8th January 2018
Behind the Scenes: Buddhism’s Untold Journey
‘Buddhism’s Untold Journey’ chronicles the story of Danish Buddhist Hannah Nydahl and her quest to introduce Tibetan Buddhism to the western world. The feature-length film spans six decades and combines archive footage with a wealth of film shot across the world. The film crew traversed far-flung locations – including India and Hong Kong – as well as those closer to home – Germany, France, Spain and Denmark.
After collecting footage and working through hours upon hours of archive material, the production team joined forces with award-winning editors Simon Barker and Hamish Lyons to bring the film together.
All profits from the film go to support a Buddhist charity based in Hannah’s home country of Denmark.
In the interview that Adam Penny, Connected Pictures’ Managing Director and practicing Buddhist, discusses the highs and lows of creating the film.
Buddhism’s Untold Journey is part of Connected Pictures’ For Love not Money collection. Can you tell us about this series and why it’s important?
Wow that’s a big opening question! Love Not Money is a strand of Connected Pictures in which we work on projects or subjects that we feel passionate about, or on stories that we want to tell. We want our team to be able to explore and create films regardless of brief, brand or remuneration. It allows a different mindset: you tell stories in a different way and can explore different techniques of storytelling and shooting styles etc. At the end of the day we are creatives with purpose, so it’s important to have time to explore our craft, or tell stories that we think are important. Hannah is an interesting one because, in addition to the importance of the story, all profits go back to a Buddhist charity.
Why did you want to make this film?
I’d been a Buddhist for a few years when Marta, the co director and producer, asked if I’d be interested in making this documentary. I had met Hannah a few times before she died, and she was such an amazing woman. But more amazing was how she lived and what she expressed. It was that which really drew me in.
The story spans six decades, and at such an interesting time in the world’s history. The world was waking up to so many things and Hannah was in the middle of the most interesting parts of it. She and her husband were children of 1960s Denmark, true hippies. At first they explore their minds with LSD, then, realising that wasn’t the answer, they turned to Buddhism and meditation. They were in Poland and Russia teaching and helping people as communism was breaking down, they were kidnapped by Guerrillas in South America. There is obviously a big political story with the Chinese and the Tibetans, it’s a real rollercoaster of a story.
And then there was Hannah herself. Throughout her life she seemed to live in a way that seemed totally free yet with other people still in mind. Her and her husband had very little possessions, and spent their life travelling to introduce people to Buddhism. They didn’t go to the nice, white middle class countries and regions like a lot of the lamas, they went where they thought they could help the most. This was all fascinating to me.
Finally, I think it was because I had the chance to dive deeper into a subject I was passionate about and really see it from the inside. That’s one thing that we are very lucky to be able to do as documentary makers.
How do you begin condensing 60 years into a feature-length film?
With a lot of research and a lot of structuring. We structured the documentary before we even started filming. We had different levels that we worked on: what was happening in the outer world, what was happening to Buddhism, what was happening in Hannah’s life and, of course, what we wanted to express about her. We had a master ‘story matrix’ that covered all aspects; from the wider world events, through to which interviewees would talk about what subjects and stories. The concept of freedom came up a lot. Freedom means different things to different people around the world and in the film we explored how its meaning has changed from the 60s through to today. Freedom means something very special in Buddhism. Part of the goal is to not be distracted or tied to anything – not the outer world (possessions, constructs of society etc) or the inner world (thoughts, emotions or beliefs) – but to be free in a way that is completely non-conceptual.
You filmed all over the world. Why was it important to film in all these places?
We wanted to try and capture as much as we could first-hand. We shot with Guy Nisbett who has done a lot of music promos and commercials to get some of these ancient Buddhist places on film. This footage was important – otherwise the film had the potential to be a dry documentary with a lot of archive.
Were there any particularly memorable moments in the making of the film?
When we travelled to Bodhgaya, the place where Buddha became enlightened, I got incredibly ill. I spent most of our time there in a Zen Monastery lying in bed feeling wretched. It was so bad that when I got back home they put me in quarantine because they weren’t sure what was wrong with me. There is a fantastic saying that when, as a Buddhist, you go to these special places the best thing that can happen to you is to die, the next best thing is that you get sick. From that point of view I guess you could say I was very lucky! The other very special trip was to Sikkim and the surrounding area (including Darjeeling and Sonada), where a lot of old Buddhist monasteries are. These places are steeped in history and people have meditated there for hundreds of years. It sounds esoteric to say it, but you can feel it. It was very special.
The film has been seen by more than 16,000 people and is preparing for a European DVD release. How important is the audience when making a film like this?
It’s always important to think about the audience when you are making a film, especially for a niche subject such as this. The hardest thing was how to start the film and not lose people from the beginning. So we thought, “What do people know about Buddhism?” They either know (a) His Holiness the Dalai Lama (who has no bearing to our film) or (b) they know that the communist Chinese invaded Tibet. So we started from that position and told the story from there. But as I said with a niche subject like this it is very difficult. You want to give people just enough information to engage and inform, but not so much that they get lost. These traditions and schools go back thousands of years so you can end up down a rabbit hole if you are not careful.
What was the process of obtaining archive footage and photographs?
Archive is over half the film, so unsurprisingly it was a big job. For footage of Hannah we called out to all the people who knew her around the world and asked them to send it in. We even had one of the high lamas from the Karma Kagyu Lineage turn up one day with a stack of super 8mm reels saying he thought we might need it.
For the more global footage, such as Kathmandu in the 60s or Poland in ’81, we worked with an archivist who was amazing. It’s a really time consuming process that people often underestimate. The best part for me was the photos of Hannah. We didn’t want to just scan them in and have them come up on screen. So we printed out a batch at a time, stuck them up on the wall in the office and filmed them with a jib arm and a toy lens. A toy lens is a cheap bad plastic lens, but it gives is a totally organic image.
What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome when making the film?
To be honest, there were so many. It was a five year project with a lot of things going on around it. Documentary making is a marathon if you do it properly and you have to be prepared for that. For me this where intention comes in, we try and instil that in anyone of our team who is thinking about doing a passion project. You have to know why you’re making something so that when you go through the dark night of the soul (and I think everyone does), you keep going.
I’ve never been interested in doing things just because I think they will look amazing or clever. I find it easier to keep going if a project benefits on some level. So to think that we were doing something that would introduce Buddhism and this amazingly inspiring woman to people, and to know that if we didn’t her voice would soon get lost, was a great motivation. There is one quote that kept me going: “Pain is temporary, film is forever.” I think that is especially true with a subject like this. With any luck this will touch people for years to come. In the three and a half years since we finished it, I’ve only seen the love and reach of the film grow.
Find out more and watch the trailer at www.hannahthefilm.com
13th December 2017
A Show of Stars: Behind the Scenes
It’s hard not to love London in December. The sweet aroma of roasted chestnuts permanently wafts through the streets and towering Christmas trees fill every cobbled square. Even the notoriously straight-faced commuter has a spring in their step.
London, in all its Christmas finery, is the backdrop to Molton Brown’s 2017 festive animation. The short film sits alongside paper artist Helen Musselwhite’s stills campaign for Molton Brown and takes viewers on a star-lit whistle-stop tour of London’s finest landmarks.
Below director Jody McAlavey discusses the ins and outs of creating the film.
What was the brief for the film?
Connected Pictures was approached to produce Molton Brown’s online Christmas commercial. Our brief was to take inspiration from the brand’s Christmas stills campaign – paper sets of London landmarks created by artist Helen Musselwhite – and create a 3D character-based animation that reflects the tradition, craft and personality of the brand.
What are the key considerations when creating an animation rather than a film? Do they have different treatments when it comes to planning?
Although the animations and films start from the same place, in which we are considering the purpose of the brand and the campaign, the process is very different. The animation style you choose then determines the complexity of workflows.
For this series, we had the references of Helen’s artworks but we still needed to work out how close to them we wanted to come. Did we want to have something that replicated Helen’s work or something that was just inspired by it? We went with the more difficult option and decided to have something as close as possible to the real life paper cutouts. We started with a script outline with a number of scenarios that we worked on together with Molton Brown – scenarios that were fun and creative, but also featured products.
What does a “set” for this sort of film look like?
We’re glad you asked – it’s all computer generated! We wanted it to be as life-like as possible so that’s why it was the more difficult option. We did consider making the set out of paper, but you have much more control if you create everything with graphics, particularly the light. You can control all the light sources in a graphic environment whereas with a set it is much more difficult.
Generally, with animation you have a lot more possibilities so it can be easy to lose focus on what you are trying to do. As a result, you have to always focus on what the intention of the film is. With the Molton Brown film we wanted to communicate craftsmanship and attention to detail but in a very playful way.
The render time for the film was greater than anything we have ever made before. In total it took around 120 hours to render out just one full version of the film. When a client wants to make tweaks you can imagine how that affects the timeline. As a result, we had to walk through every stage and get it signed off as we went.
There’s no speech or text in the film so the audience has to rely purely on visuals to understand the narrative. How does this affect your approach?
The underlying narrative was about playfulness and craft, all centred around Molton Brown products. The Christmassy narrative around London was quite easy. We focused on humorous and characterful scenes that would be easy to communicate across different social media platforms, both in short bursts and as a whole. Every scene had its own little story attached to it – around giving, love, celebration and bringing light to the city.
What is it like working on a Christmas campaign in the height of summer?
It gets a bit ridiculous when you are listening to 800 pieces of Christmas music in the middle of August. Especially while sipping on a chilled Caipirinha! Luckily the summer wasn’t all that this year so it didn’t feel too bad.
A sense of purpose lays at the centre of every Connected Pictures’ film. How does it manifest in A Show of Stars?
Christmas campaigns have become the annual creative pinnacle for retail, so the pressure was on. Normally we have meetings with two or three people at Molton Brown. Instead we had weekly meetings with a team of around 12 or 13 to make sure it was right.
We’ve worked with Molton Brown for long enough that we understand who they are. We now bring that into our work for them almost subconsciously. I would say that Molton Brown’s purpose is to bring an understated craftsmanship to the world, a luxury that isn’t showy but just well made. It’s classic and established, but with its own twist. Almost like London itself. I think these films convey just that.
4th December 2017
Why Authenticity is more than the Latest Marketing Trend
The best trends go beyond being just ‘a great idea’ to the nature of who we are as human beings.
In his much lauded book Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman puts forth his analysis of two systems in the brain: the fast system (System One) and the slow system (System Two). System One is instinctive, automatic, and based on gut feeling. System Two is deliberate and likes logic, coherent arguments and analysis.
In the business world we like to think that System Two is king and, with the right amount of reasoning and rationale, we will make the right decision. But Kahneman discovered that this isn’t the case. System One plays a part whether we like it or not. Even when making an effort to stay in the realms of System Two, when it comes to judgements and decision making, System One kicks in.
System One has a lot to do with trust. It doesn’t take a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist to tell us that questioning who to trust and why to trust them is part of basic human survival instincts. Who do we let close? Who is part of our tribe and who is an outsider? How quickly and easily can I analyse what is before me to work out whether it will help or harm me?
Today trust is at an all time low. The Edelman Trust Barometer – which monitors the level of trust society has in businesses, governments, NGOs and the media – says that trust is in crisis. (https://www.edelman.com/trust2017/) It reports that “the majority of respondents now lack full belief that the overall system is working for them. In this climate, people’s societal and economic concerns, including globalisation, the pace of innovation and eroding social values, turn into fears, spurring the rise of populist actions now playing out in several Western-style democracies.”
Again, no real surprise when you look at the world. It’s hard to know what or who to believe and why. Despite the proliferation of information available on the internet, factual accuracy no longer seems to be important to those who are communicating.
In this climate, the words “purpose” and “authenticity” are increasingly being heard. We are all looking for a bit of honesty. Honesty in the people that we work with, in the companies we employ, in the brands that we buy from and in the governments that we have put in charge.
Marketing and business have woken up to this. This September, Ad Week reported that authenticity was one of the biggest trends for brands today. (http://www.adweek.com/brand-marketing/here-are-the-4-biggest-brand-marketing-trends-at-advertising-week/)
However, authenticity is a tricky thing. It’s an easy thing to say, but what does it actually mean? Authentic to whom and to what? Businesses and brands are made up of individuals. We all have different personalities in and out of work, good days, bad days. Sometimes things go right for us and we do well and sometimes they don’t. So does being authentic just mean “be in the moment and let it all hang out”?
Of course not, this is where purpose comes in. Purpose and authenticity are inextricably linked. In my opinion, a good purpose conveys three things: why a company positively exists for its employees, why it positively exists for its customers and why it positively exists for the world. It’s the ‘why’ of what you do that is important. That ‘why’ has to be authentic in order for it to resonate in all parts of the business.
We’ve always believed that ‘why’ driven communications are the strongest and longest lasting, no matter what part of the business they come from and what audience they are for. This is the reason that Connected Pictures has never limited itself to just make customer-facing video content, or internal video content or social impact video content. The best communications all spring from the same place: being authentic and understanding your purpose. And this is what we strive to help people understand.
So why authenticity and film? We are human beings first (before we are employees or customers) and over thousands of years we’ve been programmed to connect with people by seeing and hearing them. To read all the signs and signals of how someone’s face and body move and from that to try and figure out, as fast as possible, who they are and what they stand for. To recognise them as one of our tribe, someone we can trust or as an outsider. This is the job of Kahneman’s Fast System and these judgements happen quicker than we care to admit.
Video (and particularly documentary) gives brands, businesses and organisations the chance to present their authentic selves. To show what they stand for and for whom and to create trust that connects deeper than a fact sheet, or sustainability report. But it also requires that the individuals take time to look inside themselves and know what their purpose is, both individually and as part of a collective.
My mother always used to say “If you can’t be honest with me, at least be honest with yourself.” And she was right, these things can’t be faked. Being honest, authentic and living with purpose should be the tenet of us all, regardless of whether it’s the latest marketing trend or not.
20th November 2017
Women Building Futures: A Human Approach
No matter how big a business is a group of individuals can always be found at its core. It is the diverse character traits and drive of these individuals that give a company its heart. Canadian oil company Suncor is a case in point.
Suncor rebranded in 2014 and, as part of the process, the company commissioned Connected Pictures to create a series of films that articulate various stand-out elements of the brand. Since 2008, Suncor has supported Women Building Futures, a non-profit organisation that empowers women to succeed in non-traditional careers. This film captures the scheme in action, as told by the women that have experienced its benefits and challenges first-hand.
In the interview published below Jon Ayres, Executive Producer and Partner, discusses the brief for the film; how to go about identifying engaging subjects; and the importance of not sitting still.
What was the brief for the film?
Connected Pictures worked with Suncor and the agency Appetite to create a series of films to communicate Suncor’s rebrand. The campaign comprised a leading brand film which captures vignettes of real people from across the business, both employees and communities that are touched by the business. We then produced a series of films that explore the stories behind each of these featured vignettes. Women Building Futures (WBF) was one of those.
Since 1998, WBF has been a leading initiative in preparing women for economically prosperous careers in industries where women have historically been under-represented. These careers lead to economic freedom and both personal confidence and growth; things that are transformational for women, their families and their communities. WBF has extensive experience recruiting and ensuring career success for women within these industries at a consistent employment rate of 90 per cent.
Our film talked about the relationship with WBF and how it created a sustainable and motivated workforce.
What research goes into a film like this?
As with any documentary, it is important for us to dig deeply into the topic we are building the story of, understand the purpose and value of the relationship between Suncor and WBF and get to know the contributors who we are working with to make the films. Over the course of the three-month global project we worked closely with the client and the featured contributors to understand and design the story. Our lead researcher/producer and director then presented on overview for this particular story ahead of the filming schedule.
Did Suncor identify the aspects of the brand (such as Women Building Futures) that it wanted to communicate in the films, or was this a process that Connected Pictures was involved in?
Suncor had many topics and stories they wished to feature. Connected Pictures supported them with identifying which stories were particularly compelling to showcase and which stories had the best contributors to support.
Suncor Energy is a huge company, yet the film manages to present an intimate picture of the company. Was this a challenge? Do you have tried and tested ways of making a film more intimate and relatable?
To be honest, this is not particularly challenging for us. Even the big businesses are formed of a number of individuals. Our job is to take these grand corporate strategies and discover what they mean at an individual and human level in an authentic and honest way. It is about questioning “how does this affect me?” and identifying, and really talking to, those individuals who are impacted or who represent the purpose or value of the story that we are telling.
How do you decide who to interview for the film?
It is a chemistry of different elements. Is their story right for the message we are looking to communicate? Are they comfortable to be involved and happy to share their story? “How is their screen presence and are they comfortable and confident enough to give us their story on camera? Are their characteristics right to engage with the audience and on a basic level? Will they enjoy working with us?
How do these interviews work? Are they scripted or just the result of a conversation that happens to be filmed?
Both. We spend time talking to the contributors off camera, ensuring they are clear and comfortable, identifying the details of their story and the aspects that we feel are most relevant to the film that we are making. We then put together an Audio/Visual script or Message Track (a simple document that broadly outlines what we are looking to capture from both the interview and the supporting visuals). Based on this, and once signed off by the client, we put together interview questions and a shot list. The interview questions are just a guide for us – the interview should be a relaxed, open conversation where ideas, topics and emotions should be explored. We will often talk with our contributors for 30 to 40 minutes to create a 3 to 4-minute final film. This allow the contributor to get used to the conversation, relax and open up to ideas and emotions. It is the connection between the interviewer and the interviewee that will create the most emotive interviews.
This film is part of a series you made to support the rebranding of Suncor Energy. Why is the medium of film work so well in articulating a brand’s values?
A company isn’t a balance sheet or a logo, it’s the people. Meeting and understanding these people, how they live, and what they are affected by demonstrates much more about a company than a carefully articulated description of brand values. With a brand like Suncor, who operate in industries that are constantly under fierce criticism and scrutiny, where trust can be eradicated easily, it is even more important to show first-hand how the company affects individuals.
How long were you on site for the filming?
It took 30 days to capture all the content and stories.
What was your experience of being on site and making the film?
We are hugely privileged to be employed to do what we do. We are invited into some of the most interesting worlds and given the opportunity to explore and meet so many interesting characters. One day you are sitting in your London office, the next you are interviewing an engineer in the middle of the Alberta forest or in the depth of a power plant, discussing some of the perhaps most personal aspects of their life, career, hope and aspirations. The beautiful part of the Beautiful Truth means that we get to explore the positive and uplifting aspects of the brand world. Alberta is cold though so we recommend a very thick coat…
Watch Women Building Futures here.
6th November 2017
Working with Children: Ten Top Tips from Jon Ayres
We have been working with children in film for over 10 years and, counter to the wider opinion, there is nothing more interesting, fulfilling and fun. From children heading back to school (Next and John Lewis) and the celebration of mums (P&G), to encouraging adults to “Start Today” (Barclaycard) and discussing the benefits of vaccination (Pfizer), children bring innocence, humour and nothing but authenticity to a production. We talk about the Beautiful Truth and that is exactly what you’ll get from a five-year-old!
There are many elements to consider when working with children. Their safety and protection from commercial exploitation is, of course, at the very top of the list. The UK has a strict licensing process for working with children in film which will help ensure all the boxes are checked ahead of the shoot. The license application process can take up to four weeks so it’s good to think about this early in the production process. The location of the shoot needs to be confirmed before the application is made so the license process dictates much of the production schedule. This, along with a robust Child Protection Policy, ensures you can focus on capturing the best from these young stars.
Here’s our top ten tips for working with children in film.
1: Finding Great Kids
There are plenty of good child-focused casting agencies out there. The majority are good to work with and can help with the licensing process, but don’t be afraid to search through the social networks. Websites such as MumsNet are a great place to offer kids an opportunity to be part of a production. You may also find the less stage school, and more authentic, types via your own research, which can give better results.
During the casting process always try and meet shortlisted children. If time is tight then a short video sent in from a parent is a good alternative but remember, how the child acts with mum or dad is very different to how they will act with an unfamiliar camera crew. Never make a decision on a child based on just a photo (a good rule of thumb for casting generally). Also remember that a child’s performance on the casting day may be very different to their performance on the day of the shoot. More on this later.
3: Parents Know Best
As part of the license process, there are clear rules about how long children of certain ages can be on set and in front of a camera. These rules can be found here. When choosing a time of day to shoot, it is always good to discuss the best time for the child with their parents. Are they best in the morning or afternoon? After breakfast or before lunch? There is a lot of unpredictability when filming with children but the more information that you have, the better the chance for good performances. The parent can often help with this.
4: Keep it Fun
Children are very good at picking up on the atmosphere on set. From the moment a child arrives to the moment they leave, it is important to make the experience comfortable and fun. They will bring the atmosphere onto the camera so if the atmosphere is tense they will shut down, if is relaxed, they will enjoy themselves.
5: Meeting the Team
When a child arrives on set, there are a lot of strange things happening and a lot of strange people. Introduce the team to the child so they understand that they are in a safe place. Perhaps allow them to walk around the studio or show them the camera set up, showing how it works (safely). All these things will take away the strangeness of the situation and will allow the child to enjoy the day.
6: The Sugar-free, Non-electronic Green Room
As with all shoots, there will be a lot of waiting around. The green room experience will often dictate a child’s on-screen performance. The easiest thing to do is to give a bored child an i-Pad or a sugar snack, but avoid this if you can. We all know that the over-excitement of a sugar high can quickly creep over to mania, or a sudden crash to silence. The last thing a child wants is to be dragged away from their favourite computer game: they will arrive on camera, in a electronic disengaged zone, and will probably be distracted and keen to get back. Healthy snacks and lots of fun toys for the younger ones (building blocks etc) will give you the best chance of a good mindset for the performance.
7: Keep Numbers to a Minimum
It is good to keep the number of people in the filming space to a minimum. This allows the set to be quiet, calm and relaxed. If there are lots of people that need to watch the performances then set up a client space in a different part of the location, far enough away to be out of sight and sound proof. This will allow the observers to discuss, and laugh, without disturbing the children. An in-ear feed to the director is a good idea if comms are needed throughout, but, on the whole, leaving the director to do their thing and catching up between takes tends to be the best strategy.
As per tip two, the child may, and probably will, perform totally differently once in front of the camera compared to how they did in their casting. This is fine, don’t panic. The quieter child might suddenly come out of their shell. Have patience and keep calm. It may take 10 minutes before the child feels able to engage and find the task interesting. The best child directors are not those that guarantee a performance from every child, but those who are sensitive and experienced in reading how the child is feeling and then responding in the right way. If the child is not engaging after 10 minutes or is over excited, it may be time to give them a rest off-camera for 30 minutes or so. Perhaps invite them back with a sibling or a friend – this may make them feel more confident. If they are having an off day there is very little you can do but don’t worry, you will only ever get a good performance from 50 per cent, or if you’re lucky 75 per cent, of the children on the day of shooting. This is something to consider when working out casting numbers.
In any interview you should avoid closed questions where the child only has to give a yes or no answer. With a shy child this is particularly difficult to avoid and as the child warms up there will probably be a LOT of one word answers. A good idea is to ask questions about their parents, friends or siblings in the context of the question. They may not tell you what they did that day, but they’re likely to reel off all the things their brother or sister did. Encourage them to tell you a story. This is especially relevant with younger children who are more likely to understand and feel comfortable with this approach. The main thing is have fun! The more you relax, the more they will.
10: Look after the Parents
Putting your child in front of camera is a traumatic experience. A child’s behaviour and performance can feel like a direct reflection on your parenting skills and a tense parent can greatly influence a child’s mindset. Generally, it is better for a parent to not be in the room with a child while they are on camera and instead ensuring that you have a professional chaperone present at all times. This usually allows the child to be themselves and the parent can watch in the monitoring room and be as tense as they like. Always give the parent encouragement, even if the child clearly doesn’t perform well.
View our latest film The Waiting Room for Barclaycard’s Start Today campaign below:
To see more of the work Connected Pictures has done with some great children, watch the following link https://vimeopro.com/connectedpictures/working-with-kids
26th September 2017
In pursuit of the Beautiful Truth
People talk a lot about purpose these days. Every company claims to have one. Sometimes what they say seems sincere; sometimes it doesn’t. In many cases it can come across as something pasted on from outside, a corporate aspiration dictated from above. But that’s not how purpose works. It doesn’t come from without; it’s a not a company slogan, a mission statement enforced from the top, or a brand identity drafted by an agency. A purpose is something that can only come from within – it defines what you do in the world, and explains why you do it.
We spent many years helping companies give voice to their sense of purpose, but it wasn’t until around two years ago that we began to properly consider our own. After 12 years of making films, we began to feel that we were beginning to lose sight of what had inspired us to make them in the first place – to the point where the future of our company was uncertain.
So we went back to the beginning. We looked at what had first brought us together, what we believed, and what we had always endeavoured to make. We began to work out what it was that we stood for, to find the words that expressed the integrity and honesty we’d tried to bring to the work we did, to our relationships with our clients, and to the audiences of our films. The process of introspection we embarked on uncovered a number of concepts and values that eventually coalesced into a simple but compelling idea: the Beautiful Truth.
The Beautiful Truth encapsulates our entire ethos. It expresses what we stand for inside and what we look for outside in everything we create. It resonates with our values, what we look for in the stories we tell, the people we work with, and the work we pursue. For us, it means stripping away the trappings of corporate identity, going beyond the brand name and the balance sheet, to find the human stories – the truth – at the heart of things.
A company is made up of lots of people. We aren’t just our jobs; we are all the hopes, fears, dreams, aspirations, challenges and experiences that we all have as humans. Whatever the brief we receive, whenever we set about creating a new piece of work, we look for what unites and inspires – the human connection. It isn’t always that easy to find. But the more you make the effort to see a human being first, before the company, the simpler it is to understand what they are really trying to achieve and the easier it is to create stories that are truly fascinating.
That means that, as a team, we are making films that tell real, relatable stories that stick with the viewer, engaging their minds and emotions. As individuals, it helps us have more passion for what we do and more compassion for each other. Rediscovering our purpose and defining the Beautiful Truth has brought meaning back to our business, and to our own stories as people.
Human stories have the power to change the world. If you focus on the differences that divide people you can never win. It’s too easy to have a stance on why this person is right and that person is wrong – that is what builds barriers. But if you focus on the universal, on what unites us, on the very best bits of what makes us human, the barriers start to fall. If we can do that – even in the smallest film we make – it can only be a good thing.
Watch our 2016-2017 showreel here
25th September 2017
Into The Uncharted: Capturing the scent of adventure for Molton Brown
When London’s top bath, body and beauty connoisseurs Molton Brown approached Connected Pictures for ideas on how to promote a new fragrance made with coastal cypress and sea fennel, they knew they wanted to embody the power and pull of the ocean. In the film – called Into The Uncharted – the viewer canoes the rough and rugged Pembrokeshire coastline with explorer and author Alastair Humphreys.
Being authentic is essential to Molton – something that chimes perfectly with Connected Pictures. For Into The Uncharted the perfumer had the bravery to focus solely on Alastair’s inspiring narrative, leaving his words about adventure and endurance to do the talking.
Here Managing Director Adam Penny explains the challenge of the aquatic shoot plus the strategy behind creating films that focus on storytelling rather than product.
What brief did Molton Brown set for the film?
The brief was fairly open. We have worked quite closely with Molton Brown’s creative team for a while so they came to ask our advice on what we thought would work for fragrance they were launching. They knew the themes they wanted to express – exploration, venturing into the unknown and travelling across vast distances.
At the time they were still looking for someone to feature. Unsurprisingly there aren’t too many modern day British explorers out there. Once Alastair had been cast we started to explore more but it was still fairly open as a brief.
How did you find Alistair? It’s not everyday that you meet a professional adventurer!
You don’t just want an explorer you want one to fit the bill in terms of look, purpose and values. It was actually Leanne, the creative and editor at Molton Brown who found Alistair after a long search. He was perfect. He has made a few films for different brands, most recently for Land Rover.
What sort of preparation went into the film?
Stephen, the director, and myself met Alastair before we started planning out the film. Authenticity is important to us and it’s certainly important to Molton Brown so we needed to know what went on in Alastair’s head, how he thought and why he did what he did. It was also important to do things that he felt were visually genuine for him. He’s not a model or an actor so we need to express who he was as well as Molton Brown’s vision.
Why was the location fitting for the story you wanted to tell?
It was important to find somewhere that had a dramatic coastline and a dramatic wave break that we could also safely get a canoe into. We shot the film in Pembrokeshire, West Wales over two long, blustery, cold – but fun – days. It was wild, dramatic and inspiring but wholly British. It certainly fit with who Alastair was.
What challenges come with shooting on a location that is so rugged and open to the elements?
You literally have to take what the weather and the day throws at you. You make the best strategy, you have contingencies, but a coastline like that might have other plans for you. Obviously safety is paramount. Stephen as shooting director will throw himself into anything to get the best shot. I had to sit him down before leaving London to tell not to do anything stupid no matter what! We then had a canoe expert with us who knew that part of the coast very well and had filmed with crews a lot there before. He advised both the crew and Alastair so that nothing bad happened.
Although the film was made for Molton Brown, there is no mention of the brand within the film. Is having such artistic license important?
The film was done as part of a series. In a separate film we meet the perfumer Carla Chabert, who created the fragrance. That was much more product-focused, but even then it was much more a focus on the mind of a creative.
Mentioning the brand (or not) is something we discuss a lot with clients. The braver the brand, the more they let a film speak for itself. But a brand has to know its audience and its customer, including when and how they will be watching, in order to know what will work. Our starting point is that if you make a film that is unashamedly FOR the audience rather than the brand, then what will work for them needs to come first. Hosting the experience, telling a story and expressing values is becoming the norm more and more for brands (thankfully!). Brands associated with a loyal fan base or with a niche audience (like an audience that loves cars, watches, make up etc.) find it much easier to lose the brand/product name and still keep its audience.
How was the Alistair’s narration achieved? Was it scripted or taken from an interview?
It was all taken from an interview. In our experience it is by far the best way to really connect and engage with an interviewee and an audience. Alistair is a real person with real thoughts and emotion, not an actor or a voice-over artist. It’s a real annoyance of mine when people put a script into the mouth of someone and expect it to sound interesting or really connect with an audience. But again this is something that brands have trouble with. They want a scripted message that they can control, but that loses authenticity which loses the audience.
In terms of our process, we do preliminary interviews with our contributors to get to know them. We also talk with the brand about what messages they want to get across, always trying to focus on what the human story is, not what the brand is trying to sell. Then we overlap the two. We build a list of questions, but what is more important is connecting with our interviewee on a level that is human and to have a conversation, to share ideas. Not simply ask questions. If you get this right then something magical happens. If you trust the person you’re interviewing and they trust you, you can bring out wonderful things.
What was the biggest challenge when making the film?
Initially Molton Brown wanted the films that focused on Alastair to be 16 seconds long. Trying to tell a story in that time is very very tricky. So we focused on one theme with each of those 16 second films. And then we worked on a cut that was longer, to explore deeper into the mind of Alastair, which Molton Brown was very supportive of.
Watch the full film here.
5th September 2017
Change for Good: Making a Difference
Change for Good, a partnership between UNICEF and easyJet which raises money to protect millions of children around the world, has raised £9m since it was founded in 2012. That translates to the vaccinating of more than 13 million children against polio and a further 5.3 million mothers and babies against deadly diseases. Through the distribution of vitamin A supplements, Change for Good has protected 4.8 million children from blindness. The partnership has also played a crucial role in keeping children safe in emergencies including the Nepal earthquake, the Ebola crisis, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and the crisis in Syria and the surrounding regions.
Earlier this year, Connected Pictures traveled to the Philippines to capture the difference that easyJet’s support makes and, most importantly, why it’s fundamental that the airline continues to support the campaign. Using the Typhoon Haiyan as a case study, the emotive film puts those affected by the 2013 disaster at the fore. Captured in just three days, the evocative film explores the real and personal effects that Change for Good has had on children, families, teachers and health workers in the immediate vicinity of the 2013 typhoon.
In the interview published below, director Stephen Ashwell discusses the film; the logistical challenges involved in shooting on a low-budget and with no time for re-shoots; and the beauty of such a personal approach.
Tell us about the history of the Change for Good partnership?
Change for Good is a partnership between easyJet and UNICEF that began in 2012. It has raised £9m to date to support UNICEF’s vaccination programmes and provide life-saving aid during emergencies.
Why did UNICEF and easyJet want to make a film about the Change for Good project,
and specifically their work in the Philippines?
Every year, since the partnership began, easyJet has commissioned Connected Pictures to create an inspirational documentary film that follows easyJet crew members visiting UNICEF projects and experiencing first hand how the money raised by easyJet is used by UNICEF. The primary objective of these films is to motivate and engage easyJet staff members, particularly cabin crew, to raise funds for the Change for Good partnership. Between 2012 and 2016, easyJet focused on vaccination programmes and UNICEF’s mission to eradicate Polio. However, for the first time this year, easyJet wanted a film that not only showed UNICEF’s vaccination work but also showed how UNICEF help during emergencies. The Philippines was chosen because in 2013 the strongest ever super-typhoon killed thousands of people and wreaked widespread destruction. easyJet raised over £460,000 to help UNICEF protect children in the immediate aftermath of the typhoon.
What was the brief?
easyJet and UNICEF asked for a film that shows the difference that easyJet’s support makes and why it is so important that easyJet continues to raise funds for UNICEF. The brief was to talk about UNICEF’s emergency work, using Typhoon Haiyan as a case study. It also highlighted UNICEF’s campaign to vaccinate children against polio so that the disease can be eradicated forever. The film is about learning, first hand, how UNICEF responded to the disaster and helped to protect children and keep them safe.
How did you respond to the brief? What was the thinking behind your approach to the
To show the importance of the support given, we chose to open the film with archive footage from 2013 that shows the immediate aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan and the huge impact that it had. We built the body of the film around the personal stories of the children and families affected by the typhoon that were helped by UNICEF. We chose to have the easyJet crew conduct the interviews with these people so that it became their story. This created a more emotive and human connection. We visited school and healthcare centers that were rebuilt by UNICEF to show how Change for Good is saving and changing children’s lives by supporting UNICEF emergency work and vaccinating children against polio. We then closed the film with the easyJet people’s personal response and commitment to the partnership.
What research did you do ahead of the shoot and then once you were in the Philippines?
Research is the most fundamental element of making a good documentary because it ensures that, once you’re out in the field, you capture the right material to make a compelling story in the limited time that you have. With this kind of job, there is no option for re-shoots or pick-ups. I researched all the locations and contributors in collaboration with UNICEF. Local UNICEF officers in the Philippines conducted preliminary interviews with children, families, teachers and health workers. We then selected the strongest and most relevant people to visit. Once we identified the people we wanted to visit, we set about working out an itinerary: how long we would spend with each person, how long the travel time was between each, and how much daylight we had in order to film as much as we could each day. Thankfully, the majority of our itinerary went as planned but, as with all documentary filming, things did change on the day.
What was the experience of being in the Philippines and making the film like?
It was an incredible privilege to film the work UNICEF is doing in the Philippines. The local people suffered great tragedy and loss because of Typhoon Haiyan but had such positivity and thankfulness for everything they had and everything UNICEF had done to help them. It is a beautiful country with such welcoming and friendly people – I will certainly be returning in the future.
How did the process of filming work? Did you plan a lot of shots or did you follow the team and captured what you could?
As I mentioned above, we did as much research as we could before we arrived so that we knew where we were going and who we were going to meet, but that is all we could plan for. I also knew the kind of interview frames I wanted to get as well as the types of establishing shots I hoped to get for each location. However, without a recce of any of the locations, I did the rest on my feet in the moment. Therefore the shoot was planned to an extent but mostly consisted of me capturing and directing the action as it happened.
What was the biggest challenge when making the film?
There are many challenges when making a film like this. I guess the biggest is knowing that you can’t re-shoot anything: what you capture is what you get and that’s it. We only had three days shooting so the pressure was on to make sure I had enough good material. Avoiding illness is a big one and thankfully I avoided any sickness. Rain can be a huge problem out in places like the Philippines. Torrential rain can not only ruin your camera kit but it’s also so loud that it makes it very hard to record clean sound. Thankfully on this trip, all the rain came at night and we had dry weather when filming. Finally, of course, the biggest challenge when on a low budget charity job like this is multi-rolling. It’s always a good test of my energy and endurance doing these sorts of jobs when I’m directing, interviewing, camera operating and sound recording all at once. However, despite the challenges, I love doing these jobs and making films that support people less fortunate than myself.
How is this project similar to your existing body of work? And how does it differ?
Over the years I’ve gained a lot of experience filming these kinds of documentaries across Africa and Asia but what really made this one different was the emergency response element. I’ll never forget standing on the shoreline and meeting families and children who lost everything through the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan. It clearly showed me why we need to support emergency appeals like the work of UNICEF in times of disaster.
Watch the full film here