By Bill Boehlke
Some videos have viral written all over them.
Case in point: “Midnight Lights.” Featuring a fusion of deft imagery, funky electronic dance music, a little creative wizardry, and the Seattle Seahawks home stadium – CenturyLink Field, “Midnight Lights” is, as one viewer on YouTube put it, “What arenas do when they think nobody’s watching.”
With nearly 400,000 views on YouTube since it was first posted, the video has become a sensation, especially with the Seahawks 12th Man. And after repeated viewings, the common question seems to be: how did they do this? (watch the video below)
Meet Jimmy Diebold. A director in the commercials industry, Diebold came up with the initial idea while living in New York City.
“It was an idea I had for a long time,” he recalls. “I remember sitting at my window in New York and looking at some of these tall buildings and listening to some cool music and thinking, I bet I could animate the lights in the windows. Not going in and turning off the lights, but setting up a camera here and waiting for the lights to turn on and off on their own. And I could take these time-lapse pictures and edit them together to create a real simple video.”
If you’ve seen the video then you know you’ve never seen CenturyLink Field look like this before, and that was the intent Diebold had while his idea was germinating.
“My strengths are in visuals, having really cool, dynamic moments,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of beauty stuff for Dove and Unilever, and once people see that stuff on your demo reel you get kind of pigeon holed.”
When Diebold and his family relocated to San Francisco a year ago, he figured it would be an opportunity to do something different.
“I wanted to shoot something that was more like what I was about - street culture, sports, the NFL. I was digging through my ideas while the NFL lockout was happening and I thought this would be perfect. We wouldn't need a huge budget, we would just need access to the stadium and the lights.”
Before Seattle came into the picture for this project, Diebold was very familiar with Seahawks fans.
“I knew about the power of the 12th Man,” he said. “I didn't know too much about the stadium and how beautiful it was until I did some research on it. But I had some background on the team and the transition it was going through, and I got the sense that the Seattle fans were really good.”
“Midnight Lights” can easily remind viewers of the mothership from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” with its animated lights. But while that film was done with a high level of special visual effects work, Diebold emphasizes that there is absolutely no CGI used in his video.
That's because it was all shot with digital SLR still cameras. But it wasn’t easy. Turns out, trying to convince people about the validity of an idea you have, and then get them to grant you access to their stadium to pull it off is a job unto itself.
“There were a number of times when this project kind of died,” said Diebold. “We were in Philadelphia doing a job with a DP (director of photography) that I really wanted to work with on my lights idea, if it ever happened. So I pitched it to him and he fell in love with it. He sold the idea to my producer, who happened to have a close friend that worked for Vulcan Ventures in Seattle. That was a good contact to have, and about two weeks after that we were told we could have access to the stadium to shoot it.”
Diebold had made a short list of stadiums where he wanted to shoot. Chicago’s Soldier Field was one of them with its spaceship-looking stadium. He also wanted banks of lights that would animate well, and CenturyLink Field filled the bill.
“I asked a lot of technical questions, like how long did it take to turn on the stadium lights, and figure out logistically how it was going to work,” he said. “I also asked if I could get in for one of the Seahawks’ preseason games - the Oakland game (Sept. 2, 2011) - and if I could get access to pick out the angles we were going to shoot. I needed to know that up front so we weren't wasting any time the night of the shoot. ”
The lights at CenturyLink field can be turned on and off individually, but not without a little effort.
“I found out it was going to take 15 minutes to let the lights warm up enough for our cameras. We thought this was going to be impossible, we would never be able to do this,” said Diebold. “And they were giving me until midnight to shoot this. It doesn't get dark enough outdoors until around 8:00 pm, and now that gives us four hours to shoot. And there are 24 light banks."
Diebold also quickly realized that he would need the help of a lot of photographers if he was going to pull this off.
“I had to have more cameras out there, so I put out a call for photographers,” he said. “I had a lot of people respond back, and all the people we wound up getting were big Seahawks fans and they were totally into the project. I told them there was no pay involved, that they would have to come out and sit in one spot and take a bunch of crazy photos. Lock their camera down on a tripod and take a series of still frames of what they were seeing.”
And it was up to one person to turn the lights on and off in the stadium.
“There's a guy in the stadium that deserves a huge amount of credit. He was in charge of turning on the lights and knew where all the lights were. He could turn on each one, one by one, and that's exactly what we did. He could have left at 11:00 pm and said 'that's it, I'm done guys'. But when we met him, I sat down with him and tried to explain exactly what I was going to do, and he was into it. I asked how long we could go, and he said ‘as long as you need.’”
Diebold shot until sunrise.
“Every camera, every angle you see in the video took anywhere from 80-150 still photographs of the lights,” he said. “We wanted the stadium to look like it was talking, like it was dancing, just turning on to the beat - on off, on off. We wanted it to talk, to take this inanimate object and have it come alive. That was the main goal from the very beginning.”
Now armed with thousands of photos, Diebold was tasked with labeling and loading them into his editing system so he could then begin to put his video together. And a key ingredient for the video to work was finding the right music that had the energy and beat points to help synchronize the animation of these photos.
“When I had to pre-visualize how these lights were going to work with the music, I took a good look at Dubstep,” said Diebold. “The song I used had just came out and I loved it; it was on repeat on my iPod for a week. I would visualize it and it seemed to work really well. It was a lot easier to animate the lights to it. Dubstep works so much better for the lights because it feels like there's energy going through the lights.”
Dubstep is a form of electronic dance music that originates from South London, and the music used for the video - M83's "Midnight City" Dubstep remix - was created by PatrickReza, who is 19 years old.
Diebold did a test by animating a sequence of stadium photos to the music to make sure it worked. As for the test result, Diebold said “it was awesome.”
“It was really easy to see that if I could finish it, get these clips together and then edit it in a way that told a story, it was really going to be awesome,” he said. “For a while there I didn't know if the effect was going to work - if the stadium lights turning on was going to look silly or if it was going to look powerful, and with the Dubstep music it definitely fit into the powerful realm.”
Staring at thousands of still photos and trying to form them into a story of sorts is time consuming. And time was in short supply for Diebold, with other production jobs to handle following his stadium shoot.
“This project was so complex putting together that any distractions really slow you down,” he recalls. “I just needed not to have any distractions at all with all these steps that had to take place, and how I had to set up just one shot and make sure I had all these elements in place in order to get to the next step.
“Towards the holidays we had a big chunk of free time where we could just sit there and focus. And then things really started moving along, and I thought I had better get this out. With the playoffs beginning I had better get this out before the Super Bowl began. I think it worked out great.”
Diebold uploaded his video to YouTube on January 31, 2012, not knowing what kind of reaction it would get from viewers.
“I thought maybe when it had 9,000 hits, that would be where it would peak and then mellow out,” he said. “And there have been so many great responses. The 12th Man came out and they loved it, the Dubstep fans absolutely loved it, and now I just don't know what to think anymore. I'll check out some of the comments on YouTube at the end of the day, and they're really cool, they're funny.”
Diebold credits Seahawks fans for helping “Midnight Lights” become the viral success it is.
“The 12th Man picked this up on Twitter, and they were Tweeting to each other,” he said. “They were some of the first to respond. When they started writing I thought, wow, this might be something special.
“Seattle was on my short list, with the arches and the color of lights, and you add to that the 12th Man, and it was just so perfect. The fans are awesome and the response has been incredible, and all of that is Seattle.”