Hanging off a Cliff Has Never Been So Chill, thanks to Sweetshop and The Monkeys
24 August 2023
Casey Martin for LBB Online
Director Damien Shatford, alongside The Monkeys CDs Joe Sibley & Hugh Gurney, talked with LBB’s Casey Martin about the high stakes, low tension spot for Macpac.
We all know that palms sweating, hearts racing, bums-on-the-edge-of-seats feeling. The adrenaline runs through our veins as we watch favourite characters navigate life-or-death situations. Will they? Won’t they? And then, all of a sudden, nothing.
A black screen, credits rolling, the lights coming on and people leaving their seats. They’ve ended it on a bloody cliffhanger, leaving you wanting more and more and more.
Cliffhangers are wonderful to keep audiences coming back, but what if it wasn’t all that serious? What if the characters acted like everything was normal and they weren’t in fact in any danger.
That’s what Damien Shatford, Sweetshop, Joe Sibley and Hugh Gurney, The Monkeys, created for Macpac. A brilliantly-curated spot that showcases not only the product but utilises the natural chilled-back humour of New Zealand.
To go behind the scenes on the death-defying ad, LBB’s Casey Martin caught up with Damien, Joe, and Hugh.
LBB> Joe, what was the process of pitching the cliffhanger idea like?
Joe> This was always going to be a big moment for Macpac - it's the first big brand moment they've had, and it’s in their 50th year.
So it took us a few rounds of presentations to land on an execution that we all thought felt was the right thing to launch with. We presented a lot of ideas and scripts - some were pretty outrageously silly, and others were more earnest and straight.
Sometimes that process can feel exhausting, but in truth it allowed everyone to hone in on exactly what it is we need to say and how to behave, plus we had a blast writing all these ideas. It proved to us that the 'Weather Anything' platform is creatively fertile for a lot more fun in the future.
LBB> And Damien, this is a really ambitious idea - what was your initial vision upon hearing the brief, and how closely does it align to the finished spot?
Damien> I thought ‘Whoa! WTF, this is a really nice idea. It would be cool if we could actually dangle a bunch of people off a cliff, but treat it like a conversation in a bank. Wonder if you’re allowed to do that?
The script Hugh & Joe from The Monkeys sent me was pretty close to the finished spot. The scene was funny, and the dialogue was great. But working closely with the comic genius that is Barnie Duncan (the man hanging in the middle) we tried a bunch of dumb ideas, some that were just dumb enough to work.
The simplicity is probably the main thing I didn't expect. We went in thinking this might be an exciting high-stakes drama. But because it was shot in a day*, and was reasonably complicated, the coverage became quite basic. So its simplicity came out of necessity.
*was not quite shot in a day
LBB> The cast's performances strike a perfectly dry note which amps up the humour. What's the secret to achieving that kind of tone whilst you're on set?
Damien> I think it’s always just good casting, lots of rehearsal, and working with a bunch of people that are all trying to make the same thing.
This location specifically dictated a tone. Words have a certain feeling to them when you’re dangling a long way from the ground.
So while it needed to feel spontaneous and true, it was all very well rehearsed - and that was the space where we were able to play and improvise. On the day the words were locked, the tone was agreed. All we had to do was outsmart the weather.
LBB> Hugh, what was the moment that you knew this campaign was going to work?
Hugh> This idea started with us talking about a visual of three people hanging from a cliff face, supported by a Macpac jacket, that we thought was really strong and demonstrated the durability of the product. We quickly sketched it down. It seemed right. Our ECD, Ant Keogh always talks about the first visual you see in film should be something that grabs you and makes you want to keep watching. This was definitely one of those.
Then we riffed on some humourous things they could say, and "This is a bit precarious" was among the first things we said aloud. We thought it was funny at the time, and we knew that the rest of the spot was definitely doing all the right things from an advertising point-of-view because, at the heart of it, it was a product demonstration.
The product was integral to the spot. And we were looking to achieve two things – show that the gear was durable and high quality, and tell people that it was from New Zealand (which comes with in-built outdoors credibility).
We presented it to our accounts team, and they laughed and approved, then we presented it to the client, and they laughed and approved too. We had a feeling the idea was going to work straight away, but the more positive reactions we got, the more we knew we were onto something. We just needed to make sure we didn't mess it up in the execution.
LBB> Talk us through the process of making this spot. Was it a classic actor on wires in front of a green screen?
Damien> Early in the process, when the idea was still in the ‘I wonder if we could dangle a bunch of people off a cliff’ stage, we found a location at the very top of Coronet Peak, an off-season ski mountain in Queenstown. It had all the things you’d need for a cliffhanger: a cliff bit and a hanger bit.
From lots of angles, it looked like we were above the clouds. But in reality, it’s just a cute schist rock formation on the top of a very nice hill.
It had rigging points throughout for the rock climbers, and simple access to the top and bottom of the rockface. And you could catch the ski lift!
There are some wires and some greenscreen. But we did manage to dangle a bunch of people off a cliff! Only for three shots, but important ones. The close-ups were shot with our actors hanging from a truss on the top of the peak. They were holding their body weight for real, but only a few millimetres from the ground. It gave them the right tension in their body, kept the real landscape behind them and allowed me to be right next to them. The top-down shots were shot against the green screen on a crane in the yard. The final wide is a comp of them hanging from our little schisty formation onto The Remarkables.
LBB> Did you look to any classic cliffhanger moments in popular culture for inspiration? If so, which?!
Damien> Sylvestor Stallone in Cliffhanger (specifically this weird scene where Ranger Frank in the helicopter seems like he’s acting in a different movie). Vertical Limit, Everest, and then basically every rock-climbing documentary on Netflix.
LBB> What was the biggest challenge you encountered whilst making this ad, and how did you overcome it?
Damien> To be honest, I had a great time from start to finish. The biggest challenge was probably the walk from the ski lift to the peak. Which is a testament to the incredible crew. My producer Katie Kemp threw everything she had at making it not only possible but really good and really safe. Mark Harris, our stunt coordinator, did an incredible job of designing, rigging and operating under extreme conditions. He made the difficult look easy and kept all the actors secure and feeling comfortable. And our cinematographer James L Brown prepared like a doomsday survivalist going into world war 3. The location was tricky, the weather was tricky, and there was nowhere to hide in the coverage. But he shot the piss out of it and it looks rad. Honestly, every department deserved MVP.
LBB> What was the purpose behind the choice to have a high-tension situation with very chilled deadpan characters?
Joe> Even before this idea was written, we knew that we were going to embrace New Zealand's distinct comedy dialogue rhythms as they reinforce Macpac's provenance. Plus we find Kiwi comedy really funny. And because the high-tension situation is diffused by the product (because it won't rip), we were pretty sure it would be funny.
Hugh> Tension is essential in comedy. So we created a tense moment, then released the tension by having our characters react to the situation in a really relaxed, nonchalant way, because they know something about the jacket that the audience doesn't yet.
"We were lucky to work with Damien Shatford, a very funny kiwi director who’s great at bringing funny dialogue & performances out of people. There’s a lot of Damien in the spot."
LBB> Finally, what was the best - or most memorable - moment from filming this spot?
Damien> I learnt a lot about schist. Made some new friends. Ate the lamb shoulder at The Sherwood. 10/10 experience. Would recommend.
This article was first published by LBB Online on 3 April 2023.