A behind-the-scenes breakdown of the AA’s canine exhortation of the joys of the road with directors The Perlorian Brothers and puppeteers Santa Didžus and Dana Avotina-Lace
Most dogs are keen motorists. You may not have thought of that before, but once you watch Tukker, the puppet dog from the latest AA commercial, chasing the thrill of the wind in his hair, you’ll realise that many dogs have been missing the open road as much as their human companions during this strange year.
The spot, conceived by adam&eveDDB and realised by MJZ's The Perlorian Brothers (along with puppeteers Santa Didžus and Dana Lāce), employs a tactical, refreshingly well-crafted aesthetic to express the yearning to get back out into the open air after lockdown. And it’s all excellently soundtracked by Sofi Tukker track ‘Drinkee’.
Utterly charmed by the craft of it, LBB’s Alex Reeves turned to The Perlorian Brothers and puppeteers Santa and Dana to hear (and see) more about how they made the film between Canada, London and Latvia in the midst of a global pandemic.
LBB> Let's talk about the creation of Tukker. What were the key decisions in how he would look and move?
The Perlorian Brothers> There are kind of three things going on with Tukker:
First and foremost he’s a dog — that was how he came to us in the original script and that was always the most important parameter for him to fulfill.
Secondly, he’s a puppet — with the limitations and charming quirks that come with a marionette’s method of movement — this was never something we wanted to hide or cheat (apart from removing the distracting thicket of strings over his body). His puppetiness was something we wanted to embrace (yes, puppetiness is a word).
Lastly, he’s a motorist, since, conceptually, motorists are meant to identify with his yearning for the open road (and his freedom from breakdown worries as a proper AA Member in good standing). This facet comes through in the human-like things he does like putting on the record, turning on the fan, wearing the sunglasses and so forth. The challenge for all of us was finding the sweet spot where all of these elements neatly intersect to form a unique and charming personality.
The directors’ very first sketches of how it might look
LBB> What were your references and inspirations when bringing Tukker to life?
The Perlorian Brothers> Both Perlorians live with cute floppy dogs (real ones) that were helpful references for performance and expression. We had the legendary Latvian production designer Juris Zukovskis heading up dog design — working with puppet designers and puppeteers from a no less august institution than the Latvian National Puppet Theatre (Latvia: “come for the puppetry, stay for the many different kinds of soup”).
We started from a skeleton that conformed to true canine anatomy. We decided early on that everything the dog had to do should be done the way a dog would do it - his leaps, the things he does with his paws, and even just walking from place to place. We realised early on how important the tail is as a means of expressing what’s going on in a dog’s head. What worked best was having one of our very talented puppeteers free up a hand to directly manipulate the tail so we got the right level of immediate excitement transmitted. Everything the dog does is controlled by two very busy puppeteers working multiple yokes with a total of 16 strings. It was a real pleasure to watch their artistry at work on set (and then to digitally erase them completely from the final film).
Work in progress
LBB> How about the set design? Obviously yellow was important for the brand. What were the other important considerations in designing that living room?
We knew we didn’t want to situate the dog on an abstract field of solid colour — grounding him in a domestic setting felt important to defining his dog-ness and making him a relatable character. And while punchy yellow isn’t a colour we would ordinarily decorate with, we had Juris the Legend on our team and together we came up with ways of working with the yellow that hit a pleasing balance between real life and stylised. The yellow carpet helped a bit in that we didn’t have to worry too much about whether Tukker was completely housebroken (he was barely a week old puppy by shoot day). At the end of the day, we respect how the yellow evokes the beloved heritage of the AA as a British institution and we think the film managed to retain that while still telling its story.
LBB> How did you physically make Tukker and what was that process like?
The Perlorian Brothers> Tukker’s interior structure/skeleton was designed on computer and 3D printed in a lightweight resin. The coat, made up of a full spectrum of yarns from black through greys to white, was applied in a sculptural way to give him the right musculature and shape. We wind-tunnel tested him at regular intervals to make sure the fur looked good in the breeze of the fan both at regular speed and in slow motion. To generate the wind and enhance the bit of breeze from the prop fan we had a large movie special effects wind machine on set, but actually got our best results from a leaf blower.
Puppeteers Santa (left) and Dana (right)
LBB> Santa and Dana, as puppeteers, how did you make him move and what was important to emphasise in that process?
Santa> It all started with a phone call and an offer to film an advertisement and animate a puppet dog. This offer was like a challenge, because I like what I do, as well as the marionette puppet, which counts as one of the most difficult puppet types animation wise.
Tukker’s look was already decided by the puppet’s artist and the needed poses were shown on the shooting boards, so our job was to think of ways to fill in the gaps between shots and play them out. The final product was confirmed by the director, who worked with us through Zoom. I myself have played Anton Chekhov’s Kashtanka
, who is a dog. That experience truly helped me understand Tukker, although we called him Marley, Bob Marley, because of the dreadlocks. To make Tukker move was quite a brain rack!
Dana> This puppet is a marionette - a string puppet. It was important for me to tune in early in the process of making this puppet to explore the possibilities of movements of the puppet and figure out together with the puppet maker how to improve the puppet so that it can perform all the necessary movements when tied to all the strings. The next stage was tying the puppet to the strings which took us several days before we found the most optimal outcome.
Santa> We had to think of a leading mechanism - it took a whole day - then Tukker had to be made with the right length strings, in order to be balanced and to move proportionally. String length millimeters were tied over quite a long time, only after that could we start training to walk and move with the puppet. In this occurrence me and Dana were really lucky to work with puppet masters Juris and Aivars. Me and Dana, both actresses, knew WHAT and HOW everything had to be, but both puppet-making artists knew how to technically get it done. That is how all four of us did what we could to bring Tukker to life!
Dana> Then there was communication with the stage directors. We talked over the character of the dog and his mood because it greatly affected the way the dog moved in space. And so for the whole week I and my colleague Santa worked on the puppet in order to create an anatomically precise copy of a real dog.
Giving Tukker direction
LBB> How did coronavirus impact on this ad and how did you get around those challenges?
Dana> The hardest part after creating the puppet was the major distance between us and the stage directors. We had to communicate through Zoom for a week. My colleague and I had a joke about this - where does all our energy disappear? A part of it must be falling into the ocean that is between us.
Santa> Talking about the virus, you know I was safe, because during the filming process I was dressed in a green tricot where my whole face was covered (I am trying to make a joke here)! But overall Latvia is a Covid-safe country because we started to follow health-related restrictions on time.
“Sit Tukker, sit, good boy”
LBB> Are there any details that you'd like to point out to people that you're particularly happy with?
Dana> This one week Tukker was my guest at my home and went over to Santa's as well, he also visited our workplace - the Latvian National Puppet Theatre - and Juris's atelier. The key word for this week would be the distance that the puppet had to cover - some 40km from atelier to actresses and back. Tucker really spent a lot of time in the car (what a coincidence). It must be the reason why he loves to drive. :)
LBB> What will be your lasting memories of this project?
Santa> I am glad that I worked with my dear colleague Dana, that I met puppet-making masters Juris and Aivars and I am very happy that you like the work we put into this advertisement. I got my share of adrenaline while working on this project and I liked it.
The Perlorian Brothers> This was our first time working in Latvia and we were so impressed with the talent, dedication and ingenuity of everyone on this project: the team at The Chubby Unicorn, our DOP, our AD, the puppeteers, everyone in every department was exceptional and world-class. We’re grateful to the brilliant minds at London’s Electric Theatre Collective for deftly grading the many shades of yellow, creating the fabulous open road dream sequence and totally obliterating puppeteers Dana and Santa. Working remotely puts an extra bit of importance on reliability and follow-through with the local collaborators (especially with control-freak directors) and we were impressed at every turn.
All eyes on Tukker
The challenges of working remotely were something we shared with the smart gang at adam&eveDDB. Despite being in different parts of the world, we were a very tight team when it came to making decisions and coming up with ideas and solutions all the while working closely with very motivated and creative clients at the AA. Even if we didn’t have the pandemic limitations, there’s not many ways the process could have gone better (and we suspect there were instances where it actually went more smoothly because of the many Zoom meetings, very thorough prep and the immediacy of how a remote shoot works from the directors’ perspective).
While we won’t have memories of tasting the famous Latvian pretzel cake (Kliņģeris), or the big wrap party with agency, clients and crew, we will remember how great it was to be part of a team overcoming the limitations to come together to make something great, while still ensuring that everyone remained responsible and healthy in the face of this global situation. We had such great memories in fact that we’re back in Latvia now (virtually) prepping a Swedish project to shoot next week and looking at the possibility of projects later in the summer. We’ve found our Covid happy place and it’s virtual-Latvia.
Juris the production designer (second from left) with effects crew and camera assistant