It’s 4am and we’re standing in a shipping port on the edge of the Black Sea in Odessa, Ukraine. This unlikely location could be the opener of a John Le Carré spy novel, but instead is the set of Audi’s latest commercial, which heralds the arrival of its latest flagship vehicle, the Q8. For three nights, a vast team will be taking over this working port to shoot a no-expenses-spared film.
From somewhere comes a loud cry of ‘Cut!’, bringing the entire spectacle to a halt. Almost immediately, another flurry of activity takes over: crew and extras in high-vis jackets and hard hats spring to attention, pulling lighting into place, adjusting settings, rigging wiring and running left to right with bottles of water, make-up, notes… It’s organised chaos.
Taking refuge behind a crate of cables, we meet Ray Chan and Simon Cenamor, the duo at advertising agency BBH London who are responsible for the advert’s concept. They fill us in on what’s happening around us.
‘The idea we came up with was the big entrance,’ says Chan. ‘The new Q8 is one of the most impressive cars Audi has ever made, so we thought its arrival deserved a fanfare. In cinema, key moments are always announced by epic classical music, so we thought, why not actually make that happen and get an orchestra to do the job?’
To realise this vision, BBH London has partnered with British production company Carnage. As its name infers, it specialises in filming all things automotive-related, and regularly helps organise large-scale shoots. However, this one is particularly difficult and poses a number of logistical problems, as it involves more than 300 cast and crew, and is being shot in a busy port.
‘You couldn’t do this type of operation in the UK – it simply wouldn’t be possible,’ says James Howland, Carnage’s head of production. ‘I mean, shutting down a port for three days in the middle of August is unheard of – the authorities at Tilbury or Avonmouth would never agree to it. But, in Ukraine, such things can be arranged, and in a cost-effective way. There’s also an incredible film-making infrastructure over here, with no shortage of reputable studios and skilled crews, which is why so many TV commercials and feature films are now being shot in the country.’
‘Don’t forget that Odessa is also famous for music,’ adds orchestra conductor Ivo Kučera. During a break in shooting, baton in hand as he goes over the score once again, he spares a minute to speak with us.
‘The city has many internationally renowned music establishments,’ he says. ‘The finest is the Odessa National Academic Theatre of Operaand Ballet, which is home to a highly acclaimed symphony orchestra. The Ukrainian navy also has an excellent marching band and orchestra, and they’re based here too.’
Kučera may be in charge of the orchestra, but there can only be one boss on set, and that’s the director, Sam Brown. The Englishman started his career in music videos before making the switch to commercials. Brown is no stranger to cars – or Audi, for that matter. He’s previously shot cult ads for the brand, including ‘R8 on Ice’, the R8 Spyder’s ‘Beauty and the Beasts’ and the A1’s ‘Oomph’.
‘I don’t really feel I’m at the head of things, because I don’t think that’s what my role’s all about,’ he says, when asked what it’s like to be a director. ‘It’s not about telling people what to do; it’s about carefully drawing things out of them. It’s much healthier to picture yourself as being in the middle of the process, rather than at the forefront: you’re trying to bind lots of creative people together, and provide the vision and the guidance for what they’re all doing.’
When you look at the production from that perspective, a film crew and cast is actually pretty similar to an orchestra, who look to their director like musicians to a conductor. Brown begrudgingly agrees.
‘In some ways, yes,’ he says, chuckling to himself, before adding, ‘And in both roles, there’s a similar amount of arm-flapping involved.’
Words by John Silcox. Photographs by David Powell.