Work Debrief - Shock-and-awe campaign salutes the superhumans

Channel 4 refused to pull any punches in its stunning film to promote the Paralympics. Olivia Browne explains how the ad came to life.

Channel 4: Paralympics ad by 4Creative
Channel 4: Paralympics ad by 4Creative

Channel 4's in-house agency 4Creative created an ad showing the Herculean preparations of the UK's leading Paralympians to promote its exclusive coverage of the Games.

Set to Harder Than You Think by Public Enemy, it features shots of athletes in action and shows the causes of some of their disabilities.

The brief

When Channel 4 became the official broadcaster of the Paralympics, only 14 per cent of the population said they were looking forward to them and virtually no-one could name a Paralympian. So we set out to create an atmosphere of excitement and anticipation building up to the Games and make them unmissable.

The aim was to bring the Paralympics from the wings to centre stage. And to do that in a way that was bold, noisy and had plenty of Channel 4 attitude.

James Walker, Channel 4's acting head of marketing, who commissioned the campaign, says: "Briefs like this clearly don't come along very often. We knew we would need to do something special to both cut through all the other sports-related marketing and get people to reassess what they thought the Paralympics are."

The creative idea (and casting)

The approach set out to capture the grit and determination of Paralympians in training, intercut with a jolting insight into their backstories. We wanted to show them in a new light, challenge conventions and capture their "take us as we are" spirit. Our aim was to make people see the ability beyond their disability in a way that never felt mawkish or pitying.

The writing

The campaign was built up from the line: "Meet the superhumans." This was an evolution of an earlier campaign where we introduced Paralympians as "freaks of nature", turning the meaning of the phrase on its head. Now, as then, we wanted to capture the phenomenal efforts and achievements of these athletes. The film, which showcases these Herculean efforts and the odds the Paralympians have overcome - emotionally, physically and otherwise - resolves with: "Meet the superhumans." We loved the scale and confidence of the line, but also the way it combined both "super" and "human" - two facets of the athletes we were keen to convey.

The art direction and direction

Tom Tagholm, who conceived and directed the campaign, says: "We filmed at a lot of Paralympic test events, which was very tricky in terms of access and how close we could get to the competitors and what sort of camera angles we could find that were new and felt special. It was a case of myself and all the camera operators keeping our eyes open at all times because there were people who we found and moments that we saw that we could have never predicted.

"And, as well as the live sport scenes, we also storyboarded some of the more iconic shots from the very beginning. There's one shot of a swimmer diving into the pool with a camera strapped to her back - we had to invent a rig that allowed the camera to not only go in the water with her but to be sufficiently separated from the rest of her body so that you could see the whole of her back and head and arms as she made her way into the water.

"There's also another slow-mo shot of two wheelchair rugby chairs crashing into each other. We were shooting that on Phantom cameras and knew that we had to get right into the middle of the crash, which meant some really careful choreography and great set design. It was a really tricky balance trying to get that feeling of absolute naturalism while, at the same time, trying to get right in the heart of the action. But whether it was a live sport shot or a storyboarded shot, we really didn't want to shoot around the particular physical attributes of these athletes and their disabilities. We wanted to absolutely embrace all of that - their stance, the ways they have adapted to their sport, the ways they use their bodies. There's no tiptoeing around anything.

"As for the scenes in the middle with the explosion and car crash and the mother in the hospital, we thought long and hard about how to include them because one thing that we weren't interested at all in doing was an ad that said: 'Isn't it great that these guys have made it to the start line?' That just didn't interest me and I don't think it interested the channel.

"What I wanted to do, though, was just get a flashback moment - to show that it's a part of what they are now and a part of their physicality. I didn't want to dwell on it - just to give a hint, a moment of how tough these characters have had to be. I could have put those scenes at the beginning or the end of the trailer, but I think it would have been weirdly less impactful that way - having them where they are stops you right in your tracks and hits you in the face."

The editing and sound

The editor, Tim Hardy, says: "When I heard Tom's idea for the film, I knew it could potentially be something very special as well as a great responsibility to produce something worthy of these exceptional people. Tom's main aim was to shoot a large amount of the footage in as natural a way as possible. This meant that, on some occasions, up to ten cameras were used, a mixture of different formats including Phantom, Alexa and Canon 5D. This was the first challenge in editing the job as, after two days, we were looking down the barrel of 30 hours and still 13 more shoot days.

"Tom's brief from the beginning had been the music video for 99 Problems by Jay Z - ie. lots of attitude and stunning imagery. We had that in spades in the footage, so we needed to find a soundtrack to match. This consisted of a lot of hours spent on Spotify going through any number of genres from Beastie Boys and The Who to Sigur Ros and Jack White. I did, however, keep coming back to hip hop, but nothing obvious was jumping out at me. Then, after going through some old-school Public Enemy, I came across Harder Than You Think. This hit the nail on the head when I laid it underneath a three-minute cut I had already made. It was a real hair stand up on the back of the neck moment."

The sound designer, Rich Martin, adds: "The music is the heart of the soundtrack - it's got a great attitude. It's powerful and propulsive. So, with the sound design, we just tried to ensure that the dynamism of the sport and the drama of the flashback cut through, then we let Chuck D and Flavor Flav do what they do best."

The media

A 90-second TV ad was launched simultaneously across 78 channels on Tuesday 17 July at 9pm. The campaign will run until the start of the Paralympics on 29 August, and will include outdoor posters, press ads and digital activity.

Olivia Browne is the business director at 4Creative.

Client: James Walker, acting head of marketing, Channel 4
Agency: 4Creative
Creative/director: Tom Tagholm
Producers: Gwilym Gwillim, Rory Fry
Cinematographer: Luke Scott
Production designer: Will Htay
Casting director: Julie Tomkins
Costume designer: Wiz Francis
Location manager: Algy Sloane
Production manager: Simon Maniora
Business director: Olivia Browne
Editor: Tim Hardy
Edit facilities: Stitch
VFX/post-production: The Moving Picture Company
VFX producer: Tim Phillips
VFX supervisor: Michael Gregory
Grade: Jean-Clement Soret
Sound designer: Rich Martin
Audio facilities: Envy
Media: OMD UK