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Sitting a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, there aren't many absolutes that can be drawn from the period. Masks are good - that's clear. Social distancing works - yep, that sounds right. New Zealand nailed their response - ABSO-coughing-LUTELY.

With the country now enjoying relative normality after a definitive and early response from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, it's clear that Kiwis got the message fairly early on that this was a biggun. Helping to spread that message was Wrestler.

Given 48-hours to put together a series of spots informing audiences of what is expected during the lockdown period, the agency quickly enlisted the talents of Wellington Paranormal [a NZ-based mockumentary spin-off from What We Do In The Shadows] to create work that not only would empart the key points but also would encourage people to watch, enjoy and share.

The result was 15 films in total that not only spread the word throughout New Zealand, but also found a global audience enamoured by its po-faced good humour and important message.

As part of our Comedy Focus, we sat down with Wrestler CEO and co-founder Ben Forman to find out how a funny series could have fundamental effects.

New Zealand Police – 2 Metres Please

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When did you first hear about the project? What were the first steps?

We had been working with NZ Police for the past 6 months on an interactive project that was supposed to go live during lockdown… it didn’t. 

Helen, who is our client at Police was in the studio the week when everything was going down and she threw this idea to us of having us work with Wellington Paranormal (the TV show) to create some PSA material. We knew the crew from WP because we do all of their behind the scenes, and the producer / one of the writers on the show had just wrapped making a kids show with our CD. Wellington is very small… 

Helen was like “hey can you guys do this, you have 48 hours…” and we were like, “yeah, why not… what else are we gonna do”.

So then Paul Yates from WP and Kris Hermansson (our CD) wrote three eps and our producer Jasmine St John and my wife Kat Lintott threw a set together. A day later there were five of us in the studio shooting under socially distanced precautions. It was pretty mad. 

[The client] was like “hey can you guys do this, you have 48 hours…” and we were like, “yeah, why not… what else are we gonna do”.

NZ implemented this game like level system for Covid that went from Level 1 being pretty normal except for our borders being closed, to Level 4, which is stay home and only leave for groceries. Full blown lockdown. When Helen gave us the brief we had just entered Level 3 and were given 48 hours notice that we would be heading into Level 4, hence the 48 hour turn around on the work. 

We shot the first three eps in Level 3 and I ended up editing them at the studio that night. What was buzy was that I left the studio past midnight, when we had entered Level 4. There were no cars on the streets and I only saw a police car driving slowly through the city. It was apocalyptic AF. 

I really wanted to get pulled over so that I could tell them I was working for them, but that didn’t happen.

New Zealand Police – Top Twin

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How was it working with the Wellington Paranormal cast?

Helen had worked with them on a small campaign before, so knew they were great to work with, and she also knew we did all the BTS on the show, so the relationships were all really established.

How were the scripts developed? What information was it important to bring across?

It was very fluid. We would have a quick brainstorm on what messages we thought were important and relevant. The videos had a lifespan of only a few days so the messages were extremely relevant to the situation as it unfolded. 

The information and insight on the content itself came from all sorts of sources; from within Police, comms from the PM, general chatter and also just a gut feel of how we would like to be communicated to during this time.

Once we knew the three key messages for the three eps, Paul would have a crack at the first draft. It would then head over to Kris for some social pruning and tweaks, and then to the client for sign off. The information and insight on the content itself came from all sorts of sources; from within Police, comms from the PM, general chatter and also just a gut feel of how we would like to be communicated to during this time.

New Zealand Police – Clarke Gayford

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How did you establish the balance between info and comedy? Was it there from the script stage or found in the edit?

The beauty of working with characters from a TV show is that they are so established. 

Karen [O'Leary, who played Officer O'Leary] and Mike [Minogue, Officer Kyle Minogue] have a very particular style of communication between them and the audience, so we just leaned on that and took full advantage of all the work that had been done for us in terms of character development. We definitely ramped up the level of comedy and gags to make the content really engaging. 

As we didn’t know what was going to happen week after week we just took it as it came.

We knew that no one would want to watch this stuff if it wasn’t entertaining, so we made the entertainment the priority, knowing that if people watched the whole thing they would get the message too. On the day we would work off the script and then improvise and we went on. 

Because the crew was so small and we all got on, everyone would throw in ideas. 

Was it always anticipated that so many films would be made? what was the shooting process like?

Nope. We pretty much went on a three eps at a time mindset. As we didn’t know what was going to happen week after week we just took it as it came. It came to a natural conclusion when we transitioned back to Level 3 and NZ had a pretty good idea of how to handle the lockdown. 

We got into a pretty good rhythm though: it would effectively be, find out on Thursday if we were all go for another three, then write over the weekend, sign off Sunday, shoot Monday, first ep to air Tuesday arvo, then Thursday, then Saturday. Or something like that. 

It felt like we were pumping out a TV show by the end of it.

New Zealand Police – Patrol

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That's a crazy-fast turnaround; how did you get it done?!

We could only have a small crew on set, five all up. We also had to make sure we weren't cross contamination anything etc, so it was individual soup packets for lunch… 

But the small crew made things pretty streamlined. At the end of the shoot day I would drop the card in the letterbox at our editors house, he then worked on it that evening and the following morning, then it would go to our sound engineer, who was the soundy on set, so he knew what needed to be fixed etc, and could bust out a pass really quickly. 

While that was happening the draft was getting sign off and the grade was underway, with our producers doing the subs. 

Kiwis never like to take anything too seriously. We’re always ready for a good lol, no matter how dark the situation.

There was hardly ever any feedback but when there was we would implement that and then update the grade and mix,then render and pretty much push it straight online. 

What was the response to the films? Were any tweaks needed to the campaign as the situation developed?

Everyone loved them from the get go. It was pretty sweet. 

The engagement was so positive and people were so ready for something lighthearted and fun. It took some of the edge off the whole situation and vibe. Especially that it was coming from the Police. It created the feeling of being responsible but not being too doom and gloom. 

Kiwis never like to take anything too seriously. We’re always ready for a good lol, no matter how dark the situation. 

All up the series got over 7 million views over 15 eps. Considering we’re a country of 5 million, that’s pretty sweet.

New Zealand Police – Wellington Paranormal: Distance And Isolation

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New Zealand had an incredible success in dealing with the crisis. How does it feel to be part of that?

Really good. I never thought Wrestler would become an essential service, and it still feels weird to call ourselves that, but we genuinely cared about what we were doing and we actually worked super hard on the series. It felt like we were a part of the solution and now that NZ has come out the other side pretty unscathed, we’re incredibly proud to have been a part of that. 

It’s awesome doing work that makes a difference, there’s actually nothing better. 

Comedy made the content watchable, shareable and educational. 

It’s pretty aligned with where we’re heading as an agency too, which is to do work which pushes the collective consciousness forward.

Were there any reservations in using comedy to convey a serious message?

Nope. We love comedy and we know that Kiwis do too. If you do it with pure motivations and great talent it’s pretty hard to screw up. It’s when you try and force it that it feels contrived or out of place.

Why do you think comedy worked particularly well in this situation?

I think Kiwis needed something to take the edge off. There was a lot of fear and unknowns during those weeks, and for the Police to guide people through what to do in a way that was relatable and fun made the reception so much stronger. 

It wasn’t about finger pointing or talking down to people, it was aligned with the idea that we were all in this together and the Police are here to help. Comedy made the content watchable, shareable and educational. 

Even in the midst of a pandemic there’s still room to laugh, it’s what makes life worth living right?

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