West Side Story on wheels

Ambitious ads are finally back, judging by BBH's spectacular work for Audi. Ian Burrell was on the set
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The Independent Online

I've not seen anything like it for several decades, not since the Ant Hill Mob, the Gruesome Twosome and Dick Dastardly tore across analogue television screens in their efforts to win Wacky Races.

More than 20 vintage automobiles, some more than 70 years old, yet with none of the gentility of that age, their engines exposed and chassis adorned with garish logos of skulls, wrestling masks and the Ace of Spades, snorting and growling around a giant East End warehouse.

This is supposed to be an insight into the secrets of making an advertising campaign for a luxury car marque, the launch this week of a vehicle that will cost £111,995. So where is the coastal highway? Where is the avenue through ancient woodland and the animal jumping into the road? This is more like the setting for an illegal dogfight, with the menace to match.

Bartle Bogle Hegarty, one of Britain's best-known advertising agencies, is making a film to launch the Audi R8 Spyder, the most expensive car the German manufacturer has produced. The 60-second advert, BBH hopes, will stand apart from the clichés of car commercials and send a message that the days of ambitious productions with casts of hundreds are not over.

It breaks tomorrow night at half-time during coverage of the Champions League clash between Barcelona and Inter Milan. BBH and Audi would no doubt have preferred the bigger audience that Manchester United would have attracted but the Red Devils were clinically dispatched in the previous round by Bayern Munich – Vorsprung durch Technik, as the German car manufacturer would say.

Directing the shoot is Sam Brown, a man known for his frantic music videos for the likes of Foo Fighters. The star of his production is Paul Swift, 30, an expert in "motoring theatre", sat behind the wheel of the pure white R8 Spyder. His job is to somehow weave his way across the ExCel centre in London without crashing into the pack of street rods – known to the crew as "beast cars" – swarming across his path. Swift, a professional precision driver, describes the effect as "like a shark moving through a shoal of fish".

This is Capoeira dancing for automobiles, the non-contact version of bumper cars. "What they want is a stark contrast between the serene way that the Audi moves across the space and the out-of-control Beast cars," says Swift. In reality, the lovingly preserved street rods, some of them transported by sea from America, are anything but out-of-control. Their drivers have endlessly choreographed their moves on foot, standing in an Essex aircraft hangar like square dancers performing a do-se-do.

Brown, 36, praises the originality of the project, called Beauty and the Beasts. "There aren't really any precedents so you are coming into a set of unknowns," he says. "We want to give the impression that the cars are driving themselves and we are filming something in a parallel universe."

In this automotive West Side Story, the street rods characterise the road-ragers and white vans of real life. "They're supposed to come across like a gang of delinquents," says Brown, who is shooting with three cameras, including a crane camera mounted on a moving vehicle. "It's not like the standard car commercial where you are out on a winding road in Spain. A lot of car advertising is very straight-faced and serious."

The gleaming white floor of the ExCel centre mirrors that of the aircraft hangar featured in Brown's epic music video for Foo Fighters, where singer Dave Grohl faced down a line of shield-bearing riot police. "I'm filming this in the same way I would film a band – letting the performance happen and finding as many angles that describe the excitement [as possible]," he says. "The music industry has been on the slide for a while and budgets for videos are plummeting. I moved on to commercials because there are more opportunities to execute big ideas."

Audi was BBH's original client, 27 years ago. The concept of Beauty and the Beasts was generated by the creative team Simon Pearse and Emmanuel Saint M'leux. That idea was then developed by Kevin Stark, the agency's creative director, and his writing partner Nick Kidney. "What we wanted was – I don't mean to sound pretentious – automotive ballet," says Stark. "It's very well co-ordinated, we have 22 of the best precision drivers in the UK."

The roar of engines starts up again. In spite of the scale of this project, Brown says he feels little stress, because he has prepared intensely for the shoot and the many possibilities that may emerge. "You need to go into every day you direct knowing there are 100 variables. Directing is about solving problems and getting things to work for the camera."

Among the many problems Brown has encountered with this shoot is the haze of fumes from the vintage street rods, meaning that he has to call a break in filming after every two or three takes. Delays mean pressure. "Over-running is not an option," says Stark. "We've got to be out of here by Sunday." Shooting indoors, Kidney notes, ensures that shooting time is not lost to the weather.

The whitewashed floor – a vast space measuring 150m by 80m – took eight people two days to paint. It is now covered in a spaghetti of tyre marks and will have to be touched up in post-production. Audi used to film black cars but for two years white has been its colour. These things are important. White is described by the Audi's UK head of marketing Peter Duffy as "minimalist and particularly appropriate for a German premium car brand".

The brief was to show the "poise and control" of the R8 Spyder, with its V10 engine, its lightweight aluminium frame and high traction quattro all-wheel drive. In the ad, rock music gives way to an aria as the Audi appears. The intention is to sell the brand rather than the special-edition super car, of which only a few will be on sale in the UK. "This commercial avoids the traditional approach for car ads," says Duffy. "The R8 Spyder emerges from a host of alien cars – all very carefully choreographed. The end frame is a beautiful picture of a high-end desirable sports car as this is what consumers want." That shot is accompanied by the legend: "Mirror, signal, outmanoeuvre."

Although a "making of" version of the commercial is being shot, I'm surprised that more is not being done to turn some of the Beast cars – each with their distinctive characteristics – into virals that could have their own lives online. But the priority here is making the television ad stunning and authentic.

Simon Coles, Audi account director for BBH, says that use of computer-generated imagery has become another cliché of the genre. "There won't be any CGI trickery here. Predominantly this is a real shoot," he says. "Doing something as the camera sees it is actually more unexpected these days."

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