God Only Knows how the team behind The Impossible Orchestra – BBC Music’s launch advert – managed to rope in 27 musical superstars from around the globe for a top secret, 18 month shoot. Gillian West catches up with the Karmarama executive creative directors behind the ad, as well as BBC’s Neil Caldicott, to find out how they made the impossible possible.
For a broadcaster that doesn’t ‘do adverts’, the BBC has taken the world of advertising to task with the unveiling of The Impossible Orchestra – a promotional film for BBC Music, which aims to position the broadcaster’s music offering as a standalone brand akin to BBC Sport and BBC News.
Over two years in the making, The Impossible Orchestra unites 27 artists from across the world of music – and a tiger – for a unique rendition of the Beach Boys’ classic God Only Knows. Managed by Neil Caldicott, director of marketing and audiences for BBC Music, the secret project is the brainchild of Karmarama executive creative directors Sam Walker and Joe de Souza who, in speaking with The Drum, joke that people have “gotten married and had babies” in the time it has taken them to deliver this project from conception to reality.
Evolving from an initial idea – an orchestral version of Iron Maiden’s Phantom of the Opera – they wanted to do something that felt real and started conventionally, but that had an element of surprise.
“The idea didn’t really change that much,” says De Souza. “We still wanted to do something that started felt organic and started quite conventionally but then grew into something quite magical or unexpected. I think that stayed right until the end.”
What changed, of course, was the song, and using talent – the finished version features an all-star cast including Jake Bugg, Elton John and One Direction taking on Brian Wilson’s 1966 classic. “It was a little bit intimidating for us to pick a song like God Only Knows,” explains Walker. “It’s one of the world’s most loved songs and it’s an unarguable song, even if you are Stevie Wonder.”
Securing the talent was a major hurdle to clear and along with the support of Jeff Smith, head of Radio 2, and George Ergatoudis, head of Radio 1, the project gained momentum recruiting “as big a spectrum of musical talent as possible”. Wilson himself not only gave his blessing, but also features on the track.
In using so much musical talent, comparisons were always going to be drawn with 1997’s Perfect Day which brought together some of the biggest acts of the time to raise money for Children in Need, which is also profiting from sales of God Only Knows.
“The idea was never about a follow up to Perfect Day,” says Walker. “If we had wanted to do Perfect Day 2 it would have been a hell of a lot easier. The way we shot the orchestra coming to life was central to everything. It’s not just talent in front of a green screen, it’s a rich piece that has a narrative you may not expect. We describe it as a two-track thing – one story is the orchestra and the other is the talent and the plot.”
Directed by Francois Rousselet, the biggest challenge, according to De Souza, was working around the schedules of ‘international megastars and contemporary superstars’.
“We didn’t know who we were shooting or where and when,” he says. “We’d get a call to say this person was available and we’d have to sit down at a moment’s notice and work out an idea that would then need to be sent over to their management.”
The team wrote an entire music video for each act’s three to four second slot to enable each artist to stand out while remaining part of plot. “There are various sections of the film that are linked. For example, Stevie Wonder has crystals with little fractal rainbow colours surrounding him, and in the piece of music beforehand with Kylie Minogue in the bubble there are reflections and rainbow colours,” says Walker.
They also laid down some ground rules to their all-star cast – no one gets more than one line in the song other than Brian Wilson, no one looks to the camera except for Wilson at the end, and everyone wears their interpretation of concert dress to make sure they “belong to the performance”.
Working only from bits and pieces of track and film, De Souza says the 18-month shoot made him feel like he was “constructing a jigsaw without knowing what the picture was”, with Stevie Wonder getting the dubious honour of both the project’s highest and lowest points.
“The day Stevie Wonder said yes was the best day ever,” recounts Walker. “Then he said he couldn’t do it because he was ill and everyone crashed. When he called later and said ‘I think I can do it if I change my flight and we film tomorrow’ it took us all of two seconds to say yes.
“It took him a while to warm up. It was like listening to an instrument being tuned as his voice became more and more like Stevie Wonder we all know and love. He asked for some Fisherman’s Friend and we went out and got some, and then all of a sudden, it was Stevie Wonder singing. And it’s one of the best lines on the track.”
Recalling the process from a client point of view, Caldicott admits the free flowing structure of the shooting schedule was “not a comfortable place to be” and that his “absolute trust” in Walker and De Souza’s vision saw him through. “Why bring these guys on board and have them in the room if you’re not going to trust them?” he says, adding that if he’d felt comfortable for 18 months, the end result would have been “something pretty bland”.
“It’s quite extraordinary for us as creatives to have that relationship with a client,” adds De Souza. “We couldn’t have done it without the level of trust we were given. Neil always said as long as we were close to the brief in what we were trying to do we were free to run in directions we wouldn’t necessarily have been able to with other clients.”