Fall 2017

From Pitching Balls to Pitching Product

Directors talk about coaxing famous athletes out of their comfort zones by performing off the field


Director Joe Pytka and NBA player David Robinson (Photo: Courtesy of Joe Pytka)

Joe Pytka was looking for a very specific shot, and to get it, he needed Bo Jackson to run directly at the camera. Instead, Jackson pulled up short and gracefully dodged around the equipment, keeping his distance and racking up take after take of not-quite-right footage.

Pytka, a legendary taskmaster, asked ever more forcefully (some accounts say shouting was involved) until he ended up on the business end of Jackson's power tackle.

"I told him to come right at the camera, so he finally did. Direct hit. He knocked me on my ass and shattered the lens," Pytka says, laughing recently about the bulldozing he took years ago from the superstar athlete. "He really blasted me."

The result of that matchup, well worth the bloody nose, according to Pytka, was the iconic Bo Knows campaign for Nike. Launched during the 1989 MLB All-Star Game, it became a pop culture touchstone and an instant classic in sports advertising, still called out today as one of the all-time great spots. It's also an enduring example of Pytka's philosophy on working with professional athletes.

"Be secure in what you want," he says, "and don't show any sign of weakness."

Pytka, one of the most decorated directors in the ad industry with upward of 5,000 commercials on his CV, not to mention four DGA Awards, has spent the past several decades working with an A-list roster of pro athletes from Larry Bird and Joe Namath to Stephen Curry and Colin Kaepernick.

So when it comes to coaxing memorable performances out of the likes of Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Wayne Gretzky, Charles Barkley and LeBron James, Joe knows.

Navigating the talents' hypercompetitive nature, which the 6-foot-5 Pytka does by standing his ground and taking an on-set approach that's just shy of alpha dog, is only one of the unique challenges of working with world-class athletes, according to veteran directors.

The issues range from a perpetual time crunch (athletes are chronically overbooked), endorsement mania (they can't be seen with a competing brand), safety factors (they can't risk an injury) and the entourage that often comes with global superstardom.

But the work can be both thrilling and rewarding, say four longtime directors who spoke to DGA Quarterly about what it takes to create seminal advertising, turning pro players into brand ambassadors, letting their personalities shine and making them household names.

Joe Pytka touts decades of experience working in commercials with such superstar athletes as, from top, NBA player Michael Jordan and former heavyweight boxing champ George Foreman. (Photos: Courtesy of Joe Pytka)

That Was Then

Bryan Buckley, dubbed "the king of the Super Bowl" by The New York Times for his 50-plus Big Game ads, started directing promos for ESPN in the early '90s at the beginning of his career. "It was my film school," he says.

At the time, few athletes had become famous pitchmen, and many didn't understand advertising's potential for building their own brands. So it could be tough to get cooperation, like when Buckley and his crew asked a well-known NHL player to shoot a goal on cue after a practice session.

"He told us to go f- ourselves and walked away," Buckley recalls. "It was an auspicious beginning for my directing career. But we got somebody else to do it."

Along with salvaging the shoot, he picked up a few valuable lessons, he says. Athletes aren't actors by trade, and some may have no interest in pursuing a dual profession. And if the pro is in the thick of regular season, as opposed to pre- or post-season, their intensity and skills are often reserved for their day jobs.

But experiences varied widely at that time, the directors say, and Brian Beletic had an encounter with Detroit Red Wings center Sergei Fedorov in the late '90s that has informed every sports ad he's done since.

Beletic, a first-time director at the time who's now with Smuggler, walked Fedorov through an ESPN ad scenario that called for the hockey star to "be an assassin," metaphorically speaking.

"Because it was out of context and not a real game, I asked if he could turn on that killer instinct," Beletic recalls. "He looked at me and said, 'Like a light switch.' I understood then that athletes are their own breed of talent. It taught me to leverage what they're good at and tap into their confidence."

He'd see that same light switch later, in 2010, in filming Nike's Human Chain ad with Maria Sharapova when he asked her to hit tennis balls extremely close to, but not into, an unprotected moving camera.

There would be no faking it and no special effects because "it was an authenticity thing," he explains. "No matter where the ball was placed on court, she'd return it exactly on the X we'd drawn. Every single time."

Brian Beletic, top right, with Serena Williams, directed Nike's Human Chain spot featuring Maria Sharapova. (Photos: (Top) Courtesy of Brian Beletic; (Bottom) Screenpulls: Nike)

The Rules of the Game

If there's an ideal situation, the directors say, it's one in which athletes are allowed to shoot hoops, score goals, run and gun—in other words, what they do best. That's when they're most comfortable.

"They're fine-tuned machines," says Max Malkin of Prettybird. "I think there's nothing more beautiful than presenting them as athletes."

As a DP in the early '90s, Malkin worked on Jordan's Frozen Moment dunk-centric ad for Nike, which, he says, opened the door for many of his sports commercials to follow. He's since directed sprinter Usain Bolt, soccer star Lionel Messi and quarterback Tom Brady, among others, saying "there's no magic bullet" for getting star-quality turns from pro athletes, whom he's found to be mostly open to the process.

"They're used to having an authority figure like a coach around even if they're superstars," Malkin says. "They're looking for direction. They're sort of lost without it."

While each case is different, there are some universal truths, Pytka asserts. Athletes don't like surprises and "love their element." Their worst nightmare, he adds, is "looking stupid."

To iron out potential bumps in the road, Beletic gives blocking first so that athletes know what to do with their bodies. "They're physical people," he says, "so you start with the physical." Emotions and motivations come next. He also hires an expert in the athlete's field to be part of his production team. He's found that it puts the stars at ease and helps tell the story and avoid mistakes.

Pytka says he's always ready to make changes quickly if something isn't working on set. There's no time to waste, knowing that the athlete is usually on a tight schedule. It's no myth that Jordan used to log 10-hour days on commercials, but busy, multitasking athletes rarely spend more than a few hours now.

Camera tricks and body doubles are common, directors say, because they have to consider the athlete's safety first. Ken Griffey Jr. made a spectacular diving catch on the first attempt during a shoot for the well-loved Nike ad I Got It. When the ad agency asked for another take, Pytka refused. "You're always worried about somebody getting hurt."

It can be a fine line to walk, Malkin says, when trying to re-create game-level performances, but that's where choreography, stuntmen and camera angles come in.

"In no way do you ever want them to get even remotely close to pulling a muscle," he says. "It really is a whole different genre of filmmaking."

Some athletes are natural-born comedians and actors, like Chris Paul and Cam Newton, while others can warm up to the camera eventually. Jordan was "very shy" during his early career, Pytka says. "As long as he was playing ball, he was fine. He grew into a commercial star."

Peyton Manning always had an affinity for being a letter-perfect spokesman, says Buckley, one of the founders of Hungry Man, and at the same time could let loose and play a character or a silly version of himself if the script called for it. The result: memorable commercials like DirecTV's Football Cops and its sequel, the wacky rap video Football on Your Phone, starring Peyton and his brother Eli.

Some athletes, though, don't slip as easily into a self-deprecating role. Beletic uses a number of tactics to break through a tough façade, including music on set (the athlete's playlist), line readings and informal rehearsals—alternate concepts that push the comedy or drama further than what's required, and even rolling the camera without announcing it to get candid moments.

"You have to find a way to loosen them up and make sure they're having fun," Beletic explains. "A lot of that comes from reading the room and trusting your gut in real time."

Bryan Buckley, top in knitted cap, coached comic performances from pro quarterbacks Peyton Manning, middle, and his brother Eli for DirecTV's wacky Football Cops video. (Photos: DirecTV)

This Is Now

Many of today's top-tier athletes are marketing-savvy, media-trained and well-versed in the language of Madison Avenue, some having been in the public eye and on social media since they were youngsters. That can be beneficial, Beletic explains, because "they look at a commercial less as a responsibility and more as an opportunity."

Because they're so coveted as endorsers, athletes often have a number of brands on their personal roster to consider. Pytka couldn't put an NBA star in a limousine for a McDonald's ad because the player represented a different luxury car. And the major leagues have their own deals for everything from soda to headphones, so any brands appearing in the ad have to be cleared through those reps as well, limiting creative choices.

Directors also must deal with a horde of agents, managers, stylists, family members and various hangers on that can mimic the characters in the TV show Entourage. Buckley tries to make nice with the posse, in effect involving the cohorts in the process and, if need be, in coaching the star.

"Get them on your side because they can help you," Buckley says. "If not, you're in for a long day."

And there's the ticking clock, with handlers dictating how much time the star will spend on set. Meanwhile, the athlete will often post to his or her Instagram and Twitter feeds, and film-branded content or behind-the-scenes snippets, all of which takes their energy and attention away from the commercial.

"You have to be prepped for them and you have to cut to the chase," Malkin says. "You can't hesitate."

With so many factors to consider, it's nothing short of a miracle sometimes to stick the landing.

"When I see a great sports spot with a superstar athlete, I really have an appreciation for what people had to go through to get to that point," Buckley says. "It's no easy task."

More from this topic
More from this issue
Check out the latest DGA Quarterly, featuring interviews with Kathryn Bigelow, Joe Pytka, Jordan Peele, Todd Haynes, Errol Morris, Alex Gibney, Marc Webb, Erin Ehrlich, Aline Brosh McKenna Brian Helgeland Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.