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Making Commercials: 4G-Whiz

Two directors show off Sprint’s 4G mobile phone alongside some of history’s greatest firsts

By Michael Fickes


Directors David Rosenbaum and Dael Oates from Mothership (second and third from left, respectively)
on location in Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats

Sprint recently rolled out “Firsts,” a commercial for the world’s first 4G mobile phone with the help of Venice, California-based Mothership (www.mothership.net) and San Francisco agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners (www.goodbysilverstein.com).

Mothership directors Dael Oates and David Rosenbaum developed the creative concept and directed the spot, which introduces the new phone with a new twist on the domino effect. Instead of a series of falling dominos, the commercial features real and animated technological and cultural firsts, from a Stone Age wheel to a Space Age rocket, in a chain reaction across Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats.

“This is the first 4G phone, and it will have an impact on how we live and communicate with each other,” says Cindy Epps, senior producer with Goodby. “Our strategy with the commercial is to tie the new Sprint phone in with important firsts that had an important impact on our lives.”

The spot opens with a stone wheel rolling across the Salt Flats. “First is the beginning. First leads,” says the voiceover. The wheel knocks over a 19th century penny-farthing bicycle with a huge front wheel. The bicycle topples a steam locomotive standing on end like a domino.

The locomotive fells a gramophone followed by a microscope and typewriter. A vintage movie camera falls into an up-ended Model T that smashes a wall of televisions, one of which strikes the Wright Brothers’ flyer that topples Chuck Yeager’s X1 that tips a colossal Saturn V rocket.

By the end of the :60 spot (and its :30 cut-down), the last “first” standing is Sprint’s new HTC EVO.

Blending 19 real and CG-animated objects, some of which appear in multiples and all of them in motion, required the skills of two directors with strengths in both disciplines.

Oates’s background is in live action while Rosenbaum spent seven years doing visual effects at Digital Domain (www.digitaldomain.com), Mothership’s sister facility, also in Venice, which provided the VFX for the spot.


A stone wheel and penny farthing bicycle will start the domino effect in motion.

Shooting on the Salt Flats
Oates and Rosenbaum began by spending a week selecting firsts to execute their domino theory.

Typewriter: In. Pencil and ballpoint pen: Out. Why? For the same reason they chose sliced bread falling into a modern refrigerator and knocking it over. “The conceptual weight of the objects in the spot was the important consideration,” chuckles Rosenbaum.

With objects in mind, the duo storyboarded the concept, assembled a 40-person production team, got animators and prop-builders going and prepared for the three-day, live-action shoot on the Bonneville Salt Flats, an ideal setting for the spot.

“We needed a large space where we could physically do this,” Oates says. “The Salt Flats is also a void. Sprint’s corporate logo always appears in a void with gray and yellow propping. The Salt Flats has that kind of look.”

For the first scene, production designer Michael Gaw built the stone wheel, a section of the roof of a locomotive cab and found a real penny-farthing.

Like all the live action in the spot, that first scene was shot with Sony’s F35 CineAlta digital cinematography camera. Natural sunlight illuminated the shoot. “The sunlight was strong, and the salt reflected the it,” says Oates. Director of Photography Claudio Miranda used black reflector cards to remove unwanted light and silver mirrored cards to reflect light as needed.


A locomotive and gramophone wait for their turns in the chain of “Firsts.”

Imagination First
Visualizing how 19 objects, some real and some animated, would tumble into each other, fall and strike another object — or hundreds of objects in the case of telephones, refrigerators and circuit boards — posed an enormous challenge.

For instance, Oates and Rosenbaum decided to use the roof of the locomotive cab as a point to cut from an actual prop to a CG model.

In the first shot, all that can be seen of the locomotive is the cab’s roof on the right side of the screen, standing on end. Propelled by the stone wheel, the penny-farthing bumps into the roof, then the shot cuts from a close up of the props to a long shot of the animated locomotive standing on end and toppling over.

The animated locomotive triggers another chain of real props: a gramophone knocks a typewriter into a hanging light bulb that tips over an old-fashioned telephone. “We rigged these objects with wires to stage the shot,” says Oates. “At the end of the segment, the swinging light bulb knocks over a real phone, which falls into an animated phone, which knocks down a long line of animated phones.”

The process was repeated again and again — shooting real segments that lead into and follow an animated segment — until the final scene culminates with the 4G phone and Sprint logo on the Salt Flats.


A Wright Flyer, Chuck Yeager’s X1 and a Saturn V rocket prepare to topple in “Firsts.”

Along the way, Oates and Rosenbaum had to adjust for conditions on location. “We wanted to shoot real slices of bread falling into a real refrigerator,” Rosenbaum says. “But it was so windy that we couldn’t rig the slices. So that became animation. But the line of refrigerators that the bread knocks over began with four real refrigerators that do knock each other over like dominos.”

Before, during and after the shoot, Digital Domain animators were busy modeling and texturing the animated elements using Autodesk Maya running on Linux PCs.

Editor Richard Learoyd of Final Cut, Los Angeles teamed with Oates, Rosenbaum and Digital Domain creative director Aladino Debert to choose the best live-action and animated shots. “Selecting the right close ups, medium shots and long shots and getting the angles right was important,” Oates explains. “You can make a bunch of objects on the Salt Flats seem boring if you’re not careful.”

Once the creative cut was locked, Digital Domain enhanced and combined the animated and real imagery. “The compositing was done with Nuke, an Academy Award-winning application written by Digital Domain,” says Rosenbaum.

“Firsts,” which broke in theaters and on television in June, is like watching the history of invention, and it bears repeated viewing.

It has that kind of gee-whiz appeal.


December 7, 2012