The NYC "Miracle" Spots

Leave it to digital video production and postproduction artists to conjure up images of inspiration that can help turn a year of such tragedy into uplifting optimism.
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(click thumbnail)Woody Allen in “Miracle of New York” SpotLeave it to digital video production and postproduction artists to conjure up images of inspiration that can help turn a year of such tragedy into uplifting optimism. The images are contained in a series of "Miracle of New York" public service announcements in which several New York celebrities urge Americans to visit The Big Apple, each spot ending with a tag from mayor Rudy Giuliani encouraging the viewer, "The New York Miracle. Be a Part of It."

Produced completely pro bono by the New York-based BBDO, the PSAs were scheduled to run nationally from Thanksgiving through year's end, depending on network buys. But considering that the ads were revealed to the press during a ceremony at N.Y.C.'s City Hall on Nov. 8 – less than two months after the attack on the World Trade Center – the production turnaround required to bring these rays of video hope to the screen is almost as impressive as their content.

"The mayor's office contacted us through our parent company, Omnicom Group Inc. on Oct. 22," said Regina Ebel, director of TV Production at BBDO, "and our creative team of Phil Dusenberry, Ted Sann, Michael Patti, Gerry Graf, David Johnson and John Leu enthusiastically took on the campaign. It was a positive, exciting project and everyone – especially the local post companies – was eager to volunteer in an effort to benefit the city that we love."

Feature film director Barry Levinson helmed the "Miracle of New York" spot in which Robert DeNiro and Billy Crystal star with a pilgrim talking to his Thanksgiving turkey ("Hey, you gobblin' at me?"), and Bryan Buckley of Hungry Man Productions directed the one in which Barbara Walters earnestly auditions for "A Chorus Line" with gusto substituting for singing talent.

STARS COME OUT

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The other four PSAs were shot and directed by Joe Pytka through his PYTKA production company. One depicts Yogi Berra vigorously conducting Ravel's "La Valse" in front of the New York Symphony. The ad is capped with Yogi turning to the screen with a classic malaprop, "Who in the heck is this guy, Phil Harmonic?"

Another PSA features Dr. Henry Kissinger diving into home plate at Yankee Stadium; a third depicts a woman living out her dream by meeting Ben Stiller and Kevin Bacon while ordering their namesake sandwiches at New York's famous Stage Deli.

But the most glittering postproduction special effect of the "Miracle" series appears in the fourth spot Pytka directed, which features a solitary figure twirling across the ice beneath the statue of Prometheus at Rockefeller Center on an unusually empty skating rink.

In the final shot, the skater spins wide-armed toward camera to reveal that it's the notoriously nonathletic Woody Allen. "You're not going to believe it," Woody beams. "This was the first time I put on ice skates in my life!" He then glides off into a spectacular split, leaving the viewer to wonder how in tarnation the video wizards conjured up the transition to and from the stand-in (pro skater Parker Pennington) to the breathless Allen. It comes across so seamlessly that you would swear Woody was born to the blades.

ON-LOCATION

"We filmed the skating spot on Oct. 24," explained executive producer, PYTKA, Kathy Rhodes, "and to make it even more challenging, we only took two hours on-location to get all our shots – including just 15 minutes for Woody Allen's insert. Joe is really good at shooting everything we needed in the time we [are] given."

Considering the fluidity with which Joe Pytka's handheld shot of skater Pennington miraculously blends into the spinning close-up of Allen, this is one of the slickest editing and compositing effects seen on either the small or big screen.

All four of Pytka's spots were edited in New York at Crew Cuts with Clayton Hemmert cutting the first three. But it was editor Sherri Margulies who piloted (in addition to the DeNiro/Crystal gobbler) the Avid Media Composer with her assistant, Jake Jacobson, on Woody Allen's skating debut.

"Right after the World Trade Center tragedy on Sept. 11, I tried to volunteer to help with the relief effort," Margulies recalled, "but my particular video post skills did not seem to be applicable to what was needed. So I was excited to find a way I could contribute to helping get New York back to the spirit it should have. You don't mind working 24 hours a day when it is something this rewarding."

Margulies' editing of the Allen spot is deceptively simple, utilizing only four shots. It starts with a wide angle on the lone skater taken from the perspective of the Rockefeller Center audience gallery, cuts to an over-the-shoulder from behind the golden Prometheus statue, then to a high shot of the skater twirling and finally to an eye-level view of the skater spinning toward the camera to reveal Allen close-up, delivering his line.

The edits seem so natural that Margulies' version breezed through the approval process. In fact, when she cut from the skater going just behind the head of Prometheus to the high angle on his twirling, it just seems intuitive to an editor's eye. She was even able to use the Avid's compositing capabilities to rough in the transition from skater Pennington to comedian Allen.

"By moving keyframe to keyframe, it came out surprisingly well for the agency's review," she told us. "But of course the effect had to be finalized on a much more sophisticated compositing system to be ready for air."

HANDING IT OFF

That's when the spot was handed off to (the Discreet) flame specialist Johnnie Semerad at New York's premiere effects house, Quiet Man. Semerad has contributed to many of Joe Pytka's past productions, but merging these two handheld shots would reveal the depths of his – and his effects team's – skills.

"The three ‘Miracle of New York' PSAs we worked on involved close to 300 hours of effort from the 28-person staff at our midtown Manhattan facility that lies within sight of the World Trade Center," Semerad began. "Regina Ebel called us at 4:00 on a Wednesday afternoon, telling me to get to Rockefeller Center by 6 for the Woody Allen shoot. We've worked with Joe Pytka and BBDO a lot, so it was kind of like getting the band back together."

Quiet Man has five stations consisting of Discreet's inferno, flame and flint systems, and Semerad found that meeting BBDO's deadline was akin to leading an army of specialists. "We'd ‘hot bunk' the schedule where the night shift would replace the day guys while the seat was still warm," he said. "It was a round-the-clock operation."

So how was the Woody/skater miracle accomplished? "We had shots of Allen turning his head around slowly, and then tracked it onto the stand-in skater frame-by-frame. The trick is that since you are always seeing Woody's head – even in the wide portion of the shot – the audience cannot tell when the transition occurs. We've been doing this for a while and that kind of perfection is simply what is expected of us."

Of course, the essence of this kind of magic is that you cannot identify when the slight of hand takes place. They even added a puff of breath steam over Woody's mouth to simulate the chill of the skating rink.

But not every facility could justify devoting this amount of work time gratis even for a project like this. "I did it with a smile on my face," Semerad said, "and I'd do it again. It was a great project and everyone wanted to help out."