Video & Filmmaking

Frames Per Second: Depicting Speed in Slow Motion

November 20, 2013

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Mark Zibert

To shoot a commercial depicting the wind generated by Cristiano Ronaldo's speed, Mark Zibert used a Phantom Flex camera, running at 1,000 to 2,000 frames per second.

Client: Nike
Agency: Wieden+Kennedy
Global Creative Directors: Ryan O’Rourke and Alberto Ponte
Copywriter: Andrew Miller
Art Director: Naoki Ga
Executive Producer: Ben Grylewicz
Producer: Andrés Murillo
Executive Creative Directors: Mark Fitzloff, Susan Hoffman, Caleb Jensen

Soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo is notorious for being fast. How do you illustrate his speed in a way that hasn’t been shown before?  

A commercial for Nike’s Mercurial Vapor 9 soccer shoes, directed by Mark Zibert, depicts the Portuguese forward moving so fast towards the goal, the gale force winds he generates bowl over his opponents, as well as spectators, photographers, riot police and others on the sidelines. Zibert, a Toronto-based photographer/director, captured the destruction in slow motion by shooting with a Phantom Flex high-speed camera. The Phantom Flex’s frame rate can go up to 2,000 frames per second—or higher, if the resolution is reduced—which means it can capture movements that are too fast for the eye to comprehend. Using the Phantom Flex, Zibert recorded slowly spiraling clouds of debris, a press photographer tumbling into a crowd and eyeglasses being pulled from a the opposing manager’s face as his cheeks are distorted by the blast of wind. Everything is shown in slow motion except Ronaldo, who is seen moving the ball with lightning speed and then firing it into the goal.

Zibert says that when he received the script through his production company, Imperial Woodpecker, it already contained “the nuts and bolts of the story.” When he submitted his pitch, however, he added a surreal twist. After researching old paintings of historic battles and dioramas of historic scenes, he proposed staging the scene in a gallery setting, as if the soccer pitch and the stands had been moved to a museum display.

The agency liked the idea, and last fall he directed the commercial on sets he had built on a soundstage in Madrid.  

Everything about the production was large. “The thing that made it so big was the size of the sets. Also, as soon as you introduce the Phantom Flex in the studio, you need to add a lot of light to get your stop. Everything gets bigger real fast.”

The call sheet listed about 100 crew members, including cast. Zibert’s executive producer, Charlie Cocuzza, and line producer, Andrew Travelstead, helped manage the production. Chris Mabley served as his director of photography.  

To create some stunts—like a guy being blown through the air—a stunt coordinator rigged wires to harnesses actors wore so they could be hoisted in the air. “But I’m always about getting as much in camera as possible,” Zibert says. He decided to use gravity to help some of the actors to tumble over naturally. He had the set built so that one end of the floor was tilted up at a 30-degree angle. To correct the uneven horizon, he mounted a Phantom Flex to a Technocrane, a telescoping crane that is operated remotely from a control desk. Zibert explains, “There’s a gyro system on the [Technocrane’s] head to keep the camera level, but we tricked the computer to think that a 30-degree angle was level.”   

The commercial was fully storyboarded, and each vignette was shot individually against a blue screen, making them easier to silhouette and drop into a background in post. “We’d have two cameras rolling so you’d have bits and pieces you could cut in later,” Zibert says. Once edited together, the individual vignettes form what appears to be a single long pan across the soccer field.

Ronaldo was filmed on a separate set with a horizontal floor. He had only an hour to spend on the shoot. When shooting star athletes, Zibert says, “You’ve got to take every second and get something out of it. So we had two cameras rolling on him: I’d operate one, the DP would operate another.” They concentrated on getting close-ups and full body imagery quickly. For the close-up footage of feet kicking the ball, they used a body double.

The wind effects were created by about half a dozen powerful fans, each with its own operator. “We had huge ones that would affect a whole area, and small, high-intensity ones.” The footage of the team manager with the skin of his face distorted by the force of the wind was created in camera, Zibert says. A small, strong fan was held in front of the actor’s face, and while the high-speed Phantom Flex rolled, “you let nature take its course.”

Lighting: The soundstage where the tilted stadium set was built had 60-foot-high ceilings. The prelighting began the day before the shoot, with the crew working into the night. Zibert says, “The lighting was pretty simple, but it was big.” It was primarily two large, soft backlights on either side of the set and a large front fill. “To the eye it was insanely bright but to the Phantom Flex, at the speed we needed, it was only just bright enough.”

Because the Phantom Flex would be shooting at a high frame rate, “We used tungsten because we had to watch out for flicker,” he says.  

To create the front fill, the gaffers created in effect a large softbox using frames covered in diffusion material. “We ganged up six 20 x 20-inch frames and then bounced light into them for front fill,” Zibert recalls. The backlight was created by hanging lights and silks from trusses above the entire set. “We had to give the guys operating fans breaks because the lights were getting so hot up there.”

Illuminating the entire set at once allowed Zibert to move the camera freely. “The lighting was so huge, moving lights would have killed a day,” he explains.

Camera: Zibert set the Technocrane about ten feet from the actors. “I wanted to create the effect of seeing [the scene] in a gallery, so we never got too wide angle or too close,” but switched to a longer lens when he wanted tighter shots, such as the footage of the man’s distorted face. He notes, “We were using prime lenses because we couldn’t get a fast enough zoom for the stop we needed.” The Phantom Flex shot at between 1,000 and 2,000 frames per second to capture slow motion. To get the footage of Ronaldo, he shot at a lower frame rate, knowing he could speed it up further if needed during post.

Post-production was handled by The Mission, a visual effects house in Venice, California. Rob Trent, creative director at The Mission, was in Madrid to supervise the shoot. “He’s there from the preplanning stages, so we can have a plan of attack,” Zibert says. “We didn’t want to leave him having to do a lot of CGI because we didn’t shoot all the right elements.”

After a shoot like this that involves blue screens and the need for compositing, Zibert says, “I’ll build a PDF with my frame-by-frame expectations of what I want post-production to do,” after soliciting suggestions and contributions from the clients. The Mission spent about two weeks roughing out a composite. Once all the elements shot against blue screen were silhouetted and the figures were roughly laid into the background (which was actually a photo Zibert took of his studio wall), Zibert flew to Venice to supervise the editing.

Zibert wanted his set to look as though a soccer field had been cut out of the ground and moved to a museum diorama. To create the appearance of terra firma, a cross section of soil had to be added to the bottom of the image, where the floor of his set was. Zibert says that while he was in Venice to oversee the editing, he spent a day riding his bike around looking for construction sites and taking images of soil and earth textures. Using Photoshop, Zibert then created matte paintings, which he provided to the post-production team.

Both day and night crews continued the editing in order to meet airdates. The spot debuted online in January.

Watch the ad below:

Mark Zibert – Nike Vapor Trail from VAUGHAN HANNIGAN on Vimeo.