Guinness 'Surfer': one of the best commercials of all time

"Surfer," the 1999 enigmatic television commercial launched to promote the Irish dry stout beer Guinness, has been considered one of the best adverts of all time.

Sometimes, it's the simple things that leave a mark.

In 1999, director Jonathan Glazer and Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO (London) created one of the most fantastic and enthralling surfing commercials ever for the multinational alcoholic beverage company Diageo, owner of Guinness.

"Surfer" is a poetic, metaphysical, mythological, and philosophical 60-second-long TV ad featuring the story of a Polynesian surfer who managed to ride a massive wave under unusual circumstances.

The dark-skinned wave rider takes on an avalanche of water with fellow surfers.

As the wave starts to break, the white foamy crest morphs into white Lipizzaner horses galloping vigorously by the surfer's side, who stands firm amidst the tumult.

"Surfer" was shot in Hawaii over nine days and won several international prizes and awards. It was even considered by Channel 4, The Sunday Times, and The Savory to be the best ad ever.

Neptune's Horses: the 1893 painting by Walter Crane inspired the iconic Guinness 'Surfer' commercial

Mythology in Black and White

The monochrome commercial was inspired by "Neptune's Horses," an 1893 Walter Crane painting.

But it also followed the footsteps of 1998's ad "Swim Black" and its "good things come to those who wait" slogan message.

The content is influenced by Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," with a particular focus on a phrase attributed to Ahab, even though this specific line is not present in the original novel:

"Tick followed tock followed tick followed tock followed tick. Ahab says, 'I don't care who you are - here's to your dream!' The old sailors return to the bar."

The voiceover is by Scottish actor and screenwriter Louis Mellis, who also lent his voice to Darth Sion, a character in "Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords."

Mellis was instructed to read his lines like Seamus Heaney would read his poetry.

The soundtrack was composed by Leftfield and later included in the song "Phat Planet" featured in the British electronic band's album "Rhythm and Stealth" (1999).

The TV ad features Hawaii's brothers Brian and Russ "Rusty" Keaulana, the sons of the legendary waterman Richard "Buffalo" Keaulana.

Chadwick 'Dino' Lanakila Ching: the unexpected star of the 'Surfer' commercial

Shooting in Hawaii

"Surfer" is a metaphor for the patience to wait for the perfect wave, and the Guinness two-part pour (filling and settling), the official, recommended 119.5-second process of serving the Irish draught stout.

Interestingly, the creative agency wanted to avoid mentioning the beer's legendary extended pour time as it could become a potential obstacle to a younger demographic.

The goal was to put an end to the idea and general perception that Guinness was an "old man's drink."

"Every detail was essential. For example, I learned that the blue screen on which we'd film the horses would flatten the image," writer and art director Walter Campbell explained in 2021.

"I told Glazer we'd need to get the horses into hair and make-up to put definition back into their musculature and add a bit of flamboyance and Bernini-esque drama to their look, with hair extensions."

The agency's producer, Yvonne Chalkle, contacted leading surf forecasters to anticipate the timing and locations of the most extreme waves.

The move was critical since it was impossible to authentically replicate substantial computer-generated waves in post-production.

On the initial day of shooting, the production team was fortunate to encounter 30-foot waves.

Jonathan Glazer's fiancée, Rachel, who possessed expertise in horse riding, provided valuable insights on the appropriate breed capable of executing the desired jumps.

In 2021, creative director Walter Campbell revealed he wanted a Polynesian surfer in the lead role.

"After an extensive search, Glazer found a fantastic bloke on the beach. He was magnetic in that shy way, super laidback but not an expert surfer."

The man in question was a local 50-year-old amateur surfer named Chadwick "Dino" Lanakila Ching, found under a palm tree.

"This tension worked for his performance because when our expert surfers, Brian and Rusty Keaulana, got him on those epic waves, you could see he was both elated and a little freaked out."

Shooting in heavy waters was hard and involved cameramen hanging off a speedboat and several wipeouts resulting from unexpected cleanup wave sets.

"The biggest character in the Guinness ad was the surf - it was 50 feet high. I saw my life go by," Brian Keaulana explained in 2018.

"The shots were done with giant cameras and giant waves. We didn't have GoPros. I was on a 12-foot longboard, pulling a big camera," added Rusty Keaulana. 

"I was putting my life on the line when I was in the barrel, but then I went over the top and wiped out. I was riding a big board, and it was a big wave."

"The camera on my board weighed 40 or 50 pounds. The whole weight of the board was right at the front. It was craziness - the worst wipeout I've ever had."

Guinness: good things come to those who wait

Adding Lipizzaner Horses to Waves

Also, the adoption of the black-and-white tones for the advert, featuring the white crests (the creamy, smooth foam) and dark wave faces (dark shade of ruby liquid), leads the viewer to focus on the characteristics of the famous pint of Guinness beer.

The final VFX design, which added the surfing horses to the Hawaiian waves, was put in place by The Computer Film Company (CFC).

Needless to say, chroma key compositing (blue and green screen technology) was still in its infancy.

"We were able to work out kind of a 'shot list' for our bluescreen horses and what they needed to do," VFX artist Paddy Eason recalled later.

"It turned out the most efficient way of doing this was to have the horses running around simple circuits."

"We'd then just move the cameras, three, I think."

Essentially, the horses moved around a track on a spacious blue screen stage featuring a flat section, a jump over a sand pit, and a few turns.

The team had to rotate the horses when they showed signs of fatigue. The entire shooting process spanned over two days.

The Computer Film Company: shooting the surfing horses for the Guinness advert | Photo: Paddy Eason

Return on Investment

Last but not least, the choice of the right music for the commercial led Campbell to listen to around 2,000 tracks.

Leftfield's "Phat Planet" was chosen because it sounded "underwater."

"Surfer" was produced by Academy Films. The campaign's budget was six million pounds, i.e., around 9.8 million dollars.

The advertisement was prepared and awaited approval from the research phase before being launched.

Interestingly, during testing, the ad yielded disappointing results.

Despite this outcome, the team chose to overlook the research findings, placing their trust in the client's bold decision to believe in the success of the campaign.

Was the return on investment worth it?

"Surfer" was launched on St. Patrick's Day, March 17, 199, and sold an extra Olympic swimming pool of Guinness every month.

The media artwork won the Gold Lion at the 1999 Cannes Lions International Film Festival.

The 2005 "The Work of Director Jonathan Glazer" DVD features an extended 90-second version of the iconic TV commercial.

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