Monkton Combe School web commercials

Think now, design later

We recently developed a series of web commercials as part of the digital strategy project for boarding and day school Monkton Combe – an extensive, organisation-wide project that has been ongoing since September 2011 and reached completion in October 2012.

Working on a comprehensive situation analysis with brand strategist Stewart Redpath, it gave us detailed insight in what makes Monkton Combe School and its audiences tick. We spent a lot of time in and around the school to really get to know its people, surroundings and culture; and we were really lucky in that we found a brave client that wanted to be forward thinking and go against the blandness of typical school marketing.


We developed a concept that would weave its way into the various components of the digital strategy, and a key component would be a series of 'for-web' commercials which would underpin the website design as well as serving as social media assets and for use in offline environments.

The goal of the concept was to give Monkton's audience the chance to experience life at Monkton Combe School where the opportunity to do so first-hand might not be possible. The idea was to literally answer the proposition, "What will your day at Monkton be like?"

Aiming to have a disarming, provoking and intimate effect in its execution, the focus was on showing, not telling. The last thing we wanted to do is have the principal, teachers and pupils talk to camera about how amazing the school is. There's too much of that stuff around as it is and most of it looks scripted and unnatural.

The only way to capture a day at Monkton is to spend one there, or in this case eight of them. And not short ones either as we had to capture the boarder's experience as well as the day student's one. Despite the shoot being in May and days generally being lighter, we were still working from sunrise to well past sunset most days.

It was quickly decided two crews would be needed to capture everything we needed to cover in the relatively small window we had. We'd be capturing general activity around the typical school day which would be intertwined with the actual delivery of our campaign message, "What will your day at Monkton be like?" This was loosely (ok, strongly) inspired by Bob Dylan's video for Subterranean Homesick Blues (the one with the handwritten typographic boards) where we'd get students of the school to hold up boards throughout telling our campaign message.

We'd already settled on Meta and Meta Serif for the typography in the website so this would carry through onto the boards. We didn't want this to look too clinical so we deliberately used various weights from both the sans and serif versions. We also elected to hand draw each one, firstly to make them feel warmer and more sincere, but also as a nod to Bob Dylan's video too.


I was directing and co-producing, we had a project manager/producer, our intern Shazmin as a runner, and two teams from the school's marketing and development office were on hand to keep the shoots running smoothly from their end.

Senior Designer Gary Lake was heading up photography on one unit with Pixillion associate camera and lighting man Robin Smith heading up the other. It was interesting working between both units with different challenges and requirements of me from each. Robin was on the technically more complex shots such as the Rugby, Hockey and Rowing which usually required a jib or steadycam of sorts, oh and a powerboat! And as such there was often a lot more setup time and reshooting. Robin was also brought onboard after pre-production so direction from me was quite involved in terms of the actual look we were going for.

Check out the image gallery on flickr.

Robin is an experienced lighting cameraman and director. Awards and nominations include EMMY, Royal Television Society and Wildscreen 'Panda' awards for cinematography. He specialises in natural history, adventure, science & history documentaries and because of this his work has taken him to over 40 countries, filming in locations as diverse as the Siberian Arctic and Kalahari Desert. Robin has worked on productions for a number of broadcasters including the BBC, Discovery, Animal Planet, Channel 5, Channel 4 and National Geographic. He has more than 70 broadcast credits, including his tenth credit for photography on the BBC's long running Natural World strand.

We were really lucky to have him on board. It often felt like one long masterclass!

Check out some of Robin's work on YouTube 

Gary on the other hand had been on the project throughout pre-production and there was nothing short of total clarity between us on what we were trying to achieve aesthetically. However this was Gary's first shoot as a principal photographer and my job here was biased more towards keeping him as relaxed and reassured as possible and making sure he was ticking all the boxes on the shot list. We also used Gary's unit to get a lot of ad hoc shots as the unit often acquired gaps in their schedule due to the less technical nature of their shots.

It's something that worked out really nicely because we ended getting the money shots absolutely right, while also picking up a lot unscripted, very natural moments along the way. Looking back at the film now, there's a real feeling of sincerity about it which could have only come from how entrenched in the school we were and by having two units with very different roles.


Everything was shot on Canon DSLRs with prime lenses. We had one 5D Mark II and one 7D plus a 550D for certain shots on a certain lens. Towards the end Robin brought his brand new Sony NEX FS700 Super 35 camera in. We used that on the slow motion shot of the skateboarder. Robin's cameras and accessories were attached to his Zacuto Stinger rig and we have a shoulder mount kit from Genus Tech with a set of their ND filters. Obviously tripods were involved, a Miller Pro jib, and we helped natural light by using a single, battery operated, Datavision LED-900 panel.

The weather

We're in Great Britain, so what we couldn't plan for was the weather. Most of the shoot was in the beginning of May, but it felt like November most of the time. The running joke was that whenever we showed up rain clouds would start to form. Creative editing and grading needed to come into play to add some sunshine to the footage. Thank you Red Giant for developing the Magic Bullet suite!

The result

What an amazing experience it was working on these commercials. It was one of the most challenging projects we've worked on so far, but we got a lot out of it. We met loads of great people, the children were fantastic, I learned a lot about private schooling (which I was quite oblivious to seeing as there are no private schools where I grew up) and it allowed us to really push our filmmaking skills to a new level thanks to the intensity of the shoot and the collaboration with Robin. Not forgetting the response we got after the first screening to the school's leadership team. That put a massive smile on my face.

Ok, enough "telling", here's some "showing"…

Senior School video

Prep-school video

Prep-prep school video

Sure we shoot video, but here's an insight into what can only be described as our first proper video 'campaign'. Eight days. Two crews. And a lot of school dinners! 

Photography, Motion

Posted by — Remco Merbis

November, 2012