Man and cow alike risked their lives all for the sake of Sony, Jim
In a sense, there’s no secret to BMP DDB Needham’s spectacular
‘armchair’ commercial for Sony’s Super Trinitron wide-screen television.
What you see is what you get: a besuited man sitting in a red armchair,
freefalling through the air at 150mph. The 40-second commercial ends
with the fall guy plummeting to the ground in his living room, closely
followed by his pet moggie.
The ad was filmed on location on a cattle ranch in the Simi Valley in
California. A team of Hollywood stunt experts was called in for the
four-day shoot. ‘They were a bunch of complete nutters,’ Mike Boles, the
copywriter, says affectionately. ‘But it has a power and intensity we
never could have achieved if we’d used special effects. You’d have seen
the joins and we’d never have got important details such as the way his
hair moves quite right.’
So there was nothing for it but to drop the world champion sky-diver,
Guy Manos - fresh from the Hollywood action adventure film, Drop Zone -
from a Chinook helicopter. Not once, but 19 times.
The stunt cameraman, Tom Sanders, followed him down with cameras
attached to his helmet to capture every nuance. Manos had a parachute
concealed under his suit and baled out at the last moment. The armchairs
weren’t so lucky: around 30 bit the dust. Two drifted off into the
sunset and were never recovered.
The ‘ground rush’ footage was shot from a stunt biplane with a camera
mounted on the wing. But probably the most dangerous part of the set-up
were certain shots which required winching Manos, already sitting pretty
in his chair, up to the required height. If he’d fallen out before he
reached 2,000 feet, he wouldn’t have been able to operate his parachute.
Boles, together with his art director, Jerry Hollens, and the Rose
Hackney Barber director, Daniel Barber, took turns to supervise from the
helicopter - falling at 1,000 feet per second, each jump generated a
mere ten to 12 seconds of film. It was disquieting for them to see Manos
not only pray, but shake hands with the crew as if he’d never see them
again before each jump.
‘He told us it was the most dangerous stunt he’d ever done. Armchairs
are very unaerodynamic objects, he could easily have flipped over and
broken his neck,’ Barber says. Practice jumps were done to monitor the
behaviour of the chairs and customise them accordingly.
As it happened, the only near-casualty was a stray steer, which almost
ended up in World of Leather following a near miss with a falling
armchair. ‘The farmer was very concerned about his cattle,’ Barber
recalls. ‘We asked him how much it would cost if we hit one and he told
us we’d have to pay by the pound.’