Published on: 17 June 2015 in Longform
#HEARoes: what’s your origin story?
Reading time: 14 minutes and 19 seconds
Directors UK member Nik Morris has recently directed a narrative commercial for a Higher Education Academy initiative called #HEARoes. A relatively new entrant to the industry, Nik reveals how he made creative use of the limited resources available to him, discusses his use of previs, and explains how he assembled and worked with a small key team:
What’s your origin story? Every superhero has a myth explaining how they gained their powers, and we mere mortals can (well, I do) also reflect on the experiences that began something important for us. Saying that, our formative moments don’t necessarily involve being bitten by radioactive bugs, neither did we all engineer serums to become our ideal selves. More often, we recall profound encounters where ‘something happened’ and we changed quietly on our own. These events form the foundation of our professional networks, personal achievements, and pleasures in adulthood. For many people, this under-structure is located in our chaotic and exciting student days.
A university student will encounter new people, societies, ideas, texts, and – yes – hedonism. A three-year degree is akin to a comic book hero’s stroll through a gamma ray testing range: you will be transformed. It certainly transformed me. But I won’t bore you with my currently preferred origin narrative - that can wait until I have a few more films under my belt – instead I’d like to share insight into the strategy, writing and directing of a new advert, taking the form of a short film aimed at all UK students starting their courses this year, and based on the superhero origin trope: ‘#HEARoes: What’s your Origin Story?’
The HEAR is being adopted at universities across the UK. It stands for ‘Higher Education Achievement Report’, and is an electronic companion to degree certificates, capturing the achievement and development of a student in greater detail. The service is developed and supported by the Higher Education Academy, a national body enhancing the reputation and quality of UK higher education.
I was approached to develop a new video for the HEAR, having previously directed a pixel-art explainer animation for the service back when it was launched in 2012. The new advert would increase brand recognition and demonstrate the value of the HEAR proposition to students. Working direct-to-client, I took part in the earliest strategy sessions, collaborating with Nikki Spalding and Chris Hoyle on the HEAR team, and with the HEA’s marketing manager Ewan Fairweather. We decided to focus primarily on prospective and first year students, associating the HEAR with a narrative that would help them make sense of their higher education pathway, whether their institution offers the service or not.
We considered both the sixth former applying to university, and the just-arrived fresher. In particular, we empathised with newcomers with no family tradition of university. With no comparable experience of college life, and having been in the habit of exam preparation for a few years, the higher education experience can be baffling. Just what are you supposed to do with your time? Should you emulate what your flatmates do? Why do they seem so at ease with this situation? What is a ‘summer internship’ and how did they find one so quickly? And this list of books and seminar topics – they look fascinating, but will they be on the exam? Does that matter anymore? Should I join all these societies? Just one? None? Is it always going to be like Freshers’ Week? Because it’s not as fun as it looks on the posters…
From these sessions we agreed to create a film that - in under two minutes - would dramatise the complicated value proposition of higher education itself. Formative experiences, intellectual growth and self-creation are arguably the whole point of undergraduate life. But we often hear the anxious rhetoric of ‘employability’, ‘transferable skills’, and those elusive yet desirable ‘soft skills’. Of course, any student investing time and money in a degree would place ‘employment’ high on their list of expected outcomes, but it’s difficult to explain why a degree result alone won’t secure a career. The real employment-enhancing achievements, I would argue, are the result of struggle – that is, what’s learned from argument and analysis of ideas in the seminar room, the quarrels that come with new working relationships in societies, the struggle to create great work for your course, and the struggle to create outside of it because you have the space and desire to make something of your own. Employability comes from disappointment too. Perhaps you failed to make a difference at that college committee; perhaps no one liked that play you wrote. Recognising just how much more you have to learn can lead to a lifelong project of improvement, leaving you far better equipped to intervene in the world outside the academy. These experiences are life-enhancing. They don’t have to be acquired at a university, but for me, they are a vital part of the student story.
Nikki and Chris came up with the #HEARoes pun, which led us to the ‘origin story’ concept. But before writing the screenplay we needed to anticipate the advert’s viewing conditions: how will the audience encounter the video? Are they watching on a phone? Will they hear audio? And why would they even watch it in the first place? We wanted to create a diverting cinematic video, something that could hold attention and be understood visually, with an exciting cinematic soundtrack for those listening too. We also anticipate that student unions will play the film at orientation sessions, so it needs to feel big and end with a bang, something to really excite a lecture hall full of freshers. It also has to have an irreverent tone; a film taking itself too seriously might prove counter-productive.
Regarding ad placement, Nikki and Chris identified the popular website The Student Room, where the video could run alongside advertorial content, including a ‘guide to the HEAR’. This site receives millions of visits a year from prospective students curious about university life, and also from current students seeking support and community. The HEAR team feel this will be a great place to reach our specific audience: when they apply for courses, begin their degrees, and reach out in moments of confusion.
I’m alert to the stock photo clichés of university prospectus marketing and wanted to avoid them completely. We’d agreed that university life is arguably valuable precisely because student experiences can be so contradictory. I wanted the story to feel more dramatic and authentic. University is really fun but, from my experience, career-enhancing opportunities are more likely to originate with pizza and a heated debate at a society social, not strolling against an out of focus backdrop wearing a smile.
Our story begins at a college reunion, and we flashback to a cross cut narrative of our four #HEARoes, leading to a plausible high-impact dance/sports sequence for a showstopper finale. Kenny, played by Jack Gates, opens and closes the ad. He’s an ambitious engineer, but feels lost and idle in his first term. Juliana (Neash Cook) is an aspiring software engineer living off noodles and takeaway. Ananya (Aastha Khanna) works a dawn bakery shift every day before lectures; she’s exhausted and can’t manage her money well. Piotr (Nick Lester) is athletic, but waking up amongst the detritus of a freshers’ week party doesn’t do much for his training regime. In one minute and forty seconds we see these four characters grow from disillusioned teenagers to capable young professionals.
Telling four stories, each spanning three-years, in fewer than two minutes required numerous split second shots, each communicating character growth concisely through performance, wardrobe, hairstyle, and location. To make sure this would work, I spent time creating an animatic before scheduling principal photography. I built low polygon locations and props in the open source 3D package Blender, and used its free Cookie-Flex rig to pose actors within the scenes. This meant I could explore each scene to select angles, lenses, and rehearse moves. I could render out images to edit together with precise timings, which proved invaluable on set. We had the budget to shoot with a micro-crew only; I’d be my own AD and script supervisor when directing, and I needed a printed time reference for each shot. I had to know, for example, that all the action in a particular frame had to happen in less than one second before going for a take. The previs also helped me plan background movement. I could cast the right number of extras in order to compose shots that would quickly draw the eye to the relevant action. For example, Juliana’s corridor walk seemed sparse and unfocussed in my 3D attempt, so for the shoot I planned to have extras moving in counterpoint, with additional figures providing depth cues in the space.
With the previs signed off before the New Year, I started planning a short February shoot. For the dance sequence we worked with choreographer Eddie Copp and the award-winning Momentum Dance in Wakefield, whose young company were the correct age for this story; they’re part of a performing arts college so we scheduled principal photography during their half term. I brought Bethan King onto the team as an art director, valuing the experience and discipline she brings from her time in various art department roles on features like Get Santa. I also paired One&Other Creative’s Vicky Parry with hair and makeup artist Faye Robertson. Vicky is an excellent stylist, and Faye an excellent MUA. Together they planned a series of looks and outfits that would develop with the characters throughout their stories. For casting, we opened auditions at Heslington Studios, the commercial arm of the University of York’s Department of Theatre, Film and Television, hiring an ensemble of actors that were the appropriate age for our fictional freshers.
We had almost no camera or lighting crew, which was definitely a risk. I really value working with a DOP and a large team, but compromise would be necessary somewhere due to the modest budget. I felt that production design was absolutely vital to telling this story, whereas we could allow for camera and lighting to be a little rough around the edges as long as locations, costumes and visual character progression seemed credible. I distributed resources to favour set, props, wardrobe and makeup. I then shared lighting and camera work between myself and recent graduate Mohsin Ahmad, a superb all-rounder and problem-solver. Mohsin and I worked through the boards together and he helped me prepare a low cost lighting plan using four Dedolights, one Kino Flo, reflectors, and a handheld Westcott Ice Light. With three company moves per day into tight locations, portability would be essential. To keep our camera footprint small, we used a Blackmagic 4K Production Camera, a two-meter Konovo slider supported on tripods, and a Mōvi Freefly instead of an arm-and-vest stabilizer. We scheduled steadicam moves for the first part of the shoot, and hired the Mōvi accordingly to cut costs.
I didn’t want this to be a histrionic spoof of the superhero movie. Instead I wanted credible performances, borrowing some of the genre’s compositions and camera moves and letting them do the same thing they do in the blockbuster. There’s an irony in their deployment: we emulate a classic hero shot to show Kenny holding a box of cooking utensils as the wind disturbs his sixth former hair. We’re not poking fun at the genre, instead, I’m interested in what the image does when the camera moves likes this. The photograph travels and drags everything with it, but to me the human figure feels resistant and very heavy. It bestows monolithic status on the actor and their gaze. Of course, this is done with a sense of humour, but the camera movements still do their job seriously. This is how the first college reunion segment works to capture our attention, with confident moving shots surveying our #HEARoes as they look beyond us, until Kenny’s eyes address us directly.
When there’s only a split-second for a viewer to register a shot, the actor’s performance is paramount. From my experience directing stage drama, I feel it’s vital to give actors, models, and even performers in a music video, tangible actions to play in any type of shot. There’s an outtake I discovered in the #HEARoes edit, it’s of the shot where Juliana gazes at the laptop screen. I believe that before calling ‘action’ I’d lazily asked Neash to be in awe of what she’s seeing on her laptop screen; as we start rolling she gets the giggles because - to be fair – I’d offered a ridiculous piece of direction. I adjusted it, and recall asking her to play something that might still sound silly out of context but was in reality more substantial; I believe it was something like ‘recognise on the laptop screen a solution to the mess of your character’s life’. I think that’s how we arrived at an arresting gaze and Juliana’s subtle smile of relief as we dolly in. Or perhaps Neash was just humouring me, it had been a long morning.
Post-production was quite straightforward. With a low shooting ratio our takes fit almost exactly over the 3D previs edit. I graded the locked picture in Da Vinci Resolve, and used the The Foundry’s Camera Tracker and Mocha in After Effects to introduce the holographic elements. Despite running smoothly, we had to - for very good reasons - remove one short scene quite late in the process. Removing an image from the narrative disturbed the flow quite a lot, and thus necessitated a tricky re-edit of a few seconds of the advert, and this actually occurred after the colour grade. Thankfully, Da Vinci Resolve has very powerful one-click tools for re-linking grades to new edits. So the cascade of adjustments I’d worried about turned out to be nothing at all.
...and my origin story
So how does the production of #HEARoes sit within my own origin story? I dare say it’ll be a big part of it. I’m an early career director who started in theatre – writing and directing plays for the student and fringe scene, and even enjoying a brief stint as a drama lecturer before committing to the path of becoming a film director. For a while I’ve been looking for the ‘magnificent seven’, a team to collaborate with to realise my own fiction work. Directing online commercials and music videos at this modest budget level has allowed me to work with experienced professionals, to learn from them, build relationships, and improve my visual storytelling and capacity to create work. On #HEARoes especially, I felt good about the team, and discovered new entrants to the industry like Mohsin, and my assistant producer on this project Hannah Skidmore, whom I’ll certainly bring onto my next projects. Next on the horizon are a motion graphics piece on microprocessor design, and also my first motion-capture film to advertise an event-space. But I’m also carving more time to focus on my original dramatic work, building relationships with production companies and agencies to create increasingly ambitious work, and looking for more opportunities that allow me to direct fiction.
The adventure continues…