Article appearing in the May 2004 issue of American Cineatographer magazine
on creating the TV Commercial Nike "Minotaur of Atlanta".
A Mythical Vick by Stephanie Argy These days, stop-motion animation may seem overshadowed by 3-D computer graphics, but there are still some dedicated practitioners of the craft. Two of them, Mark Caballero and Seamus Walsh of Screen Novelties, recently created a 15-second Nike spot done in the tradition of animation legend Ray Harryhausen. In the commercial, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick is portrayed as the "Minotaur of Atlanta." On his way to the Georgia Dome football stadium, he must battle a three-headed Hydra - and with the aid of his Nike shoes, he emerges triumphant. The spot's style is reminiscent of that pioneered by Harryhausen for films such as The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and Jason and the Argonauts. Caballero and Walsh were a natural choice for a spot done in the Harryhausen style, because a year earlier, they had finished work on The Story of the Tortoise and the Hare, a short film Harryhausen had begun in the early 1950s but left uncompleted when he moved on to larger projects (see Production Slate, AC '03). "We wrote to Ray and volunteered to help him finish," remembers Walsh. "We didn't know he would make us responsible for the whole thing." Caballero and Walsh spent the next two years working with Harryhausen, matching his old footage and watching and internalizing the artist's thought processes. "He has such a dynamic way of staging his action," says Walsh. "He pushes poses further than just about anyone and has a great ability to make you feel sympathy for a monster. He learned that from King Kong, but he took it further. He was very inspired by silent film acting." When Wyden and Kennedy, the agency that represents Nike, decided to do a commercial that looked like a monster movie from the 1950s or 1960s, they began doing research on Harryhausen and found out about Caballero and Walsh. The two, who have been animators since childhood, first met at UCLA Extension in the early 1990s, then worked at MTV for several years before starting Screen Novelties. "Walsh says that even though he and Caballero met while taking classes, they soon gave up on school, bought a 16mm Bolex and began making projects using the money they saved by not paying tuition. "Maybe it took us a little longer to get the basics," says Walsh. "But we thought it was better to make little films and get our names out there." The cinematographer on the "Minotaur" spot was Anthony Doublin, who primarily does animation and effects work. Doublin met Walsh when both were working at Chiodo Brothers, a Burbank facility that creates animation with puppets. The two shared an interest in stop-motion; at the time, Walsh was doing a film of his own on the side, and Doublin offered pointers. Their collaboration continued as Walsh and Caballero took on other projects; on The Tortoise and the Hare, Doublin helped with the lighting, and on the Nike spot, he not only shot the background plates and oversaw the lighting of the stop-motion elements, but also composited all the elements together and did much of the color-correction. Doublin, Caballero and Walsh began "Minotaur" by shooting the background plates that would stand in for downtown Atlanta. Aside from a few digital stills and 16mm plates of the Georgia Dome, the commercial had to be shot in California, and Doublin suggested shooting the street scenes in Santa Ana, the Orange County town where he grew up. The background images included people reacting to the still non-existent Hydra and Minotaur, so Caballero and Walsh brought along a pole with a monster head. "We could run out into the scene with the pole, and everyone's eyes would be at the right height," says Walsh. Later, in compositing, Doublin could hide the head on a pole by comping a foreground element over it. To shoot the background plates, Doublin used an Arriflex SR2 with an Angenieux zoom lens serving as a variable-focal-length prime. They chose to work in 16mm for its grainy, contrasty look, which was more like that of the old monster movies they were trying to emulate. The stock was Eastman EXR 100T 7248, which Doublin liked because it wasn't too hard-edged. "Some of Kodak's negative daylight stocks look a little too much like reversal, and that wasn't what Mark and Seamus wanted," he says. Knowing that he and the animators would be able to adjust colors and add filtration in post, Doublin shot everything without diffusion, using just 85 and ND filters. The 16mm dailies were transferred to video and edited together, with preliminary images of the Minotaur and Hydra comped roughly into position. Caballero and Walsh also built a soundtrack out of lo-fi elements that they collected, so that the audio would have the same old-fashioned aesthetic. They used a lot of bear growl effects, mixed with bird sounds and some wild boar effects. "People don't realize how important the sound is," observes Walsh. Once the clients approved the cut, a negative daily roll was put together and scanned at iO Film, a facility Caballero and Walsh had used for The Story of the Tortoise and the Hare. The North Hollywood company used its proprietary CRT scanner to generate 2K 10-bit Cineon files. Doublin says that when Io Film did the scans, they also did the color-correction so that there would be good flesh tones, skies and whites. "Once we got the plates from Io, I didn't do any color-correction to them. Everything else was matched to their scans." As Doublin built backgrounds by inserting the Georgia Dome into the images of downtown Santa Ana, Cabellero and Walsh got ready to do the stop-motion work. It took about a month for four to five people to build the puppets, which were sculpted in clay, then molded in foam latex with a stainless-steel armature inside. Walsh says that silicone can also be used for molding, but he and Caballero find foam latex more durable - if silicone starts to tear, there's no way to glue it back together, because nothing will stick to it. The animation of the puppets took another month. The puppet elements were shot against greenscreen using a digital still camera, the Fuji F2 Pro, with a 24mm Nikon lens. The lighting for the animation was a hodge-podge of incandescent lights. "It was a fine collection of antiques," Doublin recalls. "We had some of my lights, we had some of their lights and we didn't have enough lights." On set, Walsh had an Apple PowerBook, which enabled the crew to shoot key animation frames and roughly comp them with the plates to make sure they would work together. After the animation was done, Doublin would take away a CD with the resulting eight-bit TIFF images, so that he could comp them together with the backgrounds. Doublin pulled the greenscreens using the built-in keying tools in After Effects 5.5. To get a really refined matte, he would key 10 or 15 times in succession, with each pass selecting a different narrow range of green. By combining all of these passes, he was able to be much more precise than he could with a single keying operation. The commercial also required a lot of rig removal, because nearly every shot had rods and wires that had to be painted out. Doublin did that work in Commotion 2.1, an older version of the program, which he prefers to the later releases. To make the digital stop-motion elements look as though they were 16mm, Doublin color-corrected them so that they wouldn't be so oversaturated, and simulated film grain using the After Effects noise filter. Caballero and Walsh returned to iO Film to make the master of the commercial. Most of iO Film's clients record back to film, but in this case, the delivery format was DigiBeta. John Sterneman, director of HD post production at iO Film, says the process was very smooth all the way through, because the overall plan was well thought-out. "If you don't have a very good workflow mapped out in preproduction, you can get really bogged down by the time you get into post," warns Sterneman. "The people who have worked in film for a while have a much better understanding of all the variables that they have to consider. Those who have mastered onto NTSC need to take the time to study what's out there and what decisions need to be made." Walsh says that while stop-motion is no longer used for effects intended to look realistic, it was the best way to make a convincing imaginary character back in the 1950s and '60s. Both were glad to have the chance to try their hand at it. "Because Ray is such a big influence, it's nice to follow in his footsteps," Cabellero enthuses. While they haven't yet shown the spot to Harryhausen, who has been traveling constantly, they say he was glad to hear that they're getting work, because he was worried that their love of stop-motion would make their company too limited to succeed. "The thing that I regret the most was that it didn't take longer," adds Cabellero. Link to Screen Novelties.