A U.S. military convoy engages in an intense desert firefight that results in at least one casualty before an Air Force strike knocks out the enemy's stronghold.
That harrowing scenario plays out in GSD&M's new minute-long USAF recruitment spot below, which takes a soberingly realistic approach to the life-and-death struggles our nation's armed forces face during combat:
Yes, the threat was neutralized, but it's notable that the cinematic spot from Spears & Arrows director Phil Brown ends on an ambiguous note, with a wounded soldier transported from the battlefield.
Brown, whose father and brother served in Britain's Royal Air Force, took this particular assignment to heart, striving to create "a visceral experience that felt like footage from an embedded journalist."
Shooting in New Mexico, the team strove for maximum authenticity, employing real Special Forces airmen and equipment. During hostilities, the enemy is never seen clearly, and the ambush is nearly overwhelming—nods to the realities of engagement.
"In the past, most forces commercials have tended to avoid any conflict situations simply because they are trying to promote careers within the forces," Brown tells Muse. "What we wanted to show were how people were trained to act under stressful situations." Doing so, he says, conveys the difficulty of the task at hand—and the ability of USAF personnel to rise to the occasion.
"It gives you a new respect for the men and women who do this job," he says. "At the end of the day, calm heads prevail and the right assets are used to get out of the situation."
Logistically, orchestrating the shoot was similar to planning an actual airborne offensive.
"The biggest challenges to were getting the right assets in the right place at the right time," Brown says. "We knew we only had about four hours with two A10 warthog [jet aircraft], and we only had the Pave Hawk helicopter for one afternoon. So we had to plan everything way in advance."
Filming took place at an installation where the military practices strafing and bombing runs. "We could only work in certain areas, as it was a live range," Brown recalls. "In some cases, we would see a C-130 Spectre Gunship way above our heads, firing at tank targets in another area as we were shooting."
As for casting, "most of the guys had taken a few tours in Afghanistan, and we had had a couple of Silver Star guys as well as Purple Hearts, so there was a certain reality brought to the set," he adds.
A second spot adopts a more anthemic feel, though the gritty nature of deployment still comes through, particularly in the no-nonsense narration, which strips out false notions of glory and focuses instead on "the battles no one hears about."
Developing recruitment ads presents dual challenges these days, Brown says. Weaned on video games and Netflix, teens and twentysomethings by and large expect (and respect) commercials with cinematic visual content, but they're also media savvy and "can see immediately when something doesn't ring true or seems over-glamorized," he says.
So, "it was important to show something that felt big and awesome, but also based in reality," he says. "We wanted to create something that they could feel respect for."
GSD&M and the USAF have worked together for two decades, and recent efforts have helped reverse a mid-2010s recruitment slump, with the Air Force surpassing its enlistment goals in 2019.
Though tensions with Iran have flared in recent weeks, Brown doubts such situations will have much impact on recruitment moving forward.
"No matter when you do a film for the forces, there will always be a political situation going on," he says. "What's sensitive one week is forgotten the next."
Client: U.S. Air Force
Project: "Calm and Storm," "Join The Fight"
Agency: GSD&M, Austin, TX
Producer: Spencer Gilliam
VP / Group Account Director: Norah Rudyk
Account Supervisor: Maddie Page
SR VP / Group Creative Director/Writer: Jeff Maki
Creative Director / Writer: Travis Waid
Creative Director / Art Director: Cheyenne Gallion
Creative Director / Art Director: Derek Dollahite
Project Manager: Lisa Valencia
Associate Director of Business Affairs: Lara Drew
Production Company: Spears & Arrows, Los Angeles, CA
Director: Phil Brown
Executive Producer/Founder: Jason Wolk
Head of Production: Craig Houchin
Line Producer: Rocky Bice
Director of Photography: Eric Treml
First Assistant Director: Todd Thompson
Production Supervisor: Taeko Masuyama
Editorial: Rooster Post, Toronto, Ont.
Editor: Marc Langley
Assistant Editor: Chloe Vankoughnett
Executive Producer: Melissa Kahn
VFX Studio: ArtJail, New York, NY
VFX Supervisor/2D Lead: Lee Towndrow
2D Compositors: Fred Kim, Eric Concepcion, Manu Gaulot, Herculano Fernandez, Dayung Jo
Producer: Michael Brown
Managing Director/Executive Producer: John Skeffington
Creative Director/Owner: Steve Mottershead
Post: ArtJail, New York, NY
Senior Colourist: Clinton Homuth
Color Assistant: Kevin Wu
Music/Sound Design: JSM, New York, NY
Producer: Andrew Manning
Producer: Norm Felker
CEO/CCO: Joel Simon
Executive Producer: Jeff Fiorello
Audio Mix: TBD Post, Austin, TX
Kate Eads: Producer
Dusty Albertz: Sound Mixer