Close-Up: Live Issue - Virgin Trains evokes a classic era of rail travel, Friday, 17 June 2005 03:58PM

Old film stars ride on new trains in an ad that has taken two years to arrive on screen. Better late than never, Noel Bussey says.

The average journey of a TV ad from inception to completion is around three months. However, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R's new ad for Virgin Trains took a little longer. It spent this much time in post-production alone and took two years in all.

The 60-second mini-epic, released last week, seamlessly combines footage from six classic films with footage shot on one of Richard Branson's Pendolino "leaning" trains. The ad depicts a train journey through the English countryside that attempts to convey the new features and comfort of rail travel on Virgin's new train stock, while highlighting the romance of a time before cheap commercial air travel.

In the ad, modern-day travellers and train staff mingle with Hollywood stars who have appeared in films that took place on trains.

Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon - in drag - wander in from Some Like It Hot; May Witty and Margaret Lockwood order tea from a Virgin waiter, in a scene taken from The Lady Vanishes; Albert Finney and Martin Balsam appear from Murder on the Orient Express, while Sir John Mills does a turn as a sailor from In Which We Serve.

As the train speeds through the countryside it also passes Jenny Agutter, Sally Thomsett and Gary Warren in their roles as The Railway Children, and ends with Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in a romantic clinch from North by Northwest, as Grant says: "Beats flying, doesn't it?"

RKCR/Y&R's creative team Chris Hodgkiss and Pip Bishop developed the spot, which was directed by Liam Kan and Grant Hodgson from Great Guns.

Kan says: "It was not just going to be a special-effects-laden shot with no story or feeling like the other ads that combine old and new footage. It was important to have a strong story running through it."

Once the idea was formed - which, according to Bishop, happened very quickly - the rest was a matter of hard work.

"We had to find all the films with trains in, then find the ones with dialogue that fitted into the story of the ad. This meant there were lots of films we couldn't use," Hodgkiss says. "Strangers On A Train is a classic train film, but most of the plot and dialogue is about killing people, so it didn't fit."

In total, the production took just over a year from conception to final reel, but the inevitable legal wrangles with representatives of the actors in the excerpts added another year. "We wanted to use Michael Caine, but he refused," Hodgkiss says. "And we only got Cary Grant once we sent his wife the mood tape. It was a very difficult process."

Luckily for the production team, getting the scenes from films to splice into the new footage proved much less difficult than obtaining the footage in the first place, although the process wasn't without a few challenges.

"We wanted to make it look as real as possible, but without looking startling and taking attention away from the story," Kan says. "We hadn't done anything like this before but we had worked in 3D, stuff such as talking leopards and dancing cats, so we knew what we were doing."

One of the main problems was making sure the black-and-white characters did not shine too brightly, or become too dull and get lost against the colour backgrounds. The solution was to drop the colour grading of the rest of the commercial; as a result, everything appears a little darker than usual.

Another problem was how to fill spaces in the story where old footage didn't fit. The production team used body doubles when the "railway children" run down the hill with their backs to the camera or when Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis hobble away down the platform away from the camera.

"We had rehearsals and everything," Hodgkiss says. "The two body doubles for Lemmon and Curtis were really big guys and one of them turned up with black eyes and a busted nose. He looked a mess. But thankfully we didn't need to see his face."

The platform shoot took place at London's Euston station. "We had to share toilet facilities with the station guards, who were confused to see one of the body doubles come in, hitch up his dress and use the toilet," Hodgkiss says.

The really time-consuming stuff during post-production - handled by Ludo Fealey at Glassworks - was adding in the vital details that helped to make the film as convincing as possible.

"If you look closely when the film actors are on screen, you'll see that we actually inserted reflections in the plastic or glass behind them to make it look as realistic as possible," Bishop explains. "We tried to look for every little detail."

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