Marking its silver anniversary, AFS Productions has proven to be quick, nimble and resourceful over its 25 years--and counting. Part of that ability to turn on a proverbial dime, to pivot when needed, is rooted in AFS being a family run, boutique style company under the aegis of Dale and Brin Kushner, owners/EPs who are willing to embrace change, be responsive and adapt accordingly. And in the case of this past year which has been like no other, the company has managed to weather the storm during the global pandemic, continuing to serve as a gateway to filming in Africa. In fact, the production services company was able to work successfully during this stretch by crafting remote production solutions, developing and adhering to COVID protocols--and now that many restrictions have been lifted, AFS has ramped up production as the industry strives to get closer to business as usual but with newly adopted precautions to ensure people’s wellbeing and safety.
The high caliber of the work has held steady during even these times as evidenced by this year’s Toyota Super Bowl commercial, the emotionally moving “Upstream,” which AFS--headquartered in Cape Town, South Africa, with a satellite office in Los Angeles--facilitated for director Tarsem Singh of RadicalMedia. The spot was created by Saatchi & Saatchi in partnership with Dentsu.
We asked Dale and Brin Kushner to reflect on their business, how the industry has evolved over AFS’ long tenure, and to provide some backstory on the “Upstream” spot.
Q. During AFS Productions’ 25 years, how has the industry evolved? How has the South African production (as well as Africa overall and on the Indian Ocean islands) market developed during your company’s tenure, particularly in recent years relative to filming and post resources as well as the overall talent pool? And during that same stretch how has AFS evolved to meet marketplace needs?
Kushners: From using pagers, shooting on celluloid, pasting up location pics, and shipping U-matic casting tapes, to where we are today, it sure has been quite a progression. Since we started 25 years ago the South African Service commercial industry has really developed into a world-class offering. With access to the most up-to-date gear and technology as well as technical and production crew with many years of experience on large scale commercial and film projects, we would like to think that South Africa is at the forefront of service production Internationally.
As South Africa is such a popular tourist destination, Cape Town in particular draws modeling and acting talent from all over the globe. This really allows us to offer a very impressive and deep talent pool to our International clients. It’s quite incredible the amount of genetic diversity that we are able to offer locally.
AFS has always strived to stay at the forefront of any form of technology or change relevant to our industry. From the onset we decided that as a company we wanted to remain family owned and build the business on sound family values, so we can always retain our personal touch. We really feel that this has contributed massively to where we are today.
Q. As you mark your 25th anniversary, this past year had to be unlike anything you (and for that matter any of us) have experienced before. How did you adjust, adapt and/or change during the pandemic? What lessons were learned? And how did your business and service approaches and philosophy honed over those first 24 years serve you in good stead to weather the storm of this past historic year?
Dale Kushner: It sure has been a roller coaster ride since COVID emerged. I think very few industries worldwide have not been impacted in some way. With our client base predominantly coming from North America and Europe, the ban on worldwide travel had a dramatic effect on our business. We had just started a huge production and clients were already in Cape Town on preproduction when the Pandemic began and everyone had to return to their homes. After the big worldwide lockdowns started to ease some restrictions, even though some travel was still closed, we had to pivot very quickly into being able to offer remote shooting solutions. We immediately engaged with our live streaming partners and did a number of successful tests to ensure that we could still continue shooting with clients even though they were scattered in several different parts of the world.
As mentioned we have always kept AFS as a family owned more boutique production company and that has stood us in good stead as we have really been able to weather the storm without too much impact, and keeping the jobs of all our staff.
It sure has been a steep learning curve with all the new and changing COVID protocols but we were definitely one of the forerunners in implementing strict on-set safety regulations and multiple types of COVID testing to make sure all our crew and talent are safe.
Our entire office is now fully vaccinated and we have extremely strict COVID protocols in place to ensure the safest possible shooting environment for our clients. In the near future as more and more crew and talent become vaccinated, we are hoping to be able to offer fully vaccinated sets.
Q. What creative and business practices and philosophies have yielded such a lengthy and ongoing tenure for AFS? Or in more general terms, what have been the keys to AFS Productions’ longevity?
Kushners: Most importantly, as company owners and EPs we are hands on with each and every project from the bidding/research stage right through to the end of the final production.
And being a family owned company built on strong family ethics we have a great cohesive, fun energy in the office and we all get along like one big family.
Most of our staff have been with us for many years and have moved up the ranks and grown within our company.
And the greatest part of this philosophy is that it carries through to our clients as well. It is so satisfying when they leave and tell us they truly felt honored to be part of the AFS family!
Q. What recent AFS work has been most notable and why?
Kushners: A definitely notable project that we serviced pre COVID-19 was the spot for Toyota titled “Upstream.” This powerful commercial was directed by Radical Media’s Tarsem Singh and centered on the journey of Paralympian Jessica Long, a Team Toyota athlete.
Created by Saatchi & Saatchi in partnership with Dentsu, the :60, which broke during the Super Bowl telecast, features Long swimming through milestone scenes over the course of her life, starting with a depiction of the Russian orphanage from which she was adopted. The camera then cuts to her parents (played by actors) receiving the emotional call that they would be adopting a baby girl, but with the news that her legs would need to be amputated due to a rare condition. The scenes following show a young swimmer depicting Jessica, hands on hips ready to compete, knowing she’s different from other children, yet remaining resilient. The spot continues with Jessica competing in her quest to greatness, overcoming all obstacles, as she becomes a Paralympic legend.
“Upstream” wraps with the supered message and voiceover, “We believe there is hope and strength in all of us.”
Tarsem, Saatchi and Dentsu were a pleasure to work with. The project had us creating incredible set pieces to mirror the various stages in Jessica’s life. Jessica needed to be able to physically swim through each seat piece, which created some fun challenges. We ended up shooting in a massive studio and had all the sets in close proximity to be able to maximize shooting time. We suspended the sets off the ground and created physical water filled channels for Jessica to swim in, and then allowed the overflow water to fill the floors of the sets with a shallow couple of inches of water. Jessica was a consummate professional and worked harmoniously with all the various departments to ensure that all the necessary elements where captured. We are very proud of how the final :60 turned out!
Q. What is the current status of filming in South Africa (and any other territories in which you are active--overall Africa, the Indian Ocean islands and anywhere else you care to specify) in the wake of COVID-19? To what extent have restrictions been eased?
Brin Kushner: We (in South Africa) are 100% open for filming and have been for many months now.
Most restrictions have been eased for our industry, provided we stick to strict on set COVID protocols. As mentioned, we as a company take extra precautions and follow, not only our own countries rules, but also adhere to the rules of the country of the job we are servicing.
As our entire office is vaccinated, as well as many of our crew, and all are well versed in being able to run a safe shooting environment, we are able to provide our clients with the safest possible sets.
And with that in mind, we are looking forward to getting back to a somewhat normal shooting life and can’t wait to kick this virus in the butt!
Client Toyota Agency Saatchi & Saatchi, Dentsu Jason Schragger, Keichi Higuchi, chief creative officers; Fabio Costa, executive creative director; Marc d’Avignon, group creative director; Yusong Zhang, Alice Blastorah, associate creative directors, art directors; Britt Wilen, associate creative director, copywriter; Rodrigo Vargas, executive producer; Stephanie Dziczek, sr. producer; Kristen Hosack, sr. music supervisor; Mark Turner, chief strategy officer. Production RadicalMedia Tarsem, director; Jim Bouvet, exec producer; Jeremy Barrett, line producer; Paul Meyers, DP. Production Services AFS Productions, Cape Town, South Africa, and Los Angeles Dale Kushner, Brin Kushner, exec producers. Editorial Final Cut Joe Guest, editor; Suzy Ramirez, exec producer; Ana Orrach, head of production/producer; Evan Bluestein, assistant editor. Telecine Company 3 Jill Bogdanowicz, colorist. VFX Framestore Alex Thomas, creative director; Katharine Buckley, VFX producer; James Razzall, president, advertising, North America; Emily Rawl, James Gemmell, coordinators; Marguerite Cargill, Carlos A. Gomez, Theo Maniatis, Flame artists; JD Yepes, 2D lead; Alexander Osvaldsson, Paul Krist, Michael Miller, Eva Flodstrom, Belinda Chen, Piotr Bednarczyk, 2D artists; Andrew Thompson, Cosku Ozdemir, Kevin Gillen, Kira Yu, Marco Marenghi, Richard Shallcross, Sean Dollins, Soren Barton, Taylor Hodgson-Scott, Todd Herman, Walter Fulbright, CG artists. Music The Elements Music, Santa Monica, Calif. Norman Kim, composer; Kristina Iwankiw, executive music producer. Sound Design LSD, Santa Monica, Calif. Michael Anastasi, sound designer; Kai Paquin, assistant sound designer; Susie Boyajan, exec producer; Kayla Phungglan, sr. producer. Audio Post Lime Studios, Santa Monica, Calif. Matt Miller, mixer; Ian Connie, assistant mix engineer; Susie Boyajan, exec producer; Kayla Phungglan, sr. producer.