The Apocalypse comes to Athens
On the set of Fox's NASCAR commercial
Athens, Ga.—At 5:53 a.m., we entered the gates to the Alewine Auto Wrecking Yard on to a narrow red clay-bordered asphalt tunnel burrowing through great piles of car parts, totaled home appliances and aluminum debris. Winter had just begun and on this morning the wind had risen to engulf us in a hollow dusty enclave. Soon, our vehicle abandoned the tarmac and began its bumpy voyage down a dirt road.
After some few minutes on this cluttered and rough track, we exited into a vast open field and met the sun rising behind a massive huddle of pine trees. From afar, the lights of production vehicles, fluttering silhouettes of crews milling about, and the rumbling sound of generators came to us through the morning mist; as we got closer, there were glimpses of a checkered flag topping a mountain of crushed cars, a wrecked bus slammed against telephone poles, a burnt racing car rammed through a fence, and ravaged picnic sets, road signs and tires planted and scattered about. A junkyard to all appearances even more ominous and bereft than the one we had already passed through. Apparently, that is—but not quite.
|Director Joseph Kahn explains his vision of the shot to his crew. (photo: Eric Bomba-Ire)|
Built from scratch and, despite its haphazard aspect, the fruit of careful planning for maximum effect, the site is the result of a frenetic six-day period of exhausting construction work. This set is an amazing visual treat.
"[Director] Joseph Kahn went into great detail in his pre-write of his concept for this whole thing," production designer Guy Tuttle said. "The design direction I got was that this was an apocalyptic debris yard of the results of thousands of years of stock car racing— the archives, the bone yard of NASCAR racing.
"So the idea of that [resulted in] a vision somewhere between Saving Private Ryan—in your face, lots of debris and junk—and the beginning of The Terminator, the apocalyptic land where the robots were out after everybody."
That vision became the set of "Capture the Flag," a three-day commercial shoot for NASCAR and Fox Sports to jumpstart the buzz for the upcoming season of the wildly popular racing series next February. The campaign is intended to consist of four spots with three of NASCAR's younger and hottest stars: Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kurt Busch and Jimmy Johnson.
Each driver stars in a spot that focuses on him individually, while the fourth one is the grand finale wherein the three battle it out against each other to capture the flag.
"The concept of 'Capture the Flag' is based on a game that most of us played as kids, where teams run around and try to capture the other team's flag," said Dan Dieffenbach, vice president of marketing for Fox Sports. "So we looked at the metaphor of capture the flag in a NASCAR setting and we thought about it a couple different ways.
|Kurt Busch jumps into the fray. (photo: Eric Bomba-Ire)|
"One was that the drivers are literally trying to capture the flag—to come in first place—and the other was the very elusive, very ceremonious piece of the racing world, and especially of NASCAR, which is the checkered flag and its different meanings—ultimately as a symbol of Victory."
Just after joining the crew for breakfast and heavy doses of hot coffee to ward off the cold, we were called around 7:00 for a quick meeting where we were introduced to Joseph Kahn.
Kahn is not new to this industry. "Capture the Flag" will mark his third NASCAR commercial for Fox Sports' racing promotional campaigns. "Joseph has always been our number one pick to work with when it comes to these spots because we know what he brings to the table," said Dieffenbach.
Known for his ability to create different worlds—whether in-camera or with special effects—Kahn made a name for himself as a music video director, piloting, among other works, Britney Spears' "Toxic" and "Stronger," and U2's "Stuck In a Moment You Can't Get Out Of." In 2004 he made his film directorial debut for the movie Torque.
The special effects coordinator, local Bob Shelley, then briefed us about the potential risks of the production. "It will involve big explosions, cars flipping in the air, and heavy black smoke," he said.
With all the precautionary bases covered, we were told about the limited time each driver had to spend on set: just three hours each, and the pressure was on. After a little conversation between a rather calm but focused Kahn and director of photography Chris Probst, the crew moved to set up the first shot of the day.
|Special effects coordinator Bob Shelley|
(photo: Eric Bomba-Ire)
Busch was on set for his spot. As he took direction from Kahn, high flames, black smoke and fake ash filled the set.
"It's very fast, it's very tricky at times—it's very dangerous pretty much all the time," said Dieffenbach about NASCAR racing. "It [requires] split second decisions…it really needs communication between the driver and his crew." This is how this production moves, too: very fast, executing quick but controlled set ups in this hazardous set. There is instant communication between client (Fox Sports) and Kahn, then the word is passed on to the crew.
Before noon, Busch is wrapped right on schedule. During lunch, a conversation about the Georgia tax incentive for film and video productions sparked our desire to know if that was essential for this production landing in our backyard.
That was indeed one factor, but there were others as well, Dieffenbach said. " Georgia was our first choice for a couple of reasons. At [this] time of the year the drivers are accessible to the Atlanta area so we started there, trying to get the drivers on camera.
"Availability was also a bit cheap, and geographically desirable. The production company went on to find the best piece of property where they could shoot; they found this yard here in Athens, which was perfect" for Tuttle and his set construction crew.
Before the second half of the day commenced, word about the shoot and the arrival of Earnhardt had leaked out. Soon a crowd of NASCAR fans gathered around the set with cameras in hopes of meeting their favorite racing star.
The rest of the afternoon would not be any different than the first half: fast pace, rapid set ups, and more smoke—a true NASCAR feel brought to the production.
This initial day ended successfully on schedule, as did two following days in which Athens burned the remains of NASCAR on this apocalyptic "Capture the Flag" playground pyre.
Eric Bomba-Ire is the founder of cinemATL.
On Set Report:
Fox NASCAR Commercial,
"Capture the Flag"
The crew shoots from high above the wasteland. (photo: Eric Bomba-Ire)
NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. makes an appearance on set. (photo: Eric Bomba-Ire)
NASCAR driver Jimmy Johnson adjusts his helmet between takes. (photo: Eric Bomba-Ire)
A fireball flips a car into the air. (photo: Eric Bomba-Ire)
Cover Story: Greg Thompson
Establishing Shot: Fairlie-Poplar
The Insider's Scoop: Producing
On Set Reports:
The Last Adam
Fox NASCAR commercial