Adding an epic film to the Guinness hall of fame has to be one of adland's most daunting tasks. Early last year, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO set to work on producing the next in line. The agency's executive creative director, Paul Brazier, says: "It was a crucial stage for AMV. It was so important to get Guinness back to the endline of 'good things come to those who wait', it had to be a big film."
Out of eight or so scripts, Matt Damon and Ian Heartfield's idea stood out. "I remember," Brazier says, "this was the one we wanted to make."
The ad, called "noitulove" because it spells evolution backwards, begins with three men at a bar drinking Guinness. They make a journey backwards through time, finally reverting back to the first form of life that could appreciate a good drink - mudskippers, apparently - shown taking a disgusted slurp from a puddle.
With just 15 weeks from script to screen (last October), the ad required a patient client, able to pay for the best talent and material, with a price tag of around £1 million.
Enter the director Daniel Kleinman. "Danny was crucial to this," Brazier says. "He's a great director and was so patient and professional." For Kleinman, it was an opportunity to add his name to the roll-call of Guinness commercials directors, including Jonathan Glazer, Walter Stern, Tarsem and Frank Budgen. "It felt like Guinness was back on top with a big, wow idea," Kleinman says.
Framestore CFC, which worked on Guinness "surfer", was chosen for the post work. William Bartlett, one of London's top visual effects supervisors, and computer graphics star Andy Boyd weighed in.
The fantastical script called for a disciplined approach. Throughout the job, Kleinman stuck to his initial storyboards: "There are very few shots one could get in camera - almost all of it is a concoction of some kind. We felt one technique wouldn't cover all the things we wanted to do, so there was nothing for it but to break it down with a storyboard and then work out shot for shot how we would do it."
From a technical perspective, it was a monster. "It's probably the most complex job I've ever done," Bartlett says. "There are so many different problems all rolled into one job. There's the computer-generated creatures, backgrounds, geological transformations, green-screen comping of live action on to plates - some shot, some made-up, stock footage and morphing of people from modern-day humans into Neanderthals ..."
The three male stars of the ad were shot in studio for the bar scene.
Then, smothered in various levels of prosthetics and in different period costumes, they walked backwards under the tutelage of a movement teacher with expertise in the gait of early hominids and apes. All this with elastic attached to their backs.
"I did some tests of people walking backwards and forwards and running the film backwards, and wasn't satisfied with the result. It looked too normal," Kleinman explains. "So I tried giving them something to resist their movement and it added a subtle bit of strangeness to their action."
Boyd's team divided into two: one for creatures; the other for everything else. There were 15 creatures to create - from chimps, through various furry and aquatic mammals, to mudskippers. Then there was the array of backgrounds. Much of the material was created using Houdini 3-D software.
Framestore made good use of experience and resources from previous jobs, including a John Dory fish from an old Audi ad. There were also opportunities to create some more surprising elements in-camera, taking some of the weight off the computer graphics team.
The mudskippers were a mix of real and invented. "We gave them CG back-fins and added the animated mouth and tongue," Bartlett says. "But the creatures themselves were shot in a tank in a studio ... they even obliged us by drinking from the puddle."
Live-action landscape elements were mainly shot in Iceland. "We needed backgrounds, landscapes that looked like they were changing over time," Kleinman says. "We set various high-end stills cameras up in lonely spots in Iceland, with a mini-generator and laptop. The time-lapse shots were downloaded to the computer and made into quicktime movies, so we could see what we were getting."
Meanwhile, Bartlett headed for Sainsbury's. "We needed 'geological' distortion of background rock formations," he says. "I was struck by the way heat affects dough. I made some up at home, experimenting with various materials to get the right sort of looks and textures, and shooting it with time lapse every ten seconds. For some of the looks, I found that a dough/Grape Nuts/Special K combo worked best."
Next stop on the high street was Marks & Spencer, where some house-plants came in useful to feature as withering vegetation. Using the same stop-frame technique, a few blasts of a blowlamp created the effect of gradual deterioration.
Bartlett also came up with a location to create a skyscraper backdrop.
He found the perfect spot while with his wife at Vertigo, the bar on top of the old NatWest building in the City of London.
Putting all of the separate elements of the film together took a great deal of care. "It was hard to keep a consistent style," Bartlett says.
According to Brazier, that finish is purposely a little rough about the edges: "It has a rawness and reality to it, so it doesn't become too glossy."
The music - Rhythm of Life by Sammy Davis Junior - was decided towards the end of the production process. "It just gave that extra 5 per cent," Brazier says. "It almost looks like the ad is made for the track."
Above all, the client has good reason to be happy. "Consumers love it," Brazier says, "and it bucked the trend of sales for Guinness."