Behind the Work: Erik Natzke Does You for Nike/Footlocker

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Flash artist/programmer extraordinaire Erik Natzke made his mark on the advertising world with entertaining Flash work for campaigns like Goodby's "Wait Less" for Sprint, or Comcast's Puppets. In recent years he's also been developing his own code-enabled artwork--digital paintings created solely from programming, or derived from pre-existing images. For his latest commercial project, Natzke's creative computing came full circle, with AKQA Amsterdam tapping him to adapt his personal work—now trademarked as Natzke FacePaint, for a new campaign for Nike/Footlocker Europe, Be The Revolution of You. Natzke shares the story here.

How did you get involved in this project? What was the agency's brief?
AKQA Amsterdam contacted me earlier this fall wanting to brief me on a project they were getting ready to present to their client, Footlocker Europe. They had seen some of the work I had done using Flash to paint images—of people faces specifically, and were curious if what I was doing could be adapted to a self-run application within a site.

I added the tag "portrait" to some of the images these reference, so you can view what they sent me here. The client loved the idea, so the project was off and running. What proceeded was a series of calls to nail down the specifics.

What did the project entail? What were the biggest challenges in terms of the tech? Did you have to create any sort of new programming for this?
The main thing we needed to figure out was how much, or how little, control we wanted to give the user. We knew that we wanted people to use their own images and the process of doing this was somewhat laborious anyways, so we opted to find a solution that was more automated. We tried to further extend the feel of customization by designing a system that slowly erases as it paints so that the image is always evolving and the user is then ultimately in control of what final image they want to save.

Overall, what were your biggest challenges?
The biggest obstacle was probably centered around finding a balance between detail and abstraction. Since people are loading their picture you want a certain amount of recognizable detail to emerge, but it's expressiveness of the abstraction that makes it fun. Fortunately there was enough time built into the project to allow me to message the code and design a few new systems that helped make this possible.

Another obstacle, that I like to joke about, but still is relevant, is time zones. I live in the Midwestern United States, the client and agency were in Europe, and the production team for the rest of the site was in China. Not that it made matters any worse, but I was also traveling throughout Europe for presentations and gallery shows that had been going on during the development process. So needless to say, my dashboard widget was full of clocks of the various time zones I needed to be aware of so that I was handing off files at the appropriate times.

Natzke self-portrait, and one of the campaign's reference images
Natzke self-portrait, and one of the campaign's reference images

What was the most interesting part of the project for you?
A couple years ago I decided to make a conscious shift in the work that I was doing. I love the commercial work that I have had the good fortune to be a part of. Collaborations with others that have forced me to continue my journey of self-education in the pursuit of creating experiences that try to push the boundaries of what is "possible," have fueled me with a library of knowledge that even sometimes amazes me. But now I am at the point where I want to take that knowledge and apply it to artistic endeavors.

The most interesting part of this project is that I was being commissioned to produce something that I was otherwise creating in my own time. The fact that it was now commercial just allowed me to spend a lot more time refining the code. It's honestly the kind of project that I could probably work on endlessly. Even though the project is done, I still keep coming up with new ideas. Hopefully they'll be coming back for a version 2 ;).

Looking back, what did you learn from this experience?
A long time ago, when I was somewhat uncertain about my own future, my mom gave me a book called Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow. That saying alone has always stuck with me over the years, but it's opportunities like this that strengthen my belief in those words. It also helps to have good clients. AKQA Amsterdam were a great team to work with.

Be The Revolution of You
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