There has been a renewed fashion for shock tactics in charity advertisements of late. Pancreatic Cancer Action caused a recent furore with a series of posters that showed patients wishing that they had a less deadly form of cancer, and Save the Children’s latest TV ad features footage of a real birth in Liberia where the baby is born blue before being revived by the midwife. Both campaigns have led to a return of the long-running debate as to whether controversy helps charities to raise money and awareness of their causes or in the long run provokes fatigue amongst the public. Into this context comes a new 60-second ad for Age UK, created by Karmarama and directed by Nadav Kander, which chooses a different style. Instead of shouting about the difficulties of growing old, the film offers a fascinating portrait of the ageing process, set to a poem by Roger McGough, and featuring people aged from 0 to 100.
“The aim was to make people reappraise the ageing process,” says Karmarama ECD Sam Walker. “It’s about engaging people of all ages and helping them understand that age is something that happens to us all. The issues faced by old people will affect everyone eventually.
“The film is a portrait of ageing,” he continues. “It doesn’t have any of the usual charity ad cues with shocking images. Instead it’s a series of real and beautifully filmed portraits, which when viewed in sequence tell a story of life, moving from the earliest stages to later years. It’s about the ups and downs but ultimately shows that later life can be a positive thing.”
The ad is unusual both in its tone and in the director chosen to create it. While Kander is world renowned for his photography, he has shot far less moving image work. “We always aimed to use a photographer as opposed to a director,” explains Walker. “It’s about portraits of people, focusing on them without anything on top to distract. We talked to other interesting directors but we felt a stills specialist like Nadav would bring something fresh and different to the proceedings. The lighting in particular works hard to make every frame richer and more compelling.”
“I think I’m suited to a very specific type of film where it’s about mood and emotion and human condition,” says Kander of his work in moving image. “The storytelling is often minimal. I don’t see myself as a storyteller or a documentarian, which I think a lot of commercials rest heavily in. Everything I do is about the human condition…. It’s about how it feels to be human and what it’s like to inhabit our bodies and what it’s like to feel vulnerable.”
The piece has a relatively simple set up, with each person filmed sitting in the same position using a motion control unit. Their eyes are all lined up in the finished film: this provides an element of continuity among the different faces, alongside the lighting, which is the same throughout. “We came up with this idea of using a continual move from the back of the person to the front,” explains Kander. “All the people that are at a young age are seen from behind or from the side and all the people that are older are seen from the front. And with one lighting and this repeated movement, it actually worked incredibly well.”
The lighting provides a link between this film and Kander’s stills portraiture, which is often lit in a dramatic, almost heroic way. This connection was important to the director. “My main device in everything is light,” he says. “I light everything, it’s my language, it’s how I do things and it’s how
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“I’ve come unstuck and taken commercials on before that haven’t suited me … and the end result is something quite nice, but really not mine. It’s often a difficulty with me and a DOP because in a way we cross over much more than they are used to…. So I now am much stronger about needing to light things the way that works for me rather than other people. And Tim Sidell, the DOP, was absolutely fine with this and we collaborated really, really well.”
A film featuring people with such a broad range of ages inevitably brought certain challenges. “We had to spend more time with the infants,” recalls Walker. “The youngest we had was seven months old and at that age they tend to do whatever they want. It was only a two-day shoot, average about 50 people a day, which we knew was going to be a challenge. The older subjects were also allocated more time to shoot. We were very happy to get three people over 100 years old, one of whom is 102 and still runs marathons. Some of the participants were fully fit but a few others had health issues, which required great effort by them to make it down to the shoot. But for us it was hugely important to show a truthful, sympathetic and dignified picture of ageing, with all its challenges.”
“I learnt a lot,” says Kander of the shoot. “It was really interesting seeing all the different ages come in so rapidly over two days and seeing what different decades bring. It was really quite poignant and interesting.”
In fact, it was the edit that proved the biggest headache for the team. “The edit was a nightmare that drove us mad, not least Sam Sneade, our editor, says Walker. “Unlike a normal edit, it worked like dominoes, with any single change of shot having a massive knock-on effect. Because of the number of subjects, we had a limited number of takes per person, which means that we didn’t have a lot of room for manoeuvre. The rhythm of the edit would have been much easier if all of the shots had been the same length, but we wanted a real journey through the ages, speeding up, slowing down, sometimes in synch with the poem, sometimes going against it, to hopefully keep the audience engaged all the way through.”
The finished film is a touching, unexpected piece of work, which steers clear of mawkish sentiment – a trait as common to charity ads as shock – and instead attempts to present a real vision of ageing. “I wanted everybody to look like the person in the room that you gravitate towards,” says Kander. “Positive but neutral, not overly smiley, not sad. I wanted the total to be one portrait.
“I think if I’d shot all the old people looking really positive and people smiling, it would have been nonsense and transparent,” he continues. “I’m not sure clients often understand that…. I tried to show really how it is – it’s not fun to be old, but they are lots of positive people. There were quite themselves, and that’s how I wanted it to be.”
Agency: Karmarama; ECDs: Sam Walker, Joe de Souza; Creatives: Sam Walker, Joe de Souza, Wayne Hanson, Jeremy Willy; Director: Nadav Kander; Production company: Partizan; DOP: Tim Sidell; Post: The Mill; Editor: Sam Sneade