The making of ROM’s new six-minute “Immortal” film

Last week, Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum introduced “Immortal,” a bold new brand platform to support a larger goal of transforming the museum into a modern cultural institution that leads discussions about society and strives to answer big questions about humanity.

Part of that new platform is a six-minute short film that strives to tell the story of humanity itself. The brand platform is from Broken Heart Love Affair, led by co-chief creative officers Carlos Moreno and Denise Rossetto. They worked with Scouts Honour and director Mark Zibert to produce the film.

The Message spoke with Moreno and Zibert to understand how they pulled it off.


Soon after they started on the assignment, Moreno and Rossetto landed on Immortal as a concept with huge potential.

Moreno: “As we started talking about that we got on the phone with Mark about what this could potentially be. And Mark was so stoked about Immortal as an overall brand platform for ROM. It seems epic on its own, just using that word to us seemed to encapsulate everything that the ROM was about.”

Zibert: “You said Immortal and I was instantly behind that. That concept felt like it’s right there in front of you. It’s obvious, in a genius sort of way—coming up with that word for that brand. So instantly, we were on board.”

They had a concept but that was just the first step. They spent the next eight-plus months trying to figure out what the actual execution would be, said Moreno. A breakthrough came when Zibert sent them an image—a photoshopped collage of famous moments in history creating a cloud of life and death to represent humanity.

Moreno: “A burning monk beside a burning zeppelin. That kind of thing. Which we always found interesting, but that was impossible to execute. And then we had to go back to the drawing board. So that’s where the idea of the baby came from—the baby representing everything.”

At that point, Moreno and Rossetto started working on a script to tell the story of humanity, which they took back to Zibert.

Zibert: “It was just going to be the baby at first, in a womb. And then I remember Carlos and Denise presented the script, and I was like, ‘This script’s fucking awesome.’ And then we said, ‘Well, why don’t we take the initial concept we talked about and build that into this womb,’ and then it started to become an infinite space.”

Moreno: “Once we started talking to Mark about how to bring this to life, we knew that we were going to need something else beyond just a baby to create the amazing emotion associated with some of this stuff, right? And that’s when we started talking about bringing some of the lines to life.”


Zibert: “The script kept evolving. A lot of the language in the current script was already in there, but in a different order. Part of the process was that we printed out the script, and cut out each line and covered a boardroom. Then it was ‘Okay, what does this line represent?’ ‘I will fly’ for example, we would just go through visual and film references, pictures of astronauts, airplanes, the first pilot, we would just literally go through a history book and take everything that represents flight.

Moreno: “At that point, Mark already had an editor, because the way we had it written originally was more like, ‘This is good and this is bad.’ And Mark and the editor said we’ll never be able to tell that story. It’ll be too jumpy. So their idea of grouping things—whether it was themes or emotions—was key.

Zibert: “We built a narrative arc into the film. It was jumping all over the place, which in a way was poetic and beautiful as originally written. But as a film or a storyline to follow, it jumped too much. The viewer was getting hit with so many different emotions so quickly, up and down, that it became a bit of a mess.

“We restructured the lines, creating a narrative arc, that takes the viewer on more of a journey.

“And then grouping themes or concepts together… for example, it gets quite dark about halfway through the film—the darkness chapter—grouping the images together that really hit hard and heavy. And then coming out of that on the other side, going into an upward swing where we create more positivity and accomplishments we’ve done individually and as a society. Finishing on that note, it creates a different feeling.”


They shot in Cape Town in April, but in the weeks leading up to the shoot they were still unsure about how they were going to pull it off: Could they do it all underwater or would they have to do it in studio?

Zibert: “We did some underwater tests, and started building out some of these tableaus, and we realized it would be amazing to shoot underwater. But I think the film would’ve reverted back to its original roots, where we would just be shooting the baby because it was just too much to do underwater. The scenes were too big and overly complex.”

Once they decided to shoot it all in studio, they were still working on how to create the feeling of being inside a womb, when Zibert remembered something from a shoot years before.

Zibert: “I recalled this one moment where someone literally bumped into a light stand, and the gel on it started waving and made it look like we were underwater in the shot. And I said, ‘That’s cool.’ That came back to me 20 years later… and Eric Kaskens [Zibert’s co-cinematographer] had a big hand in researching what frame rate works best for an underwater look. Then we pumped a studio full of atmosphere and then it just became like an art direction and lighting thing and we just shot it. We shot a lot. It was four days of mayhem.”

It seems complicated, but once they figured out how to do it, it was a fairly simple and straightforward approach, said Zibert. Almost the entire film was created in camera, with very little computer generated effects, but some good clean-up work in post-production.

Moreno: “The simplicity of how it was captured actually blows my mind, because the whole time Denise and I were wondering ‘How are we going to do this?’ You know, how are we going to get this all to feel like it’s underwater. But the fact that Mark and his team were able to get it all in camera and just play around with atmosphere and water textures and lighting… it was magical.

Zibert: “I think there was only one green screen shot in the whole thing. That was one thing we really wanted to avoid—it becoming a green screen shoot… There’s that one dramatic pullback scene through the battle, that’s all in-camera. There were no cast or background people painted in, that’s all one shot. There are some bubbles and some elements were added, but the actual performances in the battle were one take.”


With shooing complete they knew they had lot of great stuff, but did they know then it was going to be six minutes?

Zibert “I think we said the film would be four minutes originally. We had to beg borrow and steal to get it to six minutes. Post [production] had a heart attack, but everyone was behind it.”

Moreno: “When Mark, Denise and I were talking about a possible edit for something like this. Mark said we have to give ourselves permission to let things linger. There’s no way we can build the story of our existence in a four-minute period of time.

Both Moreno and Zibert struggled to choose favourite scenes or shots, but Zibert explained a bit about of their thinking behind some of them. 

Zibert: “Some of the images were meant to make the audience think a little bit, like that Nirvana one. I think is a good example of that. Not everyone’s going get that, but the ones that do will really appreciate the way it was captured, and I have to give credit to Simon [Dragland, producer], that was his idea.

“For the Banksy shot, we were struggling with how do we represent graffiti. Graffiti is such a dangerous thing to capture because it can be too try-hard. We were trying different things, and we actually did shoot someone with one of those ventilation masks standing in front of a wall covered in graffiti, and it just wasn’t sitting right. We came up with the idea, ‘Why don’t we represent a piece of art with a moving image?’ And we came up with the moment with the guy throwing the bouquet of flowers. Animating that powerful image makes people think about what they’re seeing versus dropping in gratuitous art references.

“And I guess back to what shots we love, the shots that add a deeper layer beyond ‘Here, look at this image” or that tell the whole story instantly. The images that stick with you and keep you thinking are the shots that I find strongest.

Moreno: “For me, I think the thing I’m most proud of is the entire process… creating a platform this massive and being with a group of people only interested in making sure the marriage of words and pictures come together this way. And the message beyond how it connects to the ROM…  There’s that other level of humanity and personal feeling that I love.”

David Brown