Sunil Thomas proves that the world of TV commercials and branded content doesn’t have to be one made up merely of dollars and cents, with the young filmmaker consistently delivering content that boasts a sense of charm and imagination all of its own. Thomas began his career in television in Sydney, writing and creating promos for SBS and Foxtel, before lighting on his own at the relatively tender age of 25, branching out into commercials full time, and looking way beyond the borders of Australia for consistent work and personal fulfillment. Working extensively in Asia and other regions, Thomas has now clocked up a staggering 200 commercials (for big brands like Pepsi, Samsung, and Unilever, amongst others), as well as a host of international awards. A major talent to watch, Sunil Thomas personally takes us through the shooting of one of his most ambitious commercials to date.
“My phone rings late at night, and on the other end, I hear a Cambodian Accent. It is Panha Bou, the executive producer of Legend Tiger, a production house in Cambodia. He tells me that he has received a board for a TV commercial that would be perfect for me to direct, so I ask him to email it through. I opened it up, and immediately, my interest rose. It was a simple script, with hundreds of brides chasing down a man because he has a special can of beer that gives the winner $50,000 for their wedding. The creative director was Peter Sutherland, an Australian who worked previously in Sydney and San Francisco, and with whom I had directed the King Kong-Monkey Love commercial a couple of years back, which won a gold communicator award in the US.
“I knew that he would give me lots of creative freedom, so I was interested in doing the job. I had also directed a commercial with huge crowds before, so this was right up my alley.
“I had a three-day break in my schedule, and the agency and client agreed to do it in that period. I was in Australia, so I needed an assistant director who could handle the pre-production. The production flew in Dinesh Kaura from Malaysia, who is one of the best in the region – I needed a seasoned soldier by my side for this battle. We had to work out how to create a big budget looking piece and shoot it in eleven hours. The production budget could afford 100 women dressed as brides, and we would be able to shoot it in a location called Diamond Island (Koh Pich) in Phnom Penh.
“I landed in Phnom Penh on a Tuesday morning, and went straight into the pre-production meeting with the agency and client. I had some strong ideas that I wanted to discuss to make the piece funnier. I wanted to have funny, unique women in the ad – such as a grandmother, a really overweight girl, a poodle in a skirt etc – and I wanted to have the payoff of why he is being chased to be revealed only at the end. The client agreed to most of my ideas, but they wanted the girls to be smiling and happy, while I wanted them to look hungry like zombies. In the end, we compromised…the women were not zombie-looking, but rather carried a look of desperation and intensity.
“The next day, we had the tech recce, and I felt like a general planning a battle. My second-in-charge, Dinesh, knew what we were up against, so every shot had to be planned really well. It is not easy to move 100 women…it’s like herding 100 cats. With our battle plans ready, we were ready for the shoot. The next morning, I was on set at 6:00am, but only about ten extras showed up! We quickly started to shoot the scenes with the few extras that we had, and by 7:30am, I turned my head to see about 100 Cambodian women dressed as brides standing behind me, all perfectly made up too!
“We began shooting the big scenes, and soon I began to notice that the crowd of passers-by who were watching the making of the commercial was getting bigger and bigger. It was starting to become a spectacle, and a few news reporters came to investigate what was going on in Koh Pich.
“One of the key scenes involved our hero being chased by 20 brides who are riding a cycle rickshaw. The real rickshaw drivers taught the girls how to ride the rickshaw as we were setting up the shot, but most failed to tell them that the braking system was at the back! After calling ‘action’, we nailed the shot, but the cycles rode past the camera team, with some stressed out brides on top of the rickshaws. Luckily for us, the road was uphill, so the rickshaws eventually stopped.
“During the afternoon, the blazing Cambodian sun was at its peak, and I could feel the energy of our 100 women slowly but surely dissipating. We had to lock the most important shot, where our hero is converged from all parts a he runs towards the camera…the last shot of the piece. This meant that I had to shoot the women running five times from five different directions, and then composite the shot in post-production to make it look like 500 women are converging on him. It was not an easy task when your cast is more interested in having perfect makeup to go with their dress than running. Luckily, there happened be a truck transporting energy drinks nearby. We hailed the truck down, and my assistant bought about five crates of the drink, which was about 250 cans. I have never seen so many drinks consumed so quickly in my life. But it worked, and we nailed that final key shot.
“The sun set on the film, and I called, ‘It’s a wrap.’ The women were so happy that the experience was over, as they had been running all day. I felt bad yelling over the megaphone all day to them, but my Cambodian producer said, ‘Don’t worry, they don’t speak English, so they don’t understand you!’ I must have looked like an out-of-control madman, yelling gibberish to them!
“I caught a flight back home early the next day, and everything that we filmed the day before seemed like some sort of a distant, bizarre dream. From filming a 97-year-old grandma in a wedding dress to a poodle wearing a skirt, it somehow all came together over an eleven-hour period. The commercial was finished within the week, and it became one of the most memorable ads in Cambodia.
“Looking back on my Cambodian adventure, and the chaos of the shoot, three words come to mind; fun, fun, fun. It reminded me why I became a director in the first place – because it was a fun job.”
For more on Sunil Thomas, head to his official website.