Achieving the impossible isn't nothing in adidas' global campaign

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180/TBWA/Amsterdam recently united past and present in its launch of adidas' latest global campaign featuring a pair of spots that revisit boxing icon Muhammad Ali in his prime. But rather than duking it out with some heavyweight, here the prize fighter spars with his own daughter Laila in the ring, and instead of striding alongside locals during his famous morning training run in Zaire, he's jogging with modern day athletic greats like Ian Thorpe, David Beckham, and Tracy McGrady. The spots illustrate adidas' tag "Impossible is Nothing," but achieving their impossible scenarios wasn't nothing for the creative parties involved. Luckily, director Lance Acord and the effects artists at Digital Domain didn't have the typical "we want it yesterday" commercials turnaround. Both got word of the job in late June last year-the lead time they'd get for a feature. Shooting didn't begin until October, but the first chunk of production actually started in the edit suite. Spotwelders editor Eric Zumbrunnen sat down with Acord and DD effects supervisor Fred Raimondi cutting together stock footage found by researcher and archivist Susan Nickerson to create stories based on animatics provided by the agency. "About once a week before shooting, Eric, Lance, the creatives and I all sat down and decided shot by shot what our technique was going to be for doing each scene, whether we were going to use blue screen, body doubles, or both," Raimondi says. "Once the cut was actually approved, I would come up with specifics on how we would shoot each scene."

For the boxing spot, daughter Laila was to be composited into old footage in place of her father's original opponents. The shoot involved both blue screen and filming Laila in an actual ring-hitting inanimate targets or sparring with a boxer who had actually trained with her father. More complicated was "Long Run." All of the athletes jogging at Ali's side were actually shot against blue screen, running on treadmills. But their busy schedules around the globe required nine different setups in three cities. For these, Raimondi literally had to whip the math book out. "The treadmill didn't move and everything got measured from Ali's position," he explains. "For example Tracy McGrady is supposed to be four feet to the right, three feet back, but when he gets on the treadmill, the camera has to be completely inverse to that. We ended up figuring out a way to duplicate the setup reliably from place to place and consequently, my trigonometry got really good by the end of the job."

But it's not like they could push start on the treadmill and shoot. Each runner's pace had to match Ali's in the original footage so Raimondi developed a makeshift metronome using a snare drum to mimic the boxer's cadence in various scenes. "Essentially, the speed of the treadmill had to be the same as the ground that was moving under Ali, which changed in every scene, so as long as the athlete's footstrikes lined up with the beats, we knew he was running in the same cadence as Ali." The snare drum even helped guide Laila Ali's punches in the ring. "We applied snare drum hits to whenever the original fighters in the boxing footage extended their punches and set up targets for Laila to hit. By hearing those she didn't have to look at anything except the target, so she could really act a lot better than if she had to glance at a monitor."

Effects-wise, "the toughest thing about both of those spots was removing the people that were already there," Raimondi says. In "Laila," for example, "what you don't know is that the ring announcer, the other fighter's entourage, and part of Muhammad Ali's entourage were dead smack in the middle of the ring." Meanwhile, the audience stirring behind them had to be recreated once the extraneous folks were painted out.

"In terms of shooting elements to composite, the most important things to make a seamless shot are focal length and angle, which for obvious reasons need to match," director Acord notes. "The second is lighting. If you don't get that right, it's next to impossible to execute effectively." Here lighting posed a huge challenge because at first, they were working with archival footage in early dub stages, making it difficult for Acord and crew to develop a really strong familiarity with the original lighting. So for "Laila," Acord referred to photographs and reportage of actual old school fights as a guide. "Boxing rings for the most part are conventionally lit, top light isolated to the area in the ring," he explains. "There's a vocabulary there, so in some ways 'Laila'was easier to light than 'Long Run,' which had very soft, early morning magic hour lighting, the sun 10 degrees off the horizon, slightly overcast, with a cool toplight, cool negative fill and a very subtle amount of warm light." DD's Raimondi also notes that finally, everything came together seamlessly thanks to Mark Alan Loso and Katie Nook, the lead compositers on the spots.

To ensure the believability and effectiveness of the spots, it was also crucial not to neglect the human element, adds director Acord. Capturing the expressions of the athletes "was in some ways the most challenging aspect because they were the most subtle things to consider while shooting," he says. "It's very easy to get swept up in executing the technical aspects, so it can be easy to forget about what ends up being the most important thing, the emotion." Ultimately, the months of planning and painstaking work fell into place to reinvent those bits of Muhammad Ali's history in a startlingly quiet way. "At the end of the day, it was funny to just sit back, watch and realize how much time it took to actually create something that looked so normal," Acord laughs.

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