Crowns & Owls on training ice skaters to operate cameras in order to shoot the fastest woman on ice, in a 50m-long tunnel
Shim Suk-hee is a gold medalist speed skater and activist speaking out against sexual assault in South Korean sport. Crowns & Owls’ short for Nike spotlights her amazing story.
- 16 July 2020
- Ruby Boddington
Often, when working on big agency commercial spots, you’re walking into something that has been pretty highly developed explains directorial trio Crowns & Owls, “and your job as a director is to execute that vision and if you’re lucky, you have a little room to try to bring a bit of your flavour into it.” For one of the collective’s recent jobs, however, this wasn’t the case. Produced with Wieden+Kennedy Tokyo, the short film tells the story of Shim Suk-hee; “the gold medalist speed skater and a national icon whose bravery in confronting her experience with systematic physical, sexual and mental abuse within 2019 South Korean sport triggered a widespread movement which forever changed legislation and discourse around the subject.”
“With this piece,” the team explains, “we were brought in when the script was still being developed, which was one of the most exciting parts about it actually.” This has resulted in an incredible, short but sweet, spot filmed on one of South Korea’s biggest ice rinks, in a custom-built giant tunnel, filmed by ice hockey players who Crowns & Owls trained to use cameras. The concept that emerges from this incredible process is that of journeying from darkness to light, with Suk-hee leading the next generation. “When you’re working with durations as short as this, you have to try and tell a story as visually as you can – you don’t have time to lean into things like dialogue too heavily,” the trio adds.
It’s a narrative Crowns & Owls produced in response to Nike’s brief. “There was never an ambition to sell a product, it’s simply a piece to say that Nike is proud to support athletes who do extraordinary things, which is kind of a dream situation to be put in as directors really,” it adds. The notion of Shim leading the pack not only resonates with the way she triggered a movement in South Korea, but also with the sport she has pioneered, mimicking what is referred to in speed skating as “a wind shadow”.
Originally, the location for the ad was undecided with the idea of setting it on a frozen lake being discussed. “We sat with it for a while and thought about how we could really amplify the metaphor, knowing it was always going to be a fight against the clock as the piece had to be roughly 30 seconds,” Crowns & Owls explains. “We arrived at the idea of the oppressive concrete tunnel, where Shim initially starts alone, before we reveal the kids behind her, and the tunnel gives way to a hopeful sunrise.”
While this is, of course, an incredible idea – once it was decided, Crowns & Owls had to go about making it happen. “It probably comes as no surprise to learn that brutalist ice tunnels aren’t really a thing, so we started trying get our head around that part,” the trio jokes. After toying with the idea of shooting on artificial ice in a studio but discovering that Shim wasn’t allowed to skate on it for insurance reasons, the “only logical step” was to build a set on actual ice – “the cards had been dealt!”
The collective worked with set designer James Hamilton to make it happen but that’s not to say the process was without its challenges. Firstly, they had to find an ice rink willing to let the team build something that big on it, as well as convincing them they could do it without damaging the surface. “This took a lot of convincing from our producer, but eventually we had a spot, which was about an hour from Seoul.” From there, they had to figure out how to build something that was going to be on-screen long enough when Shim reached her race speed of 40mph. “It made the most sense to make the structure in a horseshoe shape so we wouldn’t constantly be seeing the mouth of the tunnel in our shots, but the tightness of the angles was another sticking point, as obviously we had to be sure we weren’t building a death trap for thirty speed skaters,” the trio continues. “There was a lot of 3D renders and head-scratching going on between us and James, but eventually we settled on a design that was 50-metres-long.”
In total, the tunnel took a week to build and was installed in a single day. “We had an incredible crew,” Crowns & Owls adds. “The whole structure is wooden and then given concrete texture by scenic painters. It’s all the details that make it – the drains, the vents, the pipes, the signage – it felt so real once you were in there.”
Then there was the challenge of training ice skaters to operate cameras to a professional standard as, let’s be honest, they needed to be pretty creative in order to shoot the fastest woman on ice and the only plausible solution was to have those working the cameras also ice skating – something Crowns & Owls or none of their team could do. “They held a camera on the ice for the first time less than 24 hours before the shoot,” the trio explains, amazingly. “We essentially had a scaffolding bar with a stabilising camera system attached to it which takes out the bumps and shakes, and our two operators would hold that between them and then just tank it after Shim. It was amazing to watch. We had a wireless joystick that let us move the camera a little, but the rest was on them. They absolutely smashed it. The piece wouldn’t be what it is without those guys.”
With such an incredible project under its belt, we asked Crowns & Owls to pull out any highlights from the process, to which it responds: “Being trusted with Shim’s story was a massive honour, and knowing she’s happy with the piece was a big moment for us. There was no room to get the tone of this wrong, it had to be sensitive and emotive…. Seeing Shim fly through the tunnel for the first time on camera was massive too. The whole experience of seeing an unlikely idea, which came together on a phone call between the three of us, come into physical fruition on the other side of the world is a real trip and reminded us of why we love what we do. Thank you to everyone who helped us make this one happen.”
GalleryBTS on Nike Korea, You Can’t Stop Us. Directed by Crowns & Owls
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.