Earlier this year, Stockholm production company Camp David Film was commissioned by Swedish broadcaster SVT to produce 39 video “postcards” to air prior to entries in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, the enormously popular song competition show involving countries in the European Broadcast Union. In contrast to previous practice where such “postcards” have been used to promote tourism in the show’s host country, Camp David director Johan Skog (represented in the U.S. by Accomplice Media) produced documentary-style portraits of the artists themselves. (That's Iceland's Eyþór Ingi Gunnlaugsson picture at the top of this page.) Five film crews, working under Skog’s direction, fanned out across Europe and spent a month interviewing and filming the individual artists on their home turf. The short narrative films drew wide praise and have gone onto become viral hits.
Skog made the first postcard, for Iceland.
We asked Skog about his work for Eurovision and his thoughts on the current state of advertising.
StudioDaily: How did you get involved in Eurovision?
Johan Skog: We responded to a call for proposals from SVT. They invited all Swedish production and post-production companies to take part in the pitch. Usually they produce such things internally, but for this, they were looking for an outside perspective. My producer and I came up with a concept, produced a budget and won the job.
Was it your idea to interview the artists in their home countries?
Yes, and that was a big change. Previously, host countries used it as an opportunity to market themselves to the rest of Europe. They were propaganda pieces that showed how beautiful the country was. Sweden wanted to change that and make the films more personal, more about the participating artists. They liked our idea of visiting each country and getting to know the artists.
You shot in 39 countries in 30 days. That must have been quite an undertaking.
It was huge. The logistics were very challenging. We shot everything on the Canon 5D, because it’s easy to travel and work with. We could sneak into a country and shoot fly-on-the-wall, documentary style. Each crew worked with the same equipment.
Prior to the shoot, we sent the artists a list of questions. We asked them about aspects of their lives that they wanted to talk about—the big happy moments, as well as basic things: their favorite color and favorite food. If a guest came to your country, what restaurant would you take them to? What sites would you want them to see? From that, I created scripts. One woman lived in the mountains and made pasta with her grandmother every Sunday. So, naturally, we had to shoot her and her grandmother.
Originally, we thought we’d use dialogue, but that didn’t work. When the films are shown, they are accompanied by a voiceover talking about the act. But that worked to our advantage; it forced us to put more into the visuals that we use to tell the stories.
How did you manage the crews when they were spread all over Europe?
We Skyped and we exchanged stills. In that way, we were able to keep track of their progress and see if we liked what they were getting. In the beginning, they were all shooting people drinking coffee. We didn’t want to have 25 films with coffee, so we had to tell them, “No more coffee!” We also had six countries doing bowling. It was a popular pastime. So we said, “No more bowling. Anything else — skydiving, go-karts — but no bowling.” It was fun.
I shot the first country, Iceland, and made a film that served as a template for the others. That way the crews understood what we were looking for. But all of the teams had very good directors and DPs, very experienced, and I wanted them to add something of their own.
Did you have a lot of cooperation from the local countries?
Eurovision is seen by something like 400 million people. So when you arrive in a country as a representative of the show, they are really happy to see you. They want everything to go as well as possible. They took us to a lot of beautiful places. They really wanted us to like their country and their artist. We were well taken care of.
Azerbaijan was interesting. The country is almost a dictatorship. It’s run by the Russians and has an image problem, so they wanted to stand out. They arranged to have fireworks for our night scenes. Their artist wanted to go skiing, but they didn’t have any good slopes, and so they told us that they were preparing a ski resort “right now.” That was a problem. The government wanted to be too involved in how their country and their artist would be perceived. We had to tell them, “We’re sorry, but we can’t guarantee anything.” Sometimes the regimes wanted to say things that we didn’t want to say.
Viewers seem to have enjoyed your postcards very much. Are you pleased with how they turned out?
Yes. It went very well and they were very well received in Europe. People were pleased that it wasn’t all famous buildings, mountains and lakes. We brought it back to what the show is about: people and music. I think that was good.
One of the five crews went on location with Aliona Moon in the Republic of Moldova. Photo by Yuliana Scutaru.
How did your experience on this project differ from directing commercials?
The way we shot it was different. It was like a documentary, where you are in the hands of circumstances that you cannot control. But it was also similar in that we had to tell stories in 40 seconds. From my commercial work, I’ve learned how to get to know someone very quickly. That was useful.
What else have you been working on recently?
I’ve been directing a lot of commercials in Norway and Sweden, Germany too. I shot a campaign for a Norwegian food company that is interesting. We went to northern Norway, above the Polar Circle, where fishermen work. The conditions are difficult, but it’s really beautiful. We shot four commercials and they turned out very beautiful — and funny. The joke is that the fishermen don’t care about the weather. They’re macho and just go about their work. That was fun.
What do you think about the state of advertising today?
I think it’s getting better. Advertisers are realizing that the era of passive viewers is over. People are no longer sitting on their sofas watching shows and taking in all the commercials that come along. Now people are using computers and TiVo. So commercials have to be interesting. They have to be good enough to keep people from changing channels. Some of the best commercials today are virals. My friends email them to me. But that’s good for us directors. It forces us to be better and create more interesting stuff.
Would you like to direct more ads in the U.S.?
Yes. I love working in the U.S. and I think I bring something to that market that’s different. We have a little different take on things in Scandinavia, the way we deal with logistics and the work. There are many ways to accomplish things. Maybe I know some things that you don’t know. I’d love to bring that over.