On Set with Zwift

On Set with Zwift

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One of the great things about being a photographer is that you don’t really know what you will be doing from week to week. There are jobs that pay the bills, jobs that take you to interesting places, jobs where you get to meet famous people and jobs that you love doing because they allow you creative freedom. From an industry perspective, probably the most exciting and creative brand currently in the cycling is Zwift. The futuristic gameplay world in their recent campaign featuring Geraint Thomas was unique and hard to miss. It dominated the TV coverage during the TDF in the summer and certainly lifted the brand awareness of Zwift within cycling.

What isn’t obvious to the viewer is the process and logistics of making an advertising campaign. I’ve been working with Zwift for several years now, photographing the print ads alongside the TV crew and have witnessed the scale and complexity of putting on such productions. For starters, the Zwift creative team are based in LA but all the shoots have to take place in mainland Europe. Professional cyclists love routine so long-haul flights and time out of their training plan are to be avoided or minimised. For this reason, an industrial estate in West London is logistically more preferable than sunny California. Also finding a suitable date to shoot a campaign is always problematic as pros are invariably competing or on a training camp. The off season would seem like the best opportunity, but new kit and bikes are still waiting to be announced and there are obligations to sponsors to consider. Getting a date to suit everyone is tough and the more famous the talent, the more difficult it is.

Once you have worked all that out, there is a lot of work to do before the shoot. Apart from working out all the creative concepts for a TV and Stills campaign there are the logistics of how it is all going to work and come together. For the latest campaigns, the concept revolved around the professional cyclist riding within the Zwift gameplay itself. It’s total immersion. To get the effect, a three-sided room set was specially built and the gameplay beamed across the set using three very high-tech projectors. Complex mapping programs for each projector ensure the gameplay doesn’t warp or distort as it changes angle up the walls and floor. This has to be mapped and set for each camera angle so the whole shoot needs to be planned out meticulously and angle of views locked in. The set build and testing take 3-4 days to complete and is still being finalised during the pre-light (where we get the opportunity to test out lighting and iron out any problems).

I’ve worked alongside TV crews before, but the scale of the Zwift production is impressive. It’s a bit like entering Narnia when I first walk on set for the pre light. The view opens up into a 10,000 sq. ft studio with an enormously high ceiling. Centre stage is the three-sided room set illuminated by the Zwift gameplay. It’s quite mesmerising watching this animated futuristic world roll through the story board. There’s equipment and flight cases everywhere. Cables link to various monitors, sound decks and projectors. There must be at least 30+ crew working to get ready for the following days shoot. To the layman, it’s hard to work out everyone’s role and the list of job titles doesn’t help much either – DOP, AD, Gaffer, Runners, Focus Pullers, Stylist, Hair & Make Up, Carpenters, Art Department…

My team is much smaller, but we rely on the film crew and the various assistants none the less. This creates a certain dynamic and sense of hierarchy between the Stills and TV crews which out-number us 10:1. Moving Image has grown up with a sort of, unionist mentality and I’m aware my team will have to play second fiddle to TV over the next few days despite it being an important element of the overall campaign. This extends to the running order for the shoot which probably favours TV, 80% of the time.

Come shoot day, it’s an early start for everyone, including Mathieu Van Der Poel who needs to leave by 2.00pm to catch a flight to Italy for the European Cyclocross Champs. There are even more people on set, including Matt Stephens who is covering the shoot for a podcast and Rouleur Magazine who are writing a behind the scenes feature.

The whole mechanism of the film shoot is fascinating to watch, and you sense Mathieu Van Der Poel is slight taken back by the scale of the production. Professional cyclists grow up in the spotlight, but this is a different environment today. People fuss around him, dab him with make-up, adjust his clothes… Luckily the bike is something he feels at home with and once pedalling he gets into it and immerses himself in the futuristic world of Zwift. The director shouts instructions to go faster, get out the saddle, sprint! He’s a machine, a thoroughbred. Even the non-cyclists in the room are impressed. There is a worry he’ll overdo it and wear himself out for the European Champs in 2 day’s time.

Once the director shouts cut, it’s my turn to shoot the Stills campaign. Our time is limited so I need the help of three assistants to work fast, set up lighting and shoot everything we need in 20-minute slots. This constant pressure of time means there is no second chance to go back and reshoot if something is missed or not quite right. The whole time I’m shooting, I sense the eyes of the film crew in the back of my neck, impatient at this imposter on their set, but I eke out every last second to get as many shots as possible. I’m also conscious MVDP will tire both mentally and physically so it’s important to be efficient with his time. Once I’m happy with the shot, he retires off stage and I shoot some backplates for comping later. This pattern continues throughout the day. It’s a bit of a roller coaster ride between intense activity and long periods of sitting around waiting for our next turn. When MVDP finally leaves to catch his flight, the pressure comes off a little and people relax. The rest of the day is filled shooting extra shots with two amateur cyclists until the producer calls a final wrap. The dark void that that our eyes have adjusted to over the last few days now evaporates as the house lights are switched back on. It reminds me of being in a club at the end of a night when the music stops, and reality comes back into sharp focus again. This is the signal to start de-rigging, pack up equipment and go home. Until the next time.

Take a look at the full behind the scenes shoot here.

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