Mark of Perfection
Mark Zibert knows what it takes to be the best advertising photographer today. He tells Neha Mutreja about his perfectionist ideals and more.
This story was originally published in September 2009.
Somewhere in Peking, China, a soccer stadium is filled with a crowd of 300 men and women. Every time they are signalled, they cheer loudly with full enthusiasm. No, this is not a scene from a football match. In fact, it is Canadian advertising photographer Mark Zibert working wholeheartedly on a Beijing Olympics 2008 campaign commissioned by Adidas called ‘Together in 2008, Impossible is Nothing’.
“ Everything about the shoot should be flawless, from shooting and lighting to manipulation and the finished product.”
After days of gruelling and meticulous work, the results that emerged were breathtaking. One photograph shows a tower of hundreds of people holding on to a basketball hoop while a Chinese basketball player makes his slam dunk. Another shows a crowd lending a sea of arms so that a footballer can score a goal. Both photographs convey how a nation can come together in order to fulfil a common dream.
“ You have to stand out. If you’re trying to emulate or grab someone’s look, you’re blending in.”
The campaign was a huge success and left everyone wondering how the photographer managed to capture so many people and freeze motion in time, making it look so effortless. Mark’s images may be stunning and larger than life, but what makes them unique is that they are all based on simple ideas.
Making a Start
Sometimes, when you are determined to make a start at something you always wanted to do, you often find yourself not knowing what lies ahead. Mark also had no clue about where he was heading. Fresh out of college in 1998, he and a friend decided to run a production house Method Inc to help other photographers build their portfolios. Unfortunately, the business did not take off too well. So Mark decided to focus on his photography career independently. After taking up many individual assignments, Mark was finally able to bag an assignment for a big brand— Nike. He was only 23 at the time. But it was this assignment that got the ball rolling for the young, determined photographer.
Victory amidst Many Challenges
The Adidas campaign was a challenge even before it landed on Mark’s plate. It was huge since the brand was also a co-sponsor of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Five photographers including Mark were all competing to bag this campaign. After presenting his vision to the advertising agency 180/TBWA based in Shanghai, China and co-ordinating numerous conference calls and months of discussions with them, Mark finally won the job. He had only just completed an assignment for Nike, when he received the call. “We ended up leaving the next day for China for three months to shoot this campaign,” Mark reminisces.
But as soon as he landed in Beijing airport, he got held up at customs. The authorities were fining him a whopping USD 150,000 because of all the equipment he was carrying along. He did not have that much money on him, so he had no choice but to send it all back to his studio in New York.
So with no gear, Mark and his team frantically tried calling up photographers in China to get the same kind of gear they had sent back. A chaotic week later, they were ready to begin working on the campaign.
Bringing the Vision to Life
The initial idea of 180/TBWA ad agency was to show thousands of people coming together to support one player, and achieve one goal. For this, they planned to hire an illustrator to digitally create the crowd and then merge it with the image of an athlete shot in a studio. But Mark convinced the agency that he would actually shoot the crowd sequence himself!
So he meticulously chalked out a plan for the shoot. He hired about 300 extras and got permission to shoot in an empty soccer stadium in Peking, China. He spent four days in the stadium establishing angles, marking the ground and setting up the lights. During the two-day shoot, his team guided the crowd of 300 from one point of the stadium to the other. As soon as they were asked to stop, they would wait till they received a signal to cheer as loudly and jubilantly as they could and Mark would take a photograph. After he got the shots he wanted, all he had to do was simply merge the photographs of these people standing in different positions together—to create a background of a sea of people.
Polishing it Up
Once the shoot was over, Mark felt his vision was finally materialising. “Whilst photographing the crowd, we simply imagined where the athletes would be placed. Then we photographed the athletes [in the studio] depending on the stadium lighting. But when we added the athlete on top of the background [in post processing], we found that the supporting hands didn’t interact with the athletes in the way we’d hoped for,” explains Mark.
To ensure that the hands interacted and the lighting matched, Mark and the ad team changed their plans. After the main athlete’s image was finalised, a stuntman was hired to imitate the athlete’s pose and actors in the background substituted the crowd. These actors were then layered in the crowd during post-processing.
“ My priority is to focus and continue honing my skills and approach.”
Each campaign photograph was created out of many images and graphic layers merged together. Being very particular about his work, Mark and his assistant insisted on working on the post-production themselves. “Essentially, everything about the shoot should be flawless, from shooting and lighting to manipulation and the finished product,” Mark says quite matter-of-factly. “Clients need to be impressed every step of the way. You have to stand out. If you’re trying to emulate or grab someone’s look, you’re blending in. Make your work better than what is out there, literally.”
Praise from Clients
It is Mark’s hard work, determination and an eye for detail that made this campaign possible and successful. According to Elvis Chau, 180/TBWA’s creative director of ‘Together in 2008, Impossible is Nothing’ Olympic Games campaign, it was Mark’s passion for the project that impressed them. They loved his spirit and his positive attitude towards the project from the word “go”. Elvis adds, “Mark met all the specs. He’s a sports photographer with a scrupulous eye for detail, and he retouches his work himself. Mark was simply the best man for the job.”
Passion for Motion Pictures Too
Apart from still pictures, Mark also enjoys directing commercials. “After you do one or two spots, you start realising how it is very similar to still shoots.” With a good team to support him, he makes it all possible. His strong understanding of lighting, angles and details helps him shoot motion pictures. He explains to his team his ideas, settings, shooting angles and they help him figure out what equipment can be used to make it possible.
For Mark, the key to success is “a good creative and all around collaboration from everyone.” He adds, “I’ve definitely been a lot more involved in motion productions lately. It’s a completely different set of challenges, and inspiring in a different sense than stills. I see myself, hopefully, moving onto larger motion projects, but I will always continue to shoot stills.”
Working For a Noble Cause
Apart from making a name for himself in this field, he also works with an NGO called Right to Play. This is a humanitarian organisation that is committed to improve the lives of the most disadvantaged children and their communities living in some of the most disadvantaged areas of the world . “I met people associated with Right to Play, the first time I went to Tanzania, and then a year later I went to Rwanda, Uganda and Sierra Leone. Through those trips I also got contacts and some other assignments. Basically, it is personal work but they get rights to the images and they can use it for all their fundraising and promotions activities.”
Mark’s dedication and endless efforts to hone his skills have got him to where he is today. All his images are creatively driven and meticulously worked upon. This is what makes his images and the commercials appealing. The simple yet important principles he follows are making his work flawless and understanding the client’s needs and ideas. He signs off by saying, “It is an honour to become a part of so many great campaigns, but my priority is to focus and continue honing my skills and approach.”
Tips by Mark
• A lways have a clear idea before you start out on any assignment.
• Y our work should be flawless, as you are creating it for your client.
• M ake your work better than what is out there in the market. This is the key to success.
If Mark were not a photographer, he would have been an astronaut or a policeman. Comics and skater magazines inspired him to get into photography. H e wishes to re-establish his production house Method Inc as a platform that discovers and aids young photographers.