‘I felt like it was a poem’: the VFX oral history of Guinness ‘Surfer’

VFX oral history of Guinness

Original CFC crew members reflect on bluescreen horses, crashing waves and a St. Patrick’s Day debut for the famous Jonathan Glazer spot

Few commercials are as fondly remembered as Guinness ‘Surfer’, a spot that first aired on St. Patrick’s Day in 1999 and told the story of a Polynesian surfer attempting to conquer the ultimate break amidst a sea of horses leaping through the waves.

Directed by Jonathan Glazer via agency Abbott Mead Vickers and production company Academy, ‘Surfer’ featured visual effects by The Computer Film Company (CFC), which had recently been acquired by Framestore. CFC worked closely with the director to combine plates of surfers in Hawaii with bluescreen horse footage, alongside a few CG additions. Rounding out the black and white commercial was a frenetic edit, a thumping track from Leftfield, and a powerful narration by Louis Mellis.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the beloved spot, befores & afters spoke to some of the original crew from CFC about how ‘Surfer’ came together, what compositing challenges existed two decades ago, and how working on the commercial was less like VFX and more like poetry.

‘We had to do this’

Paddy Eason (VFX designer/VFX supervisor): When we first saw the storyboards, we instantly knew that we had to do this as a company. We’d worked with Jonathan Glazer on a couple of previous commercials, and I think he cottoned on to the fact that CFC was a digital effects company that was slightly different from the kind of company that was doing more regular video-based commercials.

Adrian de Wet (VFX designer): In fact, we used to refer to commercials as ‘film’. We never referred to them as adverts or commercials. We held them in such high esteem, like pieces of art that we were really precious over and really deeply, deeply proud of at the time. That shows, if you look at the amount of time that we spent inside the building, it was just insane.

Dan Glass (VFX designer/VFX supervisor): I felt like it was a poem. What was brilliant about it was that it wasn’t on repeat, it hadn’t been done before. It was like, how do you tackle something, especially before the ability to have CG like nowadays? This is some time ago, so we had to build it as fundamentally live action pieces that were composited together. It was ambitious.

Adrian de Wet: Some of that poetic feeling came from that Walter Crane painting called Neptune’s Horse, which was something we definitely occasionally would look at it for inspiration. But we departed away from that pretty early on. It was an inspiration for it, but it was not something that we were trying to copy. I think what Jon liked about it was the mythological nature to it. That it was almost iconic at that time.

Walter Crane's 'Neptune's Horses'.
Walter Crane’s ‘Neptune’s Horses’.

Tom Debenham (VFX designer and colorist): Going into it, it was more of a poetic idea as I remember it than a concrete idea. It was definitely a leap into the unknown for all of us, and I remember that sort of biting us a little bit later on, in that it was very difficult to show anything that had the poetry that was in Jon’s mind, because it was such an unformed thing, and we had to sort of run before we could walk in terms of trying to show.

But…how do we actually do this?

Paddy Eason: I do remember the day when the storyboards came through, probably faxed I’d imagine, and we just looked at them and went, ‘Oh my God, look at this. This is just ridiculous, how on Earth are we gonna do this?’

Rachael Penfold (VFX producer): What I knew, from having had a lot of horse riding experience, was what performance you needed to get in order to get anything that was going to look real with the horses. Well, not even real, because it’s not particularly, but anything that was going to look credible. Before we got involved, I think there was a plan which certainly involved horses, but probably the wrong type of horse and doing the wrong thing. It just was so obvious that they were going to get the right performance. It would never have worked. So I think a combination of some knowledge from me, and knowing actually what a knockout team we had in the artists at CFC, we just totally had the confidence to take it on.

Paddy Eason: The main decision to make was whether to go heavy on the CG, or whether to shoot live-action. Because we’d worked with Jonathan and knew his aesthetic – and also because of the kind of company CFC was, which was more of a compositing-heavy time and less CG – we pretty early on knew we wanted to go with real horses on bluescreen.

They shoot horses, don’t they?

Dan Glass: So we shot the horses first, which was an extra complication, because we had to come up with a very methodical plan for just getting lots of different angles and heights in a kind of systematic way, which was going to cause us to repeat motions and changing camera positions between multiple cameras, to get the multiple angles that we needed.

On the set with the horse trainer and DOP. The storyboards are in the background. Image courtesy Paddy Eason.
On the set with the horse trainer and DOP. The storyboards are in the background. Image courtesy Paddy Eason.

Rachael Penfold: I think maybe there were three horses. It was the stallion that did all the sort of rearing closeup-y type stuff, but he wouldn’t jump, and then there were a couple, maybe two, possibly another one, that would actually do the jumping over the ramp and landing.

Paddy Eason: We were able to work out kind of a ‘shot list’ for our bluescreen horses and what they needed to do. It turned out the most efficient way of doing this was to have the horses running around simple circuits. We’d then just move the cameras, three I think. So basically the horses ran around a circuit within a fairly large bluescreen stage, and that circuit had a flat bit, and it had a jump where they jumped over and into a pit of sand, and it had a couple of turns. We had to change the horses over when they got tired. I think we shot over two days.

Rachael Penfold: The physical performance of the horses in order for them to look like they’re leaping through the waves was, again, so vital. We’re all very familiar with what a kind of crashing wave looks like. We absolutely know what that looks like, what it feels like, and we had to be able to get performance that’s going to work with that motion. Otherwise you’ve got no film, really. So we devised a way of how we needed to have the horses jumping, and then so they had to take off, they had to gain height, and then they had to land much slower than that. The trainers, I have to say, they were fantastic, because we were asking – these are not sports horses – and we were asking an awful lot of their horses, take after take after take.

Paddy Eason: This was all shot at high frame rate. We had a camera called a Photo-Sonics camera which is a 35mm high speed camera, and if memory serves we might have had two Photo-Sonics and one regular camera. We were shooting 480 frames a second, which means we were going through an awful lot of film stock. I remember half-way through the shoot where someone came up to me and said, ‘Look, can we start doing 240 frames a second?’. The reason why we were shooting at very high seeds is that Jonathan wanted that option where the horses are in slow-mo. We didn’t know which shots it would be when we were shooting, so he wanted the option of having all the horses in very slow-mo so that they could be vari-speeded however we wanted in the final edit and then back to normal speed as if shot at 24 fps.

A horse jump while two cameras roll. Says Paddy Eason:
A horse jump while two cameras roll. Says Paddy Eason: “One camera is directly in front of and below the horse, which explains the nervous body language of the guy on the right.” Image courtesy Paddy Eason.

Tom Debenham: Those Photo-Sonics cameras are still occasionally used now. They’re a big deal. They take five or 10 seconds to come up to speed before they actually start running at the right speed, so all that is sort of wasted film effectively. It’s very short runs, you can only run them for a short time, and then you have the constant fear that they would jam and rip the mechanism.

Paddy Eason: Everything was shot at either 480 fps or 240 fps, and maybe some of it was shot regular speed as well. The shots had to be adjusted in terms of the frame rate and for that we used a part of Cineon called Cinespeed, which was a very early optical flow technique. It worked very well to adjust the frame rates and have super slow-mo stuff, which was speeding up which was mainly what we were doing. If we would have done it the other way and turned regular speed to slow-mo it would have been more challenging.

Ocean plates

Paddy Eason: The main unit went out and shot the surfers in Hawaii. It was kind of funny watching rushes of the waves shoot because they had to have the camera in the inflatable power boats out looking for very big waves and quite a few of the takes you see a wave coming towards you and thinking, ‘Oh this is awesome, this is gonna be a really good one, that’s a massive wave it’s gonna be really close,’ then at that point the camera will kind of shake and cut. This is the point where the guy driving the boat just bailed and got out of there!

I think that they didn’t get as much big waves as they wanted and I think they were slightly disappointed with the sense of what they managed to get in terms of the weather and so on. So we did have to bulk up the waves quite a bit and we had to do some warps where we stretched waves in terms of height, and some kind of composting and do waves on top of waves to make them double decker waves.

In fact, if you look at the commercial there are no gigantic waves or awesome surfing shots where you’ve got tiny people against a gigantic wall of water, like in a classic surfing commercial. But that’s not really what Jonathan was going for – he wanted something more about a regular Hawaiian guy that goes out surfing with his mates and has a good day, it’s not about extreme sports, that’s not the story.

Editing and re-editing

Paddy Eason: The commercial was being cut while we were doing the effects and that’s always been a challenge for people, in visual effects, when you want a locked cut to then work on and you’re aware the editor is changing everything as you go in reaction to the temps they’ve been given. But that’s inevitable and the fact that it happened is I’m sure a large part of why it turned out so well. I think we would’ve done rough slap-togethers to hand over to the editor. They were trying different music and voiceovers, too.

Tom Debenham: Jonathan would have been cutting with very little in the frame at one point. I remember an awful lot of to and fro and re-conforming as we started populating it with the comps that actually started to make sense.

Dan Glass: Basically they cut with the ocean footage, and we took the big stock library of horses at different angles and organized it all, and depending on the shot, we went into the library to find the right angle, and added them into the shot, and then they were sent back for them to adjust the cut. It was all put together in color, and black and white was only decided on later.

From left, director Jonathan Glazer, VFX Designer/Supervisor Dan Glass and other crew members check the video assist. Image courtesy Paddy Eason.
From left, director Jonathan Glazer, VFX Designer/Supervisor Dan Glass and other crew members check the video assist. Image courtesy Paddy Eason.

Extracting those horses

Adrian de Wet: What we had to do keys on the bluescreen horses was CFC’s own proprietary tool called Keylight, which would later get sold to The Foundry. Keylight was all about compositing using the lights. That was its main function. It was using spill suppression and despilling the blue spill that’s everywhere. It was really good at taking that and turning that into the color of the background that you wanted to key through. Plus the algorithm that was in control of the transparency of the maps was very sophisticated at getting beautifully subtle edges. It was the best thing I’ve ever used for retaining all the motion. And it’s the best I’ve ever used on film, making the edges of bluescreen the right color because often they go horribly magenta. You can dial all that in, in Keylight.

Paddy Eason: Keylight is still my favorite. Keylight was so good at getting rid of blue spill. You’re not necessarily reducing the blue light and you’re not necessarily just wanting to turn blue light into black light or no light. What we often like to do is turn it into a different color as ambient light. So if you have a shot in the bluescreen and there’s some blue spill around the place and the final comp is supposed to be at sunset where everything is kind of gold and yellow, wouldn’t it be nice to turn blue spill into golden yellow. We could do that.

Tom Debenham: Keylight allowed you to deal with transparency and subtlety of edges in a pretty easy way. I mean, people were not far from the optical days in those days, and that was all about making a hard matte and cutting around things. I think it gave you a fast route into something subtler that you then simply needed to tidy up and deal with.

Adrian de Wet: You could retain the beautiful subtlety of the motion and get the color right all in one go. You could often get say 100% of your key correct with one operation. So, you’d have like two or three different key lights and mix them through. It was really versatile like that. Keylight was a staple for me as a compositor for a decade or so.

A Foundry Keylight brochure, which mentions the Guinness ‘Surfer’ work.

The crazy art of compositing, back then

Dan Glass: Perspectives and rate of motion and integration were the main compositing challenges, I think, on ‘Surfer’. There was a certain amount of interpretation, too. One of the things we had to figure out was, how do they sit in the crest of the waves and how much is covered by the white water and how deep they should be embedded? We were compositing with the GIPs – Graphic Image Processors – which were basically mainframe computers set up at CFC. And we used Cineon on the Silicon Graphics Onyx, talk about a refrigerator, and the Indigos and Octanes around then.

Tom Debenham: The whole thing was completely ludicrous technically, really, and it was also completely unusual for commercial work that we should be doing it in a non-Flame or non-Harry sort of way, which is as a single operator. Instead, we had multiple operators.

Dan Glass: GIPs was a smart system, though, where they actually built four separate channels, like four computers that were linked in tandem so that the red, green, blue and alpha or matte channel could all run as a parallel process. So you got much faster speed out of these than a lot of similar equipment of the day. But they were quite bizarre, they stood the size of a tall refrigerator and were full of all these fans, and the disks themselves were these huge heavy bricks.

Tom Debenham: There were four of them, they were each about the size of two house bricks, and the weight of two house bricks.

Dan Glass: You basically connected one per color channel, and then we had a fabulously ‘high-tech’ system or knowing what was going on inside the machine room with Post-it notes slapped on the top. You had to make sure you connected the right disk to the right color channel.

Tom Debenham: If you put a disk for a different job in you would get very confused images, which did happen occasionally – the red channel from one job and the green channel from another.

Invisible effects: CG hooves and spray

Paddy Eason: There was some CG in the commercial just to tie a lot of the shots together. Some of it is spray, flying around as fine spray behind horses or in front of horses or reacting to horses. Dominic Parker (CGI supervisor) was using an early version Houdini with metaballs that enabled you to have that kind of blobby wet stuff, the ‘salty’ foam. We also used CG for couple of shots where the camera is underwater and you see horse hooves thrashing, which were done by Richard Clarke.

Richard Clarke (CGI animator): Originally I was just down for helping with the airborne sort of spray that Dominic was doing. But as the shots started getting put together everybody realized that some of the elements for what would be the horse’s hooves thrashing around, and paddling under water, weren’t going to work, because it’s a very hard element to shoot. How do you get a horse to move its hooves around without actually having to put them down? So I just thought, ‘Well, why don’t I just try and do something?’

So I stayed late a few nights and just started knocking something up to see if it would bear fruit. I basically built a set of horse legs in Maya. Textured them, rigged them, animated them, and then did bubble effects on top of that. I did a slap comp, showed a few people, and they all went, ‘Oh, great. It’s going to work.’ Then that grew from just a quick test just to see if it would help to actually sorting out of the problem shots that we couldn’t solve with the elements we had.

At CFC, we did a lot of effects because most of the guys there were Houdini. I was the junior in the corner with this early copy of Maya trying to keep up with the big guys. I was also trying to prove that Maya could be good. The effects on the hooves were just Maya particles, but we were running RenderMan as our main renderer and it can do amazing things with particles. Especially what’s called ‘blobby rendering’, and it did motion blur, and it did it really well. Also, it was black and white, it meant that the CG sat together much more easily because we weren’t worried about the nuances of color.

Tom Debenham: In some ways those CG hooves were not a primary thing, but they were certainly key shots that were essential to the edit. They were very short, but they were absolutely essential due to the edit and your feeling of immersion, as if you were in the water with the horses.

A black and white decision

Paddy Eason: The fact that ‘Surfer’ was black and white was helpful for VFX, but actually we didn’t know that until fairly late in the day. There was a push-back from the agency against it being black and white. I think they were wary of it being too literally about Guinness which is a black drink with white head. So there was a possibility of it being a color release. So we had to comp it in color for some time.

An excerpt from another Foundry Keylight brochure, showing one of the jumping bluescreen set-ups for the horses.

Adrian de Wet: Black and white stuff is really hard. I think there was an inkling it was going to be black and white. I can’t remember whether that was on day one, or day 50 when that decision was made. We were always comp’ing in color and previewing in black and white. We used to make the colors ridiculously over-saturated so that Tom could key different areas.

Tom Debenham: I remember the decision to make the spot black and white was made before they went out to shoot in Hawaii. We did test it and I did early tests looking at how we could make that black and white look from the color.

Paddy Eason: When we became aware that the final release was unlikely to be color, we carried on working in color because we knew that turning it into black and white was actually a part of the final grade and the exact way of going from black and white was vital to keep the color in there so that the colorist, Tom, could play with that. But what we did was actually have all the horses that were coming in different pastel colors. It sounds insane now, to think we had a pink horse, blue horse, green horse, yellow horse. But we could use it as a key to adjust the brightness of the individual horses and we could use it as a way of telling the horses apart individually.

Tom Debenham: And in fact what helped the final integration of all the plates was the fact that it was black and white. I was doing an awful lot in Domino to manipulate the silvery tonality – quite often the light direction didn’t match but the combination of white water and spray and manipulating the sky and the highlights on the horses to make them feel like they were part of the waves – it helped us in a forgiving way to get through that, that I didn’t think would have been as successful in color.

A shot to remember (or perhaps to forget)

Adrian de Wet: There was this particular shot which I think was called 86-13. It’s a wide shot and there’s this massive wave. It’s slightly curved and then it suddenly falls down into the white water. And the horses are arranged in an arc. It’s a really wide area. It looks a bit like Niagara Falls because of the shape of the wave. The horses are also channeling down. That was the hardest shot for me out of my shots. I think really it was because there were just so many elements to it. So many elements to get right and to make it look as though the horses were actually inside the water. It’s the same set of problems that apply to every single shot in that film by the way. It isn’t unique to this. But for me, that one was particularly hard because I remember doing, I did a really rough comp of that and Jon really loved it. He said it was great. It was like, tidy it up, make it look pretty big that’s nearly done.

I went in and I spent 12 hours sitting on the box working on it. It was all about making all the edges perfect, grading all the horses so that they matched in contrast and keyed depth, keyed all the blacks so that they looked like they were receding away from the camera. I made it all beautiful smooth and mercurial. Jonathan used the word mercurial a lot back then just to describe what he wanted. I showed it to him and he was like, ‘No, I hate it. You’ve ruined it, you’ve broken it. Completely destroyed it. Because it used to look very visceral and real and a kind of a little bit ugly. And now you’ve made it just look completely beautiful and smooth and flawless, which is kind of wrong.’

A horse running at speed, with the PhotoSonics high-speed camera on a crane.
A horse running at speed, with the PhotoSonics high-speed camera on a crane.

I had a slight nervous breakdown and went back and did it all again. But that was the kind of lesson that I learned over and over again on this commercial is that when you’re striving to make something really artistic, you can’t just turn off the creative part of your brain and go into your mechanical mode and just tidy up and finish. That’s not really what makes it good. What makes it good is the sort of realism of lighting, the visceral look of a lot of the photography which is a really hard thing to get right. It’s a really hard thing to preserve. Especially in visual effects where everything’s so processed. It’s very easy to make things that are overly processed.

It’s still true in my line of work, in films, is that you can polish things too much. You can make things look like a car commercial, which isn’t what we were going for here at all. What we were going for here was something completely cinematic, filmic and real. It was much more of an expressive piece than anything I’ve ever done at the time. It really was.

Down to the wire

Paddy Eason: It was a tough project. I remember very clearly that Jonathan was in the corner of one of the suites at CFC, with his head in his hands saying, ‘It’s all fucking shit.’ I’ll never forget. We did sometimes have dark moments where we didn’t think it could be done.

Tom Debenham: Yeah, there was definitely one point I remember on this where Jonathan said, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing,’ and nor did we really. And then I think there was one point where we had to start giving him rushes in order for him to get started. We needed to give him variations that he could feed back into the cut.

Dan Glass: The other thing was, they came quite late with the music. And, I do remember also with the narration, there was a lot of to and fro with the agency and it almost didn’t go the way it does in the final piece.

VFX producer Rachael Penfold on the bluescreen set.
VFX producer Rachael Penfold on the bluescreen set.

Paddy Eason: The voice over – for a long time they wanted to use a recording of Richard Burton reading part of ‘Under Milk Wood’, by Dylan Thomas. They were in negotiations with Richard Burton but it didn’t happen.

Dan Glass: There was intense pressure to finish it, and intense pressure on Tom, who was being asked to adjust color only a few hours before it had to be delivered. So it was absolutely to the last second that we were trying to finesse it. There was no option to not deliver because it was in such a huge time slot that they had bought. And it was for St. Patrick’s Day, so you can’t launch your Guinness ad two days later.

Tom Debenham: I remember something about that delivery actually – when we finished it at CFC and took it to Framestore for clocking and QC, and I remember all the colorists there being aghast at the fact that there was no blacks in the image and it was completely silvery, which was absolutely creatively what we wanted and were after. But they were horrified because the fashion then was for crushed backs and everything to be high contrast. They just thought that it was wrong and everything. They were just about to get their hands on the knobs and start correcting it!

‘Surfer’ goes on the air

Paddy Eason: Back in those days a big commercial was a bit more of an event, everyone watched TV at the same time and so the UK first showed the commercial during a very big football match. The crew from CFC went around the corner to a local pub knowing this is going to be shown at half-time.

Adrian de Wet: I think it was Inter Milan playing Man United in the quarterfinals of the Champions League. It was St. Patrick’s Day, 1999, March 17th. We all went down to the Green Man to watch this game. Everyone was really excited because on the telly, the big screen, they were going to show this Guinness commercial that we had just done. I was so fucking excited. I was beside myself with excitement.

Tom Debenham: They showed it on the wrong aspect ratio, in the pub, on that particular television, and I was very upset.

Adrian de Wet: Right before half-time, people were really quiet just watching the football and I thought, ‘Oh my God, there is a captive audience here, so, it’s going to be amazing.’ Half time whistle blew, everyone got up, everyone went to the bar, or they were going to the loo, and everyone was talking really loudly and the commercial came up. It’s like, you couldn’t hear it, nobody was looking at it, you couldn’t hear anything! I wanted to tell everyone to shut up. Shut up because our art’s on the screen!

Richard Clarke: Afterwards, though, what I remember is just various people just talking about it constantly. People who didn’t know that I worked on it saying, ‘Have you seen that advert?’ I’ve never seen an advert create a buzz like that. Literally people were talking about it all the next day and it blew people’s minds.

Reflecting on the spot

Dan Glass: When we’d finished and the piece had gone to air, and then been very successful, there was this affirmation about the risk of whether it would work or not – just technically whether we could pull it off and whether it would visually work, whether the piece would hold coherently. I mean, even when we were nearly done with it, and looking at it ourselves, there was still this feeling – wow. You know, it was very, very unusual, and a track of Leftfield and the narration – it was like, this could play to a really flat kind of reception.

Rachael Penfold: It was a real high wire act. That moment before it actually went on air and not knowing, I mean, it totally could have gone one way or the other, and it would have been absolutely extremes – that’s Jon – that’s the territory he occupies.

Tom Debenham: My memory of the aftermath, though, is that we were probably onto another job straightaway. We were all so manically busy those days. We were all working 16 hours a day if not all night. If I remember correctly we’d also been working with Jonathan on that ‘Rabbit in Your Headlights’ music video for UNKLE, where the guy gets hit by all those cars. I remember nearly dying on that also.

Rachael Penfold: That was another high wire act!

Tom Debenham: Yeah, that was another one that changed completely halfway through because that was going to have invisible cars in it until we tested it and realized on it wasn’t going to work.

Rachael Penfold: We put a couple of shots together and we just, I rang Jon and said, ‘You’d better come in, because this just doesn’t work. It’s laughable.’ And he came in and we looked at it, and he was like, ‘Yeah, put the cars back.’

Tom Debenham: Except we hadn’t shot any cars.

Rachael Penfold: We’d shot a stunt car that was padded out.

Tom Debenham: And there were other cars that were moving but none of them had any impact so we had to re-time cars that were just peripheral passing cars and there were two CG cars in there from scratch within two weeks.

Dan Glass: The reality is that we don’t always know what we’re doing during these things and have all confidence it’s going to work out in the end. It’s a very risky business. But it’s very satisfying when it works.

The legacy of ‘Surfer’

Paddy Eason: I was working in China recently and we were doing a show involving a white horse riding around in front a greenscreen. I did take the chance to show it to a couple people in the crew, and they were really impressed and then I said, ‘Oh, this was done in 1999.’

Tom Debenham: I really thought we were doing some amazing things at CFC back then. There were people that had PhDs and everything under the sun, and we were the artists trying to cobble that together and make that work and interpret, but we knew that it was, we had that sort of innate confidence that we had people around us who could help us build the tools we needed to do anything we liked, really.

Rachael Penfold: Back then, too, and now, you have to be prepared to take those risks if you want to do this work. You’ve just sometimes got to take a leap into the dark. We’ve all known each other now for a very long time. We’ve worked together for a long time beforehand. I think we had enough confidence in each other to know that even if we didn’t know how we were gonna do it or what the result would be, that we would find a way.

VFX Designer/Supervisor Dan Glass and VFX producer Rachael Penfold. Image courtesy Paddy Eason.
VFX Designer/Supervisor Dan Glass and VFX producer Rachael Penfold. Image courtesy Paddy Eason.

Adrian de Wet: And Jonathan liked our approach to doing the work, which was, purely creative driven. We definitely made a point of that. We were quite flexible as well in terms of incorporating changes and, even changes in direction, which is quite difficult to handle when you have got a real tight schedule. What we used to pride ourselves on was not only the quality of our film work, but it was taking the quality of that film work and put it into commercials. Making sure that the bar is held high, particularly for people who, we at the time we completely admired like Jon Glazer who was at time and still is riding the crest of the wave of creativity.

Paddy Eason: I think this is Jonathan’s great talent, that he produces things that are sideways, they’re quite ineffable, and tussling, and you don’t quite understand why you react to what you react to, there are some very strange creative choices in there and it makes them sort of fascinating and you keep returning to it looking at them going, ‘You know what, what is it about this?’ There is something odd and impressive and I don’t quite get it. That’s why it has aged very well, and remained interesting, because there is something a bit strange about it.

Tom Debenham: Today, the climate would be so different. We were in the golden age of advertising, with ridiculous budgets sometimes. Back then the agencies put faith in filmmakers, and we were very generously included in that. An idea could be explored that nobody quite knew what it was, but they knew it was exciting.

Guinness ‘Surfer’ credits

Director: Jonathan Glazer
Editor: Sam Sneade
Producer: Nick Morris
Production Manager: Patrick Duguid
Production Company: Academy
Advertising Agency: Abbott Mead Vickers
Agency Creative: Walter Campbell
Agency Creative / Copywriter: Tom Carty
Agency Producer: Yvonne Chalkley
Account Executive: Gavin Thompson
Creative Director: David Abbott
Art Director: Walter Campbell
Directors of Photography: Ivan Bird, Don King (water), Lee Allison (aerial)
Production Designer: Ben Myhill
Sound Design / Music Production Company: Wave Studios, London
Sound Designer: Johnnie Burn
Horse Supplier and Trainer: Tony Smart

VFX: The Computer Film Company (CFC)
VFX Producer: Rachael Penfold
VFX Designer/Supervisor: Paddy Eason
VFX Designer/Supervisor: Dan Glass
CGI Supervisor: Dominic Parker
VFX Designer: Adrian de Wet
CGI Animator: Richard Clarke
Digital Paint and Animation: Gavin Toomey
Digital Paint and Animation: Alex Payman
Digital Paint and Animation: Joe Pavlo
VFX Designer and Colorist: Tom Debenham

Read more retro articles on befores & afters.

3 Replies to “‘I felt like it was a poem’: the VFX oral history of Guinness ‘Surfer’

  1. I remember this commercial . It’s always strike me for the vision and the effects. Thanks for sharing this amazing stories of the ” advertising golden era” a period that produce amazing tv commercial that was like mini movies.

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