Sleight of Body

Andre wanted to do everything—his competitive nature came out,” says Wieden + Kennedy creative director Mike Byrne, recalling the day last month when his team asked Andre Agassi to drop his racket and try baseball instead.

Shooting the spot “What If?” for Nike, which imagines seven top athletes switching sports, creatives wanted the stars to pull off as much as possible before they turned to special effects. At Dodger Stadium, Agassi proved to be a great hitter but a weak fielder. He was filmed catching a ball and throwing it quickly to first base. The team from visual effects house Sea Level asked him to fake a throw, then had a professional player execute the same actions. Then, back at Sea Level, six Inferno and five Combustion artists spent a week crafting the final scene by grafting Agassi’s head onto a professional player’s body, animating the ball into the body double’s hand.

For Nike and Wieden, it took an Olympian dose of planning and effects wizardry to create 90 seconds of an alternate sports reality. The commercial convincingly shows Agassi as a member of the Red Sox, cyclist Lance Armstrong as a boxer, Diamondbacks pitcher Randy Johnson as a professional bowler, sprinter Marion Jones as a gymnast, Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher and Falcons quarterback Michael Vick as hockey teammates and tennis star Serena Williams playing beach volleyball. (There’s also a 60-second version of the ad, as well as three 15-second commercials.)

“If Andre Agassi had picked up a baseball bat at 3 instead of a tennis racket, we’d probably be talking about it this spring,” says creative director Hal Curtis. The point of the work, in other words, is that “a great athlete is a great athlete is a great athlete,” adds Curtis. “They all have physicality, the will to win and competitive drive.”

Still, special effects were essential in making the athletes’ stabs at different sports appear convincing. The first step was to pull stock footage and use it to compile a preliminary version of the commercial. “We had the spot cut before we shot anything,” Byrne says.

Finding the footage took Susan Nickerson of Nickerson Research in Los Angeles a full month. She handed her work off to editor Gavin Cutler of MacKenzie Cutler in New York and director Ulf Johansson of Smith & Jones, and they selected shots whose lighting and camera angles seemed easiest to re-create.

“The reason we went to compositing with stock footage was to give the spot authenticity,” explains Curtis. “When you shoot athletes in [staged] competition, it’s extraordinarily difficult to have it look real.” Another advantage is that “the quality of it is a bit degraded,” Curtis says. “That hides some of the inconsistency between what we shot versus what we put into it.”

Some scenes consist almost entirely of stock footage—the hockey body-check scene, for example, because Urlacher can’t ice-skate. In other cases, such as the bowling scene with Johnson, a minimum of stock footage was needed for an authentic look.

On the day before each of the six shoots, Johansson, Cutler, Sea Level executive producer Dan Connelly and Sea Level Inferno artists Ben Gibbs and Brian Buongiorno would meet to watch the relevant stock footage and decide what should be shot. Connelly was present on set and often Gibbs and Buongiorno as well.

For the first shoot, Armstrong’s boxing match, the cyclist sparred with middleweight Fitz Vanderpool at the Grand Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. Armstrong also pantomimed boxing moves. The footage, shot on high-definition video so the team could add zooms in post-production without sacrificing image quality, was then downloaded into Sea Level’s Inferno software application. The program isolates one element in a shot—in this case, Armstrong’s body—and allows it to be inserted into another shot.

The specialists on Inferno and Combustion—an animation and 3D compositing program—worked on each scene for about a week, after which footage for the next scene was ready. In Armstrong’s sequence, their main challenge was to match the lighting in the stock footage with the new shots and make Armstrong’s body appear to be authentically reacting to the fight.

“When you hit somebody, your body reacts as well,” explains Connelly. “Lance wasn’t hitting very hard, so [Gibbs] had to make Lance’s body react, make his muscular structure tense like it does when you hit someone.”

The most complicated scenes to craft were Agassi’s throw to first base and Jones’ vault, a sequence that was pieced together like a puzzle. At a sports facility in Anaheim, Johansson shot about 10 different elements, including Jones doing a cartwheel, making a landing (by jumping off a table) and saluting the judges. “Marion is such an amazing runner and long jumper, this is similar to her event anyway,” Connelly says. “Launching into the air, she looked real natural doing it.”

Gibbs then tracked portions of Jones’ body into stock footage of gymnast Jana Komrskova doing a vault in a competition in France. “He is an artist,” raves Curtis about Gibbs’ meticulous work. “He did frame by frame by frame, and just created that—it was amazing to see.”

With five days of shooting over a four-week period, multiple elements of the commercial developed simultaneously. “We were shooting while editing was happening while we were starting the effects,” says Connelly, boasting, “No reshoots, I’m glad to say. We all did a pretty good job of planning.”