specific shots, or even shot lengths or anything like that based on the track, but I knew there were a few key points in the track (like the breakdown moment) that would work perfectly for the small moment of tension, before the swimmer leaps over the crevasse.  

How was the shoot? How did you stop the snow-swimmer from freezing to death?!

In one word; brutal. 

The weather really was against us! We ended up spending over a month in the mountains and added two extra shoot days. I think it was Day 4 at around 2000m on the side of a 35% incline in 30mph winds and full white-out, trying to film an eagle that (understandably) did not want to be there, that really sums it up! 

In some cases, we could only do 1 or 2 takes before they had to take a good 20 minutes back in the tent to warm up.

Our swimmer Matt Ovens was an absolute trooper and lovely bloke to boot. We had all the safety measures in place, from regular thermals and hand warmers, to a North Face Himalayan Suit, designed to keep you safe above 8000 metres of altitude, to an insulated tent with heaters and blankets… But the reality was that both Matt, and our amazing stunt double Matevz Pogacer definitely got a bit cold! 

In some cases, we could only do 1 or 2 takes before they had to take a good 20 minutes back in the tent to warm up. Legends!

In fact, massive props go to our Slovenian crew for making absolute magic happen – and always with a smile in the most adverse weather conditions I’ve ever experienced. And of course, the whole team behind the shoot: Our Slovenian service Company ; Rok, Rok, Malek, Vlaho and the whole team at Division and Chris Harrison, Ben Burdock and the whole Pulse team for producing and Ben Fordesman, Andy Kelly, Ben Turner, Julian Richards and Mr. Gammon for putting their noggins together for one of the most technically and logistically challenging commercial shoots. 

It was a real blessing to have such a great team - an extremely challenging shoot like this would have been nigh-on impossible without the (not so witty) banter and team spirit.

What was your favourite moment on the shoot?

Agh! So many to choose from… Andy Kelly frolicking around in the snow making ‘swimmer-snow tracks’ is definitely up there, or Ben Turner being a stand-in bear...

But in all seriousness, it has to be when we fiiiiiinally filmed the swimmer’s initial snow dive – it was the morning of DAY 5 and the sun finally came out! Crystal clear blue skies with a wrap-around mountain view at 2000+ metres. It was glorious! 

In typical director fashion I’d been adamant from very early on that we had to do the run and jump in-camera, on location, rather than cutting to a studio shot – having worked through a lot of logistic and safety issues, not to mention lack of snow, it was a great feeling to finally see the shot we’d spent weeks talking about, actually work!

What's your favourite moment in the ad?

The salmon jump. Obviously! Hahaha

Can’t remember who said it. Feels like one of those things we were all thinking… let’s just do a take where he wiggles like a salmon. Just for a laugh. Obviously it made the cut. In fact, it still makes me smile despite having watched it like a trazillion times.

What's up next for you?

I’m currently developing some longer form work which could be really exciting but in the meantime I’m about to shoot a fun new ad, in London for once! 

Coors Light – Keep It Fresh - BTS

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Ben Turner- VFX lead, The Mill

At what stage did you guys get involved? What was the first problem to solve?

Getting a man to seemingly swim up a mountain was a pretty big problem to get our heads around initially…

Fortunately, we were involved during the very early stages of pre-production. I think it’s always essential for any big VFX job that we are in the conversation as early as possible. It meant we were in a position to offer up creative solutions in post to help the production team solve the many challenges they faced with this project.

Believably combining a studio and location shoot is still one of the hardest things you can achieve in post these days.

None of us knew what the conditions would be like so we had to be prepared for anything.

Believably combining a studio and location shoot is still one of the hardest things you can achieve in post these days. Throw in some tricky interaction with a natural environment and a really tight post schedule, it doesn’t get much more challenging than this.

To create a full CG creature running around the mountain would arguably be easier to shoot plates for, knowing that we have the control to fully match the CG into the shot plates. 

With two live action plates to consider this creates another level of complexity that also has more impact on the production.

Click image to enlarge

Were you guys on the shoot? What was needed from your end in order to progress to post smoothly?

Being on a shoot for a post challenge like this is essential for us and production. Naturally, Sam wanted to get as much in camera as possible and we are always big advocates of this approach. With the nature of this project, the key is being prepared and being able to have open and honest conversations, which Sam is excellent at.

As well as all of the technical data we need to capture from the location, we are always looking to preempt where we feel that post may need to step in to help out and what elements may be needed to allow us to do this, keeping in mind the pressures on the production schedule.

On the climbers day we had some of the worst weather I have ever had to endure on a shoot.

For example, on the climbers day we had some of the worst weather I have ever had to endure on a shoot, and we all thought we would have to embrace this as part of the story. The following day by contrast was glorious weather. Luckily we were on the same glacier, so I was able to go back and take stills from the same positions that the shots were filmed from in lighting conditions that I thought would give us the best chance to replace the white out from the day before and help to link this into the current shoot day.

I think the reason this all worked out so well was because of the collaboration with Sam’s entire team and the amount of real references and plates we were able to take on location to ensure the studio lighting was as authentic as possible (which Ben Fordsman (DOP) did a great job with).

I take my hat off to Chris Harrison (Executive Producer) and Ben Burdock (Producer) from the production team on this one for probably some of the biggest logistical challenges I have ever seen on a shoot in 20+ years!

Above: Turner looking pretty chilly on location.


What's a tricky thing to get right that audiences might not realise on first viewing?

Even though Andy Kelly (Art Director) had built a great snow pit for direct interaction of fake snow with our actor (which also helped Sam to get an authentic performance) the main challenge for us would still be to integrate the two plates believably because the snow conditions were so varied. 

Snow really behaves very differently when its powder, ice or wet snow.

I have had many peers question the authenticity of the [salmon jump] live action plate, and I had the great pleasure of telling them that it was all in camera!

The Mill’s CG team, led by Ed shires, had to create a full roto animated digi double for the lead actor. They used this to drive snow simulations in CG to ensure we could get the integration we needed to link the two live action plates together, matching the snow conditions from the location.

4) What’s your favorite moment in the ad?
 
I love the salmon jump. 

Not only just because it was such a cool stunt to achieve on location at 3000+ meters, or because Sam and his team went to such great lengths to get this in camera, but because it just looks so unbelievable. 

I have had many peers question the authenticity of the live action plate, and I had the great pleasure of telling them that it was all in camera! I love it when reality is more unbelievable than fiction.

What work from your past helped inform how to solve problems in this one?

No two jobs are the same. That's what always keeps it fresh (managed to squeeze in a Coors tagline here). 

But really, it's why this job never gets boring. Just when you think you’ve done it all, there is another challenging script to solve. With any job you draw on all your experience to try to achieve the best outcome, but with a project like this there is never a definitive solution so you just have to know. Within the plan, where we may have to help out and what is possible to “fix in post”.

Just when you think you’ve done it all, there is another challenging script to solve.

What's harder to work with, snow or water?

Well, it would have been easier to get a guy to swim in water….HA!

What's up next for you?

As it happens, the next project I am involved with will be to attempt to achieve one of “holy grails” of VFX. 

We are the Knights who say “Ni”!

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