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Why This Canadian Charity Calls Cell Phones Modern Day Trojan Horses | #childpredator | #onlinepredator | #sextrafficing


These days, children are getting access to smart devices at younger and younger ages. According to the Canadian Centre for Child Protection (C3P), right now, most kids have one by age 12, with some getting cell phones or tablets as young as eight-years-old. In turn, this means they’re accessing social platforms, which puts them at risk of being targeted by predators – something that isn’t particularly well regulated by the Canadian government… considering there are no protection laws in place whatsoever. 

As such, unfortunately, much of the responsibility falls upon the parents. And to this end, C3P wanted to not only issue an effective PSA on why this is such a pressing issue, but demand governments around the world push for legislative change. Partnering with creative agency No Fixed Address (NFA), the two worked with Animals TV director Meredith Hama-Brown to create ‘The Horse’, an ominous spot that brings to light the grave nature of this threat. Specifically, by likening cell phones to a modern day Trojan Horse, the 60-second spot emphasises the fact that even the most homely houses aren’t safe havens for children when they’ve fallen victim to those with malicious intent. 

To learn more, LBB’s Josh Neufeldt sat down with NFA senior art director Reid Plaxton, senior copywriter Allegra Wiesenfeld, C3P associate executive director Signy Arnason, and Meredith Hama-Brown, chatting about why one continuous hallway shot was the right way to bring this to life, and what Canadians should know about protecting their children’s bedrooms.  

LBB> Starting at the beginning, what made a PSA the right way to build upon the work you and C3P have done together?

Reid> C3P and NFA have a longstanding relationship that’s very much built on trust. Work from previous years has been activation-based so we decided to change it up this year and deliver the message in a different way that leaned more cinematic. 

Allegra> A new element this year is the involvement of international partners, which is a big first in our partnership with C3P. A ton of global organisations came on board, and as a result, ‘The Horse’ is currently airing across Europe and beyond. It’s interesting to see how it comes to life in different languages, but also chilling to think about the widespread and pervasive nature of the problem.

LBB> To this end, likening cell phones to a modern day Trojan Horse is very powerful. Where did this comparison come from, and what made it the right way to get this message across?

Allegra> The story of the Trojan Horse is so commonly known that the term has become a shorthand for deception. We had all the alarming facts about the role that social platforms play in child exploitation, but needed a way to contextualise just how big the problem is. In the brainstorm process, we likened the way predators are sneaking in through phones to a modern Trojan Horse, and that was the spark. 

Leveraging that instant connection we all have with the myth drives home the magnitude of what we’re facing online. It’s an ancient myth, but the themes are relevant in a whole new way in 2023 with the rise of unregulated online platforms – the open gates through which predators can engage with children. I’m happy to have finally found a use for my classics major, even if it’s about four years delayed.

LBB> Tell us about the writing process. How did this spot come to life, and why was voice-over the right way to deliver the PSA?

Allegra> When you only have 60 seconds to summarise the entire story of the Trojan War, the writing process is somewhat of an editing exercise. I started out with the longest possible version, and slowly started chipping away, until the arc got down to the essentials. The last line of voiceover, ‘and in came all the soldiers’, was the one that we pressure-tested with everyone on the team. It’s the soft-reveal of the connection between ancient and modern before the next super does the big reveal, and had to hit the sweet spot between confusing and obvious. 

In the end, getting to that happy medium wasn’t about that line, but the super that directly follows it. Up until post-production, the line was, ‘Today’s Trojan Horse looks different. And it’s in every child’s hand’. In the middle of editing, Reid had the idea of having the word ‘predator’ overtake ‘child’ after a beat. This brought the spot together and made the connection clear.

Reid> We had the vision of contrasting the silent, nighttime visual of the home with this epic myth early on in the process, but we needed the right voice. This is a PSA for parents, and we wanted to harken back to the informational videos of our target viewer’s childhood; the voice of the educational videos shown in school, the voice of BBC history specials – the grown-up version of the ideal bedtime story voice.

LBB> And how did this lead you to the visual approach you ended up using?

Reid> All the facts are clear – unregulated online platforms pose a massive issue to child safety. We wanted to make this PSA as big as the issue. So, we turned to a cinematic approach, creating a visual twist and intensifying it with sound design.

To achieve this, we needed the right hallway: a long and narrow one that led to a room at the end of the hall, but with an offshoot room pretty far down it. It was really important to the client that the house felt both lived-in and loved, to demonstrate that the house (and the family it represents) is not the danger… the phone is. Our fantastic production partner, Animals TV, found truly the perfect one, with so many accents that gave texture even in the dark.

We saw it from the start as a one-take shot, but the credit for assembling all the elements together to achieve the cinematic feel goes to Saints Editorial and Darling VFX. It’s all in the details, especially on a nighttime shoot where you want it to be visible but also actively convey nighttime. 

LBB> Specifically, you worked with Animals TV’s Meredith Hama-Brown on this. Why was she the right director for the job?

Allegra> We really loved the experience of working with Meredith and Animals TV. The process was super collaborative at every stage and came together for such a good cause!

Reid> Meredith’s ability to tell stories is unmatched. She’s mastered the slow burn in her body of work, and infused ‘The Horse’ with that same, slow heartbreak – which isn’t an easy task when you have 60 seconds and a lot of disparate elements. Her signature craft shines through, and the spot is layered with an unnerving, haunting quality that you can’t pin down, but is undeniably Meredith. She was also great at directing Arihana (the child actor in ‘The Horse’), getting a real and nuanced performance from the first take.

LBB> For a spot that relies heavily on set visuals and narration, how did you shoot in a way that would really enable audiences to focus on the words being delivered? 

Meredith> I tried to ensure that the visuals really replicated what was being said in the VO tonally. I think that having this alignment in the mood between the visuals and what is being said makes it easier to take in the narration. Because the story is being told by the narration, I was able to just really focus on setting the emotional tone in the visuals, which differs from other projects where the visuals are more performance-related.

LBB> As a whole, what was the shooting experience like? And how did you work to create such a deeply unsettling tone? 

Meredith> This was a one day shoot. We had a wonderful crew working on this, so all was smooth sailing!

As for the tone, the pacing of the camera moves was something that was really important not to rush. Also, like Reid said, we really wanted to find a location that didn’t feel like a haunted house, but that still had some eerie/unsettling qualities to it. Of course, the moody, nighttime lighting created by DoP Norm Li (csc) also helped to create the unsettling tone as well.

LBB> Building on this, how did you enhance tone, look and feel through lighting and colour?

Meredith> We wanted the feeling of the piece to really mirror the dark and unnerving aspects of the subject matter. So, we aimed for it to feel like it was just lit by ambient moonlight, and for it to feel naturally dark and foreboding. We wanted to create a space that felt clouded in darkness, yet that also still felt real and grounded. 

LBB> What sort of equipment did you use, and what inspired those choices?

Meredith> Because the home environment is shrouded in darkness, we wanted to use a camera that would be really good in low light. So, we used the Sony Venice 2 with Masterbuilt Soft Flare lenses and Tiffen 1/4 BPM filter. We shot 2500 ISO with balloon lights and Aperture 600C lanterns. In the final stage, we did a 35mm 250D Filmout and 4K scan to give the footage a softer, more filmic aesthetic.

LBB> And do you have any anecdotes from the set?

Allegra> When we pulled up to the set, we were at this big farmhouse on an open field with nothing else around. Inside, it was exactly what you’d expect – a lot of wood, homey, and lived in. And then you’d go into the washroom and sit down on the toilet, and when you looked up – an absolutely gigantic moose head right in front of you. It became a game every time someone new got to set: sending them to the washroom with no context and being able to hear their reaction two rooms away. Good vibes are so important on an overnight shoot, and this moose brought some levity to shooting a very serious, heavy spot.

LBB> In the final spot, the soundtrack is super noticeable! How did this aspect come to life? 

Reid> Chris Hutsul and Meredith Hama-Brown brought us the track, which is ‘Chukhung’ by Biosphere. We all loved it instantly. It did the job of establishing the tone right off the bat, and upped the uneasy feeling as we moved through the spot. Even though the song is modern and synth-y, the drum beat hints at battle and subtly ties into our throughline of ancient mythology. 

Allegra> The Berkeley Music team took it from there, and gave every beat weight and meaning during the audio treatment. Creative director Jared Kuemper brought to life an audio experience that matched the epic nature of the Trojan War and pushed forward the uneasiness of anticipation – something to come. There’s a collective ‘oh’ moment at the end, and the music propels that crescendo.

LBB> What challenges have you faced during this project? How did you overcome them?

Reid> Going into shoot day, our main challenge was the one-take factor – making sure everything in a shot was working in perfect harmony from start to finish. Sweating every second as the camera glides down the hall in order to line up the unsettling end visual with the voiceover reveal was key.

We tackled this by working as a group, with no takes being seen as throwaways and everyone playing that script over and over in their heads. Special props to Meredith, Norm Li, and the crew for keeping it so smooth, because that hallway was super narrow, and it took a lot of complex manoeuvring to capture the turn into the bedroom.

Allegra> The actress also really brought it home at the end. Once you travel past the hallway, the turn, the push into the room – it’s on the talent to land it at the end of such a long one-shot, and Arihana nailed it on timing and emotion every take. Her expression in the light of the phone is really the anchor of the spot, and she’s consistently authentic and real, bringing the viewer back from the world of Greeks and Romans and into the present for a powerful ending.

LBB> Finally, how can Canadians support the work C3P is doing? Is there anything they should know about the subject of protecting children?

Signy> We need all Canadians – especially parents – calling on the government to regulate the platforms that are letting offenders right into our children’s bedrooms. When 29% of children have had an adult or someone they did not know send them sexually explicit content online, it’s clear more needs to be done. Unlike offline, where governments have rules and regulations for products, companies, and spaces that serve children, their online counterparts simply do not exist. The responsibility and blame has entirely – and unfairly – been placed on parents. We encourage everyone to spread awareness by viewing and sharing the PSA at protectchildren.ca/TheHorse, and make a difference by taking a short survey on what they think should be done to protect children online.



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