Immersive Director, Jacqui Church, talks us through the making of the launch film for the new Jaguar Land Rover Defender. It needed to resonate with a global audience, create an epic, global newsworthy broadcast moment and provide a platform for the vehicle that was worthy of its proposition, ‘Capable of Great Things’.
A launch film-worthy location
Not only did we need to film in an extreme landscape, we needed to film somewhere remote as the project was still embargoed. Kazakhstan’s Charyn Canyon provided that and much much more. The largest landlocked country on the planet had to be the location of choice to unveil the new Land Rover Defender. With its arresting landscapes, dramatic sheer rock faces and terrifying overhangs juxtaposed with the serenity of giant plains, this was the perfect location to demonstrate the full capability of the Defender. There was also an added bonus of it being managed by a National Park authority that didn’t seem to have the word ‘no’ In their vocabulary. We were so lucky to work with a fantastic local team, who’s hospitality and tenacity really helped deliver on the JLR promise that, ‘together we are capable of great things’.
Partnering with Carnage Films, we worked together to develop a film that would see the car pushed to its limits by the determination of our protagonist, mountaineer Kenton Cool.
He’s been out in Kazakhstan test driving the car but lost track of time, as he gets sidetracked trying out a few uncharted climbing routes. A text message reminds him he has a deadline to get the car back to Frankfurt for its global launch at Frankfurt Autoshow. And the only option is to take the most direct route back, 'as the crow flies, or as the Defender drives' which involved the car driving over some impassable terrain, a route no ordinary vehicle could attempt or succeed at.
Alongside the talented Automotive Director, Mark Jenkinson from Rogue Films, the team departed for Almaty, Kazakhstan early August. We arrived ready to face the challenge of trying to achieve an insanely ambitious project, in a country where service production was in its infancy.
The planning of this production should not be underestimated. Arriving at the location on the first day, I was struck by how remote we really were – four hours from the nearest city, with nothing in-between. Huge distances between hotels and locations were covered each day. We had to be fully prepared, the equipment list totally locked down and everything needed to be in place, because once we were out on the road, there was no option to return for anything left behind.
As well as large international and local film crew forming main and second camera film units, a Russian Arm team, International drone teams and editors, we were also supported by a full JLR car tech team and business protection as well as extreme mountain riggers and health and safety advisors. Getting equipment to the location was a feat in itself, and required the services of the president of Kazakhstan’s helicopter pilot and crew! The role each and everyone played was crucial to the success of a smooth-running production.
Working with the elements
Not only is Kazakhstan the most landlocked country on earth, but the climate is extremely continental and very dry, with August supposedly the hottest month. However, typically the weather wasn’t as predicted. The first surprise was the wind. Our perfectly located base camp was built along the edge of the canyon and in our naivety, we had not anticipated how exposed to the elements, especially the strong winds that swept through at night, we were. The day before we all arrived, our base camp was blown away during one of those stormy nights. The following day we’d been scheduled to fly the car out to the first hill descent, but there was no way the helicopter towing a 2-tonne vehicle was going to attempt that in 40-knot winds, so we were delayed. This was the start of the daily rescheduling that very quickly became the norm. And then came the rain...
The week before had been searing temperatures whilst the riggers worked on the hill. Suddenly our dry clay hilltops were transformed into sliding sheets of mud. However, our director very quickly realised this could work in his favour, as it gave us the opportunity to capture some amazing 4x4 shots of the environment, that only a Defender would be capable of traversing.
Pulling it off
Due to the complexity of the stunt, we had to be fully safeguarded against any eventuality. A team of expert riggers had been dispatched earlier in the week to secure the hill, so safety lines were installed into a complex pulley system to ensure the safety of the driver, film crew and vehicle, as well as protect and respect the ecological fragility of the location.
A new location every day meant the pace was relentless. Most of the time we were running two units, so whilst we were filming driving stunts in one location, across the canyon the second unit was filming rock climbing scenes. This is when the mastery of the drone team came into full play as they caressed the side of the hill to bring some incredible panning shots across the rock face, achieving the dramatic opening scene and set-up to the film.
There were many. Every day brought on a new challenge and each with its own level of jeopardy. Top of the list had to be day one of the shoot, watching the Russian MI8 navigate its way through canyon gully’s with the New Defender suspended below it. Literally heart in hand, I watched this big bird fly its load, like an eagle picks up its prey, gently lowering it down onto the pinnacle of our mountain top, where our team of expert riggers were waiting to guide it safely and securely into its starting place.
Next heart-stopping moment was watching our stunt driver literally driving the car off the top of the mountain, head down the rock towards the Valley of the Castles below. Even knowing the car was rigged with a safety harness did nothing to steady my nerves. The juxtaposition of watching a herd of horses almost out-run the car was another powerful moment, and the control the horse wrangler had of the herd as he steered them away from the cliff edge at the very last moment before they raced away across the plain, was truly breathtaking.
Kenton Cool lived up to his name. Under the guidance of our stunt coordinator and pro drive team, he quickly learnt how to put the car to his paces, pushing himself and the car to its limits in some breathtaking ascents and some nail-biting rock climbing sequences.
To sum it up
None of this could have been achieved with a less experienced team, and we were in safe hands with our local service company, UK production teams and a Director, 1st AD and DoP who were literally across everything! With all of that said-filming in Kazakhstan was far from easy. The country is vast, and huge swathes of it don’t have mobile coverage. Probably the biggest challenge was not having phone service from the moment we left our hotel in the morning, to the time we got back late at night. This meant that when you set a call time and location It certainly wasn’t going to be possible to change it. It felt very much like production circa 1992- post or fax a call sheet and stick to your plan!
Shooting cars in Kazakhstan is exciting. The locations are staggering and there are comments like... “you will be the first crew that has ever filmed on that road” — we felt like production pioneers. But, being a pioneer is tough. If you are the first, there is no track record of success and all you can do is hold on and enjoy the ride. We certainly did.