Article appearing in the May 2004 issue of American Cineatographer magazine

on creating the TV Commercial Nike "Minotaur of Atlanta".

 

 

ARTICLE:

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.