Sometimes 24 hours is all the advance warning a photographer receives to pack his bag and head halfway around the world. The Adidas campaign, shot in Beijing, held a myriad of such last minute challenges for Toronto-based photographer Mark Zibert.
“I had almost no idea that this huge thing was going to happen until the day before,” said Zibert, explaining that the campaign had been called off after months of bidding, conference calls and negotiations. On the day he returned from shooting a Nike ad in France he got the go-ahead. “We ended up leaving the next day for China for three months to shoot this campaign.”
Landing in Beijing, Zibert and his crew encountered the project’s first, nearly fatal obstacle. “We brought our own gear and it all got held up in customs. You had to pay a $150,000 deposit which you only got 75% of back. I lost sleep on this job!”
Luckily, a light-footed digital operator saved the day. “Our digital operator basically walked into the office and grabbed our camera system and snuck out with it,” says Zibert. “It was pretty ballsy. He ended up getting it out and they didn’t notice. Thank god, because we couldn’t find the right cameras out there! He saved our asses.”
Despite such an inauspicious start, Zibert and his crew went on to deftly manage the Herculean task of fashioning a mob of 20,000 out of 300 extras- without any post-production cloning. “The first two rows of people are pro or Olympic athletes and then everyone in the background is part of the 300 mob,” said Zibert. “We ended up just shooting crowd plates for two days straight. We were just moving these people around and shooting them. It was really grueling work and they were 16-hour days.”
There were myriad lighting setups for the dozens of crowd shots and then for each individual athlete so we’ve chosen to focus on the details behind one crowd shot in this article (the behind the scenes images we’ve included should also give an idea of how some of the other images were lit). The crowd image we’re focusing on involved dozens of people and was shot with the sun high in the sky. The sun was the main light source in this shot but mother nature needed a bit of modification to be featured in this highly polished image. In order to soften the harsh shadows created by the sun Zibert and his team erected a large silk 20’ over the entire crowd and then used three bare Pulso G heads connected to Broncolor Grafit A4 packs to add fill. An additional Pulso G head equipped with a beauty dish added more frontal fill. Zibert used a Hasselblad H3D with a 35mm lens and an exposure of 1/500th of a second at f/5.6 and 100 iso.
And all for an image that was never run. “This image isn’t going to end up running at all because the clients felt it didn’t have continuity with the rest of the campaign,” says Zibert, explaining that the other campaign pictures show a crowd supporting an individual.
Repped by Corbis Artist Representation, Zibert worked with the Shanghai branch of TBWA and 180. He assumed that he was chosen among the five bidding photographers because his portfolio held plenty of action images. “Also, the fact that I do my own retouching was a big part of my sales pitch. My commitment helped too. I was willing to relocate,” says Zibert.
For Zibert, relocating is part of daily life. Although based in Toronto, he rarely shoots, or even spends much time there. He’s found instead in New York shooting editorial assignments, or around the globe doing advertisements. His personal documentary work, too, takes on an international flair: Zibert does pro bono work for NGO campaigns across Africa. “They basically just fly me out and I go out and shoot for them. I met Right to Play the first time I went to Tanzania, and then a year later I went to Rwanda, and then Uganda and Sierra Leone,” said Zibert, noting that he grants the organizations the rights to the images so they can use it for all their fundraising and promotions.
As if international editorial, advertising and documentary photography were not enough, this 31 year old photographer is also making a name for himself directing commercials.
Currently working on a couple of McDonald’s commercials, an 86 commercial as well as an editorial shoot for ESPN magazine, Zibert blithely notes there’s not much difference between stills and film. “After you do one or two spots, you start realizing how it is very similar to still shoots,” says Zibert.
Although he’s adept in both mediums, Zibert is not looking to make a permanent switch. “For me, it’s totally creatively driven. If an okay commercial came up at the same time as that Adidas campaign, I’d do the Adidas campaign. I want to do whatever the best project is.”
Zibert was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about his career and his craft:
F STOP: So how did you get to be a part of this wonderful, highly praised ad campaign for Adidas?
Zibert: I was repped globally by Corbis Artist Representation. The layouts for the campaign came through their Beijing agent. The initial idea was to feature individual athletes with massive crowds supporting them and the featured image was supposed to be the big finale image. However, this image isn’t going to end up running at all because the clients felt it didn’t have continuity with the rest of the campaign. Originally, I was supposed to shoot these athletes individually and then they were going to hire an illustrator to draw the entire crowd sequence behind them. I convinced them to shoot everything, which made me more interested in doing the campaign. We ended up bidding against 5 other photographers. We had to submit a treatment and there were numerous conference calls back and forth. Eventually we won the job, but then the job died. There were calls back and forth about it while I was shooting a snowboarding job for Nike in France. The day after I got home from the Nike job I got the call that it was back on again. We ended up leaving the next day for China for three months to shoot this campaign. I had almost no idea that this huge thing was going to happen until the day before. It was about a three-month commitment. Once we got there we started figuring out how we were going to do it. We were supposed to piggyback a lot of this stuff on TV, but it just didn’t really work. We did a location scout for three days and ended up figuring out how to do it on our own. We had to crowd plates (background images) for six shots total. We ended up with 300 extras and we paraded them around the location for each shot so we wouldn’t have to do any cloning. It was all cutting and pasting. Like people standing in the front row were then moved to the back row. We didn’t want to have like a cloning effect. It had a real genuine look because we moved them around. It looked like we had 20,000 people there.
F STOP: So is everyone in the shot a real person, nobody was illustrated?
Zibert: The first two rows of people are pro or Olympic athletes and then everyone in the background is part of the 300 [person] mob. We ended up just shooting crowd plates for two days straight. We were just moving these people around and shooting them. It was really grueling work and they were 16-hour days.
F STOP: Was this an outdoor location?
Zibert: Yes, a stadium.
F STOP: How did you get the light to match up? You were obviously dealing with natural light.
Zibert: We were pretty lucky. We were hoping for overcast, but it was easy sun. Once the people start getting really far away they more or less become these little blobs and the light wasn’t a factor. We made sure to get all the foreground plates of people within an hour window so the light matched and there was some forgiveness. We added that haze in post which hides some of the mix-matching in the light.
F STOP: Did you have your camera locked down for the entire three days to shoot all these people?
Zibert: No, we did three days of tech scouting, measuring angles, and planning the location because we had to know where all the foreground people were going to be. It was only two days of shooting crowds.
Zibert: It was crazy. We shot the crowds first and that dictated the lighting for when we shot the athletes in studio. The crowds are totally isolated and we had to fill them in a little bit to get them looking better.
F STOP: How did you light all the athletes?
Zibert: We shot them in the studio and matched where the lighting was coming from and then filled in shadows.
F STOP: Can you give us a rough idea of the equipment you were using.
Zibert: We brought our own gear and it all got held up in customs. We weren’t allowed to bring any of the gear with us, but our digital operator basically walked into the office and grabbed our camera system and snuck out with it. It was pretty ballsy. He ended up getting it out and they didn’t notice. Thank god, because we couldn’t find the right cameras out there! He saved our asses. We didn’t end up getting any of the equipment out. We had to send it all back. The first week was totally chaotic. We lost the location and our gear. Everything just kind of went to hell. We had to scramble. We were randomly calling photographers in China because we couldn’t find the gear we needed. The studio we rented had three Broncolor packs, so that was our kit the whole time we were there.
F STOP: The end result was definitely worth it, they’re incredible images. Did you do anything else with the athletes while you were shooting the campaign? Portraits?
Zibert: In hindsight I wish we did, but there was just so much going on.
Zibert: They were cool. No prima donnas. Overall, it was pretty easy to make these guys look good and athletic. We actually got to play ping-pong against these two ping pong guys during lunch. That was actually a highlight.
F STOP: How’d you do?
Zibert: Smoked. They were just [messing] around with us and it was no problem for them.
F STOP: How did post production go?
Zibert: I worked with my first assistant on post and we started working on it when we were there. We would do retouching in our downtime. We rented a bunch of machines and set up in our apartment and started building. Then we flew to Shanghai, set up in a hotel to work with the agency for a week. It was back and forth for about 5 months and continued when we got home.
F STOP: How many hours do you think went into post?
Zibert: A few hundred hours for sure.
F STOP: So this image would have been black and white if it had run?
Zibert: No, this one was supposed to be color. If you go into Ads of the World you can see the ones that ran. And they ended up doing one other shot after that. They hired a different photographer to do it because he was in the country already.
Zibert: Everyone spoke English. The art buyer had a lot of production experience. They were very open to ideas. For example, they let me shoot the entire crowd rather than just the main athlete, which was the original plan. It cost more to do that, but they supported the approach on it.
F STOP: What do you think made Adidas pick you for this campaign?
Zibert: I had a lot of action in my portfolio. Also, the fact that I do my own retouching was a big part of my sales pitch. My commitment helped too. I was willing to relocate.
F STOP: How long have you been shooting for?
Zibert: I’m 31 now and have been shooting for eight years. I went to Sheraton College in Ontario. I assisted for about a year after school and then I started shooting.
F STOP: Did you jump right into advertising or did you shoot editorial first?
Zibert: I pretty much jumped into advertising. I went to see an art director fresh out of school and he told me to assist for awhile and work on my book. I went back to him about a year later and he gave me job. I did a few small jobs and then I got lucky fairly early when I was about 23 or 24. I shot a Nike campaign and that changed everything. It really got the ball rolling.
F STOP: Did you study retouching when you were in school?
Zibert: A little bit. I kind of learned retouching on the go. On my first jobs I would spend days and nights figuring it out as I’d work like on an actual running job.
F STOP: Do you enjoy it?
Zibert: I’m starting to do less and less of it because shooting is keeping me fairly busy, but I do enjoy it. I wouldn’t want to do this alone because there is are a lot of tedious aspects of this kind of retouching, like the close cutting and all that stuff. I still usually set the final look on most of the campaigns. I’ll get a retoucher to build it and play around with color, but then I’ll take the final high-res file and tweak it.
F STOP: Your color palette seems to change quite a bit throughout your body of work. What factors influence your color palette when you get an assignment or try to conceptualize a shoot?
Zibert: The final mood of the image plays a big part of it. Advertising it’s pretty simple. If you shoot an ad for McDonald’s it’s not going to be a moody image. But for personal work or editorials, it all depends like on the subject matter. I gave this campaign a bit of a warm tone. It has a bit of a revolutionary kind of feel to it, as far as the people coming together, so I thought that the black and white for the rest of the series worked really well. It just gives it a richer, epic kind of feel.
F STOP: Do you prefer black and white to color?
Zibert: Again, it depends on the image and the mood you’re going for with it. I don’t think about it too much.
F STOP: How did you get involved with documentary? Is it something you still do or was it something kind of from the past?
Zibert: I still do it. I started working with the NGO, Right to Play. It was started by this ex-Olympic athlete to support kids in Africa and other Third World countries. They use sport and play to promote fitness and health and the fight against AIDS. They have athlete ambassadors that they bring to the refugee camps and then they go back and promote the NGO and drum up support to help these guys out. An art director I’d worked with regularly sent me to Africa to shoot an image for one of their campaigns. Through that trip I met a lot of contacts and then I ended up just getting other jobs on my own. All of the documentary work I do is pro bono. They basically just fly me out and I go out and shoot for them. I met Right to Play the first time I went to Tanzania, and then a year later I went to Rwanda, and then Uganda and Sierra Leone.
F STOP: So it’s pretty much personal work?
Zibert: It’s personal work, but they get rights to the images and they can use it for all their fundraising and promotions.
F STOP: That sounds like a great thing to be a part of.
Zibert: Yeah, it’s amazing. Even if I were to fly out there by myself I wouldn’t get this kind of access and support.
F STOP: Do you find that being based in Toronto has any impact on the types of jobs you get?
Zibert: You’re better off living in New York for editorial because that’s where most of [the magazines] are run. We still fly for editorial and I do work in New York as a local now. For advertising you can pretty much live anywhere in the world, if you have the right agents.
F STOP: Do you shoot in Toronto very often?
Zibert: It’s been a while. There’s good and bad aspects about it. It’s pretty exciting to travel for work, but at the same time it can be a little hard on commitments at home.
F STOP: Tell me about your personal work.
Zibert: I just shot something, but it’s not finished yet. I try to treat editorial more like personal work where I’ll kind of do a lot of the conceptualizing and choose the approach. For example, the Hayden Christensen spread. The magazine wanted a white background. My stylist and I made some calls and Hugo Boss gave us a bunch of clothes that we could trash. So it ended up being this Hugo Boss white world story with Hayden Christensen.
F STOP: How did you do the image where he looks like he is making a snow angel?
Zibert: We built a water tank in studio and bought like 80 liters of milk or something ridiculous. The pool wasn’t super deep so he was lying there and would bring his arms and legs and head all down at the same time.
Zibert: About three years. I signed on with this great production company called Sons and Daughters in December last year. They did a really big push selling me as a director and then the campaigns just started coming in. Now I’m doing about 50-50.
F STOP: How does a still photographer get involved in directing commercials?
Zibert:: I was shooting a campaign about three years ago for an agency called John Street and I was working directly with the creative director. I suggested it might be a cool TV commercial and he agreed and gave me a shot to do the spot.
F STOP: Was it a difficult transition?
Zibert: I have a really good camera assistant and a gaffer and a key grip. I explain lighting and sometimes shoot photo references and they help me figure out what equipment I need to make that possible. With TV we might have over a hundred on set. That was a little daunting at first, to say the least. After you do one or two spots, you start realizing how it is very similar to still shoots. It’s just a moving picture and the productions are bigger, but at the end of the day I feel they are actually very similar.
Interview by Zack Seckler
Written by JoAnne Tobias
Edited by Jesi Khadivi
Diagrams by Anne Smith
This piece was originally published 11/1/08 on Zack Seckler’s formally named publication The F STOP.