Martin Stirling on directing viral films

Martin Stirling on directing viral films

By Rachel Segal Hamilton IdeasTap 21/08/14

Filmmaker and IdeasTap member Martin Stirling has made award-winning short films and commercials. He talks us through how he made two recent acclaimed virals for Save the Children and Greenpeace...

Lego: Everything is NOT awesome 

[Update: The Guardian reports that Lego has ended its partnership with Shell following the Greenpeace campaign that this video was part of.]

The agency Don’t Panic came to me with an idea for a video criticising Lego’s partnership with Shell. They wanted to create a huge arctic diorama, which we drowned in oil. 

I worked with a production designer called Andy Gent, who built the puppets for Corpse Bride and Fantastic Mr Fox. We had two weeks to make the whole thing. I made a “maquette” of the diorama out of cardboard to show how I wanted it to look and then Andy made it bigger and better. In its entirety I think the set was 12ft by 16ft. 



One of the main rules I had was that we weren’t going to make any new pieces. This year Lego had released an Arctic set, which had lots of weird things like drilling equipment. It looked horrible, like they were promoting Arctic destruction. We sourced a lot of Lego from freecycle and people donated kilos and kilos that they had at home. We shot it stop motion-style on a Canon 5D Mark III, with a motion control rig.

I wanted the oil to look a particular way – really viscous, like a blob that had a life of its own. Andy suggested we used glycerin, coloured with Indian ink. To get the right movement and so that we could do multiple takes without having to clean the set, we treated the whole set with a hydrophobic chemical, which stops any liquid permeating the surface. 

The song is from the Lego movie. The original is really hyperactive and annoying. Our composer, Alex Baranowski, did the music on other stuff I’ve done. He wrote the track and got Sophie Blackburn to do the vocals. I think it captured exactly the mood I was going for: beautiful, sombre but subversive. 


Martin Stirling on the set of Lego: everything is NOT awesome

Image: Martin Stirling on the set of Lego: everything is NOT awesome


This is the sort of job where there’s a huge amount of risk. For me that means it’s worth doing. I knew it would piss a lot of people off and possibly get me backlisted from certain clients and agencies but I didn’t care. I’m doing this because I want to be a storyteller, not a product seller. If that means I don’t get to do a toothpaste commercial, I don’t really give a shit. I do think advertising can be powerful when done right but there’s a lot of stuff I don’t like. 

We knew that it might get shut down because we didn’t have the rights to record a cover version of the song. It did, for a time, but even though that dampened the momentum, it created more publicity so the message got more airtime on blogs and on TV. 


Save the Children: Most shocking second a day 

The concept was there from the start. The agency wanted to do a one-second-a-day video where a girl’s life is turned upside down. The idea was to get Syria back in the headlines. We set the film in England so people could relate – if this was happening here, we’d care about it.



It was such a logistical puzzle to make. We had to shoot it all in two days, mainly for budgetary reasons. We knew exactly how long it would take to shoot a scene and exactly how long it would take to walk down the road to the next location. Everything was accounted for time-wise and the assistant director kept us on schedule. Setting up scenes took a while but each take was really short. We shot it on a Canon300. 

We used locations that were crew members’ homes or out on the streets near our production base. We needed somewhere versatile enough to be a normal street,but start to look devastated. We ended up shooting in Hackney Wick because there were lots of different angles we could use, gates that could be made into checkpoints, and the canal down the road. 

I don’t like to use heavy visual effects; I like them to be more incidental. So there’s a bit of that – replacing skies so they look more overcast or adding smoke or atmospherics into the back of shots.  Once the film had been edited and everyone was happy with the way it looked we took it to be colour graded. The colourist shifted a few colours – say, where her top was too bright. Little things like that make a big difference. 


Martin’s advice for making virals: 

There’s a lot of advice about how to make something go viral – what key words to put in a title, how to get influencers to tweet it, releasing it on a special day, having a strategy, all that stuff. For me, if you’ve got a strong idea, you should just try to craft something beautiful that has value. Whether that’s to make people laugh or for a cause, people will want to share it. With the Save the Children film, it really helped that Steven Fry tweeted it but we didn’t hound him, he just came across it and thought it was worthwhile to mention. 

People think there’s some sort of formula but you can’t really tell. Nobody would have known Gangnam Style would go that big. It’s not in your control as maker; it’s in the audience’s hands.



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Main image: still from Most shocking second a day

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