Close-Up: Live issue - Bold TfL holds up mirror to problem passengers

M&C Saatchi's campaign against antisocial behaviour, filmed by Mike Figgis for TfL, took a lot of guts, Kunal Dutta says.

Since 1969, when a public-address system on the London Underground first broadcast the phrase "mind the gap", commuters in the capital have been urged to travel safely and remain civil.

There have been many ways to try and promote this, from simple but assertive signs to Partners BDDH's sickly sweet "Love is ..." campaign, which converted many of these instructions into statements of chivalry.

However, the apparent increase in antisocial behaviour and general apathy towards our fellow man means that a bolder, more audacious approach is needed to change attitudes and behaviour on public transport - such as a three-minute ad filmed in "beautiful anarchy" in one take on a modified bus by a Hollywood film director.

The strategy

Last week, London's mayor, Ken Livingstone, launched Transport for London's latest campaign from M&C Saatchi.

The aim is to counteract anti- social behaviour on buses and trains - such as the inconsiderate use of multimedia-enabled mobile phones - by presenting scenes in which one considerate act starts a chain reaction of others.

The highlight is a three-minute ad directed by Mike Figgis, the acclaimed director of Leaving Las Vegas.

The work shows how behaviour such as playing music loudly, shouting on mobile phones or eating smelly food affects the journey of fellow passengers.

Each problematic situation is addressed through the actions of a character and the subtle interplay between passengers on a real-time bus journey.

Finally, through a sequential string of "pledges" - such as keeping the noise down and taking litter home - the ad tells Londoners just how "a little thought from each of us" can make "a big difference for everyone".

Sound a bit Live 8? The makers are unapologetic, insisting that the general public are having to deal with a new kind of antisocial behaviour.

"We live in a society where one person's perfectly normal actions are another's antisocial behaviour," Chris Macleod, the head of group marketing communications at TfL says.

Figgis puts it more bluntly: "Hitler would look himself in the mirror and ask, 'Why am I so misunderstood?'."

He adds: "This film was about confronting negative characters that may not see themselves in that way."

The conception

TfL issued M&C Saatchi with the brief, without media specified, early last year. "We knew it had to be set on a bus or Tube train, but it was really important to me that we told lots of different stories," Graham Fink, the executive creative director at M&C Saatchi, recalls.

"I thought, how can we show the old lady, the kiddie eating chips, some bloke blathering on the phone? I realised that traditional 30-second film just wasn't going to do it," he adds.

Fink recalls seeing Figgis' 2000 film Timecode, in which four separate strands of a story were told simultaneously via split-screen action: "I thought, wouldn't it be good to do something like that? And what if we could get Mike to come and direct it?"

The first encounter with Figgis was literally a meeting of minds. "I had the idea vaguely in my head, and sketched it out - and Mike just jumped on it really," Fink says.

"We had a series of conversations, and the script just grew organically."

But the lofty ambitions of an inspired executive creative director were initially brought down to earth by TfL, a notoriously tough client with strict bureaucratic procedures in place. Even with Figgis' input, it was impossible to devise a client-friendly script based on the idea, let alone counter the cash concerns around an ad brief answered with a three-minute film.

Macleod recalls the first sell. "It was literally as rough as 'here is a clip from a film (Timecode) and here is what we're thinking of doing'," he says. "So I said to them: 'OK guys, now you had better go away and come back when you can tell me how exactly that is going to work.'"

Which they did. By autumn, Figgis found himself sketching the synopsis of the TfL film, just as he had on Timecode nearly a decade earlier. By November, shooting was under way, and a cast of more than 40 actors were filmed on a modified double-decker bus that looped around Ealing for two days.

The craft

The logistics of the set-up are staggering. To accommodate the cast and crew, the bus was stripped of one side of seating on both decks. Four modified handheld cameras covered a fixed space on both decks (including one operated by Figgis himself).

Meanwhile, a cast that included several middle-aged adults, a woman in her eighties and a host of teenagers formed the microcosm of society in which the action takes place.

With no live feed and the film shot on four cameras in a single three-minute take, different rules applied. Four massive digital stopwatches kept the shoot in tempo by giving the actors their cues - such as when to start speaking, get up or move upstairs.

It was a high-risk strategy. Set up like an intricate onboard CCTV system, the film is full of moments where actors are crossing cameras while moving from one filming space to another.

"It was simultaneous or nothing," Fink asserts. "Such an effect would simply not have been achievable had the film been shot separately and edited afterwards."

At the end of the first day of filming, those involved would have been forgiven for wishing that Figgis had opted for the latter choice. "The first few takes were beautiful anarchy," Figgis recalls. "Everyone was enjoying themselves, doing what they had been asked, but you got no sense of what was going on. There was no storyline."

If that wasn't enough to jangle nerves, a moving bus meant no live feed, production company go-between or monitor to view work in progress, let alone a crafted script. Luckily, TfL's representatives had been consigned to a nearby pub, which formed a base where actors and crew would periodically descend to review work in progress and listen to Figgis' feedback, before reboarding for another lap of Ealing.

Despite all of this, Macleod insists there was "a lot of trust" between agency and client, and any nerves were settled by the presence of Figgis - "a big-time director who's seen it all".

Figgis, however, tells a different story: "What was most nerve-wracking is that they kept saying they trusted me. But even by the middle of the second day, we still didn't have a usable take."

Meanwhile, with the actors' early enthusiasm replaced by restlessness (not to mention motion sickness), the director concedes having to "get quite brutal". Each playback became fiercer, with on-the-spot acting lessons given directly by Figgis and roles being chopped and changed for different effects.

On the 45th and final take, however, it all came together - the timing of action was synchronised, the acting natural and the assignment of roles productive. In Macleod's words, "everything worked", and it is this take that is currently being aired across 700 cinemas nationwide. The film, which will be supported by an online, print and poster campaign on London's bus and train network, is unbranded and carries the endline: "Together for London."

Most interesting has been the early response to the ad by some bloggers who, rather than criticising the work, have complained that there is a tendency to assume a defeatist approach to antisocial behaviour by showing the perpetrators as inherently selfish and not open to change.

This campaign, on the other hand, takes the opposite approach by encouraging perpetrators to reflect on their behaviour.

However the ad is received by its audience, Livingstone spoke for the many when he insisted last week that it would continue to have TfL's full backing.

"You can't complain that a behaviour is breaking down and then complain if we try to do something about it," he said.