When Nike is one of your clients, it’s never enough to settle for the status quo. One of the requirements for working at the highest level is living up to that level, and the team at Blue Ox Films embodies that fact perfectly.
For their spot highlighting the Lebron 17 shoe, Nike approached Blue Ox wanting to attempt something they’ve never pulled off before. They had a concept—a first-person, behind the design video—and didn’t know exactly how it would play out. But, Co-owner Matt Wilcox and his team have “outside the box” baked into their DNA:
“Especially as a creative in the film industry, it’s vital to the longevity you have as a company,” Matt told us. “The moment you’re comfortable doing the same thing over and over, you should be worried about your business surviving.”
So, they decided to try something new. Specifically a first-person video involving VFX elements that required them to invent a new camera rig, essentially create a performance piece out of air, and then wrap it all up in post to impress their pals at Nike.
We talked to Blue Ox’s Matt Wilcox about the team’s process for executing this one-of-a-kind project.
Musicbed: Did Nike approach Blue Ox with a concept thought out for the Lebron 17 spot?
Matt Wilcox: We have a great relationship with Nike Basketball and their creative team. They came to us as both thought partners and also production partners on this to bring it to life. Nike had the idea of creating a first-person experience from the eyes of footwear designer, Jason Petrie. We loved the idea from the get-go and continued to develop the concept with the Nike Basketball team.
How did you start planning everything out?
They had some rough boards that communicated the idea, to where we knew this is going to be voice-over, it’s going to be shot in first-person. We took that concept and hired a storyboard artist to go through and really draw the piece frame by frame. The concept really started to come to life and it was really fun to see.
It was good for us to be on the same page going into production. Of course, there’s so much trust here to have in the process and the execution, so it doesn’t fall flat in terms of what the visual effects were going to look like. For the shoot, there’s really nothing there to look at other than just my hands kind of moving and visualizing. Everybody had a pretty good idea of what it would look like through the illustrations. There was really a ton of focus on the timing and action in each frame so it was ultimately believable.
Let’s talk about the actual shoot. What was it like developing the camera rig?
We were fortunate to have enough time to carry out a ton of tests, and we ended up going through a lot of iterations of the rig. I was the operator on that job and the camera package was a huge challenge. We shot on the Alexa Mini and did a lot of tests specifically with the rigging to make sure the point of view seemed realistic. We had to factor in the perspective, along with the ergonomics and weight of simply having the camera mounted around the head area.
We ended up using a football helmet and mounted the camera to the side of it. If we didn’t have any counterweights, it would’ve just yanked my head off to the left side. We had to load up all these weights to the other side. One of our team members had a brilliant idea of rigging up an easy rig to the top of the helmet. We tried it out and it ended up taking an enormous amount of weight and stress off of my neck.
We ended up shooting on a 14mm prime lens, which was really heavy. Being so close to my hands, we wanted to make sure we were wide enough to crop for social and just have enough of the screen protected there.
How did you go about testing this for the actual shoot?
We were looking at the frame and doing some simple tests, moving my head and moving my hands left and right, bringing things into frame. We ended up mounting the camera off the side of the helmet, which was maybe a foot or so off center of my actual eye-line. I had to offset my entire torso and arms to be more or less in front of the camera. For example, when I bring the phone up or the coffee cup, imagine if there’s a camera off my left shoulder and I’m bringing the mug up to the camera lens or bringing the phone up to the camera lens.
All of those things were so important to the authenticity of how someone would move. If we didn’t have the time to test, let alone how to rig up the camera, the spot wouldn’t have been as successful. It took some practice and coordination, especially with the coffee mug where I had to bring up the coffee mug right to the big lens. It was as if the lens was actually taking the sip of coffee and not me.
How do you make your movements look realistic with so many VFX shots?
That’s a great question. It took a ton of rehearsal. Those movements had to be super precise in a few different ways. First and foremost, it had to be precise just from the visual standpoint and where my movements were landing. When it came to the VFX, Michael Miller and his team at 9iFX did an incredible job from start to finish. Michael was very involved from pre-pro and all the way through production and post production. He was there on set and we worked closely together on each setup to really understand what elements were going to be on screen and how my body would interact with them.
Once we finalized the concept, we landed on breaking apart each of these functions of the shoe into separate segments that we could shoot. Then, we knew that with each movement we had a transition that would get us in and out of shots. It might’ve been grabbing a stack of papers, but it was just looking at ways to get from sequence to sequence without pinching ourselves in the edit.
Another major focus was on the pacing. Once we knew what was happening on screen, we had to pace the interaction to give those elements the time they needed, and then know when to bring up the hands to interact with them again. It was really challenging and took quite a few takes to really nail it on each sequence.
It’s almost like performance art.
There was more performance needed than I originally expected. This spot was so much about the VFX, but we needed subtle, well-timed, and well-performed movements to work with the on-screen VFX.
I do a lot of editing myself, so it was beneficial to have the cadence and understanding from an editor’s perspective. My business partner, Taylor Kavanaugh, directed this spot and we found a really good cadence on set. We were able to get into each other’s head pretty easily. Having our whole team there, including 9iFX, allowed us and the Nike team to be on the same page while looking at the monitor and checking off the shots.
Did you see some pre-vis as well, or were flying blind?
When we got into post, Michael and his team had some prelim wire frame animations ready to go. We were so impressed with these before Michael and his team even got to the polishing stages. All their work and collaboration with us in prep before we even got to this moment in post really shined through.
What was Nike’s reaction to the final product?
They were really happy with the final product. It was rewarding for us that everyone involved was so excited about it. It was fun to be on the front lines of trying something new and we tip our hat to the Nike Basketball creative team for thinking outside the box from the get go.
How important are difficult projects like this?
Especially as a creative in the film industry, it’s vital to the longevity you have as a company. The moment you’re comfortable doing the same thing over and over, you should be worried about your business surviving.
It’s so important to keep reinventing yourself. If you’re not putting blood, sweat, and tears into it, whether it’s for a client or our own passion projects, then you’re going to get bypassed by others who are going to do it better. It’s important to us. We get really excited when we get a brief like this one that allows us to really embrace it, dig in, and come up with a way to take it to the next level.