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Championing sensible gun legislation alongside McCann and March For Our Lives
The Brief
Create a film in partnership with March for Our Lives and McCann New York that features a metaphorical representation of the aftermath of a mass shooting, expressed through the familiar visual of a Rube Goldberg Machine. Working from McCann’s initial idea, it was Mill+’s job to elevate these metaphors and develop the concept into a conceivable script.
The Process
In a truly collaborative process between Mill+ and McCann, a team of passionate creatives donated numerous hours of craft to bring this film to life. Shot in a Los Angeles high school, the production team constructed and captured as much of the Rube Goldberg motion as possible in camera, before the VFX team in New York seamlessly connected the dots and tied missing pieces together through fully integrated visual effects. Part of the way through the process, musical artists Sage and Kesha were introduced to the project and paired Sage’s debut single ‘Safe’ with the film. ‘Safe’ was written in response to the tragic mass shooting in a high school in Parkland, Florida.
The Outcome
The result is a powerful and impactful music video that urges voters to support politicians who back sensible gun legislation. Taking the internet by storm, the film has been written up and featured in Ad Age, Teen Vogue, and the Huffington Post, and played on MTV and across Times Square’s massive video screens.
*** BREAKING: Three dead, including gunman, in Jacksonville shooting at Madden video game tournament. ***

Bewilderment and shock spread through set as this message flashed across the crew’s devices. It was day two of filming The Most Vicious Cycle; the team was hurriedly finalizing the memorial section honoring the countless victims of gun related violence in America. Mill+ EP Christina Thompson recalled, “It was pretty sobering to read that news amidst what we were doing that day. A strong reminder of why we were all there in the first place.”
 
Under the usual pressure of production schedules, the team swiftly added a Jacksonville placard to the scene and continued with the shoot.
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These horrific headlines interrupt our lives with alarming frequency, yet tightening gun control legislation remains one of the most polarizing topics in the United States. Fraught with emotion, history, and vehement political rhetoric, the issue exposes seemingly insurmountable differences, inevitably leading to a preservation of the status quo and relentless, tragic repetition of the same awful story.
 
Designed to inspire younger generations to vote for representatives who advocate for gun control in the November ’18 midterms, The Most Vicious Cycle is a metaphoric protest film that visualizes, and poignantly repeats, the predictable series of events that follows each mass shooting.

Humanity and Machine

The Mill+ team were first introduced to the project in a meeting at McCann New York. In partnership with March For Our Lives, the McCann team had already conceived the idea: a metaphorical representation of the aftermath of a mass shooting, expressed through the mechanical language of a Rube Goldberg machine.

As a creative and production partner, Mill+ was asked to help elevate the metaphors and develop the concept into an achievable script, while amplifying the humanity – no mean feat, given the complexity of the idea and the immovable 11-week deadline of the midterm elections. With the common goal to make a real impact, however, it was clear that everyone involved was ready to do whatever necessary to create something remarkable.

Empathy into Action

Given that the foundational drive of the project was to inspire people to vote, the Mill+ team knew the film needed to arouse the kind of compassionate empathy that motivates action.
 
Ben Smith, director of the film and Mill+ ECD, stated, “We felt certain that the project was going to be visually memorable, but to be successful, we really needed to make the viewer feel something. One way to do that is to show people in danger.”
 
If the film could convey, even to a small degree, what it feels like to be in a mass shooting – especially a school shooting – it stood a better chance of eliciting an emotional response with the power to provoke action.
 
Having established where the film would take place, the teams went through rounds of development to adjust the metaphors where necessary. Certain elements had to be changed for production reasons – for example, an early iteration included flamethrowers burning a lone CHANGE tackle dummy. This was replaced with the weighted banners emblazoned with pro-gun arguments, that smash into the four CHANGE tackle dummies, lined up to mirror the MFOL logo.
 
“Creating flamethrowers either practically or in post wasn’t realistic, so we came up with an alternative. I loved the idea of visualizing the potential energy in those age-old arguments: they’re always there, just waiting to be unleashed time and again,” mused Ben.
 

‘Safe’

With the aim to reach a younger audience, finding the right musical partner for the project was incredibly important. The McCann team had previously collaborated with Kesha, and it quickly became apparent that she and her brother, Sage, had a profound interest in the project; Sage had written “Safe” in the immediate wake of the Parkland shooting, as a message to the establishment on behalf of his generation.
 
When everyone converged at The Mill to hear the track, it was instantly obvious that ‘Safe’ was the perfect counterpart to the film – an authentic musical response to the same issue.
 
“It was a really exciting meeting because everything just came together – finding the right music was so important and ‘Safe’ seemed tailor-made,” Mel Wickham, Mill Director of Production.
 
With the song in place, the Mill+ team began creating a previs to establish lensing, camera speed, and timings with the track prior to filming. Concurrently, the team continued to brainstorm additional Easter eggs while ironing out the finer details of the machine sections.
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Making It Happen

One of the most immediate – and somewhat unexpected – obstacles Mill+ faced was finding a location willing to be attached to the project. The debate on gun control is ever-present and severely divisive nationwide, and the schools within which shootings often occur find themselves in a tough position when asked to commit to a stance.

However, once a school location was found, the challenges grew. With only one actual corridor to work with, and the gymnasium in a completely separate location, the team had to figure out a scheduling and technical approach that would create the illusion of one connected ‘loop.’
 
VFX Supervisor Kyle Cody noted that “building a 3+ minute continuous loop was quite a challenge; we created multiple stitches of different plates in order to perpetuate the seamless cycle.”
 
To create the most visceral and impactful film, the team was determined to capture as much as possible practically. This required serious help from production designer Ron Beach and Full-Scale Effects, who worked tirelessly to bring tricky practical effects –water bucket posters, skateboard bubble machine, and cell phone dominos – to life.
 
“There was an enormous sense of camaraderie on set, everyone chipped in to help,” said Gabrielle Levy, producer from McCann.
 
Working with a very small budget, creative problem-solving was key. The agency team themselves spent hours graffitiing parts of the set, designing posters, and making bobble heads. Even the janitor who features at the end of the film - the actual custodian of the school location - contributed his time to the cause.
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Post Production

Due to the film’s single camera move concept, the initial editorial task was about finding the best take for each scene. The VFX team then blended scenes together seamlessly, using re-projection techniques to create the endless loop seen in the film.
Although the majority of the machine was captured in-camera, time and budget restrictions meant certain elements had to be created in post. Kyle mentioned, “The VFX was designed and intended to be as seamless as possible. The production designer and SFX team did an amazing job with so many practical elements, which allowed the VFX team to focus on creating the massive swinging banners, tackle dummies, additional money, and of course the gun and bullets that start the film, all in CG.”
 
Atmospheric effects like the muzzle flash from the AR-15, additional water from the sprinkler systems, and smoke from the ‘Public Debate’ rocket, were all added in post to heighten the drama of the scenes.

The Outcome

The final film launched as the official music video for ‘Safe’ on October 12th. Since its launch it has played on MTV, in Times Square, and been featured on countless news feeds and websites, including the Huffington Post.
 
The film adds to the groundswell of support for the MFOL movement and tighter gun legislation. Other musicians including Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande, and celebrities like George Clooney and Steven Spielberg have all added their voices to the growing chorus in search of change.
 
It remains to be seen if these united efforts will make a difference. The true outcome will reveal itself once the ballots are cast. We cannot change the history of gun violence and mass shootings in this country, but we can make our voices heard for the future. We can vote.
 
Follow #TheMostViciousCycle journey online.