A new ad for Hulu opens with Cleveland Browns’ Baker Mayfield and the New York Giants’ Saquon Barkley on the field, ready to get into the game. Mayfield passes a football to Barkley, but it travels an embarrassingly short distance as a wide shot reveals the players’ heads on incongruously scrawny frames. “We can’t shoot commercials right now,” Barkley says.
“So Hulu put our faces on some other guys’ bodies,” Mayfield adds. “You all said I should spend less time doing commercials, so Hulu got some rando to do it for me.” It then ends with a shot of a Lilliputian Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid in his living room, watching it all go down on his TV.
To see the sports pros on feeble physiques has the same jarring, comedic effect that we’d seen in Rocket Mortgage’s Super Bowl ad that showed Jason Momoa strip his muscles off to reveal his unexpectedly wimpy anatomy. Momoa, however, was shot on set, while for this ad, Hulu unabashedly portrayed Barkley and Mayfield using A.I.-tech more popularly known as “Deepfake.”
The new spot, titled “The Deepfake,” arrives in time for NFL Season. Created out of Big Family Table and directed by Hungry Man’s Dave Laden, it follows Hulu’s ad from last month celebrating the return of sports, which “visited” athletes like the Portland Trailblazers’ Damian Lillard, the New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge and WNBA star Skylar Diggins-Smith at their homes while they indulged in their quarantine hobbies to announce that the streaming platform “has live sports again.” At the time, COVID had placed limitations on the brand’s ability to shoot with the sports stars, so to create the ad, the brand at the time stated that it had shot body doubles and superimposed the athletes’ faces onto them using “digital face replacement technology.”
The latest ad, however, unabashedly embraces and calls out the tech with its more familiar name—perhaps a bold move given that Deepfake, which uses artificial intelligence to create extremely realistic likenesses of individuals, has been mired in controversy since it emerged onto the scene as a propaganda tool to create unauthorized videos of politicians and famous figures delivering fake speeches or even apparent porn videos of celebrities.
But with the commercial shooting limitations imposed by the coronavirus, when used for legit purposes with the subjects’ approval, it seems like a smart solution.
The new spot is the latest in Hulu’s “Sellouts” campaign in which celebrity endorsers have fully copped to the fact that they’re getting paid to shill for the brand. To own up to Deepfake remains in line with the brand’s overall theme of “radical transparency, so we felt comfortable that both spots would be seen as authentic and innovative,” says Hulu VP-Brand Marketing Michael Schneider. “We also felt the cultural truths around the inaccessibility of the athletes, and the different type of football season that is about to be upon us would really resonate with football fans at this point in time.”
Guto Araki, chief creative officer at Big Family Table, says the campaign evolved organically after seeing fans’ reactions to the first spot.
After Lillard shared the ad on social media, followers called out the bizarre-looking effects.
“The second we saw people couldn’t tell what was going on but knew something was going on, we said ‘Let’s embrace it,'" Araki says. "That’s when the campaign turned a really interesting corner and everyone jumped into the joke.”
Given that the technology is still emerging in the commercial world, to create the spots presented a new set of hurdles for the team. To achieve the Deepfake tech, the team worked with VFX company Tribbo, who had to be involved early on in the process, including in the casting of the body doubles. “We had Tribbo weighing in as we liked somebody—sometimes they would say the head’s too big or the head’s too long, or the mouth is too small,” Laden explains. “The tracking technology, the A.I. needs to grab onto something to be able to track the face onto it perfectly.”
Outside of the spot’s location shoots, the production also involved two-hour shooting sessions over Zoom with the athletes themselves during which they used their smartphone cameras to shoot their own faces at various angles to capture that image data that would be superimposed on the body doubles.
According to Tribbo VFX Producer Pamella Pesareli, one of the biggest challenges in incorporating the location and VFX shoots was lighting. "Shooting the body doubles and the athletes indoors, inside their houses, the lights were so different we had to do digital re-illumination," she explains. The premise of the second ad, however, offered a bit more freedom in rendering the athletes. "In phase one, we needed to adjust [the heads] to be equal to the athlete, but in phase two, we did not have this problem."
Ultimately, the project helped to broaden the path for production solutions in the time of COVID while taking the campaign into fresh terrain. “Technology has enabled us to be more flexible, creative and relatable,” Schneider says. “By leaning heavily on technology in our two latest spots, we were able to develop creative quickly, work with athletes in an unbelievably personal way and extend the conversation beyond traditional media methods to social media.”