Steve Smithwick is a successful production designer with a specialist knowledge of underwater effects and techniques. His long and highly successful career has included several iconic C&G ads, and he recently won an award for a COI Fire Safety campaign. At his wettest and wildest, Steve has staged natural disasters in Belize and created a war-zone in Kenya. In Part Two of Joe’s conversation with him, Steve takes us backstage on some of his most spectacular commercials and leaves us all quietly wishing we had his job.
Some highlights from Joe’s interview with Steve Smithwick:
First off, I’d like to congratulate you on the ‘Best Production Design’ Silver Award you won for your work on the COI Fire Safety campaign. Can you tell us a little bit about that…?
The idea was that you see a couple in bed and you don’t realise at first that they’re in a whole bedroom underwater. Then the voiceover says, “three lungfuls of smoke is equivalent to drowning,” or something like that. So we pre-built the set in sections in a different studio and then took it to U Stage, the underwater stage at Pinewood, and then lowered it in sections. Then I had a team who put together the set and another team on the surface who treat all the props, because there are so many things that when you put them in water just fall apart. Sometimes you have to remake things and you have to weight everything. Some of the things we wanted to look slightly ‘floaty’ but we also wanted people to believe they were in a room.
So the couple in bed are actually underwater?
Yeah, usually for about 20 or 30 minutes, and they’re taken care of by safety divers and always given a bit of training. They have a valve, which they can control themselves and put in their mouth if they’re feeling in trouble. And in that particular tank there are speaker systems so they can cue. You tell them when there’s going to be a take, cue them on action and then they hide their valve.
I know you worked on the famous C&G advert with the boy diving for the pearl. It’s an advert I certainly remember from a few years ago. Are there any underwater projects you’ve worked on that you’ve found particularly inspiring or interesting?
That one was especially inspiring. I had to go and live in Cairo for a month and we had a workshop, which was really a derelict site in the backstreets, and we were working outside. I had a team of really nice young Egyptian guys who built all the pillars and the ruins.
It was great because, with this type of job, I’m involved right from the beginning so, you know, I start off in a meeting in, say, Soho, talking about it. Then I go off on a reccy [reconnaissance] with the director and we find a spot, and for that particular ad we found a really nice place underwater in Egypt, in Sharm el-Sheikh. I came back and made a model of the terrain underwater and built the temple on it, so all of our planning and everything was based around that model. It’s great to start something from then and then go away and build the set for real. And then we trucked it down to the coast and put it in the water. It’s not an easy thing to have 20ft pillars standing upright in the sea, because the sea is moving all the time, but it’s great fun. At some points, I had 25 people working underwater together and it’s very complicated.
That one [advert] was the best one of the campaign, but the one that was most fun was the one we did afterwards, which wasn’t such a good commercial but, for me, was great, because I got to go and work in a tank in Mexico where we built a huge interior of a house. Then we built a front facade of the house on the seabed in the Cayman Islands, and then we filmed more pick-up shots in Egypt. So [laughs] that’s much better than being in Acton, which is where I spend most of my life now.
Well, having had a look at your credits, another thing that I really wanted to ask you about is the work you did on the Army Recruitment commercials with Spank Films. First in Belize in 2008, and then in Kenya in 2009. For anyone who’s interested, there are stills and videos on Steve’s website, www.smithwick.org, and it just looks incredible, with a natural disaster in Belize and a war zone in Kenya. What’s different and appealing about projects like that?
Those two jobs were attractive anyway because they’re like a boy’s adventure. You’d be daft not to do them. The particular director [Michael Geoghegan] I was working with on that is a really good friend. Every time the phone rings and it’s a job for him, I just know it’s going to be something like that because he will push everything to the limit. I just knew with him it would be fun.
Michael Geoghegan is a director that likes to get as much as possible on camera. He doesn’t like to use a lot of post effects. With this one, we were in the aftermath of a hurricane, and we were stressing the Army’s ability to go in and help and not just kill people. So we had a convoy of troops that were meant to drive into a village. We did a lot of research and I found a lot of photos of Hurricane Katrina, and there was one that looked really mad that had a house upside down. We ended up building this huge house upside down, and I used local labor – had local fishermen working on it – and they all thought it was great. But the thing about a director is that they will always commit to an idea but they really don’t like to be pinned down, and I knew that he was going to turn up and say, “oh, it’s brilliant but if we could just put it somewhere else.” This thing weighed tonnes but I’d built it so we could pick it up and I had a big crane. Inevitably, they turned up on the day with the cameraman and I had to move this whole house fifty yards to a different position and rearrange all the telegraph poles that had fallen down. But it did look spectacular.
Then we had really heavy rain, and later we had scenes where we had a boat that had been washed up onto a highway. They’d bought a huge boat and a school bus, and piled them up in a big heap on the road. Then we had to have the Army driving through the city, and the street we had was the main street of Belize City, which had been flooded in the past, which meant the pavements were quite high. What I had to do was build banks at each end of the road and on all the side roads. Then we got the biggest pumps we could get and overnight pumped seawater into the street, and eventually we had it almost 2ft deep in parts.
It was just fantastic. For my job, to be able to just go into a place and do stuff like that… it’s good fun.
You’ve done a lot of traveling around the world. Do you enjoy working in different places?
Yeah. But you’ve got to realise that when people take you away, they’re paying you money so you’re not going on holiday. I’ve only had two jobs where it’s been like a ‘treat’. With the rest of them, you work from when you get off the plane to the time you get back on the plane. And you work twice as hard because you’re away from home so you haven’t got distractions. But it’s really exciting and fun work and that’s the best thing. You have to get past the fact that you might be standing on a beach but you’re sweeping it, getting rid of the footprints, while the agency and the rest of the camera crew are jet-skiing because it’s their time off. But you never get the time off because you’re the Art Department.
Click here to listen to Part One of the podcast.
Check out the rest of Steve’s work at www.smithwick.org.