It was a late April morning when Mark Watt sat down in his Edmonton home and began jotting down some thoughts about COVID-19’s impact, not just on his personal and professional life, but across society as a whole.
Like small agencies all across the country, his shop Anthem Creative was left reeling when the pandemic first hit, with many clients immediately hitting pause on planned productions. The one bright spot, says Watt, is that it afforded more time for “passion projects.”
The words he wrote that day weren’t intended as a manifesto. Rather, they were a way for Anthem’s principal and creative director to process his feelings about a pivotal moment in human history with an eye towards finding the brightness in otherwise dark times.
“It was an acknowledgement that humanity has proven its resilience throughout history—through similar things and way worse things,” he explains.
Within an hour of sitting down to capture his thoughts, however, Watt had the outline for what he and the team at Anthem would turn into an emotionally charged video entitled “Dear COVID-19.” He would further polish the script with the help of his brother and Anthem partner, Graeme Watt.
The resulting three-minute video marries by-now familiar COVID-era visuals of empty public places with stock historical footage of some of the significant challenges that people have overcome over the years—from the rise of Nazi Germany to more recent events like Hurricane Katrina.
There are also clips of triumphs, from NASA’s space program to, fittingly for a guy from Edmonton, former Oilers great Wayne Gretzky hoisting the Stanley Cup. It also uses repurposed footage that Anthem’s production arm had shot for clients in recent months.
The video is presented as a message from mankind to the virus that has killed more than 320,000 people worldwide and crippled the global economy. “Dear Covid…For generations, through devastation, heartache, destruction and evil, humanity has proven its resilience and power,” it begins. “Our history shows that we are masters of the comeback. Our DNA is woven from good, ingenuity, creativity and love.”
While Watt’s words serve as an inspirational rallying call, much of the video’s power is derived from its narration. Watt’s original vision was for an elderly narrator, someone possessing both the necessary gravitas and authority to speak about mankind’s ability to triumph over the seemingly insurmountable.
One plan was to recruit the pseudonymous Tom O’Bedlam, who provides voiceovers for poems on a YouTube channel called SpokenVerse, where some of his videos have amassed more than 1 million views.
O’Bedlam turned down the request, however, leading Watt to put out a call via the professional voiceover resource Voices.com. He received 92 submissions, from which they selected five possible candidates—none of whom were able to bring the words fully to life.
“It still felt like it fell flat,” says Watt. “They just couldn’t do it justice.”
Then came one of those moments of serendipity that can radically reshape creative endeavours. Watt’s six-year-old daughter Ellie had been captivated by a cool-looking professional microphone her father had brought home in anticipation of doing some podcast work, and kept pestering him to use it. One night after dinner, Watt relented. He turned on the mic and asked her to recite some of the words he’d written.
“I put the music behind it and…I’m a grown man, but I just started crying,” he says. “I said ‘What is it about a child’s voice that’s doing this to me?’ I sent it to [Graeme] and he had the same response.
“I was looking for someone older to give me that pure perspective and I just couldn’t get it. When I got it out of a child it just struck me.”
The Watts thought they might be onto something, but they also worried their judgement might have been clouded by the fact that it was a family member providing the narration. Watt sent a rough cut of the video with Ellie’s voice to Anthem’s director of photography David Ovelson, who had a similar reaction. Clearly the solution to the voiceover problem had literally been under their nose all along.
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Couple behind the scenes from the filming of our recent “ Dear COVID-19” piece! Swipe to watch our camera get punched! 1) To be able to nail the timing of the clips and voice over, we recorded the VO separate from the projection scenes. So to get Ellie to line up with the VO we looped the sections she speaks into the camera, added a beep so she knew when the line was about to start and ran it till she nailed the timing and expression. 😊 the fact that she’s only 6 made for some hilarious moments on set but she was such a champ!! 2) while filming the boxing scenes, Johnny actually punched the lens cutting his hand producing real blood for the bloody knuckles scene 😂😱👊🏻. Camera and lens were fine. 👍🏻 #BTS #behindthescenes #filmproduction #anthemcreative #covid19 #dearcovid19 #mastersofthecomeback
They achieved the final cut by screening the finished video in Watt’s basement home theatre, with his daughter standing in front of the projection and repeating parts of her voiceover when prompted (see the video above for a sense of how it was created).
The finished product has amassed more than 41,000 views on Anthem’s Instagram page, and the agency is urging friends and colleagues to share it through their own channels.
The video concludes by directly addressing the mental toll that COVID and the accompanying lockdown is taking—and will continue to take—on people around the world, and drives them to a dedicated landing page containing mental health resources.
Early last month, the World Economic Forum described the lockdown—which at its height saw as much as one-third of the global population living under some kind of lockdown conditions—as “the world’s biggest psychological experiment,” predicting that it would result in a “secondary epidemic” of burnouts and stress-related absenteeism in the second half of the year.
Thankfully, Watt suggests, humans are both resilient and resourceful—able to put a man on the moon and withstand evil dictators and Mother Nature alike. It might not come easily, but we’ve got this.