Sea Level experiences thrills for Nike

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Following last year's multiple award-winning CGI hit "Gamebreakers," Nike's latest spot for its football website presents another adrenaline-filled ride, quite literally. In "Michael Vick Experience," the quarterback's position is a theme park attraction, where thrill-seekers are strapped to a harness that puts them in Vick's Nikes for a touchdown play in a packed night-game stadium. Directed by Ulf Johansson of Smith & Jones for Wieden + Kennedy Portland, the spot is funny and thrillingly realistic, thanks to a complex effects process that included the insertion of Michael Vick holograms into the scene and compositing.

Santa Monica-based VFX supervisor Ben Gibbs of Sea Level worked closely with VFX artists Christel Hazard and Steffen Schubert to make the spot look like a real ride. "[Johansson] stipulated the tone at the beginning of the job; that it shouldn't be hyper-real. Universal Studios should be inundated with calls from people who want to go on this ride," says Gibbs. "That really completed the picture for me, and that's the kind of work that we enjoy doing."

The reason that people might actually make those calls is the spot's realistic mid-game action -- it shows one young fan who enthusiastically gets on the ride, donning a helmet and requisite athletic shoes as he is strapped into what looks like a standard roller coaster harness that hangs from a track. As he hoots excitedly, the harness travels into a hall, where holograms of Vick give confusing, overly-complex advice, and we see plays scribbled on the walls. The rider, now starting to get nervous, is brought to an empty space that lights up with the thud of stadium wattage, to show a lineup ready to snap, and a full crowd. Once he gets the ball, confusion gives way to terror, and as the rig moves him around as Vick would, and defensemen tackle all around, the boy screams comically, before being flipped by a head-to-toe tackle into the end zone.

The rider, players, and opening scenes were shot over three days in an L.A. studio, and in most shots, the players were filmed along with the rider, who hung from a moving crane. Sea Level extended the field and added players in some, which affected light and shadows that needed to be adjusted. While Hazard created mattes for principal players and coordinated the various elements of the shoot, Schubert oversaw 3-D tracking and creation of hi-resolution crowd plates, which were shot in Atlanta during a real game.

However, the biggest challenges were in elements that are intended to be invisible. "More important than the programs that we use, it's making the scene smell right. It's the subtlety of the design and how you use the light," says Gibbs.For the holograms, Gibbs says that the team decided against a super-realistic effect. "We played around with hologram approaches, more high-end ones and some that were more traditional, and we came up with something that everyone thought would help the idea," he says. "The most fun part of making the hologram was putting the light into the scenes -- the reflections and the highlights in how it reacts in the scene. That's much more satisfying than implementing it."

Another challenge was becoming familiar with two very American entertainment forms-football and thrill rides. "We had a Swedish director, an Australian compositor and an English editor [Whitehouse Chicago's Russell Icke], and it's based on something that everyone watching will understand," Gibbs mentioned. According to Gibbs, teamwork was the ultimate factor in success. "The biggest part of the job isn't the bit and pieces, but how they go together. It's a collaboration between the guys at Wieden and Ulf and us. Everyone contributes, and that's why the spot looks like it does."

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