In marketing, sometimes the greatest obstacle to greatness can be attempting to re-create greatness. Advertising seems to know only how to cheapen art, making it incredibly rare to find an homage that doesn't feel like a commercialized cardboard cutout of the original.
So it was ambitious enough for The Sunday Times and agency Grey London to attempt this ad devoted to iconic moments in art, music and film. But then they doubled down by choosing to create one seamless take that brings each of these masterworks to life.
The result is an incredible 50 seconds of real-time video called "Icons," created without any digital trickery, in which we see one actor move fluidly through six scenes from classical art and pop culture, with references to Forrest Gump, Reservoir Dogs, Daft Punk and more.
Watch the ad here:
The key to making a clip that glorified great art rather than diminishing it was in celebrating the meticulous construction of each icon, says Grey executive creative director Nils Leonard. Many ads mimic art, he says, but few truly honor it by showing the details that make an enduring icon.
"When someone says 'a nod to,' you need to start worrying. This is a much more honest idea, an open idea. It's not claiming these icons at all. It's showing what it took to construct these images," Leonard tells Adweek. "It raises the subject matter of thought that goes into these kinds of moments, and why some of them are remembered but some of them aren't."
From day one, the concept had its risks. It would obviously be difficult to create something stylish and elegant but also grounded in the reality of an unedited long take. And without any licensing agreement in place with any of the featured artists or filmmakers, there was always the chance of a legal battle with one of the creators they were trying to honor.
But the agency pressed on, not just writing a potential shot list but actually describing in detail how each scene could flow gracefully into the next.
On Jan. 3, the agency brought the approved script to a directing duo called Us, made up of Chris Barrett and Luke Taylor. They were instantly enamored with it but expressed concern about Grey's goal of squeezing 11 different icons into the shoot.
"We knew the joy of this commercial was going to be the transition from one scene to the other, and we didn't want to rush those," Barrett says. Together they honed the script down to six scenes and began planning how to pull it all off.
After one day of prelighting and rehearsal, the ad was filmed on Jan. 22.
By 4 p.m., they still didn't have a workable take. The problem was in reenacting Michelangelo's Creation of Adam, which required turning the camera 45 degrees in midtake. The camera, they realized on the day of the shoot, couldn't turn in the right direction. The steady-handed cameraman volunteered to manually manage the tilt, which saved the shot.
All told, there were 27 takes, but No. 16 was the clear winner. A week later, the spot was on air and online.
Despite the logistical difficulty of the shoot and the tight time frame, Barrett says the ad's quick turnaround was made possible by the fact that everyone involved was a true believer.
"It was great to have such a strong idea from the beginning," he says. "Everyone from the client to the agency, everyone was just so on board with it, it was a joy to work on. It was a really nice, smooth, enjoyable ride."
Grey hopes to build on the project, possibly with another video or by partnering with artists to re-create their favorite icons from the past and pop culture.
Until then, check out the "making of" video below, which, instead of being a lengthy documentary about the production, is simply the ad shown from a different camera angle.
Client: The Sunday Times
Agency: Grey, London
Executive Creative Director: Nils Leonard
Creative Director: Dave Monk
Creatives: Jonathan Rands, Johan Leandersson
Agency Producer: Debbie Impett
Directors: Us (Chris Barrett, Luke Taylor)
Production Company: Academy Films
Executive Producer: Lizie Gower
Producer: Juliette Harris
Director of Photography: Ben Fordesman
A&R Operator: Simon Wood
Art Director: Alison Dominitz
Hair, Makeup: Lu Hinton
Stylist: Rebecca Hale
Casting: Hammond & Cox
Editor: Dave Stevens, Assembly Rooms
Postproduction: Electric Theatre Collective
Grade: Aubrey Woodiwiss
Audio Postproduction: String & Tins
Musical Composition: Tom Player
Lead Actor: Gary Milner