Creating The 2016 Ad Campaign For Knott’s Merry Farm
It’s December 17, 2015, about 66 degrees, on a beautiful fall morning in Southern California, and the Christmas season is in full swing around Knott’s Merry Farm. There are gorgeous decorations carefully placed about the park, over a dozen live shows being performed throughout and dozens of festive treats just tempting me to break my New Year’s Resolution before I even have a chance to make it. Despite the fun in the park, I am huddled backstage in a most peculiar place, the Paranormal Inc. maze where it’s “snowing” inside, working on next year’s Knott’s Merry Farm ad campaign.
Behind the Scenes of An Ad Campaign
A few months before, the plans for the new Merry Farm ad campaign began in our bi-weekly marketing traffic meeting. At that point, the Knott’s Merry Farm creative was two years old. Typically, the park’s seasonal marketing campaigns are refreshed every couple of years to convey a new tone, product or message. In recent years, we had begun working hand-in-hand with our agency of record, Cramer-Krasselt (C-K), to move away from conceptual advertising and begin showcasing guests experiencing the in-park activities. The thought behind that switch was to show guests enjoying what the park events offered so they could more easily imagine themselves going and experiencing them. The strategy had worked well for Knott’s Scary Farm and we decided to continue down that path for Knott’s Merry Farm.
Snow and Glow
In 2014, a new show called “Snow and Glow” launched at Knott’s Merry Farm. Thousands of sparkling lights dance to the beat of classic Christmas music while “snow” gently falls in the spectacular show that was a great bookend to a day at Knott’s Merry Farm. James Sidler, a lighting design specialist at the park, pitched and designed the show with support from a team of incredible techs and audio/lighting/programming designers. Guests of all ages were wowed by the show and immediately ranked it as one of their favorite experiences at the park.
Most Southern Californians don’t have the opportunity to see real falling snow on a regular basis. That novelty factor was one of the main reasons the show became one of the park’s most popular “Kodak Moments” that season. Guests captured thousands of photos during the show and shared them across every social media platform. The success of “Snow and Glow” and my own personal enjoyment of the show made it a natural choice for me to pitch for the new look and feel of the ad campaign.
As soon as I received approval to explore ideas for a new campaign, I reached out to the park’s go-to freelance photographer and videographer, Sean Teegarden, to begin brainstorming ideas. Sean has been working with the park for over five years and has been a fan of Knott’s since he was a child. Although Sean has captured hundreds of photos for Knott’s social and PR uses over the years, this would be the first ad campaign he would be working on for the park. This would also be my first time directly helping produce the look and feel of a campaign.
Through sketches and Photoshop mock-ups, Sean and I created a number of different ideas to pitch during subsequent meetings with the Marketing team at the park and at C-K. Collectively, all of the stakeholders collaborated to narrow the concepts into a final one that had a family experiencing “Snow and Glow” the focal point of the ad with a background that showed off the Ghost Town area of the park.
Casting can make or break a project, especially when working with child actors. It’s easy to think that modeling or acting is easy to do and only requires great looks. Being able to show joy and happiness in your face for hours on command during a film shoot is harder than it looks. We typically use LA Casting for all of the photoshoots that are organized and led by the park’s marketing team.
LA Casting is an easy to use service that provides a way for producers to post openings for roles to a talent pool of thousands of actors all across the Los Angeles area. It’s important for us to use a diverse group of actors in our media that accurately represent the many different types of guests that visit our park. Knott’s Berry Farm is uniquely located in an advantageous place for casting high-quality actors since Los Angeles is the epicenter of film and television production.
Sean and I reviewed hundreds of submissions for the four roles that we were casting for to create a family that consisted of a husband, wife, pre-teen child and kindergarten child. We first took a look at the headshots submitted to see if we could find actors with a great natural smile or laugh. The next step was moving onto examining the resumes of actors to search for those that had photoshoot experience. Our picks were then debated back and forth with each other before being shared with the executive team for final selection and approval. The four actors we selected were incredibly easy and fun to work with.
Sean handled all of the logistics of the shoot, including hiring a lighting technician and assistant. He suggested shooting the actors on a green screen and then photographing the backgrounds at a different date. The lighting equipment required and the location of the backgrounds in the park made it nearly impossible to try and capture both the actors and the backgrounds at the same time. It’s not easy to shut down the center of the park for four hours at a time, even when the park is closed, since it’s the main thoroughfare for after hour deliveries and maintenance vehicles.
So how did we end up shooting in Paranormal Inc? There isn’t much unused space at Knott’s Berry Farm during Knott’s Merry Farm. Every nook and cranny is used for live performances, Knott’s Scary Farm storage and group sales events. We needed an indoor space with 20 foot high ceilings that we could have for two entire days to allow time for the setup, shoot and breakdown of the green screen. As Sean and I walked around the park and backstage areas we realized that Paranormal Inc.’s opening show scene room was the perfect size and wouldn’t be used for another nine months.
Sean and his crew came to the park the night before to ensure there was plenty of time setup the set and test. The setup included the green screen, lighting, monitor for review, camera and reflectors. James and his team were able to help us secure a snow machine that we hoisted up to the top of the show room where the actor that flies across the room in Paranormal Inc. is stationed at. Everything was in place so we were able to get right to work when the actors showed up the following day.
The shoot was over four hours long with rotations of the Mom, Dad, son and daughter both alone and together in various poses on the green screen. Hailey, a member of the Knott’s make up team, oversaw all of the actors make up for the shoot. The actors supplied a number of different wardrobe options themselves. Sean worked off of storyboards that he created in collaboration with myself so we could keep track of the different shots that we were going for.
Like all photo shoots, it took a while to dial in the lighting, find a rhythm and ensure natural performances from all of the actors in each shot. The key is trying to build a family chemistry among four strangers that just met. One of Sean’s many talents is being able to quickly put all of the cast and crew at ease. I do my best to ensure that I funnel any feedback I have through Sean instead of directly to the crew or the cast. That way they are not being directed by a barrage of voices, but instead by one focused director.
The Final Product
Sean captured background plates of the park a few days before filming the actors and also photographed the snow against black screen. He sent all of these different images over to C-K. The team at C-K then selected their favorites and composited them together with the logo, adding to the design with their own styles and insights. The final images were approved by the executive team at the park and then resized into different specs for billboards, digital ads, sales brochures, social media posts and website headers.
It’s a surreal feeling to put so much time and effort into a project that yields a final result of just a handful of images for the resulting ad campaign, narrowed down from the thousands that were taken. That’s the interesting and frustrating part about the creative process. It takes a long time to create what you can picture in your head. The Knott’s Merry Farm ad campaign project was a joy to work on. I still get excited every time I drive past a Knott’s Merry Farm billboard. Sean and I would collaborate again just a couple of months later to produce the look and feel of the 75th Anniversary of Ghost Town 2016 summer campaign for the park.