'Surfer' - The Guinness TV Advert Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'Surfer' - The Guinness TV Advert

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Tick follows tock follows tick...
Once in a while a piece of work comes along that defies a simple description of the craft used to achieve it.
- John Smith, Jury Foreman of the British Design and Art Direction Awards

We are greeted with a close up of a man who looks expectantly at something just above our view.

He waits; that's what he does.

...says the voiceover. The relentless drum slowly fades into earshot. The surfer and his three friends rush into the dark and foamy sea; bare chests and slight boards.

The voiceover continues on as the beat drives aggressively forward.

And I tell you what: tick followed tock followed tick followed tock followed tick...

So begins one of the most celebrated adverts in the history of British TV.

The Plot

It is said that it takes 119.5 seconds to pour the perfect pint of Guinness, which is a long time to wait for any pint. This is what probably inspired the caption 'good things come to those who wait' as applied to pouring a glass of the black stuff. Many adverts for Guinness have latched onto the common thread of waiting (making a selling point out of a potentially negative attribute) or just being plain surreal1; among them the 'Statisics' advert, as with the 'Snail Race' advert (which can be found at the Inspiration Room website - see the link at the end of this Entry).

The theme of waiting is what inspires the story of the surfer - the man who waits for the ultimate wave experience with his friends. The group spot the 30 metre high wave off in the distance and make for it. As the wave crashes down, the crest turns effortlessly into giant white horses which descend upon the surfer and his friends.

There is a mess of hooves, tossing manes, boards and spray, but the wave is conquered, and in their camaraderie, the surfer and his friends run to the shore to celebrate.

The Man Behind the Motion

The advert was directed by the critically acclaimed director, Jonathan Glazer.

His previous work was with music videos; he was the man behind the strange moving room in Jamiroquai's Virtual Insanity video2, Blur's heavily A Clockwork Orange-influenced video, The Universal, and the notorious UNKLE's Rabbit In Your Headlights3.

His forays into directing adverts have also been very successful. His advert for Stella Artois, 'Last Orders', and of course, the 'Swimblack' advert for Guinness4 set him up nicely for yet another memorable bout of filming.

His most recent work includes the full-length feature film Sexy Beast, and the Levi's advert, 'Odyssey', which involved two people running through walls, up tree trunks and flying off into space5.

How It Was Done

Originally, the whole sequence was to be computer generated, or at least, either the waves or the horses to be computer generated.

In any case, it was eventually decided that as little computer generated effects as possible would be used.

The Waves

These were filmed in Hawaii, at a place called Waimei Bay. It was there where the crew had their first stroke of luck - whilst looking for a nice angle to shoot from, they met their surfer, called enigmatically, 'Rocky'. He, and three of his surfer friends were to be in the advert.

For the waves, the crew were doubly lucky. The massive waves only happen a few days each year, and so with camera equipment rigged to jetskis, helicopters and the longboards themselves, the waves were filmed.

The Horses

Back in the studio, there was the question of the white horses. The Lipizzaner Stallions6 from the Spanish Riding School of Vienna were recruited for such a task.

The horses were trained in the moves required for the sequences, and had to match frame-by-frame to the previously recorded footage in Hawaii. These moves involved jumping over short gates in a water bath. The studio was completely blue, so that in a move similar to that used on the TV show Knightmare, the blue would be de-selected, and the horse placed in the appropriate area.

This in itself, took about 3 days to film.

The Visuals

So then, the computer voodoo magic then was employed. The surfer and his group were placed in the overhead wave shot, so that they appeared to be paddling toward it. The horses were then duplicated, the blue de-selected, and placed in the wave shot where the crest rises menacingly over the surfers. At this stage, the whole sequence was still in colour.

The confusion of hooves, mane and spray were in part live footage and computer generated images.

When the visuals were then done, the whole sequence was converted to black and white.

The Voiceover

Spoken by Louis Mells, the voiceover comprises passages from Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Again, the passages were chosen for the 'waiting' theme - the surfers for the wave, Captain Ahab and his crew for their search for the white whale.

The full voiceover is as follows:

He waits; that's what he does.
And I tell you what: tick followed tock followed tick followed tock followed tick...
Ahab says, 'I don't care who you are, here's to your dream.'
'Here's to you, Ahab'.
And the fat drummer hit the beat with all his heart.

Here's to waiting.

The Music

The pounding, rhythmic drum which rises slowly in the background is in fact the intro from an actual track - 'Phat7 Planet' by Leftfield. The original track itself is more of an electronic affair, which is really to be expected from a group acclaimed for their electronica.

Unlike groups or bands which have their tracks featured on adverts, Leftfield didn't release 'Phat Planet' as a single; it was instead released as the B-side to their single, 'Africa Shox', which, in this researcher's opinion, was probably a good thing, as the very harsh electronic track bears very little relation (apart from that drumline) to the organic sound of the advert. The 5-minute track can be found on their album, Rhythm and Stealth - or 'that one with the Samurai armour on the front'.

The Awards

The advert made its debut in 1999, yet had such a profound effect on the British public that two years later, in a poll run jointly by the Sunday Times and Channel 4, it was voted as number 1 in the 100 Greatest TV Adverts of all time. The accolades didn't just stop there. It won a Gold Lion in Cannes (1999) and a Gold in the British Television Advertising Awards (2000).

'Surfer' won two awards in the British Design and Art Direction Awards in 2000, a Gold in TV and Cinema Advertising over 60 seconds, and a Gold in Direction.

And finally...

It was not lost on me that when I was sitting down quite comfortably, watchingThe Fellowship of the Ring, that something seemed quite familiar about the 'Riders at the River Bruinen' sequence. In fact, as the horses rose out the the spray in an almost identical mess of hooves, manes and surf, that I found myself humming the drum bit to 'Phat Planet'. I was also looking for the surfers hidden somewhere on the banks, ready to run at the bore...

Video Links

For those who have not seen the adverts, or those who want to remind themselves of what they looked like, here are links to the videos.

1Hence the term - 'not everything in black and white makes sense'.2Done in six shots over the course of a single day.3Banned from British TV as it showed cars crashing into a lone jaywalker, albeit with the jaywalker in question emerging unscathed.4The one with Marco the Olympic swimmer versus 'the pint'.5As a bit of trivia, it's the only Levi's advert to date which has classical music in the background; Handel's Sarabande In D Minor, arranged for strings, flute, clarinet, bassoon, French horn and tympani.6A breed of horse famed for their dressage, and immortalised in the Disney film, The Miracle of the White Stallions.7Pronounced 'fat'.

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