Just DU It
A popular Nike ad features the work of alumna Izzie Raitt
On July 30, nearly five months into a global pandemic, professional basketball was back. Sports fans — and those searching for some sense of normalcy — could finally exhale. Izzie Raitt (BA ’17) breathed a sigh of relief, too.
A University of Denver alumna, Raitt had spent the previous months laboring over the most prominent project of her life: Wieden+Kennedy’s ad for Nike, “You Can’t Stop Us.” The ad, its debut coordinated with the return of pro sports, premiered to rave reviews and dropped jaws. Its message of resilience resonated during tough times. But the ad’s editing — featuring 78 split-screen clips seamlessly stitched together — stole the spotlight.
In an interview with the DU Newsroom, which has been edited for clarity, Raitt, who earned a degree in media studies from the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, explains how she helped uncover the footage that made Nike’s unprecedented ad so poignant.
You’re credited as an “image researcher” on this ad. What is that exactly?
We shot maybe five or six things [ourselves]. [The rest is] all “found footage.” So I was the person looking for those shots. Basically someone would say, “We want to find a shot that does this,” and then I was the person that found it.
For this ad in particular, to match images, the requests must have been so specific.
It was a bit of chicken and the egg. Like, “We know we need this side of it, so once we find this side it dictates the other side. But, oh now we really like that side, so maybe we can find something different for this side.” I would get my five-times-daily list of things we were looking for and I would give them everything that the internet had for it.
I have a photographic memory of the last five years of worldwide sports now. I have seen it all. The [number] of times I hit the end of results on Google and YouTube — I didn’t know you could do that, but I’ve done it a lot now.
What’s an example of something they would ask you for?
A bicycle kick was the notorious one that haunts me to this day. I would go on YouTube and find all the bicycle kicks. However, with it being a Nike ad, we’re really limited on what we can actually show. So it has to be a Nike-sponsored athlete, and it has to be on a Nike-sponsored team in a Nike-sponsored league. So you would be like, “I found the perfect one. This person does a perfect bicycle kick and they’re wearing Nike and they’re on a Nike team. But the league is Adidas-sponsored so we can't use it.” Or, “this bicycle kick is perfect but there’s someone prominently in the background who is on another team and they’re Puma-sponsored so we can’t use it.”
Everything would start seemingly vast in options, but the more you would whittle it down, you would realize there are maybe 10 times [something] has happened in the history of the world and there’s video footage of eight of them, and the video footage is terrible in six, so here’s the two that are pretty good. And then you’ve gotta find the other side. So we were looking at Sepak Takraw — volleyball with your feet, I think it’s popular in the Philippines and Thailand; they do a lot of bicycle kick motions to spike it. Then you have to get the angles right, and maybe this guy’s left-footed and our soccer player is right-footed. So everything on first glance was like, “Oh, there's a million ways to do this,” and then it truly ends up that the one that is in the spot is the one that worked after we tried hundreds.
A lot of people on the internet thought I was a robot or AI searching for the footage, but I would just like to say it was my own eyeballs. There was no algorithm involved. Most everything we found on YouTube, Reddit. Twitter was great. [And] Chinese YouTube. I took Chinese at DU; that came in handy searching.
That must be why, when you shared this on LinkedIn, you credited the team with putting in their “blood, sweat and tears (maybe mostly me with the tears).”
It’s just the frustration of thinking something is perfect — you finally found it after looking for months, and then an athlete is under fire for some reason, and we can’t use it. But the team effort was unlike anything I’ve ever seen or could fathom. We worked seven days a week for at least a month straight, and we were working on average 13- to 14-hour days. I think my average weekly time was at least 80 hours.
Do you have a favorite shot from the commercial?
I have a story for every single one. There was so much work put into it that you can’t help it.
The woman with the niqab skateboarding that goes into Leo Baker skateboarding holding the pride [flag made of rainbow] smoke. The girl on the skateboard was one that someone had found before I started; they had had it in their back pocket the whole time, but they couldn’t figure out how to get in contact with this person to be able to license it. It was just from a YouTube video. So I took it as a personal project to be able to find this girl and get her permission to use it. The whole video is in a Malaysian language, so I used Google Translate, figured out it was for a class project at a university in Kuala Lumpur. Through that we found the professor of the class and his contact info, and he was able to find her contact info even though he taught the class five years ago. That was [a clip] everyone loved but thought they weren’t going to be able to use, and I was able to find her.
There's one of [tennis star] Naomi Osaka turning into [LA Dodgers outfielder] Joc Pederson. I like that you can really see the focus in her eyes. The more I did this project, the more I realized that the movements in so many sports are so similar. [With] tennis and baseball, you only think of them as similar in the swings, but there’s a totally different part of the sport that matches up.
What was it like for you, once this thing was finally put to bed, to hear people saying things like, “Wow, what magnificent editing; I've never seen a commercial like this before”?
It was really validating, because we had been putting so much work into this thing. We knew it was good, but when you’re staring at something so intensely for that many months, you wonder if it’s just you that thinks it’s really cool or if other people will appreciate it. To see that it went over well was a relief. All of that work was worth it.
They say you don’t notice the best film editing. When you see a great movie, you’re thinking about the story and the acting and all that. The other thing that was really unique about this project is that when it came out, the main thing that was being said was that the editing and postproduction were unreal. To have that be the main story was really special, especially because we knew how much hard work was put into it. Seeing that recognized was pretty great. That doesn’t happen often.
When you were working on the ad, did you think back on your time at DU?
I gained so much confidence at DU — that’s been the biggest thing in all of this. I think it’s really easy to undersell yourself, but in everything that I did at DU, there was such an undercurrent of, “You got this. We’re here to teach you the tools, but you’re the one that’s going to do it.” I was always the one asking, “Do you think I can really work in film production?” And the answer was always: “You’re going to be fine. You can do it.” Without that, I probably would have sold myself short and thought, “I can’t work on Nike’s global spot; that’s for the pros.”