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How Chevrolet Took Canadians into the ‘Beyond’


Commonwealth//McCann’s Michael Katzikowski and Chevrolet Canada’s James Hodge on shooting at 9,000 feet, and the brand’s first-ever campaign to showcase a woman in the driver’s seat, writes LBB’s Josh Neufeldt

How Chevrolet Took Canadians into the ‘Beyond’

When selling a truck, it’s often important for brands and advertisers to sell the vehicle’s ability to confidently travel through even the toughest of conditions. This is especially true in Canada. After all, there’s quite a lot of outdoors to be explored when you live in, geographically, the second largest country on the planet. 

However, descriptors, flashy ads and promises are not enough to sell a truck on their own volition. And this is something that Chevrolet Canada was well aware of. Continuing its partnership with Commonwealth//McCann, the two decided to embrace the old mantra of ‘show, don’t tell’, taking the new 2023 Chevrolet Silverado ZR2 deep into the Rocky Mountains. Driving it through snowbanks, taking it deep offroading, shooting at 9,000 feet and working in -40 degree weather, the brand really embraced the idea of going beyond, which is reflected in the accompanying spot, ‘Go Beyond’. 

Featuring a brand milestone - the first ever woman to be placed behind the wheel in a Chevrolet commercial - the work saw a real-life couple explore the truck’s outdoor capabilities, performing all their own driving stunts in these challenging wintery conditions and demonstrating the brand’s desire to push culture forward, together with McCann.

LBB’s Josh Neufeldt sat down with Commonwealth//McCann vice president creative director Michael Katzikowski, and Chevrolet Canada brand director James Hodge, to learn more about how this whole project came to life. 

LBB> What was the brief for this campaign, and what ideas immediately came to mind?

James> Commonwealth//McCann is our global agency partner for Chevrolet. The team in Canada has deep knowledge of the Chevrolet brand, as well as Canadian consumer and automotive markets. The 2023 Chevrolet Silverado ZR2 represents the absolute best in Chevrolet trucks: combining high-performance off-road capability with a class-leading redesign inside and out, exuding supreme command and confidence. We challenged the agency to highlight the ZR2 in a uniquely Canadian way - putting the truck to the test in the right environment.

Michael> It was clear from the start that this film needed to be high-octane, while still depicting the magic of the Canadian winter, so we pushed the boundaries in everything we did. That led us to the idea of ‘Go Beyond’.  

LBB> Tell us about the development process! How did you plan to go beyond - keeping things fresh and exciting?

Michael> The essence of the idea was always clear to us: the Silverado ZR2 will take you to where the trail ends, and the ‘beyond’ begins. We pushed the story beyond the typical ‘bro swagger’ truck narrative, to include Celeste as our hero. We pushed the shooting technique beyond typical running footage - putting cameras in the truck and real Canadians in the driver’s seat. We pushed beyond the expected depiction of outdoor activities. We pushed the VO and copy beyond the expected to create an emotive, fresh, mythical cadence and tone. We made everything go beyond.

James> The Commonwealth//McCann team worked closely with us to gain insight and fully understand and appreciate the capabilities of the ZR2 and what makes it class-leading, inside and out. They challenged us with many great ideas, but ‘Go Beyond’ seemed to capture the essence of everything we tried to do and say with the ZR2. The idea pushed the ZR2 to its limits. It highlighted it to the max in all respects – the unique storyline with Celeste at the forefront, the harsh Canadian winter environment at The Fortress, and shooting techniques that helped our audience feel what it is like to drive the ZR2.

LBB> Equally notable is that the campaign is marketing to adventure-seeking couples. Why was this a demographic you wanted to connect with?

James> We learned from our internal buyer study research that although the primary owners of many of our trucks are men - specifically the Silverado - the vast majority (80% plus) are also in a relationship, or married with partners. We wanted to use this campaign to shine a light on women drivers of trucks, to add to the truck driving narrative. So, for the first time, we placed a female in the driver’s seat.

LBB> Tell us more about this! What does this landmark mean to the brand?

Michael> The choice to show the first woman ever to get behind the wheel of a Chevrolet Silverado truck commercial was strategic, and was something we identified as a must, even before casting. The choice to cast a real couple was a creative decision, and contributed to the film’s authenticity. We needed people who lived and breathed this adventurous lifestyle. These choices are a landmark for the brand and the agency, demonstrating how Chevrolet coupled with Commonwealth McCann continue to drive culture forward, together.

LBB> What was the search process like for finding the real couple, and what led you to make the choices you did when casting?

Michael> It all started with casting authentic people who, together, live the sort of lifestyle we wanted to depict. Jack and Celeste were a perfect choice. We did in-person casting sessions with everyone we met in both Toronto and Vancouver, and had them execute different activities that they would encounter while performing in the commercial. Casting in person not only gave us an idea of their capabilities, and skill levels, but also allowed us to choose a couple that would mesh well with the crew and creative team on set. Our cast needed to be people we would like to hang out with, stand for days in -40-degree weather with, and who would bring just as much passion for the project as we did.

LBB> Equally important is the narrator of the spot - please tell us more about how you found the right voice for the job!

Michael> Crystallising this with the perfect VO was a challenge. We looked at many ways to solve this without using the expected language we’re used to seeing in most truck spots. We looked to poetry to inspire the writing – to create a fresh, mythical cadence and tone, which was more emotional and contrasted with the rugged personality of the ZR2. The copy for this spot needed to appeal to our newly defined audience, which was inclusive of couples and women, so every word was chosen with care.

In doing so, we went through various casting calls to find the perfect artist. We started in the typical truck space, searching for a man with grit and wear in his tone - deep, very masculine. That direction wasn’t right. We were missing something. The visuals were so sophisticated in elevating the ZR2 image and the magic of the Canadian beyond that we needed a modern voice to match… so we were back to the drawing board. 

Calum, an editor at Outsider Editorial, did a demo read for the spot, and we were instantly in love with it. He had the perfect voice to take on this edit, bringing diversity to the table with his accent, and the perfect tone to deliver the narration in a more poetic and inspirational way. Again, even with narration, we broke the mould when it comes to North American truck spots, and this was a first for Chevrolet Canada.

LBB> Where did you shoot, what was the experience like, and what type of equipment did you bring along for the job?

Michael> This shoot was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We shot in Alberta, Canada, travelling between Calgary for our urban setups, and Fortress Mountain, Kananaskis, to bring the ‘beyond’ to life. Minimal daylight made the process even more challenging, as did temperatures dipping below -50 at times. Elevation, not to mention the more than 4 feet of snow posed additional challenges. We had snow gurus on-site, guiding the entire crew to safe places to set up and film. One wrong step and you could easily sink 10 feet or more, into the snowy ground. The falling snow was another obstacle, as we got nearly a foot of fresh powder on some of our shoot days.

To capture all of the amazing footage, we had an onslaught of equipment in order to make sure no angles were missed, and no opportunity to capture content was overlooked. We shot with 11 plus cameras - some rigged to the vehicle, while some were inside the cabin of the truck - deployed drones, and even had a helicopter to capture aerial footage simultaneously.

LBB> Setting up cameras inside a vehicle is no small task! How did you approach shooting inside and outside of the truck?

Michael> It was important for the viewer to be able to feel what it's like to drive the ZR2, so we decided from the onset that we needed cameras inside the truck. To make this as authentic as possible, we set aside a training day for our talent to get behind the wheel. This helped deliver proper driving techniques, as well as train the talent on the safety measures needed to drive in extreme winter conditions.

We used a multitude of small, cutting-edge, portable cinema cameras (the Sony FX3) that were mounted all around the truck to gain visceral POVs of the ZR2’s energy. Similar to ‘Top Gun Maverick’, we mounted these cameras inside the cabin and had our actors do their own stunts for all interior shots. There was no process trailer pulling the ZR2, nor green screens used.

LBB> Some of the shots are quite impressive, such as the helicopter shot, and the one of the truck breaking through snow. How did you capture these, and as a whole, are there certain elements of the spot you’re particularly proud of?

Michael> All the ZR2’s capabilities were highlighted without the use of special effects, allowing its power and energy to be brought to the screen authentically, despite the many challenges that came with rapidly dropping temperatures, altitude-related obstacles, and short daylight hours.

Any shot we captured with the helicopter was choreographed prior to shooting, on the ground, with models. These shots took multiple takes, captured practically, rather than piecing footage together. A two-way radio between our director and the pilot was essential to get these shots perfectly. It’s also worth mentioning that safety was a priority when doing any stunts like featuring a helicopter near the ZR2. Visibility and wind conditions were closely monitored, as well as making sure the crew was a safe distance from the stunt itself.

For the truck shot breaking through the snow, we built up a snowbank in an open area and let the truck rip right through it! Two takes later and we had what we needed as it ploughed through with ease.

LBB> Was there ever any worry about testing the ZR2’s limits in these conditions? Or was it smooth sailing all the way?

James> The first-ever Silverado ZR2 was the only truck to do this with. The ZR2’s factory lift delivers race-proven off-road performance customers can buy right from the showroom floor. The ZR2’s suspension upgrades, enhanced off-road technology and exterior enhancements were developed to optimise off-road performance and capability – whether mud bogging, rock crawling, or taking on the most severe Canadian winter snow conditions. It was smooth sailing the entire time for the ZR2.

LBB> Given this information, did you actively seek out these rough conditions, or did it just happen to work out that way?

Michael> We had the best scout team possible searching for locations for this spot. Every area was scouted specifically to highlight a feature (or features) of the truck, while still allowing for our crew to have an optimal base camp nearby. Shooting at 9,000 feet - everything comes into play: weather, reception, temperature dropping, snow depth and safety. So having locations that could tell the story of the truck, and the Canadian beyond while still allowing us to jump between multiple setups per day was a tall ask for any crew. Our scouting team also mapped out areas in Canada that would provide the type of conditions we were looking to capture. The first snowfalls of the year usually happen in Alberta, so it was the natural place for us to explore for this edit.

LBB> Did shooting in rough conditions lead to any interesting challenges or stories? 

Michael> I had my heart set on capturing some wildlife in their natural habitat for the edit. It was key to the story of the ‘beyond’. With the conditions being so cold, we basically only saw two brave crows hanging around the craft truck. Not the ideal candidate for our story! 

On our last helicopter day, our pilot managed to capture some mountain goats rushing over a mountain peak. But, the crew kept this secret from me up until the edit reveal. Because of this, I was going in without the expectation of wildlife in the spot. So, when I saw the edit, I was pleasantly surprised. For me, it was the cherry on top. Goats for the win! 

LBB> The music fits the spot perfectly! Who did you work with on this aspect, and how did you find the right track for the job? 

Michael> Music played an integral role in this edit. We needed a track that would make the viewer feel what it’s like to embark on a journey larger than life. We experimented with gritty, electronic music, but strings were always in our minds as the natural choice to complement and contrast the harsh power of the ZR2, as well as the untamed, cold, beautiful winters we all endure across our country. The truck is a symphony of technology, and the music selection created a human connection to something mechanical. We worked closely with OSO to get the music to integrate perfectly with the spot, along with all the gnarly sound design of the truck and the surrounding environment.

LBB> What was the post process like? 

Michael> Working with our partners at Steam Film, Outsider Editorial, Studio Feather and OSO made this post process extremely smooth. After we were done shooting, post took about one month to get every asset out the door and live. Many hours were spent in the editing room and with our sound design partners to make every frame count, and every sound design choice instrumental to the final edit. Couple this with the perfect transfer and online sessions, and we had all the ingredients needed to make something inspiring!

LBB> What challenges have you faced during this project, and how did you overcome them?

Michael> This project was a different beast entirely. Preparing to shoot in the mountains for nine days takes planning. Not only logistical planning, but personal planning and preparation. It was important to be in the right physical and mental shape to work at 9,000 feet, where oxygen levels are low, and every move depletes your energy levels. Each person also needed to have the right gear to work in -41 degrees, which also required some extra planning. Basically, we all had to go beyond, to bring the ‘beyond’ to life.

James> While the extreme weather conditions that were constantly changing were difficult, the challenge was more on the personal level of being able to adapt and stay warm. Proper winter gear was critically important, and one of the ways we overcame this was by sharing tips and gear. Good thermal socks, for example, hand warmers in the gloves, and base layers over base layers. 

LBB> Have you learned any lessons in the making of this campaign?

Michael> When each person on a project has the passion and determination to deliver a clearly articulated plan, the possibilities are endless.

James> Be prepared for mother nature. The collective team was ready for anything that was thrown at us, and that was the beauty of making this campaign. We were faced with a technically challenging shoot in a hostile environment, and everyone took it on with high energy and a ‘let’s get it done’ attitude. 

LBB> What has the response to the campaign been like? 

Michael> This campaign has been extremely well received. What began as a 30-second spot culminated in much, much more. We ended up delivering a 60-second edit, which aired during the Super Bowl on Canadian broadcast channels, and we also developed a cinema 60-second version with beefed-up 5.1 surround audio for an even deeper experience. I feel lucky to have been part of this project - it's one that will never be forgotten. Results are still flowing in, but this year, to date, the Silverado is the number one selling pickup truck in Canada.

James> So far, the campaign has performed exceptionally well, with a lot of positive feedback through our social channels from customers, truck enthusiasts, Chevrolet fans, and our Chevrolet dealers. Ad tracking results are also performing well above the norm. Additionally, there is a lot of passion for the campaign internally, from GM and Chevrolet leadership both in Canada and the US. 

LBB> How does this campaign fit into Chevrolet’s branding for 2023?

James> We want Chevrolet to be a brand to drive culture forward. With Celeste in the driver’s seat as the hero, we have made good on this commitment. Additionally, the success of this ZR2 campaign gives us licence to do even more with the ZR2 trims in 2023. 

LBB> Is there anything you’d like to add?

Michael> A big shout out to the core creative team, Sean Pitre and Vu Song Vu for going beyond in every way to help bring this to life. A thank you to Goh Iromoto, our director, for delivering hair-raising visuals that can make you tear up. Kudos to the Commonwealth//McCann leadership and account team who relentlessly supported this idea. And of course, a huge thank you to our brave clients at Chevrolet Canada for pushing past the limits with us, to bring this film to everyone in Canada.

James> Our goal was to put Canadians in the driver’s seat and take them on an adventure, and I believe that’s exactly what was achieved here, with the Silverado ZR2 enabling this epic adventure!

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McCann Canada, Wed, 15 Mar 2023 15:13:25 GMT