Shoot book page morning 13th January 1987
A classic Volkswagen ad from the 1960s. Possibly one of the greatest advertising campaigns’ ever.
They were honest, direct and had a clean unfussy look all of their own.
It was said that in the offices of Doyle Dane Bernbach, New York where this campaign was born you could tell a VW ad at 50 paces
This ”look” was my brief.
Art Director Gordon Smith, the driving force at agency BMP was working on a campaign for Mazda cars and he wanted the product to speak for itself with a VW like directness.
How had VW managed it?
Now twenty years later, and Mazda wanted to replicate some of
Volkswagen’s success with a similar campaign.
I was called in to see Gordon at GGT. We studied the old V.W ads they looked like they were wrapped in light.
Light coming from all directions, mirrored in every detail, accentuating every facet. As if the vehicles were bathed in the perpetual warm summer glow of the American Dream.
This was, obviously, before the days of colour retouching or photoshop. It was also lacking the balmy Californian climate with which to replicate the particular light conditions of the original shoot.
The nearest daylight car studio was in LA, so with an eye on the budget and the creative opportunity, we decided the best alternative was to build a daylight studio here in England using ‘North Light’.
11th January 1987. The scaffold towers and cyclorama are clearly visible inside. Two of the six cars are also showing.
A huge plastic dome big enough to house the cars the set, and the kit. It was kept rigid by a fan blowing air into it. We had top model makers – Mallard - lined up to build an infinity cyclorama with a scaffold tower behind for overhead angles, camera gantries and every thing else that would help give the control needed.
We got all 6 cars into it. We built a 20ft high scaffold tower to carry a 10x8 camera atop. It had to be translucent enough to allow the natural light in, but diffusing any direct glare. It also had a pub practically on site which was rather useful.
The pretty cotswold town of Cirencester was nearby and would be a base for the crew and the local Agricultural College would provide the models for the shoot.
Then we needed some kind of Security.
“Some-one on site all the time. In a caravan?” said Tony my assistant.
" We’ll get a caravan. Someone can sleep there and guard the thing. The vehicles. The cameras. The Kit. All of it.”
There was a pause. Then Tony said, “Well I’m not doing it.
It’s freezing. Let's get someone else to do it.”
“Fine. Then you find him.”I said.
And find him he did..
So we hired a new assistant, whose job it was to keep the site and maintain power to the fan. We even hired a caravan for him to sleep in and we could relocate to the Fleece Public House in Cirencester.
We made an early start it was snowing and had been for some time.
The weather forecast was bad. Heavy snow. The worst for decades.
We shot through the morning of the 13th.
The snow was becoming very heavy. Then it came sideways.
The wind came with it, howling and moaning viciously.
The boys from Mallard were confident that the dome was secure.
By late morning we had completed the first visual. — 'LEGS'
That saying 'Every picture tells a story'. Such a peaceful image whilst outside a storm raged.
We decamped that morning to the White Horse pub on the edge of the runway.
Before leaving we could see that the snow was drifting at 6 feet on one side of the dome. We checked the wire stabilisers; they were firmly fixed to the runway and everything was solid. The internal fans were both working well and the dome was plump with the inside air pressure that they created.
I sat there in a happy reverie, gazing out of the pub window, Lunch being organised.
Then suddenly there was a deafening roar and an explosion of whiteness in my window view.
“What was that?”
We looked at one another. It was a huge gust of wind above the already high wind speed outside.
“Jesus. It’s coming down thick. You can't even see the dome anymore."
"Wait. Can anyone see the dome?”
Gordon and I headed for the Bentley and as the car pushed its way through ever deepening snow powder breaching the bonnet like the crest of a wave over a ships bow.
The Dome was white.
The sky was white.
The ground was white.
“What the hell is that?”
“That," was what at first appeared to be a giant washing line trailing plastic and wire, which was whipping and singing through the air like a deadly scimitar. The shapeless lumps in the snow were the cars, we guessed.
The power had failed.
So the fan failed.
So the dome failed
It had ripped to shreds; blown against the cyclorama and the scaffold.
We couldn’t see the cars – covered in snow. We couldn’t see the camera – buried in snow.
Bits of plastic and lengths of wire weren’t buried in snow. They were whipping through the air trying to decapitate the unwary.
Decapitation became less of a problem as the only way to find the cameras ( top priority ) was to dive into the snow head first with one of the others holding your ankles as you felt about in a four foot snow drift.
We kind of knew where the cameras were from the way the scaffold had fallen.
Cameras found, we had to get the cars out. Past the metal pegs, which were two feet proud of the tarmac and had once tethered my so-called control centre.
We’d left gloves in the car, so were pulling pegs with bare, frozen hands.
Then another. But they hadn’t been driven to the location. They were pushed from the low loader into position. Which meant none of the batteries were charged.
We took the battery out of the snowplough Bentley after removing one of the steel spikes driven into the tarmac runway and got one of the cars going driving it to a nearby hangar. Then walked back with the battery about 400 yards and got another car.
We did this six times. By now everybody was pitching in like a crack team of human icicles.
The only structure vaguely standing was the cyclorama, so with the last of our strength we staked it with a scaffold pole, put the battery back in the Bentley and fled to the pub to thaw out.
We went back next day, the wind had blown most of the snow across the runway leaving the site virtually clear. Hope springs eternal (if you’re insane)
We found the central steel scaffold pole completely bent. We found most of the missing bits of equipment.
It was time for a serious rethink. We had no portable, inflatable daylight studio any more. So instead of daylight suffused through plastic, it would be daylight suffused with thin air. We were going to have to take the cars to a field (airfield — the same one) and hope for the best.
But then I got a lucky break
Up to a point
I had another job, for another car. VW themselves this time.
To be shot in Monument Valley in Arizona. We brought this shoot forward so we could clear up the debacle near Cirencester.
We flew to LA. The agency briefed us.” It’s winter, they said” “We don’t want any snow,” they said.
“Snow in Monument Valley? won't last two minutes also it had not been fore-cast?”
It snowed in Monument Valley. We could see it as we flew in from Flagstaff Arizona.
I was beginning to think this weather had become a little personal.
The snow cleared, we got the VW shots and I was ready for round two with Mazda.
Back within a week we shot partly in the controlled environment of South Bank Studios (no daylight) and partly at a simplified airfield (full daylight) between them. Shooting at the studio at night heading to the airfield early in the morning to the now rebuilt cyclorama. The cars were prepared by my assistant Tony at South Bank and on the airfield by the now bald Richard. His hair had fallen out a short while ago.
He claims it was shock, cold weather and associated trauma. We claimed it was a sign of ageing!