Music, movement and Mizone: the making of a branded documentary
Jason Mountney hits the street and goes on set at Studios 301 in Sydney to discover the unlikely combination of musicians and athletes involved in the making of Mizone energy drink’s ad campaign.
Morissey the dog is having a great time. The resident pooch at Studios 301 in Sydney’s inner south calmly strolls around the crowded waiting room, getting scratches and pats from a huge array of musicians, including a tall African drummer and petite girls luging violins and cellos.
Inside the studio complex’s cavernous orchestral room, a camera crew surrounds about hold a dozen drummers sitting in front of a huge screen, thumping rhythmically as footage plays of a man jogging through the backstreets of pricey inner-city suburb Balmain. Today, this recording suite is the Zone Lab.
The musicians have been assembled in the lab to film the last touches for what creative director Simon Lee calls “a branded documentary” that will test how music boosts the athletic performances of selected enthusiastic amateurs. He hopes his project will get people talking about what music helps them run, ride, paddle or swim faster. And on the way he hopes to flog more than a few bottles of water.
Lee, of The Hallway creative agency, is working for beverage company Frucor to promote Mizone, a flavoured bottled water that includes extra exercise-themed goodies such as recharging electrolytes.
This is a challenge. Despite a bewildering number of brands in any corner-store fridge, the sector is not experiencing the Gen Y-fuelled growth of previous years. Even worse, there is a backlash brewing against bottled water and the waste it generates, as well as the amount of sugar increasingly tubby Australians consume.
Despite this less-than-savoury market, the brand received a boost in sales thanks to last year’s campaign by The Hallway, the Sydney agency that was shortlisted for a 2011 Cannes Lion and whose clients include Zuji, Jameson and The Financial Review.
To get Mizone noticed, Lee is making “four pieces of online content, each experience will show a different athlete” – Balmain’s urban runner, someone jogging through a national park, a kayaker and a man riding a mountain bike through the bush. Each athlete was filmed during their usual exercise routine. Selected musicians later watched the footage, then composed a piece they felt would boost the athlete’s performance.
The athletes were filmed doing the routine again, this time while listening to the music. On the way they chug some Mizone.
“Mizone’s brand story is about hydration and how that helps keep you in ‘the zone’ – a place you feel less pain and where things are more enjoyable,” Lee says. “You’re totally in the moment. When we were exploring what other properties help you in ‘the zone,’ music came up pretty rapidly. From an early stage, there is a logical, strong, meaningful association between the drink and music. Music puts you in ‘the zone’, the drinks hydrate and keep you in ‘the zone’.”
Executive producer, director of photography and camera operator Olver Lawrance says the set, with the different musicians in front of the branded screen, ties together the four disparate clips of the different sportspeople. “We wanted the unifying theme to be the Zone Lab.”
While it all sounds a fancy way to sell water, the campaign has academic clout in the form of Professor Peter Terry, who is on staff at the school of psychology at Toowoomba’s University of Southern Queensland. Terry consulted with the musicians as they came up with pieces to get more from the athletes.
“When we first for the connection between music and what athletes call ‘the zone’, we did a lot of research to find if anyone had been connecting music and performance,” Lee says. “We started a dialogue with Peter Terry.”
Terry has worked with different Australian and British Olympic athletes, as well as the English cricket and Welsh rugby teams, and the Queensland State of Origin rugby league squad. He has written a number of books and presentations on using music to focus sportspeople on winning medals and championships. Simon Lee admits the academic’s involvement “lends the project credibility”, even if Terry did once use Whitney Houston’s One Moment in Time as a motivational tool.
Terry has no problem with his research work being co-opted by a company as part of a marketing exercise. “It is reasonably unusual,” he admits from his Darling Downs home. “What intrigued me was a chance to take some principles we ha in research to find out if amateur athletes could get anything out of them.
“Often academics’ research just sits there on the shelf. I was pleased someone wanted to use mine.”
One of the musicians, Jono Ma, says may of the ideas suggested by Terry – “I just called him The Professor” – were “stuff like heart rate and beats per minute that I intuitively knew”.
He says many of Terry’s principles are followed every weekend by DJs in nightclubs, warming dancers up gradually, then changing tempo to work the crowd into a frenzy.
“It was an enjoyable experience,” say Ma. “We had complete creative freedom” – something not too common when musicians find themselves working on branded campaigns.
On the set, Ma is playing an Akai MPC 60 sequencer and a sampler among the drummers who are being filmed in front of the music-powered footage. This will be one of the four online clips launched on February 1 – after what Lee calls “a long and involved” six months’ work. The MPC 60, which Simon Lee jokes looks like a cash register, dates back to 1988 and is popular with beat-heavy hip-hop and tribal producers.
As Ma and the drummers play, director Scott Otto Anderson, from Sydney company Photoplay, tells the musicians to look occasionally at the screen as the runner winds through Balmain’s streets. At any one time there are about 20 people in the studio, with a sprinkling of Mizone bottles placed throughout the room for what looks like added effect. Or maybe the musicians are just thirsty.
As well as the usual film-crew members, classical musicians from the previous session pack up around the percussionists recruited to help Ma’s thundering tribal set. Anderson later says the musicians coped with what can be a long, boring day filming “surprisingly well”.
“I think the musicians found it to be a fun project and not that dissimilar to the process of performing for, or with, dancers, feeding off the energy of one another and ultimately creating a unique piece of music,” Anderson says. “Getting these four musical artists involved in the project has probably been the highlight of the project for me. If the music was crap then the whole experiment would fail, no matter how well it locked into the brief from Professor Terry’s observations.”
The acts are Ma, Nick Wales, New Navy, and HookNSling, representing respectively the genres of tribal, classical, rock and electronica.
The footage shot in Studios 301 won’t be coming to a TV near you any time soon – with the campaign instead remaining online.
“The campaign is predominantly Facebook-led,” Simon Lee says. “The reason we’ve chosen Facebook is the capacity to get people sharing and talking about it and amplifying the story. We aren’t saying we have all the answers about what music helps performance. It is about generating discussions about it, and Facebook is a natural forum for these discussions.”
Lee’s boss, Jules Hall, admits that as well as offering users a chance to add their own input to the documentary’s findings, running an online campaign saves shelling out for pricey TV ad space. However, money has been spent on new music.
A previous campaign used existing tunes, but this time the agency got the four local acts to come up with original music that will not only accompany the ads, but also available to Mizone customers to download.
This gives the company something extra to offer consumers, without the expense of manufacturing and importing physical items.
Anderson says shooting online content comes from “the same skill set” as filming for other media, but it brings with it unique challenges.
“The web can be a harsh environment where the audience is empowered and you need to grab them with the first few seconds and find a way to carry them the whole way through to the end,” he says. “I know my viewing experience on the web is very ‘ADD’, hopping from one page to another and rarely watching something through to the end- often with the audio quite low or even mute. It is unlike the cinema experience, where an audience is held by the pure fact they can only exercise their options by standing up and forfeiting the price of their ticket.”
Outside the studio, filming provided other challenges. To get the sweeping panoramas as Millie the jogger made her way along the spectacular cliffs of the Royal National Part, at the southern edge of Sydney, camera operator Toby de Jong mounted a camera on a remote-control helicopter. De Jong operates Lennox Head company 44 Magnum Productions, which specializes in flying cameras around set on remote-control choppers.
“Originally I was into radio-controlled gear when I was young,” de Jong says when asked if his business is a boyhood dream come true. “But now it’s just work. I wouldn’t touch a remote-control helicopter if it wasn’t for a job.”
The chopper’s base is made by Align Helicopters, a popular American brand for remote-control enthusiasts. However, de Jong has made his own adjustments to the rest of the unit to improve performance.
“It’s a bit of a hybrid,” he says. “That means it is more stable. The biggest challenge is to get a vibration-free shot. A bigger helicopter is more stable, but it is more of a challenge to fly, too.”
De Jong says the biggest challenge of using helicopter gear is “just flying. Then you throw in weather conditions and directors who ask you to do the impossible.”
He says turbulence whipped up from the cliffs made things more difficult than your average airborne shoot.
“There’s nothing like being warned by the helicopter operator not to get too close because ‘it will take your arm off’,” adds Anderson.
The end results are spectacular – and, as executive producer Oliver Lawrance admits, come at a fraction of the cost of hiring a real helicopter to fly cameramen through the sky.
Producer Bianca Baroni, of The Hallway, says the helicopter-mounted cam gave them great results, despite the high winds that day.
But that wasn’t the only way to capture movement. She says the athletes, and the bike-riding camera operators behind them, were kitted out with lipstick cameras, picking up motion-rich footage without weighing down the participants with heavy camera gear.
Director Anderson says the investment in lipstick cams was “a good call”.
“The shots they picked up when mounted on the kayak are spectacular – both above and below the water,” he says. “They gave us an opportunity to gain plenty of coverage that would’ve been prohibitively expensive if we had approached it any other way.”
“Given a bigger budget to play with, there would have been many more exciting ways of capturing the interplay between music and sports performance; say, a steadicam on a quad runner; a remote pan and tilt rig for the chopper. But that’s often one of the bigger challenges the director has to face these days – coming up with creative solutions with increasingly tighter budgets.”
After the work in Studios 301, post-production was completed by three companies; The Gingerbread Man, Sonar Music and Guillotine.
Anderson says this is a major component of the project’s success. “One of the trickiest things for a project like this is also managing to stay on top of the 30 or 40 hours of footage you collect, then form it into a cohesive structure with a tight turnaround – something that The Gingerbread Man and Guillotine did a fantastic job pulling together.”
The end result is not quite an ad, despite its intention to sell drinks. If this approach is a success, the concept of branded documentaries, with academic backing, is likely to pop up on screens in the coming months.