The World Cup isn’t just about the love of soccer. With close to a billion viewers expected to follow this year’s matches, the world’s largest sporting event inspires sponsors and broadcasters to spend enormous amounts of money to pitch their products to the crowds.
Earlier this month, as they do every four years, both Nike and Adidas unveiled their cinematic commercial campaigns. This time around, however, there’s a new entrant in this strongly contested field.
Last week, Beats by Dr. Dre joined the fray with “The Game Before the Game,” a five-minute spot chronicling the pre-game rituals of athletes like Brazilian star Neymar, who is seen in a phone conversation with his father ahead of Brazil’s opening World Cup match. The video also features Germany’s Mario Götze, Mexico’s Chicharito and other guest stars from Serena Williams to Lil Wayne.
To direct the shoot, Beats called on photographer-turned-filmmaker Nabil Elderkin, who’s made his name directing videos by Kanye West, Bon Iver and Nicki Minaj, among many others.
While directing notoriously temperamental musicians can be tricky, bringing athletes together can be a logistical nightmare.
“A music video is generally shot over one or two days, maximum,” Nabil tells TIME. “The artist is confirmed for that day, and there’s a narrative planned for the shoot. I also can talk with the musicians about the videos to make sure we’re on the same page. With the Beats spot, we had to work around these athletes’ schedules, which can change daily as they have intense schedules during the season, especially leading up to the World Cup. I also hadn’t met them prior to the shoot.”
Yet, says Nabil, it all went smoothly. “The feeling I got from the get-go was that the whole project was driven by the tight relationships Beats has with these talents. The athletes and musicians worked with us as if we were all part of the same family. It didn’t feel like they were just sponsored athletes endorsing a product. They were happy to be involved and this really made the shooting environment much more relaxed and intimate.”
“The Game Before the Game” was filmed and post-produced over six weeks. “I worked with Omar Johnson, Beats’ vice-president of marketing. His goal was to keep the team lean, agile and aggressive. He didn’t want a large production because we knew that we would need to be opportunistic. I feel this approach really helped in creating an intimate setting where these players were comfortable to share with us their actual pre-game rituals, which are very personal. It also helped us in being able to bounce around the world efficiently.”
Nabil worked days and nights for a month across eight different time zones. “The lack of sleep never helps you stay as creative as you want, but we went for it. The cinematographer, Danny Hiele, and I had a few hairy moments in the helicopter over Rio when the weather was windy and stormy – altitude drops when flying in a helicopter are definitely ‘God-help-me’ moments. Danny was literally hanging out of the plane with a massive camera and just a single-strap seatbelt holding him in.”
The results, however, have evidently been worth the effort. The clip has already accrued 7 million views on YouTube and stands out from, for example, Adidas’s official 2014 clip — in part, says Nabil, thanks to Beats’ take on the film’s production. “Beats wanted to do it more like a music video as opposed to a commercial. In the end, music wins.”
And for Nabil, music has always been an integral part of his life. He got his first break when, in 2000, he registered the domain name http://www.kanyewest.com. That was before the rapper had signed his first label. The two became friends, and when the photographer looked to expand his horizons with video, West hired him to direct a few of his songs. “Kanye and John Legend gave me the opportunity to try my own video,” he says. “These videos had low budgets and were for non-single songs, but that gave me a little more freedom to play around, which really was a great learning experience. I did some weird videos. When I listen to music that moves me, it conjures stories and imagery. Weird things happen in my head.”
Now, the photographer is looking to direct his first feature film. But in the meantime, he wouldn’t say no to “a good surfing trip with some of my friends,” he says. “I’ve been talking about doing that for the past seven years. It’s about time.”
Nabil Elderkin is a photographer and director based in Los Angeles.
Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on twitter @olivierclaurent.