Why Škoda turned to CGI when its big Mediterranean shoot got cancelled
What happens when Covid-19 shuts down your big shoot mere weeks before filming, and the job still needs to be finished? The team behind Škoda’s latest spot turned to CGI to recreate the ad they’d planned, virtually.
There is a general formula when it comes to car advertising that gets people’s engines roaring. Jaw-dropping backdrop? Tick. Gleaming car effortlessly gliding along a winding road? Tick. Engine revs that murmur ’buy me’ in car-speak? Tick.
But what happens when those big production shoots are cancelled due to Covid-19? Can you survive without overhead shots of tyres carving tracks in the dirt?
That’s the problem Škoda faced when the Mediterranean shoot for its SUV range got called off mere weeks before filming. “It was really unfortunate timing for us, as we were well on our way,“ recalls Kirsten Stagg, head of marketing at Škoda UK. “We were due to film in Croatia and northern Italy, but then Italy went into its first regional lockdown.“
While Škoda could have cut its losses and paused ad spend until the time was right to restart, the fact that its new SUV was due to launch meant the team had to think outside the box. How can you create a campaign about a new line of cars without being able to physically shoot them?
“We had to make a difficult decision. We were part way along incurring costs so we had to have a complete rethink and go back to the drawing board,“ Stagg recollects. “The peak months in the car market are March and September, so we knew we had to have a campaign ready to be on air in August and time wasn't on our side.“
The Škoda team, alongside its creative agency Fallon London, started considering their options. They could reuse assets created by Škoda in the global market or they could create something by editing some content the team already had, but Stagg insists, “we didn't want to compromise.“ It needed to change gear, and CGI was the best option.
But how close can you get to the real deal with a CG model, when typical ads usually allow the car to speak for itself? And will customers care about a car ad if looks like it‘s been driven straight off Grand Theft Auto?
“[The models] are based on the CAD data that they use to produce the cars so it‘s one hundred per cent representative of the car,“ Stagg claims. “The bits where the talent of the CGI team comes is in how you make it move in a realistic way.“
Taking 12 weeks from start to finish, Fallon London‘s creative team worked with VFX experts at Electric Theatre Collective while Stagg and her team waited with baited breath.
Fallon's chief creative officer, Chaka Sobhani explains that they all had varying degrees of experience working with CGI on previous projects. "We knew that the first thing to do was chat to the right post-production partner to start fleshing out the possibilities. People always talk a lot about collaboration but in this case, it really was a true partnership from start to finish between us, the Electric Theatre Collective and our Škoda clients," she recalls.
Though she admits it was tough not being able to get together and work in person during the process. "It’s so important to be able to bob down to the post house and see progress, talk things through continuously as you sit together, and create as a group," she explains. "Regular zoom calls were key."
On Škoda's side, Stagg admits the process "was a little nerve-racking" because it wasn't until two weeks before it signed it off that the team started to see something that resembled how it was going to end up looking. “A lot of the work didn‘t come together until really late on, because with CGI the team needs to work on the effects separately. So for example, making the lighting look authentic or the way the dust comes up when the wheels spin," she details.
While this was a first for Škoda, Stagg says the team took inspiration from Audi, admitting, “we took some confidence from our colleagues at Audi, that you can do [CGI ads] to a really high level of quality.“ In 2015 Audi, known for its iconic advertising, turned to CGI to introduce the Audi Sport model.
Working with BBH London, ‘Birth‘ saw the Audi R8 give birth to the RS 3 Sportback. Like Škoda, it was created entirely using CAD data.
Now the team is on the other side of the project, would Stagg consider returning to CGI filmmaking? “We would definitely consider doing this again in the future,“ she confirms, with the caveat, “this particular creative just features the cars, which I believe is easier. When it comes to wanting to have actual people in, it becomes much more difficult.“
For Fallon's Sobhani, the experience of building a virtual ad through CGI has confirmed her belief that creativity will always find a way, even in the toughest of circumstances. "In fact sometimes it can make the work, and you, better by forcing you to think and create in ways you might not have considered before," she adds.
While this has been Škoda‘s biggest spot this year, Stagg acknowledges she was conscious the brand shouldn‘t be taunting drivers during lockdown. Advertising the joy of cruising a fine motor at a time when people were required to stay home would be irresponsible, and several auto brands have sought to weave around the issue in their marketing efforts.
For Audi, the answer was to reconnect with housebound Australians through the freedom of the open road, with a four-hour slow TV film that allowed viewers to experience the soothing nature of a long road trip from the confines of their home. Meanwhile Porsche reused existing materials to urge drivers to stay in, despite the beautiful weather and empty roads.
“We didn't want to appear insensitive to the situation, so I put effort into getting ourselves ready for when lockdown ended,“ Stagg explains. “Of course our showrooms were closed during the main lockdown period, so we wanted to make sure we were ready with an offer for our customers that was sensitive for the time.
In May, it released a quirky spot that captured the loneliness of self-isolation, shooting a car ad using toy cars.
Beyond the lighthearted film ‘Shot at Home,‘ Stagg said the team “created a tactical approach, which we hadn‘t done previously. We planned a finance campaign that waived the first three months of payments for customers unsettled about the economic outlook – something to help people in that situation.“
While Škoda can‘t confirm whether or not its venture into CGI will see them embrace the technique in the long-term, 2020 will be remembered as the year its team pulled its sleeves up and got on with the job at hand – pandemic be damned.