“I used to train parrots to ride bikes, small tricycles and things.” It’s not, by and large, the type of thing you hear someone say every day of the week. But then this particular Friday is a little unusual anyway. Instead of an afternoon in the office or out catching up with agencies, The Drum finds itself on the beach at Fisherrow Harbour, in Musselburgh. The reason? It’s the location for the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ (SSPCA) first ever television ad shoot, and the magazine has been invited along as a spectator.
Created by WWAV Rapp Collins Edinburgh, the ad is being shot by commercial production company The Gate Films, and marks the first commission for the company’s recently opened Edinburgh office. Gate producer Rhona Drummond, who heads up the Edinburgh operation, is overseeing the day’s proceedings, with director Dave Mills calling the shots on the filming of the ad itself.
The former parrot trainer is Joe Dhillon of Parrot and Seal Productions, a company that specialises in supplying trained animals for various events including advertising and motion picture shoots. Dhillon’s role in this case is as handler for Star, the Alsatian who will feature in the main body of the advert.
By the time The Drum arrives the assembled crew has already shot a separate segment, featuring a cat, which will appear at the end of each ad break that shows the advert. The team has been working since 7.30am and, by 2.30 in the afternoon, is showing no sign of fatigue.
Having arrived at Fisherrow Harbour (the morning’s shoot took place along the road at Seafield recycling depot) the first job is setting up the lighting, before a frustrating wait for the tide to go out.
The afternoon’s shoot will involve Star being tied to the bottom of the harbour wall. Under torrential rain, and with the tide fast approaching, SSPCA officers will then climb down to rescue the dog before she’s swept to a watery grave.
The officers are to be played by real-life SSPCA officers Paul Anderson and Jenny Scott. Both were selected by The Gate from a large number of SSPCA officers who were asked to submit their photos to the company at the pre-production stage.
Anderson has been with the organisation for 13 years and operates the local SSPCA search and rescue boat. “It’s all pretty much what we do anyway,” he says. “Normally, in this situation, we’d come down from the beach, but to make it more dramatic we’ll be climbing down the ladder on the harbour wall.”
Scott is equally unfazed by the prospect of appearing in a television advert. She has been with the SSPCA for six months. “It’s what you do every day anyway so we’re not nervous,” she says. “There just happens to be a camera crew filming us today.”
Also on location is SSPCA marketing and fundraising manager, Michelle Feenie. The television ad is to form part of a new positioning for the organisation, which has been developed with WWAV Rapp Collins.
Feenie remarked: “We’ve actually just had our new logo signed off, which we feel brings out the Scottish-ness of the society. We’ve had a problem with people thinking that we’re part of the RSPCA, so it’s really about raising brand awareness and letting people know that if they want to help animals in Scotland it’s the SSPCA they should donate to.”
After a couple of hours the tide has made its way sufficiently far out for rehearsals to begin. Scottish weather being as utterly unreliable as ever, this day is the only one of the week when it hasn’t rained, so The Gate has recruited effects company Earth, Wind and Fire to create a rain effect for the shoot. Star is accompanied to the bottom of the now-revealed harbour wall for rehearsals and to have pictures taken for the WWAV–produced direct mail pack, which will form another aspect of the campaign.
WWAV art director Alan Kittle is present representing the agency. He remarks: “This campaign is just moving things on a bit. Up until now the marketing has used inserts and really harsh pictures of dead dogs and things. You need something to make an emotional connection with people, and with those images we were really going for anger; but the new chief executive of the Society came in and wanted to focus more on the positive work being done.
“Because the imagery had to be softer, the logo and line ‘looking after Scotland’s animals’ didn’t really have a bite anymore. ‘Living for the day animal cruelty stops’ was a real rallying cry, saying we don’t want to be doing this job anymore. It was a brave move for them but it’s been working well.”
On the selection of The Gate to shoot the television ad Kittle remarked: “We were delighted with Dave’s treatment and the effort that The Gate put into their pitch. The small budget hasn’t been an issue for them - they are just totally committed to making the best commercial. We really can’t thank Rhona, Dave and the crew enough for the job they’re doing.”
The still shots now taken, it’s time to move the camera out to the beach for the afternoon’s shoot. Monitors are already in place so the assembled crew (and journalist) can watch the action without getting in the way. Despite a little trouble fixing the right lens on to the steadicam, Mills is upbeat about the afternoon’s shoot.
“It’s been quite a quick turnaround on this script, but it’s just a really good opportunity getting to shoot up here,” he says. “It’s like any relationship with people. In my experience the lower the budget the more flexibility you get to be creative. We’re putting a little more into this and we just hope people will like it. It’s got a little more of a story feel to it than a lot of other ads.”
By 5.20pm the tide is at its farthest out point and shooting begins. The Earth, Wind and Fire rain effect works a treat and soon Anderson, Star and Dhillon are soaked to the bone. It transpires that Scott won’t be needed for the ad after all, but the sight of Anderson being blasted with water for two hours convinces her that this might not be such a bad thing.
The shoot itself involves some close-ups of Star looking wet and bedraggled, before Anderson climbs down the ladder on the harbour wall to save her. It’s a tricky operation which involves the rain hoses firing full-pelt while the steadicam team manoeuvres its camera for the required shots while simultaneously managing to keep it dry. Mills, meanwhile, looks on from one of the monitors, springing into action at the end of each take to fine tune the performances of Anderson, the camera team or Star (who by this point no longer has to pretend to be a cold, wet dog. De Niro himself would be proud of the method acting.)
Less than two hours later and the tide is rapidly making its home journey. Returning to the beach a lot quicker than it departed, the encroaching tide adds a very real pressure to the shoot. As the water begins to lap at our feet Drummond orders all non-essential equipment to be moved to safety while the last crucial shots are captured on film. To add to the drama, there’s a jam with the camera and precious minutes tick by as the crew rectifies the problem.
The tide, meanwhile, continues its advance on the location and soon the team members farthest from the beach are literally wading through seawater. There’s some wry banter that if the water gets any higher it could become a case for the SSPCA.
The final shots are captured before this becomes an issue, however, and everyone pitches in to carry the remaining equipment back to shore. In a few more minutes the location will be completely underwater.
Spirits are high as the team tramps on to the beach and the equipment starts to be packed away. Now the company will move to the post-production stage where the ad will be assembled, ready for its broadcast in August.
Mills seems to be satisfied that he’s got what he was looking for and it seems that the shoot, which marked a first for both The Gate and the SSPCA, was a success.
As the weekend beckons, everyone goes their separate ways. It’s been an eventful day.