Playa Vista, Calif.-based visual effects company Digital Domain recently delivered a 30-second spot for UFC promoting the upcoming featherweight title fight between champion Jose Aldo and Irish fighter Conor McGregor, July 11 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
UFC president, Dana White called it, “The most expensive commercial we’ve ever shot, but without a doubt, the most bad-ass commercial we’ve ever done.”
Opening with a nearly deserted Las Vegas, the two fighters walk the streets gathering growing throngs of fans for a showdown starting at the crossroads of MGM Grand and Las Vegas Blvd and transforming into a packed arena. The piece premiered during UFC 187 and has now been viewed over 1 million times on YouTube.
Working from a concept created by Chris Kartzmark, UFC senior vice president of production, Digital Domain creative director and Mothership in house director Neil Huxley wanted to do a piece deserving of the nature of this fight. “I love working with the UFC,” said Huxley. “We’ve worked with them before and they knew we could pull off the size and scope they wanted. This piece needed to feel like a trailer to a blockbuster movie. They wanted the piece to feel epic, like an event the Gods would be watching.”
Huxley and his team looked for inspiration from the gritty cinematic language of action films from the late ’80s and early ’90s. Taking color temperature and shadow balance inspiration from films like Fight Club and Die Hard. “I wanted to shoot anamorphic to give this a cinematic look,” said Huxley. “Shooting into lights to give nice anamorphic flares and over cranking the footage to pump up the atmosphere.”
Presenting perhaps the biggest challenge were the always packed streets of Las Vegas itself. “It’s extremely difficult to take one of the busiest intersections in the world and make it seem completely deserted,” said Dan Akers, visual effects supervisor. “Las Vegas is never empty, even at 4:00 a.m.” The always packed intersection of MGM Grand and Las Vegas Blvd needed to appear at first to be deserted and end eventually filled with the two fighters and thousands of fans.
The production was faced with a grueling 16 hour shoot to get all the live-action shots and plates necessary for the visual effects. “The thing is, we had to recreate a full CG Vegas strip that transitioned to a full CG stadium with 18,000 people,” said Akers. “And this all had to be seamless and photo-real.” The visual effects team went to work stripping the Vegas streets of cars and tourists and replacing them with extras originally shot on bluescreen. About 75 extras were carefully and creatively turned into 1,000 for the final two shots. The ubiquitous jumbo screens that line the strip were filled with promos for the fight. The night skies were replaced and fronts of casinos recreated.
Adding to the challenges, Aldo and McGregor were not available to shoot at the same time, so for the key moments at the end of the piece they were both shot separately on bluescreen. For the live-action shoot they needed to carefully coordinate the two fighter’s separate parts so they could be cut together seamlessly. The final transition has the two fighters standing in the street toe to toe. The camera spins around them and we are transported into a packed UFC arena. With the exception of the two fighters, the entire arena and all 18,000 fans, were entirely CG.
Having the ability to do both the live action and VFX in house proved at great asset to the production. “Working with Dan Akers in house enabled us to really dial this piece in and get the level of finish that feature films have months for,” said Huxley. “Dan and his team pulled this off in just four weeks.”