Crafting an epic practical effect set seventy meters long, CP+B London worked with a limited number of takes to create Breaking Walls, a beautifully intricate and polished ad for The Glenlivet. 

With the walls - literally - closing in, Dave Day, ECD and Marcus Eley, Head of Production, talk with us about what it took to achieve the nearly flawless in-camera results. 

This piece for The Glenlivet shows a ton of technical skill that’s not apparent at first glance. Can you explain how you made the decision to go with practical effects over CGI? 

Dave Day: CG is always the go-to these days. Which is perfectly fine for some productions, but this piece demanded a more realized authenticity. As The Glenlivet is a premium single-malt it is important that the brand embodies ‘craft’ in everything it does. So, we tried to make everything analog and in-camera. We wanted the viewer to appreciate that honesty and that ambition. We spoke a lot about how much of the ‘workings’ were shown, and it was important we never cheated the viewer by covering anything up or removing things in post.

The Glenlivet – Breaking Walls

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Above: The Glenlivet's "Original by Tradition" campaign, with the hero spot Breaking Walls.

Was the initial brief adapted or changed to suit practical effects, or were practical effects always a part of the ad’s development?

DD: The initial idea was to create a Russian doll of time, one era unfolding into another. It wasn’t practical from a production point of view and was very expensive, so we moved to a linear approach; although we did manage to get the bothy to unfold inside the speakeasy, which was important. 

It was clear from the start that the effects had to be practical. Tom Noakes, the director, had a great idea for the ending, where sunlight would pour through the set, reaching from modern-day bar all the way back to George Smith, the founder, so having the sets built next to each other was key to realizing that idea. 

What was the trickiest set piece to construct? 

Marcus Eley: The collapsing of the bothy into the speakeasy. The bothy had to be constructed in such a way that its dimensions and collapse worked for the height, safety, timing and choreography of the actor & extras along with the very specific floorplan of the speakeasy with all the props and art department. 

It was clear from the start that the effects had to be practical

There was much debate about how the bothy opened up and fell down with the initial thought being that all four walls and roof opened outwards. Unfortunately, the floorspace of the set wouldn’t have made that possible. Instead, it was designed in a way that the roof concertina-ed in on itself to create the space required and still worked within the 2.5-3 sec time limit that was required for the our hero to walk out of the bothy and into the speakeasy with a barrel on his shoulder. 

What was the rehearsal process like? How do you practice breaking down walls without actually breaking the set?

ME: Tricky. We actually had to break some of the walls since there was no other way to practice. For example, the art department team, SFX, and construction guys had to re-build the bricks of the speakeasy wall three times on the shoot day for that scene due to the ‘explosion’ and collapse not working as well as it had in rehearsals. It was a tense moment on-set after the second collapse didn’t work out, knowing we realistically had only one more chance within the confines of a very tight shoot schedule for a successful and useable take. That last take is the one used in the edit.

Click image to enlarge
Above: 360-degree panoramic of the 'eras' depicted in the spot.

How many times did you get to practice the scene where a portrait literally breaks over the Judge’s head? 

ME: That scene actually went pretty well, both in rehearsals and on the shoot, but there was no luck was involved. It was all due to the very careful planning and excellent communication between the First Assistant Director, and the stunt and SFX teams working the ropes to trigger the collapse that made the scene happen. 

We tried to make everything analog and in-camera.

The portrait of the judge was fitted within the picture frame making the ‘break’ over his head happen easily. The judge is a stunt artist wearing a crash helmet underneath his wig. He was a real pro and whilst not a professional actor, his performance the moment before and after was perfect.

Did anything go wrong on set that jeopardized the take? 

ME: The brick wall collapse as mentioned previously was pretty hairy. During the second take we used too much compressed air to blow out the wall. It looked like a scene from Platoon with extras being thrown back, falling down, smoke and dust everywhere. It looked more violent on the monitor than it actually was and no-one was injured (safety was of paramount importance on this shoot) but it made the planning for the final take even more stringent.

The shift from the Prohibition era to the fifties had an amazing mid-stride costume change! How did you create that effect?

ME: It worked out so much better than any of us could imagine. I’ve had a few comments about that shot, and many people think that it was done in post. Admittedly, it didn’t work as well in rehearsal. 

The barman’s dummy costume made for our female lead was constructed with wires attached to the back so that the team hidden within the speakeasy would pull it as she walked forward, causing the dummy costume to split and fall apart, revealing her vibrant blue dress underneath. One of the takes simply didn’t work and she got pulled back pretty sharply. She dusted herself down, the wardrobe was adjusted, and we went for another take. The results are in the edit. A brilliant example of proper film making special effects.