A CG ice-man morphing into the form of a speed skater, zooming along the track in Under Armour’s latest gear? The ice-man cometh, indeed.
Director Haley Geffen, signed to Bodega, tackled Under Armour’s VFX-heavy concept, along with co-director and creator Meg Oepen, showcasing the Under Armour suits for the 2018 Olympics speed-skaters. Working under a tight timeline, Haley pulled off the impressive final product (recently listed among SHOOTOnline’s top 10 Visual Effects and Animation spots of 2018’s first quarter) without even breaking a sweat…get it? Because, y’know, ice?
Haley Geffen spent the first 13 years of her career working in creative roles at ESPN, Turner and Discovery, earning 4 Emmy Awards along the way. She received her 5th Emmy Award for NBC’s Sunday Night Football Open in 2014. Over the last 7 years, Geffen has earned several more accolades for her commercial work on NBC’s Summer and Winter Olympic Games and Super Bowls XLIX & LII. Haley’s other collaborators include the likes of Under Armour, NIKE, HP, VW, Mercedes, HBO and Showtime.
We had the opportunity to chat with Haley about this project’s unique challenges, the difference a trusted team can make, and the cosmic connection linking all redheads to one another.
What initially excited you most about the brief from Under Armour when it was presented? What ideas did it spark for you?
This project was a bit unconventional in that there was no official brief. My client Meg Oepen, who is the Head of Content and Executive Producer at UA, had come up with an idea internally. They were tasked with finding a unique way to launch the innovative skin suit that the US speed skate Olympic team would debut at the 2018 Winter Olympics. Her idea was to create a character out of the suit itself and tell a compelling story around the “birth” of the technology. She had this wild thought about the ice forming from the surface and around the skater. I was immediately drawn to this concept, and because I do a decent amount of work with visual effects, I had a very clear idea on how to enhance and execute her original idea. The first challenge for me was trying to figure out how the ICE MAN transformed from all ice to the suit in all its glory. My first thought was, “ICE MAN COMETH,” whatever that means.
Where did the shoot take place? How long were you on set for this project?
We wanted this to be authentic. In order to achieve the authenticity of our speed skater transformation, we decided our location should reflect a regulation size speed skating track. And since the product was for long form speed skating, we’d need a LONG FORM track.
Believe it or not, the short and long form tracks are different. We had two options in the US. One was the Olympics Oval in Salt Lake City, Utah and the other a different Olympics training facility called The Pettit National Ice Center in Milwaukee. Under Armour worked with US Speed Skating and worked out a deal that allowed us to shoot overnight at the track in Utah.
One challenge both creatively and technically is that we would not have a director’s scout in time for the boards and our tech scout was the day before the shoot. And it’s crazy because we had to figure out how to light the entire rink, with a team who was only seeing it for the 1st time about 12 hours before call. But THIS is what I love so much about production and what we do. I hire the smartest people I know and they make everything work. It’s truly a magical process. Not sure my producers love the timeline, but I do! Our call time was 11pm. We had to wait until the adult hockey league finished their last game. Funny thing was – the game kept going into OT! We were all standing there twiddling our thumbs waiting for a goal… and I have to say, that was stressful. I think the game went into 3 OTs.
Then we had to light various pieces of the track. My DP Jordan McMonagle is an expert at moving fast and with lighting gags. We even flew in our favorite gaffer Marivee Cade (another badass female) to help us tackle this beast. She killed it.
Tell us how you approached the directorial challenge of melding live action with the VFX – how did the knowledge of the CG elements that would be added in post affect the structure of the live action shoot?
I have quite a bit of experience combining VFX with live action from my work on NBC’s Sunday Night Football Open so I felt fairly confident on what needed to be done and what could be done in a very condensed timeline. I tend to be risky and luckily our VFX partner (ZOIC Studios) knows me well and was still eager to partner. We really had to balance our CG shots with what could be accomplished fully in camera. We strategically chose ZOIC, knowing they’d go all in both creatively and with the best attitude. We had under 3 weeks to execute from offline edit to final delivery. Anyone who’s worked in CG knows how ambitious this is, so we were very selective with CG shots, design/GFX and other VFX enhancements. I worked closely with my VFX Supervisor Julien Brami on figuring out what was realistic in this crunched time frame. We sat down BEFORE the shoot – but not much before, maybe 6 hours. Julien and I work very well together and he trusts me enough to know I won’t hose him too badly in post. I also know how committed he is to making everything exceptional. And he pulled it off.
How involved was the post-production process?
Post production had to move fast, so we had to have a solid schedule and above average team. It started with my offline editor, Chris Carson, who is a total wizard. He received the footage on Dec 29th and had a rough cut for me to view on the 30th. I always like to see an edit before it gets out into the ether. I think it’s important to have that first crack at getting my vision across. That said – I also think it’s important to not give your editor too many details, because their take is almost as important. Chris always makes my work better. Over the years I’ve learned to take a deep breath and possibly let go of something I thought HAD to be a certain way. So finding a good editor who can tell a story and be able to explain the logic behind the edits is hugely important.
Once the edit was approved, we immediately started with our VFX team out in LA. The timeline was so crunched. We had 4-5 full CG shots and motion graphics for the Under Armour product shots plus a bunch of other enhancements. Thankfully we scanned our speed skater in full 360 to help our vfx team… a last minute production add.
What were some of the unique challenges posed by this shoot? How did you problem-solve as a director while working on this project?
One big challenge was time. We were executing an idea that required an incredible amount of VFX work but only 3 weeks in post. So as a Director, you don’t want to make a false promise to a client, especially a client like Under Armour. The resolve was less shots in CG and more in camera. Another challenge was figuring out how to make best use of our shooting time. We only had the facility to ourselves with controlled lighting for about 8 hours. We were fighting the sun among many other things. We also could not possibly light the entire length of the rink. My DP and gaffer lost some sleep figuring out the lighting but they pulled it off!
I hand picked my crew from all over the country. I came from NYC. My DP, AC and gaffer came from Atlanta and my producer came from LA. Having the right people in place that I’m totally comfortable with is the first step in problem solving.
From a technical/craft standpoint, did this project push your boundaries, allow you to work with any new equipment, or explore unfamiliar processes?
Recreating our skater and his Olympic level motion and speed was a technical challenge. The VFX team flew in a scanner to help them create our ICE MAN in post. That was a fascinating process for me. Once in post we really had to work hard to get the movements to appear smooth. I was catching every little glitch. As artists, we have to balance our obsession with perfection against computers and their imperfections. It’s always a hard process.
What are you favorite aspects of the final work?
I am really in love with the first :08 seconds where the ice is literally forming around the skate itself and the viewer has no idea what to expect. Everyone had an opinion about the intro. It was my job to take everyone’s very valid concerns and come to a conclusion about how our audience will react and when they make a judgement on how it makes them feel. We live in an age where if you don’t like the first :03 seconds of something you can just keep scrolling, so there were some healthy debates about how long we let the ice form. I also loved the resolve to the UA and US Speedskating logos at the end. It sounds so ridiculously simple but to me it all matters. If you can get goosebumps from a logo hitting a beat… then wow. Job done.
You’ve had extensive experience working on sports-centric projects, having created work with ESPN, TNT/NBA, NBC’s Olympics, Sunday Night Football and the Super Bowl. What do you most enjoy about filming sports?
What I love most about sports is the environment and the people. There’s no other set that compares to being on set with pro athletes. It has a vibe. I’ve created my own brand of directing where my main focus is for everyone to feel good and be happy, everyone from the network execs to the players themselves. I dance a lot. Maybe too much. I am so unexpected for them. No one has any idea what to expect when they see me. I am all of 5 feet, I have red hair. I look 12, but now I’m starting to look a bit more mature. Maybe I look closer to 30 now. Back in my ESPN days I’d stand on chairs for interviews with guys like Shaq, just to get a laugh. I love to make people feel comfortable and normal because at the end of the day people want to be treated like equals. That is my goal – and I feel like I get more out of athletes than anyone else. I don’t work on sports exclusively, so I have some level of comparison. It’s my happy place for sure.
How did you get your start as a director – was it something that you’ve always been interested in pursuing?
I have an atypical background for a commercial director. I actually starting by working on live shows at ESPN. While that wasn’t exclusively creative, executives were always fostering my creativity along the way. I had a boss that pushed me creatively and because it was for live TV there was an extreme amount of pressure to execute quickly. That skill has translated to making quick decisions and risk taking on set. I then transitioned into a feature producer role where I began traveling and working with the athletes all over the country, spending time in their homes and with their families. After that I started working with Turner Sports and it was then where I started directing more traditionally and with bigger budgets. I was making co branded spots in the early days of integration for brands like VW, Verizon, Avis, Blackberry and each spot would either be with the athletes or the hosts of the NBA shows, like Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith. It was at this point in my career when I realized directing was an real talent. People were making a point to let me know I stood out which I appreciated so much then and now! It’s been history ever since. I’ve been at Bodega for more than 6 years and keep myself pretty busy.
To answer the 2nd part of the question – I had zero idea what I wanted to do early in life. I was hyper obsessed with anything and everything behind the scenes. Even as a child I’d make my family take me to Universal Studios with regularity. I was the only one who cared about seeing what was behind the camera. Around my Jr. year in college, I decided I wanted to make Nike commercials. Very specific, eh. And in 2013 I did just that… but I’d like to do more!
You’re a 5-time Emmy award winner, which is incredible – what have some of your proudest moments in your career been? If you could pick 3 former projects that are particularly representative of your work to discuss, which would they be, and why?
I have some proud moments for sure. I think the 2013 Sunday Night Football Open represents a proud moment in my career. I do have 5 Emmy’s, but 4 of them are for working with a talented team of show producers, but the 5th and most recent award was for one piece of creative work, the SNF open mentioned above. Each year I pour my heart and soul into this project. I’ve been working on it for 7 years now. I work with the best crew and team of creatives, particularly Tripp Dixon, VP Creative Director at NBC Sports, who empowers myself and others. It’s difficult and challenging but I love every second of it. So to be recognized by my peers on such a high level was pretty fantastic.
I feel ALL the love for my Nike spot on the Williamsburg Bridge. I shot in on a whim, in about 4 hours AND I was pregnant. It’s times like those when I just eat up and take in the best of NYC and what it offers… a built in set. I have a DP who shares my love of getting out run n gun style and shooting. Our friend Robin Arzon asked us if we wanted to do a little Nike Valentines spot. It was Feb 13. We “just did it.”
And lastly, I did a small budget docu-style commercial campaign for OxiClean that was based on a true story about a small town in Kentucky and an equipment manager for the football team who washed all their uniforms in Oxi. There’s a deeper rooted storyline here. I didn’t know what to expect but we got out there and shot through rain and mud and wind (thankfully that fit the creative) and the realness of the spots just struck everyone, from the town, the players, Middle America, Urban America, the agency and myself. I’m proud of the story we told.
What are some dream projects that you’d love the opportunity to work on?
My passion for lifestyle and sports is always there. It’s real and drives me. I live a supremely active lifestyle. I love to feel empowered and empower others, and through fashion. I will continue to push for brands like Nike, Adidas and Under Armour. I know that they compete, but I’d love for them to compete for me! That is my final offer. Who am I kidding. That is not my final offer. I will work for free… I hope my EP’s aren’t reading this.
Aside from these lifestyle brands I am determined to make a feature length documentary. I have created full length shows for networks and the basis of my career in sports was telling stories in this capacity. I have an idea cooking that I am ready to POUNCE on but I have to do it now because the story calls for immediacy. I have two small kids so that was a huge focus of my life and continues to be – so it’s all a matter of finding a balance. The second I can breath I tend to just up it a notch but I guess that’s what makes me happy in life!
Free The Bid is committed to advocating for diverse perspectives and points of view. What do you think are some of the benefits to diverse representation on both sides of the camera lens?
I’ve been actively following the movement since its inception. I love what Alma has created and what Free The Bid represents. I also have to point out that ALL redheads are cosmically connected. We have conversations before we even speak – through our hair. Alma doesn’t know I have red hair, but maybe she will now and then will understand me more. That all said, I will state the obvious – brands speak loudly to consumers. Women consume products, lots of them. Their voice needs to be represented. I always feel like I am speaking for us, for what we want and how we want to be perceived. It’s amazing to think how we can affect people and the world just by the perfect casting or by telling a compelling story.
Lastly, what pieces of advice would you give to an aspiring filmmaker just starting out in 2018?
Don’t get wrapped up in what it might cost to make something – just go out and make it. Find a friend who shoots. Have his/her buddy run audio. Give them an equal opportunity. Don’t wait for someone to give you a chance. Give it to yourself. Make a website. Show your work. A good story will always cut through no matter what camera it was shot on. I would say if you truly love what you do it will be noticed. And have fun! I always tell people I don’t think I am the BEST of the best, but I f***ing love what I do… and every person on set is smiling.
Client: Under Armour House
Executive Producer/Head of Content: Meg Oepen
Production Company: Bodega
Director: Haley Geffen
Director: Meg Oepen (Under Armour)
Executive Producer: Clint Goldman
Head of Production: Jordan Tarazi
Producer: Grayson Bithell
Director of Photography: Jordan McMonagle
Post: Northern Lights
Executive Producer: Robin Hall
Producer: Terry-Anne Alexander
Editor: Chris Carson
Audio Post: SuperExploder
Sound Design: Jody Nazzaro
Sr. Producer: Meredith Nazzaro
Visual Effects: Zoic Studios
Executive Creative Director: Chris Jones
Executive Producer/SVP: Ian Unterreiner
Executive Producer: Jeff Blodgett
Producer: Derek Johnson
Coordinator: Kevin Montenegro
VFX Supervisor: Julien Brami
CG Supervisor: Tim Hanson
2D Supervisor: Mike Degtjarewsky
Flame Assist: An Dang