Scouts Honour directors Mark Zibert and Kevin Foley speak to LBB’s Addison Capper about shooting the likes of Usain Bolt, Tony Hawk, Naomi Osaka and Yusra Mardini over two years and six countries for the Olympics’ ‘Stronger Together’ campaign
There were times over the past 18 months, even extremely recent times, where it genuinely felt like the 2020 Tokyo Olympics might never happen. The same can be said for 'Stronger Together', the campaign launched by the Olympics for the Games.
Created by Canadian agency Hulse & Durrell and co-directed by Scouts Honour directors Mark Zibert and Kevin Foley, the six-spot campaign was shot over two years (much of it before the pandemic) in six countries spanning four continents. The end result of this epic undertaking takes the form of one hero film supported by five spots dedicated to one particular athlete. Each of them show an emotional, humanistic side to the athlete, shying away from stereotypical sporting tropes. Athletes that feature are Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, American skateboarders Tony Hawk and Nyjah Huston, Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka, Italian-Cuban wrestler Frank Marquez, and Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini.
To find out more about this "trip of a lifetime", LBB's Addison Capper spoke to directors Mark and Kevin.
LBB> I think you were involved very early on in this project, working on the mood film that Hulse & Durrell used in their pitch. Is that true? Tell us about those early days of the project. When was that and what was it like being able to be involved so early on?
Mark> For the past decade or so agencies/creatives have approached me early on to help develop scripts/creative and figure out execution before presenting to clients. My work with Sick Kids followed that process from the first campaign onwards.
I met Derek Kent as a client on a COC (Canadian Olympic Committee) campaign years ago where we followed the same process. When he approached us with the IOC pitch we both said ‘mood film’ at the same time. From that point forward Scouts and the Hulse/Durrell team were partners developing the concept and the creative for the campaign.
Kevin> Hulse & Durrell were among the final three agencies being considered and they reached out to us during their pitching process. We brought on a writing team and Mark and I created the mood film. It was great to shape the mood for the original idea, then called ‘the human race’. In the pitch process, a number of people in the IOC were viscerally emotional watching the film – that separated H&D from the rest.
LBB> How did it come to be that you and Mark would work on this together? Had you worked together before? Why was it the right approach for this project?
Mark> Kevin was the first director to join us at Scouts after we launched. We thought a collective approach would be a great way to tackle such a massive campaign.
Kevin> Mark and I are good friends but had never co-directed anything, though Mark had DP’d a couple projects of mine. It felt right since it was such a massive undertaking. Originally it started out as three films and evolved into six. When Mark asked me to co-direct, honestly, it felt like Christmas morning because I admire him so much as a director and friend.
LBB> What were the next steps once you'd won the job? It feels like such a huge project. Six big standalone ads, a tonne of celebrity talent, lots of locations. Where do you start with all of that?
Kevin> Once we were awarded the job, it was essentially a blank canvas. With H&D, we had a ton of creative freedom. We worked with a writing team out of the gate then Mark and I dug in. We wrote the scenes and built the structure to all of the films. Our producers Simon Dragland and Rita Popielak handled all of the logistics and secured the athletes. It was the perfect scenario for who we are as storytellers. What is in the films is there because there’s really no other influence.
LBB> When it came to narrative and creative ideas for the whole campaign and each spot, how involved were you in that? Did you work quite closely with Hulse & Durrell?
Mark> We were invited to co-create the campaign from the beginning. Beyond that the process was very fluid where we often made decisions on the fly. I remember randomly saying to Simon [Dragland], the EP/producer: “Hey, let's get like 100 skaters and shoot them in the LA tunnel and then do the same thing in Jamaica with 100s of kids running with Bolt.” And that’s what we did.
The typical client/agency/production relationship can often be too big of a juggernaut to push great work through. But the trust between IOC/Hulse & Durrell and Scouts allowed for creative spontaneity.
Kevin> The most amazing thing is the inherent trust from Hulse & Durrell and the IOC. H&D knows what they are great at and what Mark and my strengths are, so they let us do our thing with the occasional check-in to make sure we were all aligned. After we landed on the scripts and overarching structure, Mark (Z) and I pretty much crafted every detail of the films. We worked closely together on the athlete outreach, pushing for athletes that weren’t on the IOC’s list originally, but we knew we wanted to spotlight them. It was important to us that this be a super inclusive, global story.
LBB> Tell me about the production(s). How did you go about pulling these all off? Did you both work very closely together or was it more about dividing and conquering?
Kevin> Early on, working through the war room was super collaborative. When it came to athletes and the research, Mark trusted me because he knows I understand that world inside and out.
There was definitely a lot of divide and conquer once we landed in Cape Town for our first shoot. Mark, along with Eric Kaskens (co-DOP) focused on the lighting and set construction and I dived into the scene blocking, wardrobe and casting.
LBB> When it came to dividing and conquering, how did you ensure that you were both on the same page and capturing things in a way that would be conducive across the entire campaign?
Mark> We worked as co-directors on the same sets and were aligned throughout the process. Working with Kevin also freed up some bandwidth allowing me to also focus on the cinematography as well.
Kevin> Mark is a true talent in everything he does but he’s also egoless, so at the end of the day, we were after the same goal. It was the trip of a lifetime, travelling the world with a group of friends pre-pandemic. The stress you would normally feel on a project of this scope and scale wasn’t there because of the collective support we all shared.
LBB> Where did the production take you? What was the process like of shooting so many films across so many far-reaching and diverse locations?
Kevin> We filmed in Cape Town (South Africa), Lisbon (Portugal), Los Angeles (USA), Kingston (Jamaica), Melbourne (Australia), and Toronto (Canada).
The EP/producers at Scouts Honour were superstars. The team ensured that we never lost focus, not dedicating too much focus to the hero film vs. the athlete cut-downs. It was two months of intense prep, working with Rita, Simon, Eric and Z. The moment we left Toronto for Cape Town, we were always adapting. It was fluid, we were never left in a situation where we didn’t have anything to shoot.
LBB> The project was put on hold due to Covid - how tricky was it to find the momentum that you'd begun before the pandemic started?
Mark> It was more about being heartbroken that the films would potentially never see the light of day after we’d put so much time and effort into it. We kept in touch with Hulse & Durrell and there was always hope that it would come around. Once we got approval to keep going we picked up where we left with momentum still in full swing.
Kevin> It was difficult to gain back momentum because the project was at a point where it needed CPR. We had to pitch the entire thing again, using new mood films to show how with different VO, music and tonality, it would feel appropriate for a post-pandemic world.
Ultimately, we got a better film after the pandemic by not focusing exclusively on athletes. The world changed so the story had to adapt, to add the narrative of togetherness. The moment in the hero early in Act 1 when Derek Redmond walks down the hallway with his granddaughter is a great example where adding the human element was crucial.
LBB> You only had around 30 minutes with each of the athletes. What kind of challenges did those constraints offer up? Were the constraints helpful in any way?
Mark> Limited time with athletes is standard. We make do and plan ahead as needed. Luckily all the athletes were happy to be there and support the film, so we usually got a bit more time if we needed it and had developed a good rapport.
Kevin> It came down to careful planning. If we only had five shots that we needed to get, that’s all we would aim for. We had to be very specific and simplify our approach to get the moments. Sometimes we would have grand plans, but it’s all about not being too precious and knowing what the constraints are and working within them.
LBB> Your aim was to make these films with a big dose of humanity and emotion, not just sports. How did those time constraints impact that endeavour?
Mark> I’d say the focus on humanity and emotion provided less constraints. We could create something more meaningful versus an action-packed style sports montage.
Kevin> The limitations on shooting time were never a concern because we knew we had a massive scope, with over 30 athletes captured. That allowed us to play with contrast, so not every athlete is doing the same thing. Obviously, you want to capture the greatest athletes in the world in full flight, at top speed but the introspection you see in Act 1, I think, humanises them to a degree.
I think that’s why the hero has been so well received; it speaks to so many people from around the world - it has that epic quality because we were literally everywhere.
LBB> Are there any moments from the process that stick out as being particularly memorable?
Kevin> There were several. The first was shooting Obed Lekhehle - the South African paralympian. He's a 14-year-old one-legged high jumper. His personality was infectious and he was so excited to be there. Shooting him first reminded us of what we were doing and why.
Watching Tony Hawk and Nyjah Houston skate together in the 2nd Street tunnel was really special. The feeling that night was so pure, it definitely felt like a metaphorical passing of the torch.
Then of course, there was the shot of all of those kids running with Usain in Kingston, Jamaica. We were shooting two cameras out of the back of a pick-up, a drone flying overhead and it was amazing to see pure chaos turn into magic.
LBB> The voiceovers and music are really powerful elements of each of the films. What were your main aims and ambitions with those aspects and what was the process like of capturing them?
Kevin> The hero VO is [Top Boy actor and UK rapper] Ashley Walters. We always shot it with his voice in my mind. I wanted it to sound like he is one of us, not some omniscient voice of God. The music wasn’t contrived or hallmark-y piano, we wanted to push the Olympics in a new light to appeal to a younger audience. The skate film has the Darondo track, a nostalgic outsider vibe that truly fits the time and place where skateboarding started. The composers did a killer job. The music needed to reflect who the athletes are, I think you see that in the Naomi film as well.
LBB> What was the post production process like?
Mark> We worked closely with some of the best editors in Toronto. Raj Ramnauth was the same editor that developed the mood film and Graham Chisholm has been a constant collaborator of mine recently. They were as invested in the creative as we were from day one. Their passion and early involvement made the post process as smooth as could be.
Kevin> Mark and I were very hands on. We both handled the hero working with Graham Chisholm. The skate film was always Mark’s baby. We had five to six films going at one time, so it was just like crashing waves, one deadline after another but we stayed on top of it.
LBB> What were the trickiest components and how did you overcome them?
Kevin> By far, staying patient and optimistic that the films would see the light of day.