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Using humor to tell serious story for Greenpeace

By Randi Altman

When you think of the environmental organization Greenpeace, images of people protecting whales, forests and oceans come to mind. It’s serious business… but recently the non-profit decided to extend its reach with humor.

While Greenpeace videos are well viewed, it’s mostly Greenpeace enthusiasts and activists who hit play. In order to reach a more general audience the organization turned to comedy, specifically LA-based writer/director/editor Olivier Agostini.

This filmmaker has a lot of public service work experience where he uses humor to help tell a serious story. And he’s got the awards to prove it, including a first place finish for his film Piñata at the 2010 Rome Film Festival, as well as Emmys, a Gold Addy, a Silver Telly and Young Director Award for his piece 5 Gallons a Day at the Cannes Film Festival.

“I have a lot of experience in tackling serious subject matter in a lighthearted way,” he reports. “Greenpeace is very methodical in how they do their videos, but in this instance they wanted to broaden the scope of their audience and hopefully have them look at the topic in a different way.”

Olivier-Agostini

Olivier Agostini

For The Arctic 30 Story Isn’t Over, Greenpeace wanted a video that in a sense told the real-life experience of what it’s like to try to stop Russia’s oil drilling in the Arctic.

Agostini got to work; he ended up writing, directing and co-editing, with a friend. Shooting was left to DP Chris Saul, another friend, who “is much better with light than I am,” he says. You are likely seeing a grass roots theme developing here. Remember, Greenpeace is a non-profit.

In order to get the project done with the money available, Agostini had to call on industry friends to lend a hand. “We didn’t have much of a budget, but we did have creative license,” he explains. “I was able to pull in favors from all over the place – people loved the script and the cause — and we had a great crew working for basically peanuts.”

In a perfect world Agostini might have opted for an Arri Alexa, but because of the cost and timing, they ended up shooting in 2K with a Red Epic. “It was more of a practical decision than anything,” he says. “I had access to an Epic and Chris the DP had some lenses.” Agostini is quick to point out that shooting on the Epic was not a consolation prize of any kind. “It provided great looking footage,” he says.

The production was done in one day since a large chunk of the budget went to renting a stage — LA’s DC Stages. “It was a really long day, but we got it done. Everything really came together beautifully.” The short film came in at just under four minutes.

Screen Shot 2014-07-14 at 3.17.39 PMSECOND Screen Shot 2014-07-14 at 3.16.30 PMTHIRD

The Concept
The piece starts off with a man in a quaint little office telling his administrative assistant about a “great opportunity” to go to Russia and live on a “big, magical boat with a dove painted on the side and rainbows coming out of its ass.”

He then goes on to explain what will happen to her during this “peaceful mission” — starting by throwing a full glass of water in her face so she can “get used to the water-cannons, of which there will be plenty” as she and her “team” attempt to attach a banner on a Russian oil rig. Oh, and there might be Russian commandos pointing guns at her with the occasional warning shot. Oh, and then there will be arrests made and a stay in a Russian prison for several months. All is based on the true story of 30 volunteers who spent two months in a Russian prison trying to stop the oil drilling in the Arctic.

“My process starts with what message needs to be conveyed,” says Agostini. “What are the facts? What’s the story? How do we showcase the facts in an engaging and unique way? Once I’ve laid that out, it’s a matter of finding the most effective way to communicate that, which for me is often in a comedic way.”

After meeting with Greenpeace and hearing the story of this group of 30 volunteers, Agostini came up with the plot. “Can you imagine if someone said, ‘This is basically what’s going to happen to you: you’re going to climb on an oil rig, put a banner up and go to jail.’ The characters are a bit off and over the top, but what they are describing, as crazy as it may sound, actually happened”

FIFTH FORTH

The piece ends with actual Greenpeace footage from the 30 volunteers were shot at and arrested in Russia.

Post Production
For the edit, Agostini transcoded the RedCine footage to ProRes 422 HQ and brought it into Final Cut 7. It was edited in ProRes and output uncompressed. For the Web they compressed it to H.264.

As mentioned earlier, Agostini shared editing credit. While he focused on cutting the narrative part of the video, his friend, editor Aaron Rosenthal, focused on the footage Greenpeace supplied of the Russian 30 event. “We had a three-day turnaround, and so much actual Greenpeace footage I didn’t have time to sift through. In the end we bridged it all together.”

Agostini did a one-light color grade, using FCP Color. “I wanted it to look simple. I brought the contrast down and did some basic things. No power windows or anything. I didn’t have the time.”

The only VFX shot was the muzzle flash from the gun.

What’s next?
Agostini is currently in post on two different projects at the moment: a commercial shot in Mexico for Johnny Walker Blue (he’s repped through New York’s Greenpoint Pictures); and a short Internet film for a Canadian hospital chain that’s right along the lines of the Greenpeace video. “It’s for a mental health institute and they wanted to tackle a serious subject in a lighthearted way.”

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