Anatomy of an Ad: How Etihad is reimagining luxury travel with VR and Nicole Kidman

Since appointing Hollywood actress Nicole Kidman as its brand ambassador last year, Etihad has been on a mission to redefine luxury travel. Now, with more than a little help from VR, it’s looking to ‘reimagine’ it.

UAE-based airline Etihad turned to Cheil Worldwide and New York-based creative agency Barbarian Group last summer with a very lofty ambition – to create the “most high-end VR experience of all” to promote its Airbus A380 fleet.

Barbarian in turn approached MediaMonks in the autumn of 2015 with a “very detailed” creative idea, to which the creative digital production company pitched a solution that – according to head of VR, Ola Björling – pushed the boundaries of what has been done in the past and what is “barely do-able” in the present.

Using the latest VR technology, ‘Reimagine’ offers viewers a 360 look at the A380’s luxury surroundings, placing brand ambassador Kidman front and centre of the experience which weaves all of the plane’s unique features into “something much grander than just a brochure”.

With just five planes in the fleet, the project’s initial challenge was the logistics around grounding one for at least five days to shoot, and that was before even dealing with Kidman’s availability. Original plans to shoot were moved from November to March, with the time between spent planning everything in great detail. “It’s all that planning that has made this possible to execute,” says Björling.

Recalling early meetings with the creative agency, Björling says Barbarian had no idea if what it had put on paper was even possible, with MediaMonks’ “miles on the meter” in terms of VR production placing it in the unique position of being able to tear up the rule book.

Filmed with a moving camera – a practice generally avoided in VR because of problems with the human vestibular system – past experience enabled Björling and his team to circumvent such problems. “One thing that really helps is avoiding acceleration and deceleration, so if you have constant movement it doesn’t trigger nausea as easily. A slow straight line of motion is also better than turns or fast movement,” Björling explains.

“By moving through a space you can elevate some of that feeling of ‘being stuck’ that a 360 film in a VR headset can create as in a film, unlike game environments where you can move around, the camera is fixed where the camera was during filming.”

Describing the camera set up as a “secret sauce” Björling keeps his cards close to his chest when describing how the film’s impressive visuals were achieved, admitting that though you can “start quite modest” using GoPros for some VR films, that wasn’t enough for what this particular project had set out to achieve.

“We think it’s a world first in terms of the quality we’ve been able to output, and we’ve solved a lot of technical and engineering challenges in the camera set-up,” he says, laughing that it’ll be interesting to see if anyone, including experienced VR filmmakers, will be able to “work out what we’ve done”.

Shot over three days, with one day of pre-lights set-up, the entire film – apart from the final scene – was shot within the A380, creating an interesting challenge for MediaMonks. Björling says even he found it “daunting” to shoot within such a confined space, thanks to the numerous technical tweaks required for shooting, editing, effects and even playback and audio.

“In terms of what wasn’t possible we had some things planned that timings and logistics put an end to, so it wasn’t a technical limitation as such,” he says. “We had originally scoped out more and we got some pushback on the budget so we dialled down slightly but tried to maintain as much of the original spirit as we could. In the end we didn’t cut much.

“The final scene, however, just could not be shot on the plane as the camera needed to be inside the wall and that just wasn’t physically possible,” he adds.

Of the partnership between MediaMonks and Barbarian, Björling describes an “atmosphere of trust” with the creative agency acknowledging MediaMonks’ prowess in VR and MediaMonks allowing Barbarian to own the tonality and narrative of the film. “It’s Barbarian’s job to know its client and what notes to strike. I’d say we influenced each other but there was never a time where we needed to step into each other’s domain.”

The project was still in post-production up until the 11th hour, according to MediaMonks co-founder Wesley ter Haar. Launched on 27 May, a final stereoscopic version is still in the works for mid-June.

According to Ter Haar, almost 20 people had worked on the project, spanning everything from planning and shooting to the creation of custom playback apps – all of which were handled in-house.

“We’re pushing to be the best there is on every front, not just looking at what is the best today, but looking at what will be best tomorrow,” adds Björling, explaining that the reason for launching a version before the final stereoscopic film, which will add depth perception, is down to Etihad wanting to release the film before Ramadan.

With the pace of VR such as it is, Ter Haar and Björling reveal no two pieces of VR work completed by MediaMonks are ever filmed in the same way, with “almost everything” in this particular piece being new.

“We were conscious that we were asking people to view what is essentially an advert, so you can’t set the bar too high in terms of time and effort,” says Björling.

“But what VR does so well is it allows you to occupy a time and space you could not otherwise be in. There’s an arms race in VR and, with this film, we’re pushing to take the number one spot.”

This article first appeared in The Drum's VR issue, published on 1 June.

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Gillian West

Gillian West is The Drum’s social media manager and works to ensure The Drum’s content reaches followers across platforms including Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram in an engaging, relevant and timely manner. Based in Glasgow, she has been actively involved in building The Drum’s Creative Works brand for over three years now and has interviewed major creative figures including Rankin, Peter Souter, Rosie Arnold, Bob Greenberg and Vicki Maguire. During her time at The Drum she has attended events such as Cannes Lions, the Edinburgh International TV Festival, Art Director’s Club Europe, D&AD and more.

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