- Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN Staff Writer
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Credit: David & Goliath
Is that the real Blake Griffin? It's a trick question -- and movie magic.Time travel, while inordinately cool, presents its share of inconveniences for those in charge of the logistics. It’s one thing to write clever copy and enlist a charismatic star athlete for an ad campaign, but it takes finesse to draw in an audience. A smart premise had been developed for Blake Griffin and automaker KIA, but getting it from the storyboards to your living room required some serious work. For Blake Griffin and the creative team charged with transporting the power forward back to his childhood in Griffin’s KIA spots, that meant finding mini-Blakes who bore a resemblance to the present-day star.
“[Griffin] has a lot of old family photos,” said Colin Jeffery, executive creative director at David & Goliath, the ad firm behind the KIA campaign. “And as we got into it, he was great and his family was great supplying us with more images of what he looked like through the ages.”
Once the creative team got a sense of who Griffin was as a kid, it went to work trying to find actors for the 1995, 1997 and 1999 spots. Creative directors, casting agents and visual effects mavens can be obsessive about authenticity, and they took it as a professional imperative to ensure that viewers could buy that the young Blakes were earlier incarnations of the guy who leaps into the "SportsCenter" Top 10 a couple of times a week.
“We tried to find a nice balance of similarity to what he looks like today, but also try to stay fairly true to what he looked like at that time period,” Jeffery said. “That just made the challenge even harder.”
David & Goliath started where just about everyone who shoots commercials starts -- enlisting a Los Angeles-based casting agency. Casting reels were collected from young actors in Southern California, then a few of those kids were brought in for auditions. The team found their “baby Blake” for the first ad ("Free Throws"), but despite a glut of child actors in the Los Angeles area, it still hadn’t discovered their perfect Blake for the 1997 ("Football") and 1999 ("Arcade") ads.
“After about a week, we had nothing that was bang-on,” Jeffery said. “We opened up casting on the East Coast, working with casting agents in New York. Beyond that, we knew there’d be a big challenge, so we actually opened it up online as well. We sent out a casting call via Facebook, Craigslist and Twitter.”
The clock was ticking. The agency knew it had to shoot in three weeks, but the team still didn’t have its mini-Blake. So everyone got into the act -- the ad firm, Griffin’s camp, the production company, the Los Angeles and New York casting agencies -- and used their various social feeds as siren calls for a young Blake. Finally, a video reel found its way into Jeffery’s inbox.
“When that casting tape arrived from New York -- it was in Quicktime,” Jeffery said. “The minute I opened it up on my machine, there was this huge celebration in the office.”
Justin Fosque, a 10-year-old from the New York area, was the cause of celebration. You know him as the kid in the jean shorts in 1997, and playing the wrong video game in 1999.
“We couldn’t have gotten closer if we tried,” Jeffery said. “We were all excited that we’d spent the extra funds and extra time because it was amazing, really. When you put them side by side at that age, and even now, it’s like a spitting image.”
Griffin’s comic timing and the general conceit of the campaign make the series work, and it’s not as if Griffin would’ve been less amusing had the kids looked marginally less like him, but the casting really shines, and Fosque, in particular, lends the spots a realness we don’t see a lot in 30-second snippets.
A few days before the shoot during a wardrobe fitting at Griffin’s house, Jeffery pulled up Fosque’s Quicktime reel.
“I just sat back and watched [Griffin’s] face as the video started, and he just laughed out loud straight away,” Jeffery said. “It was funny. I had a still shot of [Fosque] as well. I put a still of [Griffin] next to the kid, holding them both up, and Blake was just laughing his head off.”
Headed into casting, Jeffery confessed that he had little faith in the process. He assumed they’d have to use a bunch of visual effects on an actor with a lesser resemblance, or just have to scale down present-day Griffin. Then they stumbled upon Fosque.
“It was crazy,” Griffin said. “It was actually kind of weird because as a kid, I don’t feel like that’s how I looked, but he looks so much like me now, or what people would think I looked like, it was pretty scary. They did an amazing job with all those kids. They really went all out.”
The most recent two ads that feature adolescent Blakes -- “Sunblock” and “Bench Press,” which take place in 2002 and 2006, respectively -- were easier in some respects, but more difficult in others. The creative team didn’t have to perform a nationwide search for miniature lookalikes, because Griffin would play himself in the spots. But morphing the present-day 23-year-old Griffin into the 13-year-old and 17-year-old Griffins demanded some sophisticated technology.
Method Studios, a global visual effects group whose credits include “Captain America: The First Avenger,” “Cloud Atlas,” “Men in Black 3” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” was brought on to the project. Creative director/VFX supervisor Benjamin Walsh oversaw the process.
So far as visual effects, the “Sunblock” spot presented a challenge -- how do you get a 13-year-old Griffin to look like the life-size version?
Walsh and director Paul Hunter decided that “Sunblock” would need a full Frankenstein job. So the 13-year-old Blake whose cupped hands are being doused with lotion is 23-year-old Blake's head superimposed on a teenage actor's frame. This wasn’t easy. First, the shoot required nearly identical takes from the teenage body double and Griffin. Griffin was taller than his younger counterpart so, for instance, he had to slouch while sitting against the basketball goal to get the shot right.
“We got the body double to act out the exact lines and action Blake was meant to do in the script,” Walsh said. “Then we’d get Blake to do the same lines and actions in the same position. We tried to make sure Blake’s head lined up where the kid’s head was.”
Shooting “Bench Press” was simpler because one look at a photo of Griffin at 17 convinced the creative team that it didn’t need to bring in a body double.
“When you look at photos of [Griffin] when he was 17, he was already like a man,” Walsh said. “He was already similar height. He had developed muscles. That was a lot different than when he was 13.”
For Walsh and the visual effects whizzes, the real work began after the shoots. They’d have to “de-age” Griffin to make his 23-year-old face look like his teenage self. Method’s team studied the old photographs down to the finest detail, then got down to the meticulous work of molding him into his younger self.
“We noticed when Blake was 13, he had a lot more little freckles around his nose and on top of the cheeks, so we added that as an extra detail. We puffed out the cheeks a tiny bit because instead of the big square jaw he has now, he had a little baby fatty cheeks when he was 13.”
They brought Griffin’s eyes a little closer together, did some work on his nose, gave him a haircut, removed bags under his eyes, smoothed out his skin and played with his complexion. And they didn’t stop with Griffin’s facial features. The teenage actor in “Sunblock” was a little muscular for a 13-year-old, so they used effects to slim down his body composition.
The details of the metamorphosis sound almost absurd. The vast majority of the public -- pretty much anyone who didn’t know Griffin at age 13 -- would never pick up on these subtleties. But for Walsh and the creative team, this was vital because the spots had to cross a threshold of plausibility with regard to the younger Griffin. We’re already suspending disbelief when we travel 10 years into the past, but once we get there, we have to be able to buy the scene.
“It was a big challenge,” Walsh said. “[David & Goliath] wanted a hint of the modern-day Blake in there, wanted people to see straight away that it was Blake without registering. But we also had to find those details and examine the differences between 23-year-old Blake and the younger Blakes to actually make this successful. Because if you did just put the 23-year-old Blake’s head on the smaller body, it really looks freaky.”
As they did with the 13-year-old Blake, the visual effects crew took the image of Griffin lying on the bench, then used techniques to make him skinnier.
“We carved away at his back, carved away at his arms, carved away at his calves,” Jeffery said. “We basically took away muscle and mass to make him look late-teens.”
As much as Jeffery marveled at the work done by Method Studios and as much fun as Walsh had walking through the intricate process of reshaping Griffin, there’s a collective sense among those who work with Griffin that he’s the best special effect on the KIA campaign.
“I’ve worked on the creative side with tons of athletes,” Jeffery said. “Nobody comes close to him in terms of being comfortable and confident in front of the camera.”
When David & Goliath landed the account and got a feel for Griffin’s on-camera persona, they began to write scripts tailored to his sensibility. Griffin is more deadpan than brooding, more self-deprecating than self-aggrandizing (so long as he’s not dunking on you during a live game).
“He has this postmodern quality to him,” Jeffery said. “Like he has deadpan down, the comedic timing, this Wes Anderson-type quality, so we purposely write scripts and dialogue to that.”
Griffin won’t take the bait when asked, but the levity of the KIA campaign has elevated an image that, after his rookie season, was a little bit self-serious. Between the lines, Griffin was a spitfire, even though those who interacted with him off the court knew him to be ironic and light-hearted.
“When people take themselves too seriously, they get away from who they really are,” Griffin said. “I don’t want to be the guy who says, ‘This commercial has to be all this.’ I don’t mind making fun of myself. And I don’t mind making fun of other commercials. They’re so serious.”
Time travel, while inordinately cool, presents its share of inconveniences for those in charge of the logistics. It’s one thing to write clever copy and enlist a charismatic star athlete for an ad campaign, but it takes finesse to draw in an audience.