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The Stable Interview: Joel Harmsworth 'Your Life. Your Army Reserve'

Your Life, Plus Army Reserve, VMLY&R’s first major Defence Force brand campaign since it regained Defence Force Recruiting turned out to be quite a production for Sweetshop and director, Joel Harmsworth, eighteen months in the making, interrupted several times by both Covid-19 and an extraordinary complex of logistics. Over 50 executions were created across cinema, TV, social and OOH to target different segments of the Australian public at different times.

Harmsworth took The Stable behind the scenes:

No one in the world saw Covid-19 coming

This shoot was an epic before it began. “We came on board in November 2019 and Covid stopped the actual shoot before it started. It’s a big deal for the army to reschedule. It’s not like shooting in a milk bar. To push things out even just for two weeks, a huge number of things have to change. Covid meant pushing things out for months to get everyone and everything on board. We also went in wanting to be a small crew, nimble, we didn’t want to get in the way, but even for things like changing the reservist from civilian to uniform required a lot of moving parts on our end and from the Army. So although we tried to be nimble there was a lot of organising to be done. And there were a couple of false starts along the way, where we thought production could begin again after Covid and then didn’t as the second wave occurred. And we had to isolate at a strange compound in Darwin, so it took us sixteen days to get to Sydney from Melbourne.”

A script with big ideas had to be coloured in inside the army’s lines

“It wasn’t the usual production process. We had to dive in fully, even very early in the treatment stage, because DFR operates with precision. The army works in its way and production works in its way, and we had to somehow marry the two by working within their schedules, locations and cast. We realised that we would need to lead everything from casting to location and help the agency to develop its script. What we had on the page was shooting for the stars. All the big toys. All the good locations. There were some adjustments that had to be made to fit reality after we’d researched and scouted the base. We had to find out what was available and what would work, backwards to the script not the other way around. It was important to us to be really hands on and bring all sides of production together, not just shoot the script. It was the only way the shoot could be done.

“For example, there was an obstacle course in the script, but the army’s obstacle course had burned down in the fires, so we had to go to the base and look at other options then go back to the agency with our findings and spit-ball the ideas that had come from what we’d seen, what we could do, how we could make the scene work. Fortunately, everyone was really helpful – we could have come back with dead ends.”

Making two different worlds meet in the middle is never easy

“Filming took place in Holsworthy base in Sydney. The main limitation, Harmsworth notes, was that “we were in someone else’s territory and that was run like a machine. It was their rules, their processes, their time, and you don’t want to be wasting their time. And you can’t just walk in and push them in ways that they’re not comfortable. We had to work together and figure out how we could make things work. The advantages were that everyone was so keen. So as soon as we walked onto the base, everyone was pumped to make it happen. Helicopters in the air for example – that was difficult. They’re used for far more important stuff than making ads. So, there were limitations, but they were more like challenges, more like ‘how can we figure this out together’ tests.

“Also, we were working with a cast of reservists. They’re volunteers and a lot of what they do is training and humanitarian work and a lot of that is done outside the base – Covid-assist or helping the RFS with fires. How do you bring those things to life on a base? The strengths were the people we were working with – the enthusiasm and guidance from the reservists in front of the camera, and the colonels, majors and upper commands, who were full-time army people, behind the scenes.”

Happily, enthusiasm kept itself burning

“When you’re in a pandemic and talking about months and months to create sixty seconds, enthusiasm can fizzle out, but the idea was great, the scenes were great and once you get on base it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the excitement of it all. We were meeting really interesting people and they were full of enthusiasm – and then there were the big toys and the big trucks. All of that never got tiring. What the army does is exhilarating. The agency was also really good in this way. James [Wills] and Robyn [Bergmann] were always really pumped up about by everything. And every time we brought in someone new they were wowed, so there was a renewed wave of enthusiasm every step of the way.”

It’s always a plus when the client solves the biggest challenge

“The core idea is the transition from civilian to reservist. How to make that work without bringing in huge technical rigs and infrastructure to create the transitions was really the main challenge. We didn’t want to repeat any transitions too often and we wanted to interweave them into the story so that they didn’t feel forced. A lot of the stress of this was taken away by the cast. For them to hit the mark every time and be able to do the same thing over and over as we changed the camera or changed the camera position although they weren’t actors was remarkable. Because they were military-trained they nailed it. They were really disciplined.”

“With Joel’s beautifully shot, very dramatic and emotional work for New South Wales Rural Fire Service and everything he learned directing an early campaign for the Australian Navy, his attention to detail came to the fore in this job,” stated Edward Pontifex, managing director of Sweetshop Australia. “Managing a job of its scale and complexity was a massive task and Joel embraced every moment of it.”

“It was a huge shoot,” Harmsworth added. “Even though we tried to make it not look like a massive thing on camera, although we tried to make it look very spontaneous and immediate, there were so many moving parts behind the camera. When things click and go right in those situations it feels like I’ve done my job properly.

“The other one was giving it style. We wanted to promote the idea that being a reservist gives people experiences you just don’t get in everyday life. A lot of that was delivered through colour, light and shade and different tones. It was difficult to land on base and pull that out so achieving it was great.”

Harmsworth’s background in photography and design adds an extra layer of appeal to all of his films. That’s also wonderfully apparent here:

This interview was published by The Stable on May 19 2021.