The Spot: Ghost Story

A financial company's ad offers a haunting vision of life's regrets and a plan to avoid them

GENESIS: Alexander Forbes, a South African company in the cold, impersonal business of financial planning, wanted to connect emotionally with viewers and impart the warmer message that it can make dreams come true. To communicate that, the agency Bester Burke envisioned the opposite: a ghostly commercial about dreams forgotten and discarded, redeemed only in the final shot by a sweep upward to blue sky and the promising tagline, "Live without regret." The director, Miles Goodall, conceived of a "graveyard environment" littered with elegiac visions of childhood hopes abandoned. "I went into my own head and tried to develop a visual form of dream-speak," he says. The result is a beautiful and melancholy meditation on loss—a spiritual deficit that can be avoided, the ad suggests, with a little forethought and practical financial guidance.

ART DIRECTION: The spot collects all manner of images that evoke lost dreams: an old Formula One race car and boxers in a ring (the dream of being a sports champion); Rio Carnival dancers and a hot air balloon (travel and adventure); a half-melted snowman and a girl riding a bicycle (the wonder of childhood); wedding and graduation gowns (milestones in life); a decaying piano and sheet music (artistic ambition). "The images are purposely ambiguous," says the agency's executive creative director, Stephen Burke. "Some of them are quite abstract, but hopefully people will read different things into them." Visually, the spot is ethereal and otherworldly, rooted in reality but fragmented and temporary, like dreams themselves.

COPYWRITING: A male voiceover speaks six short lines: "What happened? Somehow, they got lost. Our dreams. Where did they all go? Abandoned along the way. And with them, a part of you." The tagline follows in onscreen copy.

FILMING: The spot was shot in South Africa over four days, much of it in the half-light before sunrise and after sunset, which lent a spectral mood. The camera movements suggest the journey of "moving through life, through dreams, finding them, and losing them in the mists of your memory," says Goodall. Most of the light is natural, but he did hang space lights from a cherry picker which he moved around the fields to give the objects a subtle, haunted glow from above. Much of the footage was captured on 35-millimeter film, adding texture and warmth, mixed with some Canon 1-D and 5-D shots.

EFFECTS: Almost all the backgrounds were replaced by digital stills shot on a foggy day "to have more of a dreamy feeling with not such a clear horizon line," says Pixomondo executive creative director Jonathan Keeton. The three most challenging shots involved relocating buildings to the dreamscape. In the wide-angle pan of the girls on the steps, with the race car on the right, the building is a projected matte painting dropped into the scene. The bicycle building (above), filmed in Cape Town, was imported digitally, as was the family home toward the end (below). The latter was relocated using "poor man's motion control"—i.e., filmed in situ, with the camera movements then meticulously recreated in the field (using a rebuilt picket fence as a guide), with the shots then merged together. Extensive post-production work in Los Angeles added further effects and cleaned up the imagery.

TALENT: All the actors were found through a conventional casting call. The voiceover was done by a local South African actor.

SOUND: Six studios offered three or four pieces of music each. The agency chose a lilting piano score from Australian composer Hylton Mowday, designed "to be profound and stir the emotions," says Burke.