Matthew Miller
Jun 2, 2021

How NTUC Income's astonishing drone-shot ad almost didn't make it to air

The behind-the-scenes story of how BBH, Freeflow Productions and an ace drone pilot pulled off NTUC Income's impressive single-shot film—and how CMO Marcus Chew had to make a stand to get it on TV.

Behind the scenes shot of a mini-drone filming NTUC Income's recent brand film
Behind the scenes shot of a mini-drone filming NTUC Income's recent brand film

Neither quarantine, nor wind, nor flinching actors, nor the challenge of finding a Singaporean auntie willing to shave her head on camera could stop BBH Singapore and Freeflow Productions from pulling off an impressive, single-take, drone-shot brand film for NTUC Income. However, nervousness about the propriety of showing a coffin almost stopped the work from running on television.

Income's film, released in April (see "Tiny drone peeps into private homes in Singapore"), is both a technical marvel and a warmly human piece of work that takes viewers on a two-minute journey through a Singapore housing complex. The camera floats through open windows and into the lives of a variety of people who are experiencing emotional moments including health crises, first-time home ownership, love and, yes, death.

Campaign Asia-Pacific got on Zoom with the four people primarily responsible for the film to talk about how the ambitious idea came about and the challenges the shoot presented.

The intent

NTUC Income was ready for a brand refresh because it has evolved significantly in the 12 years since its previous change, becoming a more personalised, customer-centric organisation, according to CMO Marcus Chew. In tune with customer expectations, the insurer offers a wider array of products, along with a mindset of anticipating customer needs and even aiming to pay claims rather than aiming to reject them. 

"It's about realigning our brand promise with the direction the company is heading towards—customer-centricity—and we now want to further embed that, and the brand refresh is a catalyst for us to do so," he says.

The brief

Income wanted a new brand campaign to show this evolution and to stress its position as one of only two end-to-end insurers in the market. "We are a composite insurer, so we actually cover every single aspect of your life journey," Chew says. 

The CMO's initial vision was a slice-of-life video that would show a diversity of stories aligned with products, but without explicitly referencing those products—or looking like a boring corporate video.

L-R: Marcus Chew, NTUC Income; Janson Choo, BBH Singapore; Roslee Yusof, Freeflow Productions; Katsuhiko Masuda, drone pilot

Janson Choo, group creative director at BBH Singapore, who has been working with Income longer than Chew has been its CMO, says the agency helped with the strategic direction, including a change in the brand tagline, from 'Made different' to a more personal 'Made yours'. 

When it came to the brand film, the team wanted to avoid the clichéd approach of a montage set to nice music with an inspiring voiceover. So it started exploring more metaphorical ideas.

The terrible concept

For example, the team for some time considered the idea of a mascot: a figure coloured to match Income's brand palette who would follow people around or show up in their lives during moments when they needed help. The idea, according to Choo, was something like an invisible friend or a guardian angel. He and Chew admit it sounds a bit creepy on paper.

Roslee Yusof of Freeflow Productions, the film's director, minces no words about his opinion of this concept: "It was quite terrible, in fact."

Choo reflects that over time, the team became more uncomfortable with such abstract ideas in any case. "We went on in a bit of a cycle," he says. "To be honest, I think we went on for more than half a year, so we just tried to find different ways. And then we realized that we just need to show real people, real life and real moments." Income has always been a relatively grounded brand, he adds, so the brand film would have to be grounded as well.

But not literally.

The pilot

Just as the team was fretting it would have to settle for making a plain-vanilla brand film and moving on, someone (no one remembers who) mentioned a YouTube video made by a Japanese drone pilot named Katsuhiko Masuda. In the clip, released in 2018, a micro-sized drone flies around shooting closeups of several students in a classroom. It also journeys under chairs, out into a corridor, and through one student's outstretched arms.

"It doesn’t only capture attention for a long period of time," Yusof says. "It also has an ability for the drone to be intimate. We've seen a lot of aerial shots. We've seen drones flying before. But never have we seen one come so close to a human being." 

Only one problem. The group couldn't locate a drone pilot in Singapore with that level of skill. So, figuring 'why not give it a shot', Yusof reached out to Masuda, who proved not only willing to work on a commercial project for Income, but also willing to travel from Japan to Singapore to do so during the pandemic.

After a negative Covid test upon arrival, Masuda was allowed to follow a pre-approved 14-day itinerary where he was only in contact with a limited number of people. He flew back to Japan at the end of the 14th day, and then served a 14-day quarantine upon his return to Japan, which wasn't mandatory but was requested by the government.

The location

While some marketers might cower from the complexity of a two-minute take, Chew embraced the risky and difficult nature of the idea. "If I can see the ad happening at 100%, then it is a no-go, because it's too predictable," he says. "I like the unpredictable a little bit more. I think that if I can see 50% of it happening, then that is something that is going to be potentially excellent." 

Chief among the challenges was finding the right location. "We were not going for a house because in Singapore, 80% of people stay in high rises," Chew says. "So if you shoot in a house, people will think, 'Oh, so this is for the high-end people'. We need to make sure that it is authentic and real, to stay true to the majority of people."

The low-level, multi-family complex chosen for the shoot splits the difference between those two extremes, and the production team feels it lucked out in securing it.

"We needed to find a housing complex that had many different looks of the interior," said Yusof. "And within proximity of each other, because we knew that we needed to shorten the flight time. We always knew we had limited battery power." 

The drones Masuda uses can fly for about three and half minutes. And since there would be no cuts, the team needed a number of homes that were not only close to each other but also looked different enough to represent diversity in socioeconomic status. "We knew we needed to go to a somewhat mature housing estate to make sure that there's a good mix of new home owners and old owners," Yusoff says. "And then we would get that personality and character of every family coming out. And once we did, then it was about convincing them to let us fly this drone through their homes." 

Yusof credits his team's persistence and persuasive powers for convincing people to allow not only the shoot itself, but also multiple preparation visits and rehearsals. 

The flight path

"The location isn't as intricate as it looks," Yusof adds. Masuda and the cinematographer planned out the drone route both to bring out the capability of the technology and to make the most of the available flats. "It made a few homes look like many more," he says. "The way that the drone turned and twisted and entered rooms and windows, the audience would lose their bearing as to which homes were where." 

So in some cases multiple scenes take place in different areas of the same flat, with crew and actors resetting between the drone's first visit and its return. The crew also had to adhere throughout the process to Covid restrictions about the number of people in one place at one time.

"Another thing I have to think about is the distance of the radio signal," Masuda says. "The final loop was, I think, the longest distance I can go." 

Asked what his biggest challenge was, Masuda answers without hesitation: wind. The transitions from open spaces into interiors, as well as changes in wind conditions throughout the day of the shoot, challenged his skills, he says.

Masuda brought a level of perfectionism to the task, Yusoff says. "I think one of the things that Katsu really had a problem with was the yaw of the camera." The pilot wanted to rule out multiple takes that looked good to everyone else. If the camera ended up not pointing in exactly the direction he wanted because he was fighting a wind gust, he wanted to do another run. 

"I actually don't know how he understands where the wind is coming from," Yusoff says. "Because you're so far away. I don't know how he can feel it, but he knows." 

The disasters and the temptation

The crew ended up doing 39 takes on the day of the shoot. 

Were there disastrous takes?

"Yeah," Choo says. "Many." 

Most of these had to do with the human element. "Talk about precision," Chew chimes in. "Even something simple like the wedding couple moving through the blinds, if the blinds come down too fast, the drone will hit it, and then we have to restart. That happened multiple times." 

Also, it turns out that people tend to flinch when a rapidly moving, loudly buzzing drone flies straight toward their head. It took time for the performers to train themselves not to react. Or glance at the drone. Or blink. 

"Credit to Katsu," Yuoff says. "He's very calm. He was like, 'Don't worry guys, I'm not gonna hit you. You just have to trust me'. It's very reassuring when the pilot says, 'Don't worry, I can crash into a wall. I won’t crash into your face." 

When all was said and done, the team ended up with two takes everyone agreed were good enough to use. "Both flights had merits," Yusoff says. "And the option of taking the two flights and integrating them was quite high. There were many points where we could cheat. But then it's something we would know, and we wouldn't be able to tell you we did it in one take."

The shaver

One of the biggest challenges in the production revolved around the woman near the end who is seen shaving her hair off. To be clear, that is not makeup; the woman is actually shaving her hair off.

"So Janson [Choo] and Marcus [Chew], they say 'Hey guys, we really want to change this scene.'" Yusoff recalls. "And this is really close to production. They say, 'We thought it would be nice for this older Chinese lady to shave her head bald.' And I said, 'Wow, that's going to be a tough ask at any point in time'. But this is just before Chinese New Year. So we said, 'You're gonna have to take whoever we can find, because this is gonna be a tough sell'." 

The woman who took the role had never acted before, so the team spent almost a week preparing her ahead of the shoot so she could get the timing down.

"We love people who've never done any filming before, because there is a different level of authenticity that comes with it," Yusoff adds. 

This scene was one of the main causes of nail-biting on the day of the shoot, according to Choo, who explains that the team had to be careful that the woman wouldn't run out of hair before they got usable takes.

The stories

A desire to be broadly representative, but without resorting to stereotypes, drove the creative team's decisions about the people who appear in the film and their stories, according to Chew.

Of course the stories align with Income's insurance offerings, but beyond that the aim was to allow people to read into each situation in multiple ways.

"For example, if you look at the married couple, you can see it as a second marriage," he says. "You can see it as an interracial marriage, or you can see it as a renewal of vows. And also, you look at the mum shaving her hair. Is it the mom that has cancer, or is it the son?" 

Likewise, with the pair of young women rolling a pineapple into a new flat, a viewer could read that as one friend being there to celebrate the other's purchase, or as a couple about to move into their new home together.

"So it is dependent on your life journey," Chew says. "I think that's the beauty of the kind of details we go into. It's about what kind of lenses you wear."

The stand

After all the struggles that the team went through, a bureaucratic reaction nearly kept the film off the air in Singapore when Mediacorp* raised concerns about the opening shots, which show a coffin and mourners.

"They actually asked me to edit it to put it on free-to-air," Chew says. "I said no. It's either we put it up as is, or we are not going to put it up. We will not spend the money." 

In Chew's mind, any editing would have spoiled the entire film. 

"I'm definitely not going to budge on this," he recalls. "If it actually got banned, I'm going to say something on my LinkedIn account, because I think this is something that the industry should not be stopping." 

Death is, after all, a natural part of life—and one that has been more present in people's minds and lives during the pandemic. The funeral scene was also crucial, Chew knew, to capturing attention; it had an immediate emotional impact that would draw people in and overcome short attention spans. 

In the end, those who had objected relented after Chew made his case and refused to be the first to blink.

The reactions

The film exceeded expectations, as far as Chew is concerned. In addition to 4.5 million views, it received a large number of shares, mostly positive comments and commendations from the brand's stakeholders.

Like all smart marketers, however, Chew knows that a great brand film is just the beginning: "Just before this interview, I got a text from my partnership director, who said, 'Just to let you know, the feedback from partners and clients is fantastic. Two thumbs up.' I said, 'Yeah, but now it's time for us to live up to the brand promise'. It's not just about a campaign, it is the whole culture shift as well." 

If you liked this article, check out 'Creation Stories', our new series where a client and agency talk in depth about how they pulled off a recent and great piece of work. The first Creation Stories, on Tourism New Zealand's 'Good morning, world' campaign, is already available The second episode, on an electrifying zombie comedy from Thai car-battery brand Boliden, is coming out next week. You can watch Creation Stories in video form, or subscribe to the Creation Stories audio podcast.

* Correction: This sentence originally stated that Singapore's Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) had objected to the scene, which was relayed to Chew through Mediacorp. This was Chew's belief at the time of the interview. But after publication, he learned that Mediacorp had raised concerns on its own, without involving the IMDA.

Campaign Asia

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