180LA and FreeDarko Team Up for Adidas

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For it's latest entries into the Adidas Basketball Films canon, 180LA wanted to celebrate the recent naming of three-stripers Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls and the Orlando Magic's Dwight Howard the 2009 NBA Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the year, respectively. But instead of the usual highlight reel fodder, the agency looked to FreeDarko, a hoops blog that's been called "the Web's leading destination for the obsessive, overliterate, free-thinking NBA fan."

The two web films, dubbed, in true FreeDarko style, "The Inner Workings of a Creator" and "The Detailed Mechanics of a Commander," depict Rose and Howard as superhuman athletes whose strengths are a result of a frankenmix of mythical ingredients. Director Harvey Pennant animated the illustrations of FreeDarko contributor Jacob Weinstein.

The blog, penned by the pseudonymous minds of Bethlehem Shoals, Dr. Lawyer IndianChief, Silverbird 5000, Brown Recluse Esq., features the delightfully quirky illustrations of Big Baby Belafonte (Weinstein). Last year, the troupe released the critically-acclaimed book The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac, which landed in the hands of 180LA copywriter Amir Farhang.

"I was simply blown away by it," says Farhang. "Weeks later I was in Atlanta shooting the (Atlanta) Hawks' Josh Smith for a March Madness effort and showed him the chapter and illustration they did for him. He loved it and I left him with my copy. This got back to the guys at FreeDarko who contacted me to see what his reaction was. We developed a relationship over email and I had it in the back of my mind to use them once the right project came along. Luckily, something presented itself and we were able to jump on it."

We spoke to Big Baby Belafonte about the Adidas work, his artistic influences and more.

How did adding an agency/client dynamic to the usual FreeDarko process work?
Yeah, it was a bit different. It all started the same, with me looking at visual keys and thinking of good icons that might work for that player. Then me and Nathaniel (Bethlehem Shoals) get together and I run it by his basketball expertise and we refine it a bit more. With the Adidas stuff, there were a few things we had to change but nothing serious. Also, in the book we actually weren't allowed to use official shoes and logos, so for this I had to bone up on my shoe drawing. I was more used to drawing Greek sandals and generic shoes that don't evoke any specific footwear. So this was the polar opposite of that and there was that point where I realized I had to learn how to draw a real basketball shoe. But working with the agency was pretty smooth and they were really great about stressing the whole collaborative aspect of it all.

How did your approach differ, knowing these were going to be animated?
It didn't differ that much, I just had to think a bit more about the icons, in terms of what would lend itself best to motion and things like that. But the process wasn't that different at all from the process we usually go through for these, where we take a player and try to highlight various physical, psychological attributes with the art.

"Leandro Barbosa"
What's your artistic background?
I went to a liberal arts college, Haverford, and majored in fine arts but it was like me and three other people and a teacher from 1922, so there wasn't much commercial trade training. But I've always been into illustration, design and I designed a paper in Philadelphia called the Independent and a few other things. The blog just started very informally as we all started to get back into basketball after college. We actually did some of it as a comic strip for the Independent in 2003, so that was the beginning.

What are some of your artistic influences?
Mostly comic books, but in terms of the basketball book, Charlie Harper and that 1950s illustration style was a big influence. For the diagram stuff, it's definitely Chris Ware. Mine's just a bastardized version of his work to the nth degree. Also, turn of the century science textbooks, which are really informative but also lushly illustrated.

"Tim Duncan - Style Guide"
What about this approach gets such a strong reaction from your audience, as opposed to the more traditional way sports and athletes are portrayed?
A lot of times, athletes are portrayed in fairly narrow terms, which is partly they're own doing because they're under so much media scrutiny that anything interesting they could say would be blown out of proportion. So we often get this rather shallow view of them as people. It's also about the whole focus of winning in sports that really limits the conversation. You get a lot of military metaphors and, occasionally, a religious metaphor, but people don't often bring too many reference points into sports. So I think one of the reasons what we do has been able to resonate with some people is opening the range of metaphors, including visually, that can be applied to these things using science and art, all in the service of trying to get a better understanding of what these athletes represent to the fans and audience.
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