On Reflection: The Unquiet Film Series
From the dangers involved in war reporting to the sharp edge of satirical cartoons; from the need for a questioning nature to the power inherent in words on a page, The Unquiet Film Series for The Times and The Sunday Times looked at it all, and a lot more, over its collection of mini-docs.
In 2014 Grey London was tasked with bringing to life the pages of The Times and The Sunday Times for a new campaign.
With over 200 years worth of journalism to delve into the team involved realised that a few 60-second spots was not going to cut it. And so The Unquiet Film Series was born; a collection of mini-documentaries covering a variety of elements including the power that words hold, the importance of bringing world news back to Britain, the role that satirical cartoons play within the paper, as well as the dangers inherent in reporting from war-torn areas of the globe.
Below, we speak to Dave Monk, now ECD at Publicis·Poke London but who was creative lead on the project while at Grey, Liz Unna, who directed three of the 12 films, and Peter Maynard, the executive producer of the series, about how they brought one of the most compelling branded entertainment series to life.
You can find out more about The Unquiet Film Series by clicking here.
Above [l-r]: Dave Monk, Liz Unna and Peter Maynard.
DM: Nick Stringer, who was Chief Creative Officer of News UK at the time, was the godfather of this whole project. He was the linchpin. News UK had given us a brief to come up with a brand campaign for The Times and The Sunday Times, which is no mean feat because you have to get over 220 years of journalism into a 60-second ad, or 90-second at best. We looked at that and were like, how can we crowbar in all those amazing stories? We went back with a couple of 60-second and 90-second scripts, but quickly learnt that we were never going to be able to get it all in. Then came this idea of putting a film series together to articulate the principles that had built the newspaper.
We went back with a couple of 60-second and 90-second scripts, but quickly learnt that we were never going to be able to get it all in.
DM: We worked with [strategist] Chris Whitson and with an archivist, and then it was a case of going, “Okay, what stories can we tell to bring those principles to life?” And that is the basis of it, the fact that the newspaper questioned everything, that we are a tiny little island but there was a whole load of news out there and [The Times/The Sunday Times] were responsible for bringing it all to Britain, that it always had an element of satire with its cartoons. Once we had got those principles, they all became the titles for the films. Then it was a case of, “Right, how do we make this?”
Above: Bringing the World to Britain and Times New Roman.
PM: Nick got in touch with Phil Lind, an ex-Creative Director at Channel 4 and also a commercials director, and said, “Look, there is this film series I’m working on with Dave and we can't really afford to work in a traditional way.” He had a window of opportunity to tell these stories and get these films made. And yeah, Nick was essentially our film commissioner. He got in touch with Phil to creatively lead on the production company side, and then Phil got in touch with me, and said, “Would you want to series exec it?”
PM: We knew each filmmaker would have a unique spin as to how to tell a particular story, how to bring a theme to life. So, Phil and I spoke to two, three, sometimes four different filmmakers for each theme. In advertising there is normally a script that is quite defined, but this was, “You know what, here is a starting point, tell us how you see this story unfolding.” There were no rules, it could have been animation, it could have been live-action, it could have been design, which is why actually there is such a breadth to the series.
I had no idea in the advertising world you were given a script that had already been written. That seemed ludicrous to me.
LU: We all trusted each other and most had worked together before so that shorthand with people really is helpful. It was a dream project because I came from Discovery Channel and Channel 4, where we wrote our own scripts. I had no idea in the advertising world you were given a script that had already been written. That seemed ludicrous to me. So, I was used to having an idea and then coming up with the treatment and working with other people, and it had been a long time since I had had one of those where it was pretty much an open brief.
Above: The Art of Satire and Question Everything.
DM: The Power of Words was the first one and it really set the bar. Everyone watched and we were like, “Bloody hell, that is really good.”
LU: The Power of Words was kind of tricky because it is a hard one to visualise. It was Caitlin Moran, Ben Macintyre and Matthew Parris just talking a load about words. It was a really hard one to thrash out. Luckily, as they are so brilliant and engaging, it worked.
DM: People often ask, “What is one of your favourite projects you’ve worked on?” and it was this, because the shackles were off. I was thinking about the team we put together and it consisted of a head of marketing, an archivist, a lawyer, an editor of a newspaper, an agency creative director, a producer, and a bunch of directors. That is a really interesting engine of people. So, during the initial stages it was a lot of heavy lifting in terms of the relationships because we, or at least Nick Stringer, could walk up the stairs and talk to the likes of Emma Tucker, who was The Times Deputy Editor at the time. We could then foster those relationships with the journalists. And it was quick, no mucking around, it was like; “Do you want to do this?” “Yeah okay, why not.” And that is when then you hand over the talent to Liz and the other fantastic directors.
It was a really hard one to thrash [The Power of Words] out. Luckily, as they are so brilliant and engaging, it worked.
PM: We were in this really interesting hybrid area where we were making editorial but coming from a marketing starting point. And you had a product which was a natural attribution to The Times and The Sunday Times, so it never felt forced, they were the story. And we were looking backwards at amazing stories that had never been told in a moving image form, so it was a dream project for all those reasons.
Above: The Power of Words.
DM: The pages themselves are silent. You read in silence, when you turn the page you can't hear them, so turning the words in a paper that’s been around for a couple of centuries into moving film, we couldn’t believe it was the first time they had ever done it, or even thought about it. Turning that silence into something that was a little bit noisy, I guess that is where Unquiet came from, the origin of the name of the project was based on that thinking.
LU: I come from a documentary background, that is my true love, so I wanted to do films that explored that area. With the Christina Lamb one [Bringing the World to Britain], I knew her work and loved her and to do a war reportage with a female war reporter was a no-brainer. She was so mild-mannered and quiet-spoken, the exact antithesis of what one expects from someone reporting on war. She mentioned an anecdote about speaking to some general in the Pakistani Army whilst on the spinning cups ride at an amusement park with her son. She had been waiting for him all day and then suddenly the call came through. I mean, that’s amazing, just the position of her private life and her life out in the world. So, they were all subjects that I love, they all just sort of jumped out of the page.
She mentioned an anecdote about speaking to some general in the Pakistani Army whilst on the spinning cups ride at an amusement park with her son.
LU: Everyone was really clear that we had to speak to the subjects about their relationship with The Times, but that it had to come from them, it had to be honest, to be authentic, there couldn’t be any shoehorning in of brand attributes. If it came up, bubbled up naturally, then that could go in the film, but it had to be absolutely crystal clear and authentic. Nick and his project lead Claudia Collins were aligned with that so [the client] was very comfortable with the films having their own life.
DM: It’s hard to say which brands do [branded entertainment] right and which brands do it wrong, but I think if you have a story to tell, and you have a truth to tell, and you can tell it in an authentic way, then I think people will believe it and trust it. And if you put the right people in place to make that happen you will end up with some proper branded entertainment.
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Above: Cultural Impact.
LU: Everyone wants to own that little bit of authenticity about their brand, but when it comes to the process of making it they don’t let that process be, they want to control it and manage it, and that kills the process for the most part. That is the instinct you have to fight against. So, it was more than luck; they were great stories, but [the team] also let each film, and each filmmaker, find their way through it.
LU: I had to find my way with Peter Brooks [The Art of Satire]. He is kind of sensitive but I was just able to be there with him as a documentarian and find my way, and I would spend a bit of time with him and have a laugh. If I’d had to keep running back to video village and saying [to clients], “Are you happy?” and they were going, “Oh no, we can see that in the background,” which is the way it normally is, it would not have had that intimacy, he wouldn’t have relaxed as much. I don’t think he would have enjoyed the process. Brands want this documentary feel, but then they bring the commercial process to it, and that kills it.
Everyone wants to own that little bit of authenticity about their brand, but when it comes to the process of making it they don’t let that process be.
PM: It really came down to bravery and trust. The nature of what [The Times/The Sunday Times] does is that they trust their journalists to go off and tell stories, so we were doing the same job. But also, we were working with marketing people who understood that you have to give people the right to go and do it. So, in other words, you commission them, they go and make the thing you have commissioned, and you have that trust. We have probably all worked with a handful of people who are brilliant at that, but it’s really rare.
PM: Phil and I probably didn’t do anything else for a year of our lives, but it was a brilliant thing to be doing for that year. If I think how much we made; the shortest film was probably five minutes long, the longest was 23 minutes, and there were 15 of them, so it was a lot. It was intense, but it was brilliant.
LU: The length of the films was something we grappled with. We were trying to get them to three minutes, that was the magic number, but it would never work in three minutes. So, we researched and thought that people would stay. You need enough time to tell the story and if it is a strong enough story people will stay.
Above: Bearing Witness and Uncomfortable Truths.
PM: I genuinely couldn’t pick a favourite. That might sound like a classic, political answer, but I really can’t. I could give you, probably, five, but I definitely can't pick a favourite.
LU: I love Christina Lamb [Bringing the World to Britain] because I think she is such a unique individual and so that film holds a tender place in my heart. Her photographer had those photos of when they were ambushed, so that brought that story to life; of her facing death and then coming home to a picnic for her son. I think she was amazing letting us use those photos because it is hard to bring a story to life when it has already happened.
PM: I loved [the films] because they were nerdy and had a lot of content to them, but I didn’t think they were trendy, award-winning things. I always think it’s the flashy things that win, and these were not made on big budgets, and were about nerdy topics, so I really didn’t think about [awards] at all.
DM: You don’t really think about [winning awards]. What I thought was the shape was very different in terms of making a piece of work. We wanted to create something different that was going to tell the story, and if people came with us on that story then fantastic.
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Above: The FIFA Files.
PM: The other thing was, there was a lot of pressure on delivering a film series that lived up to the potential of the starting point, of the themes, because the themes were amazing. And I am really proud of the fact that we made a body of films which stand up now, are really good to watch, that are absorbing, don’t overstay their welcome, but that also do what they needed to do, which is bring those stories to life in a visual form.
There was a lot of pressure on delivering a film series that lived up to the potential of the starting point.
DM: I’m most proud of this team. I genuinely am. I have never enjoyed working on anything more. And I say that right from the heart. The way everyone stepped in, stepped up, were there when they needed to be, and the love that went into it. Just the open dialogue among everybody was a different way of working. During 12 years in advertising, it was very, very different, and I think of it very fondly. The films are great as well, obviously.
LU: Peter [Brooks] was so anarchic, but a sad follow-up to the story is they moved buildings and he is not in that office, he’s, like, in a basement. I went to see him and I was like, “No, I can't unsee this. I need to think of you in that glass box.”
DM: I’m actually quite proud of the fact that we have remembered most of it, and it was nearly six years ago.