Probably Impossible

by Kate Stanworth

Mark Zibert

November 01, 2010 — With precious advertising budgets being split between different sources of media, how does an ad photographer stay on top? Ask Canadian whiz kid Mark Zibert. After landing his first job for Nike 10 years ago, he’s become a sought-after international talent, and his skills just keep on growing.

 “I’ve become known as the crowd guy,” the 33-year-old laughs, referring to his near legendary 2008 Adidas Olympic Games shoot. The job not only tested his skills as a photographer, but proved him to be an excellent director, managing 300 people on set to create scenes in which Chinese professional athletes emerge from crowds of thousands in a stadium in Beijing. Try as you might, it is impossible to spot repetition in these ambitious images. Perfectionist that he is, Mark insisted there be no cloning involved.

“We actually shot every person in position,” he says. “We spent two days just shooting the extras, moving around, from all angles.”

It wasn’t just on the set where his resolve was tested. The shoot was on and off again for months and the crew only had 24 hours notice to pack their bags and leave for China. When they arrived their gear didn’t get through customs. As if that wasn’t enough, their artists’ representation shut down the day after they left. But luckily the local team stayed on board, and one way or another, the shoot went ahead.

Mark doesn’t let a challenge faze him. This ambitious shooter got his debut Nike job shortly after leaving Sheridan photo school in his native Toronto when he was just 23. He rose to the occasion, and word of his talent got around. “That was the shoot that launched my career,” he says. “It was crazy. The campaign got really good press and reps started calling me.”

Now represented by top agent Vaughan Hannigan in New York, and Visual Artists in England, along with an elite selection of talented photographers, his portfolio abounds with eye-catching images. These include shots of heroic sportsmen running through water and scoring fantasy goals, photos of fans celebrating their team’s win in a flurry of ticker tape and smoke, and immaculate product shoots for the likes of Stella Artois and Grolsch.

Mark also boasts Virgin, Nissan and Pepsi among his clients. When asked how he gets these big jobs over other photographers he explains: “You get on the phone to the agency and convince them you’re right for the job.” Mark was in the shortlist for the Adidas Olympic campaign with five other photographers, whom he considers were equally capable of doing the shoot. “I told them I’ll come and live in China for six months and I’ll do my own Photoshop. So I was offering the whole combo,” he says.

“That’s pretty standard now,” says Mark, of doing your own post. “I think when I first came out of school I was one of a handful that was doing their own retouching, but now kids have Photoshop as half their program.” With his hectic schedule however, Mark does this less and less, feeling it takes him “out of the game” to really do it properly.

Nevertheless, he considers it all-important to be hands on in postproduction. Having done it himself in the past, he feels he can give solid direction since he knows what’s possible and what isn’t. Another advantage is that he can show the client rough mock-ups of his ideas on set. “We’ll shoot the set and build an image quite quickly to see where the ad’s gonna go,” he says. “The client starts to understand, since they’re seeing it as they go, versus having to talk them through it and them having to trust us.”

For all the slick production of some of his work, the shoots he is most excited about are those that mix crafty cut and paste post work with a simple approach to lighting. On a fashion editorial shoot he used on-camera flash to photograph a man doing acrobatics around a room. He then composited various photos together so he appeared several times in each image. The finished product has an honest, point-and-shoot look: “Everything’s in camera. It’s just a cut and paste thing,” Mark says. “The lighting approach was really raw.”

When it came to doing an ad for Nike, Mark wanted to use a similar approach to make a highly constructed scene appear to be a candid shot. The image shows a skier jumping through fir trees at night with a group of deer staring into a flashlight, which seems to have caught them 
all unaware.

Mark shot the deer in a studio and later Photoshopped them onto the snow scene, photographed in the wilderness of British Columbia. “Falling snow is created in the shot as well as all the deer,” he explains. Further images in the series involve an owl and some wolves. “The shots would have been impossible to get in camera.” The point-and-shoot style really makes you stop and look. “You take away the entire look of a produced ad and just add the retouching. The lighting is so straight that you naturally just assume it’s a shot,” Mark says.

Coming up with fresh approaches to photography is just one way Mark has managed to stay ahead of the game in a fast changing ad industry. Five years ago he also started making films. While working on a print campaign with John Street in Toronto, Mark asked the creative director if they could make it into a TV campaign since they had a bit of money left over. He helped develop a script, sold it to the client and created his first commercial. “After that it just started taking off and I got picked up by a production company,” he recalls.

Mark’s move into film means he can now, more than ever, be “the whole package.” By way of proof, clients Infinity and United Way recently booked him to do both stills and film on the same campaign. Mark thinks this approach makes sense for a client as there’s consistency across the job. “Production-wise I think it might be a little better too because we can shoot stills and motion at the same time without anyone getting annoyed that the other person is getting in their way,” he adds. “If the lighting we’re using for film has the right stop and technically it has the right background we might shoot the stills as we’re setting up something else. Or sometimes we have a little side set.”

He considers his knowledge of post-production also comes in handy for moving image: “The principles are the same. You’re using different software, but if you know Photoshop well and understand lighting, it all translates,” he says. This knowledge gave Mark an advantage when making a film for the Japanese city of Sapporo recently: “We worked with some amazing Photoshop artists to create worlds that we later brought into a program called Inferno,” Mark explains. “We applied 2D art to 3D geometry, making a 3D space so that when the camera moved the perspective changed.”

The finished ad is a rich, visual feast with an epic feel to rival even that of his Olympic shoot: Taking us on an ascent through labyrinthine rocks and waterfalls, the film confronts the viewer with giant sumo wrestlers, ritualistic drummers, dragons and ice sculptures, before finally emerging out onto a modern Japanese cityscape.

From the deceptively simple to the seemingly impossible, Mark has achieved a great deal for a photographer in his early 30s. He now has an impressive show reel that includes ads for car manufacturers, drink companies and charities, all based on simple concepts, strong imagery and clever effects. “I think the learning curve isn’t as extreme as one might think,” says Mark. “Photographers are directing a shoot. It’s just one plane versus many. That’s the only difference.” Perhaps that step from the seemingly impossible to the deceptively simple isn’t as large as it seems.

To see more of Mark’s work visit www.markzibert.com. Mark Zibert is represented by: Stills: JK Reps (Canada), VH Artists (USA), Visual Artists (UK) Film: Sons and Daughters (Canada) and RSA (USA/UK).


Kate Stanworth is a British writer and photographer. She works as an editorial photo editor and writes on diverse aspects of art and culture in London and Buenos Aires.

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