How'd They do That Spot?

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A clutter-busting spot for the Ford Expedition, out of JWT/Detroit, finds the monstrous SUV making an unexpected turn, into the deep blue sea. Swimming along, free as a whale, it's soon surrounded by menacing sharks. Foreboding music kicks in and sure enough, a ferocious Great White goes in for the kill, mashing its head into the truck's face, triggering the airbags to explode.

Directed by Bruce Dowad of Bruce Dowad Associates, most of the shoot occurred underwater. The set prep itself was a massive undertaking, says Leslie Ekker, the Digital Domain effects supervisor who was on board from the get-go. The underwater scenes were shot in a tank at Offshore Model Basin, an Escondido, Calif., facility usually reserved for testing on engineering projects. The car itself was the real deal, gutted of its transmission, engine, gas tank and, ironically, even airbags, which are pretty much the point of the spot. "You don't want anything going off underwater accidentally," Ekker explains. "Airbags are basically explosives." The physical effects guy, Bobby Milstein, had only three days to set up the massive cable-towing system necessary to get the Expedition moving in the drink. Contrary to what the spot might suggest, "Cars are not hydrodynamic," says Ekker. "Basically, it was a floating block of water. So when you start moving the car, it starts to breach like a whale, tip its nose down and goes rear up. It was very hard to control."

And what about the sinister fish? In reality, none of the sharks was live, and despite the swarm of eight that appears in the final product, the shoot only involved three models, created by Walter Conti, the puppeteer behind the massive sea creatures in A Perfect Storm and Free Willy. Two of the models were remote-controlled free-swimmers, shot in various passes with and without the car in frame. A third model Ekker calls "the attack shark" - a much larger beast that slid along a rail and required its own heavy-duty rig.

With all the rigs attached to the car, along with the sharks and streamers of kelp, it's no surprise that things didn't exactly go swimmingly when it came to post, since an underwater greenscreen wasn't used, due to time constraints. "There was a ton of rotoscoping, and also a lot of cleanup and paint-out," Ekker recalls. "We also had plenty of delicate color correction issues, because the sharks sometimes were put into frame more distant or closer than they were supposed to be. So you had to either duplicate or eliminate the effect of the water on top of the shark." To make things more complicated, the originally 2-D show took on a new dimension when a week before delivery Ford said it wanted the truck's wheels, which at this point had been stationary, to move, adding not just CG, but more color correction, lighting issues and hand-cut mattes to the package.

And how'd they manage to get those airbags going off like wildfire, considering the car was stripped of its innards? "While you could shoot the airbags underwater, they probably wouldn't behave correctly," Ekker offers. "You'd have to fill them with water if you wanted them to work right, and you can't pump water that fast. So we shot them on land against greenscreen and composited the exteriors into it."

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