It's not every day that a group of “experienced” advertising and creative people can be moved to tears. Most are familiar with tradecraft when it comes to getting the waterworks going. However, the work that was previewed for a select group at the annual Fireflies West rally wasn’t just a film — it was an expression of The Fireflies Tour mission, that all in attendance understood: “For those who suffer, we ride.”
In its shortest form, The Fireflies Tour started as a cancer fundraising and awareness ride from Geneva to Cannes to the Cannes Lions festival. However, that doesn’t even come close to explaining the community that has continued to grow — filled with support and love of the creative world. It began in 2001 by Sandy Watson Scott, then head of TV for M&C Saatchi, in support of relatives’ and friends’ battles with cancer. The journey started with five friends and has since blossomed to hundreds, from countries all over the world, with the Europe ride raising more than £1.7m for leukemia research and treatment.
With those roots firmly established, the Fireflies Tour expanded to New Zealand in 2015 and the western US in the form of Fireflies West in 2007. The ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles raises awareness and money for the good work done at City of Hope, with RSA Films and The Mill as key founding sponsors.
Today, “A Journey to Hope,” created by The Mill’s Mill+, debuted to the wider world, in support of this year’s Fireflies West ride.
The beautifully animated and produced film made the appropriate impact in France, but what makes this work unique is that it wasn’t commissioned by The Fireflies West but rather came from The Mill’s own volition with a mild hint of trepidation.
“We thought it would be wonderful to make something really great for The Fireflies West — and hit all the points,” said Phil Crowe, ECD at The Mill in Los Angeles. “But in all honesty, my fear was that they might not actually like it. Because, even though we know them, we didn't actually sit down and say ‘this is what we're going to do’, we basically did something and then said that ‘this is what we've done.'"
“The ride is a little DIY,” said Phillip Detchmendy, executive director at RSA Films and VP/co-founder of The Fireflies West ride. “We all have other jobs and we all do this on the side — and really we've got a lot of interesting and gifted people — producers, creatives, film makers — really talented people. We’ve had some films made for us but we've never really had something that really captured the spirit of what The Fireflies West is all about, but this really encapsulates that spirit of why we do it.”
One other aspect of approaching the work from the “ready, shoot, aim” lens was practical.
“There's a lot of talented people that do Fireflies West, so there's a lot of opinions,” laughed Crowe. “That was kind of an interesting, very deliberate thing, that we knew in the back of our mind we wouldn't have had as much input. But we also worried about whether they would like it or not.”
One of the key challenges for the rides and cause has been striking the right tone, with Crowe noting that he learned the message of The Fireflies West had been “lost within our giant industry parties.” Since this film was being done a bit “on the sly,” the messaging had to be deliberate and right back to the core of the mission.
An open, broad brief yielded several ideas and directions but the team of Amy Graham and Kyle Moore stood out. Both have worked together on several commercial projects at The Mill and this was an opportunity to not only create important work, but to show how far they could take their creative talent for the film. Two key things stood out to Graham, Moore and Crowe: the Fireflies West community and the “journey” that cancer patients, family and friends take together.
“The biggest [idea] for us was ‘no one should ride alone,'" said Graham, a Brooks Institute graduate and four year design veteran at The Mill. “That helped us make the hierarchy — and it's very important to them. They have a lot of stories on their rides of people who have fallen and journeys that they've had based on that, plus the idea that they're supporting their family members who are going through the struggle — so it was a really good jumping off point for us to start with even just that one single idea to create a story arc based on that. And then going through all the research, it's really easy to see they're passionate — it’s really inspiring, so it was pretty easy to feed off of that.”
Even with the years of stories, anecdotes and content at their disposal, pulling it back — restraint — was crucial.
“The night before we pitched, we were finalizing the concepting, writing everything out and then at some point we said, ‘okay, let's just take it back to the baseline of this’ — minimal stuff that we need to tell a story and to get the idea across,” recalled Moore, a designer and animator with around five years experience at The Mill. “From that point, I feel like our idea really grew and started to come together because we took back all the extra stuff we wanted to do — or this little thing, or that little thing — and looked at the core of it and that's when we got this idea of a single rider riding through, then with other people, coming to help them. It was such a simple idea but we felt it would be pretty strong if we showed it correctly.”
The combination of the story, community, restraint and simplicity yielded a design vocabulary that pulled the idea fully through.
“We did look at color in that we were trying to create colors that felt hopeful to tell the story,” said Moore, an Art Institute of California - Hollywood graduate. “We wanted to open up on morning, so we had these kind of really neutral colors, light palette, and then we wanted to bring in super darks and rain — so that was bringing like these darker blues and greens and then we wanted to end on a hopeful and positive note. That was kind of our color story when we were going through it, making sure it reinforced the idea of everything going on.”
There were several other nuances and thoughtful touches that either created a cognitive dissonance between the relative chaos of fighting cancer and the calm of the message and film or drove home key points.
Open spaces with an epic feel. A flickering headlight, leading the way as a storm hits. The blue and white of City of Hope on the main character’s shirt.
Music played an important part as well with “The Bird Watcher” by Belgian band Imaginary Family anchoring the audio. Though there is a melancholy tone to the song, the humming and chanting points to the strong bonds Fireflies riders have with each other.
“I really loved how calm it was compared to a lot of the stuff that we're asked to do,” noted Moore. “We really wanted it to be hopeful. Cancer's such a heavy subject and they're tackling that so we wanted it to be not light but just more gentle — approach it from a gentle esthetic, ease people into the heavy topic.”
For both Graham and Moore, one of the biggest surprises of this project had to do with everything being stripped down to its essence — a relatively clutter-free environment with the freedom to explore and do the best work possible.
“[We’re] used to being under so many people and being guided with everything,
said Graham. “It was surprising to see how much we were actually able to learn from it on our own. You kind of surprise yourself when someone gives you so much freedom. Honestly, the biggest thing too was when we showed all of the Fireflies. Their reaction to it wasn't just ‘oh yeah, this is really great, we're going to get a lot of support for this, and it's going to really help us raise money.’ It really seemed like they got all of the little nuance things that we put in there.”
Detchmendy agreed and also took it one step further, noting that Graham and Moore, led by Crowe, really “got” the Fireflies and The Fireflies West as well.
“[The film] just gets to the emotion, why we're doing it, what the Fireflies are about. From the outside, you hear people are so into being a Firefly. You get closer and closer in and you realize it's really great and I think a lot of that comes from the fact that it's just very authentic. So I think the film is just beautiful and something that crystallizes what it's really all about.”
Executive Producer: Luke Colson
Producer: Alex Bader
Editing Company: The Mill
Editor: Ron Lubin, Luke Kraman
Edit Assist: Natalie Wozniak
VFX & Design
VFX & Design: The Mill
Executive Producer: Luke Colson
Producer: Alex Bader
Concept: Phil Crowe, Tara Demarco, Amy Graham, Kyle Moore
Executive Creative Directors: Phil Crowe, Robert Sethi
Creative Direction & Art Direction: Kyle Moore, Amy Graham
Lead Animator: Kyle Moore
Lead Designers: Amy Graham, Kyle Moore, Lisha Tan
Design: Viraj Ajmeri, Victor Duncan, Helen Hsu
Animation: Viraj Ajmeri, Justin Sucara, Justin Demetrician, Clare Carrellas
Special Thanks: Vanessa Cuccia, Jessica Penner, Kate Lynn Abigail, Christine Luu, Chloe Skinner, Heath Raymond, Nicholas Scarcella, Imaginary Family, Unday Records, Heard City
Colour: The Mill
Executive Producer, Colour: Thatcher Peterson
Colour Producer: Diane Valera
Production Coordinator, Colour: Jackson Rogers
Colourist: Gregory Reese