We spoke to Pip Smart, Executive Producer and Partner at Revolver, and the lead producer on multi-award-winning Play It Safe for Sydney Opera House, directed by Kim Gehrig. Alongside winning the CICLOPE Asia Grand Prix, this creatively captivating film has taken the global industry by storm.

How do you define great craft?

Film craft is ultimately about a series of tiny, almost indiscernible decisions. And I think it’s about taste and a really unique sensibility, and then using your voice to create something that transcends what’s come before. I say to young directors that as a director, all you really have is your voice and point of view. So you have to find it and you have to trust in it.

Can you tell us about the process behind making Play It Safe?

It was a pretty daunting brief, a Tim Minchin song, the Sydney Opera House as a location, and Kim Gehrig attached to direct. Those projects don’t come around often.

The Monkeys, the creative agency, part of Accenture Song, worked with the Sydney Opera House to secure Tim Minchin and to formulate an idea that was worthy of this cultural landmark. When we came on board, the song existed, but only in its demo form, with Tim just playing it on the piano.

Kim went away and wrote an idea of how the film could play out, and which parts of the songs she wanted to film in each location, using the performers. Along with the resident companies that featured: the Sydney Symphony OrchestraThe Australian BalletBangarra Dance TheatreSydney Philarmonia Choirs, and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, there were celebrity artists involved including Jimmy Barnes and Ziggy Ramo. Amazing choreographer Lucy Guerin came on board and collaborated with Kim throughout the process to work out the feel of the movement within it: a super important element.

The Monkeys committed wholeheartedly to Revolver and our approach from early on. This trust from the agency was essential in the journey from idea to final film and together with the bravery from the Sydney Opera House, lay the foundations for the success of the whole project.

What was special about working with a client like Sydney Opera House?

It is literally the most stunning, mind blowing, building. Filming it in a way that hasn’t been seen before, that isn’t necessarily the postcard picture was definitely the brief. We knew that to do the venue justice would take a lot of prep, and a lot of steps. Our DOP Stefan Duscio came on board really early and just walked and walked around the venue with us, trying to place it all.

What were the challenges?

Sydney Opera House is one of the most booked out venues in the world. You can’t just walk in there and go, hey, we’ll put a crane up. They were incredibly helpful, but we were working against major booking from international acts.

We were up against challenging logistics from day one. Kim mapped out the film, which was essentially an eight day shoot, and we worked out that we needed to do it in four. So we just started working through it and timing access.

What was the collaborative process like with Kim?

I’ve worked with Kim numerous times since she joined Revolver around ten years ago. Kim is a force of nature: rigorous, energetic, and a genius of course. She has this level of energy and you have to meet her there every day. Her prep and her detail are second to none. So when you’re producing alongside her you have to really step up and be present and it’s so rewarding as a result.

Kim had to go home to LA for her family and other commitments at times, so I had to be her eyes and ears on the ground. And then when she was out here, it was fantastic. Every day we put our backpacks on and took the train to the Opera House and we just worked. We had to really understand each other’s brains. With every project when you’re in the trenches, you can never stop to think about the finish line.

By the end, we knew that song like the back of our hand. We knew the beats, the lyrics, the timing.

Why do you think this film cut through so well to audiences and juries?

I ultimately think that a film celebrating creativity hits a chord with creative people, it makes everyone feel that what we do has value. I also see that the story, the song and the brand are inextricably linked. Tim Minchin is a Tony and Olivier award-winning composer and songwriter, the song is world class and we knew from the beginning it was going to resonate. I listened to it day-in-day-out for six months – I still sing it now – and I never get tired of it.

I don’t think we could have made this film for anyone else. The fact it was filmed in the Opera House is kind of by the by, it’s about the message around creativity, success and taking risks.

Play It Safe - Sydney Opera House

How has branded entertainment evolved?

Audiences are more savvy and discerning now, they switch off if something isn’t entertaining and compelling. I look at my children, and they’re only engaging in things that really interest them.

That’s the challenge for brands.

Branded content is not necessarily a story-driven narrative film or a documentary, it could be an activation or exhibition. As long as it’s not a traditional commercial and it has the brand at the core, then it can fall into branded entertainment. In its most effective form, it stands alone as a piece of content.

Brands that are confident in their product and in their audience, are definitely embracing more story-driven content, but they need to find a trusted creative team to deliver it.

No single person drives anything creative in this business. It’s a collaboration. If you’re confident in what your brand stands for, and entrust the right collaborators with it, then I think you can create nuanced, compelling storytelling that will cut through.