Walk the Line

August 31, 2012 / Signed/Unsigned

By Alex Reeves

It’s not often that the Internet goes crazy over an ad, but a truck commercial going viral? That’s a first.

It’s the sort of thing that has mothers biting their nails; somebody’s daughter tiptoes across a cable that’s stung between two gigantic trucks as they hurtle along a highway towards a pair of tunnels. If she doesn’t make it on time the line will be cut and she’ll fall, possibly to her death.

The young lady in question is Faith Dickey, slacklining world record holder, and the stunt is for real. It took place under the experienced eye of Peter Pedrero, a stunt coordinator who’s worked on James Bond films, Braveheart and Harry Potter. But this isn’t part of a Hollywood blockbuster, and it’s not even made for television. It’s a commercial for a heavy goods vehicle – the new Volvo FH.

Product: Volvo
Title: Ballerina
Production Company: Smuggler
Director: Henry Alex Rubin
Production Company Producer: Ray Leakey
Executive Producers: Chris Barrett, Fergus Brown
Ad Agency: Forsman & Bodenfors
Art Directors: Anders Eklind, Sophia Lindholm
Copywriters: Martin Ringqvist, Björn Engström
Agency Producer: Alexander Blidner
Editing Company: Marshall Street
Editor:  Spencer Ferszt
Music Company: The Rumor Mill
Sound Company: Factory
Post Production House: Absolute

Taking on this death-defying task was only manageable with such an elite team. But the undertaking was still intimidating. “The location was the biggest challenge,” explains Executive Producer Chris Barrett of production company Smuggler. With such a demanding project, their choice of road had to be perfect. “The road surface had to be just right. The distance between the two lanes had to be consistent. It had to be a tunnel. They had to be the same levels.”

After a long search, Chris and the team found the perfect road – a highway that was under construction in Croatia, meaning it would be deserted and as smooth as could be hoped for. “Apart from the construction vehicles, I suppose our Volvo trucks were the first to drive on it,” he says.

With the location sorted, there was only the extreme danger of the stunt to worry about. “Clearly something can always go wrong,” admits Chris. He’s realistic about the situation they were in. “Ultimately, on a normal job something goes wrong and the consequences will be bad. With this one they’re potentially fatal.”

Watching Faith wobble on the wire as she hurtles towards the concrete tunnels can be heart-in-mouth stuff. “It actually wasn’t that windy,” says Chris, explaining that the danger would have been too much if it had been a blustery day. “But even if there’s no wind at all you’re going to get air resistance because you’re between moving trucks. That was one of the hardest things for Faith to overcome.”

At one moment, Faith stumbles and just manages to save herself from falling off the speeding line. “That happened for real,” says Chris. “It was included in the final film to illustrate what was involved because she’s not flawless. Accidents can happen.”

But while everything in the film was shot for real, with no trickery and genuine dangers, some online critics found even that too artificial, accusing the dynamic editing of watering down the event. “We probably did the stunt in about three takes and, largely, the same things happened,” says Chris in the film’s defence. “It was just a case of choosing the best shots, the best angles, in order to put that all together. So, was it all done for real? Yes. Are there cuts in there? Yes, to heighten the drama. And that goes along with the music as well, which was added to help the drama of the piece.”

In contrast to most DIY stunt films on the web, this film is more of a mini documentary, with genuine craft applied to it. “Throughout the process we were thinking about how we would create a story as well to make the viewing as compelling as possible,” says Chris, “dialling up the drama so people are rewarded when watching it.”

This decision gave the video more of a humanising edge. “As opposed to having a film by itself and then a separate making of, we rolled a bit of a making of into the beginning. That’s important for you to see the background and to get an insight into the jeopardy involved,” he says.

Of course, we’re pretty used to seeing adrenaline-fuelled action like this on both the silver screen and the YouTube window, but Chris thinks the Volvo stunt combines the best qualities of both. “When you’re watching a Hollywood movie and this kind of thing happens, you feel it’s an amazing visual spectacle, even though you know it’s not real. So doing something like that, but in reality, is really raising the game.”

This strategy has undoubtedly paid off. With over five million hits at the time of writing, it’s genuinely earned the often-misused term ‘viral video’. But there’s no secret trick to this. “It’s testament to a great idea that’s been crafted exceptionally well,” says Chris, in praise of his team. “There’s always going to be an online audience for that… and for farting animals of course.”

A flatulent cat might have boosted the film’s ‘virality’, but it’s still done extraordinarily well considering it’s essentially an ad for an HGV. It’s a level of creativity and execution you’d expect from a prime-time spectacular, just showing how the digital revolution has changed everything. “A lot of interesting film projects are coming from places like this,” observes Chris. “It’s not about the big Nike ad anymore, as great as they are. It’s ideas coming from different markets and products because those clients are willing to be a bit braver.”

“I’m proud of the reaction it’s got worldwide,” he reflects. “It’s transcended its online life, getting onto numerous news channels, CNN and NBC. It’s had an incredible response, both online and offline, in loads of new channels. And you can’t say that about many truck commercials.” He’s got a point.

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