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Anatomy of an Ad: the story behind Greenpeace's harrowing tale of turtle extinction

Anatomy of an Ad: the story behind Greenpeace's harrowing tale of turtle extinction

Following the impact of its Rang-tan palm oil campaign, last week Aardman and Greenpeace unveiled 'Turtle Journey' - a heart-wrenching stop motion animation that worked to urge people to take action on the ocean crisis.

The campaign brought together the activist strength of Greenpeace with the famed creative of Aardman Animations, the makers of Wallace and Gromit and famous voices like Olivia Colman, Dame Helen Mirren and Stranger Things' David Harbour.

The Drum went behind the scenes to uncover how the major project came together.

Ocean Crisis

A major focus for Greenpeace has been bringing the problems facing the world’s oceans as a result of climate change into public awareness. Back in 2018, what started as a Twitter joke, resulted in Stranger Things’ David Harbour dancing with penguins in the Antarctic to raise awareness of their plight.

That same year, Radiohead lead singer and environmental activist, Thom Yorke, released a single in support of Greenpeace’s mission to protect the Antarctic Ocean from the effects of climate change, commercial fishing, and human interference. The ominous instrumental track’s message was relayed on London’s Marble Arch.

Meanwhile, to celebrate World Oceans Day in 2018, people from 25 countries and all seven continents painted themselves blue and perform human waves to show their support for ocean protection.

World Oceans Day: Human Wave

Happy World Oceans Day! Together, we're campaigning for an ocean rescue plan that'd create huge new ocean sanctuaries all over the world. If it...

But despite all the action Greenpeace has taken to drive this message home, Chris Till, deputy fundraising director at Greenpeace admitted it’s not been as effective as it would like.

"If you spoke to most people, they would have no idea that the United Nations (UN) is in the middle of negotiating a big new global ocean treaty,” he said. “Despite the fact that that could arguably affect the future of life on earth.”

The Greenpeace team realised they needed to do something that would help it break out of its bubble of support, and get its message out into the wider world.

Ahead of the UN global ocean treaty talks in March, Greenpeace wanted to take plan to action by launching a petition to ensure the treaty came to life.

Turning away from shock tactics

Greenpeace was also battling against people’s resistance to shocking footage. For decades, bodies like Comic Relief and Children in Need have relied on distressing footage to spur people into giving. But recent reports claim hearts are hardening against distressing content.

In preparing for this campaign, Greenpeace quickly came to the conclusion that emotional animations would be a more effective tactic.

“As a society, we’re fast getting used to images that used to be shocking,” admitted Till. “Animation can be different as it allows people to emotionally connect. They can see themselves within the story in a way that’s difficult to do in the real world.”

The team had also learned a lesson from its wildly successful Rang-tan campaign; Greenpeace’s emotional tale starring actress Emma Thompson that hit home the hard reality of palm oil, and the effect its cultivation has on the earth.

With help from Iceland, which chose to repurpose the video for its Christmas ad, the film thrust the issue of palm oil into the popular mindset. This, in turn, encouraged more people to consider it when buying food and products.

"It really pushed it into the public spotlight," explained Till. "And we knew we needed to do something similar with our next campaign, to get people really talking and taking action about the ocean crisis."

Enter Aardman

Fortuitously, around the time Greenpeace was mapping out this campaign Aardman Animation got in touch to say it was interested in working with the organisation.

“It just felt like a perfect fit,” Till said. “We were looking for something that would make a strong connection with our audience and Aardman is brilliant at that. As we're both household names in our own right, it would help get the word out.”

Following market testing around wider communication for the ocean’s issue, the research persuaded the team decided to focus on turtles. Till argued that while Greenpeace has a strong track record of talking about whales, they are received differently across the world. Turtles, on the other hand, have universal appeal.

The team at Greenpeace then spoke to Aardman’s producers on what they wanted to get out of the film, the reaction they wanted and soon they began working on a brief.

This was then used to reach out to Aardman’s network of directors, which garnered 12 pitches as to what this film could look like. “They were brilliant and varied and offered many different ways of tackling what could be a very difficult subject,” Till said.

“We were clear that we wanted the animation to be immediately recognisable as Aardman,” he explained on the creative vision Greenpeace had. “We wanted something that would be immediately accessible and would take people on a real emotional journey.”

Till explained that ‘emotional punch’ was a phrase that continued to surface throughout their discussions as Greenpeace knew that while it was good at delivering facts and figures, it’s “not always enough to make the case or make people prioritize the issue.”

Till said deciding on the director was a “fun if agonising decision process” where the team refined and narrowed the ideas until they settled on Gavin Strange.

“Just hearing Gav talk about his vision showed he really got to the heart of the issue,” Till explained. “He not only understood it intellectually, but he had a really strong emotional connection to the story." An added extra, to heighten his pitch, Strange read it alongside an accompanying musical mood real.

Getting the plasticine ball rolling…

With the initial premise agreed back in mid-September, Aardman got going on the animation, while Greenpeace stayed in close contact throughout this time, during which Till admits the main producer was his main speed dial.

“We had to get it right as it’s a big story to tell in not so long a video,” he explained. Further, because of the process of stop-motion animation, it needed to sign off the script, set and characters before filming started, as “once it’s set in clay, so to speak, all the changes become more difficult. If you go back and reanimate it loses you days and lots of effort.”

Due to the nature of stop motion, the team used an animated storyboard, instead of a script. This was so they could work out the timings of each shot down to a fraction of a second.

One issue arose around how the characters should be depicted, as they needed to agree on the exact species of turtle to focus on - down to the colour of the shell. And this needed to balance with the story itself, to ensure that each character was scientifically accurate, with clear distinctions and personalities.

The team then had to work to a tight schedule, to ensure it was ready by January to give it enough airtime to make waves before the final found of the United Nations’ ocean treaty in March.

To help manage the team. who were working individually on shots, Aardman put boards on the walls with pictures of each shot so they could move between studios to show how it was working out.

All in all, the stop motion recording took six weeks - a painstaking process given the total length of the film is just under two minutes.

Recognisable voices...

The famous voices involved include Olivia Colman, Dame Helen Mirren, and David Harbour, alongside Game of Thrones’ Bella Ramsey, Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter, and comedian Ahir Shah.

Other than the scientific data and facts, Greenpeace also has an extensive phonebook of famous stars keen to support its campaigns.

“Colman really did put everything into it,” Till said on the Oscar-winning actress' performance. “She took time off from doing the final takes of The Crown to rush over and deliver the recordings in under an hour. She just got it."

Till said he was in Harbour’s ear during his recording, as the actor was working remotely in New York. He said the whole process was interesting to experience, as each famous voice approached the shoot in a different way.

Turtles Under Threat

"We don't want to be accused of being hyperbolic," claimed Till on why alongside the video, it has produced a report about the threats that are facing turtles in the real world. "We know it's crucial for us as a lobbying and scientific campaigning organisation we need to demonstrate that science is there to back this story up."

'Turtles Under Threat' reports that while the creature has traversed the world's oceans for more than 100 million years, now six in seven marine turtles are on the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and are threatened with extinction.

"Unfortunately, our film might be fiction, but what happens to our turtle family in that film is sadly happening to real turtles all over the world," Till said dejectedly.

And it has worked...

With the campaign launching last week, it’s still early days. But Greenpeace said it has already collected over 280,000 signatures - not far off its 300,000 target.

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