Mario Kart's Wild Ride to Mobile: Inside the Game's Crazy New Ad

Our animated chat with director Saman Kesh

Mario Kart Tour rolls onto Android and iOS devices later this month. So, naturally, Google Play launched a spot that shows dozens of colorful phones subbing for the iconic go-kart, careening madly from scene to scene and generally raising havoc. 

Created by TBWA\Chiat\Day Los Angeles and production company Golden LA with director Saman Kesh, the 72-second "Start Your Engines" commercial boasts frenetic action at a feverish pace and oodles of easter eggs. (References to the multiplayer mega-hit appear in taxi logos, street and building signage, characters' accessories and clothes, and—most blatantly, perhaps—an explosive shower of small change raining down on café patrons.)

"When Chiat\Day reached out to me, I proposed something that was super chaotic and super fun," Kesh tells Muse. "I wanted it to feel like it was overwhelming and out of control, just like the video game."

Born in Iran, Kesh burst onto the scene a decade ago with "Luv Deluxe," a clip for Cinnamon Chasers that won the SXSW prize for best music video, and was featured in Saatchi & Saatchi's New Directors' Showcase. For that video, which garnered 6 million views on YouTube alone, Kesh employed something of the quick-cut style and giddy energy that propels "Start Your Engines"—without the self-propelled phones, of course.

Since then, he's directed videos for Ed Sheeran, Placebo, Hot Chip and others, and amassed an impressive list of brand credits, including General Mills, Taco Bell (he helmed its ballyhooed Super Bowl 50 quesalupa intro spot) and Visa ("Samba of the World" for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.) 

In our chat below, Kesh describes his love for Mario Kart and explains his creative approach:

Muse: Were you raised on video games?

Saman Kesh: Yes. I've been a huge gamer since I was 4 years old, in 1991. My first systems were the Super Nintendo and the [Sega] Genesis. I would play Super Mario Kart, Streets of Rage, Super Mario World and Donkey Kong Country. Those were my favorite that I still love to play to this day.

Was Mario Kart a particular favorite?

Though I played Super Mario Kart, I was still a little too young to be any good at it. I mostly would watch my brother play it for me. But Mario Kart 64 was where I became competitive. I was really good, and very into it. I would have my friends come over and we would play four-player all through the night. We would wake my parents up in the middle of the night by accident. My poor parents. I can imagine them opening the door and seeing these strung-out kiddies engaging in madness. I remember my parents laughing at how crazy we were behaving. It was like the good side of hysteria. Kid hysteria—kidsteria?

How did you approach making the spot?

My goal was to create something that would make even adults channel their inner kid. Celebrating the chaos was my motto, and Google and Chiat were totally on board with it from the beginning. 

Can you talk about the process?

We shot it in early June, and it released at the end of August. So it was about two and a half months or so. Three to four days of shooting in Vancouver. And then a couple weeks of edit back in L.A. Then the rest of the time was all dedicated to adding the phones in. Most of the phones are CG. I used a laser pen to show the pathways of the phones, so the actors' eye contact and the special effects team were all going off this crazy high powered laser that I was using in the spaces. 

Some people ask why we didn't do practical effects, and the answer is that we wanted a mixture of cartoon [visuals] and reality, and CG was the best way to achieve that. The animation was super key, and we made sure each phone had its own unique personality that would come through. Some phones are more aggressive, some are more defensive, and some are just crazy and crash all the time, like the different users who are playing the game. 

What were the biggest challenges, or the toughest scenes to shoot?

The cat in the Tokyo apartment. That guy—Hansel was his name—I will never forget it. He was adorable, but man did he NOT want to do anything we wanted. In the end, we liked what we got, but it ate almost half the day for those two or three seconds [of action on screen]. The muffin/food crashing sequence in the New York cafe was also very intense. We had to basically break so much stuff for each take, and the reset time was enormous, but my team was amazing and we got it in three takes.

Surprisingly, working with the [adult] actors was the hardest, because they all needed time to acclimate to the idea. It's not every day your phone gets possessed and starts driving off. But the kids were easy. They had the spirit down from the get-go, so that was quick. The biggest challenge was probably the preparation. We had over seven different unique rigs made up for this spot in order to achieve the angles we wanted. From modified wheel barrels to special knee guards for the cameraman to slide on the floor, it was insane, but so much fun.

Any other fun tales from the set?

I guess the moment I always remember was when we were all trying to practice the scene when the main girl dives for her phone. Me, the ECD and the producers all kept fake-diving over and over, discussing the best way to dive. It was really silly and probably unnecessary, but looking back, I realize we were all just super excited by what we were making, and it was coming through with our physical energy. 

Another funny thing was how much we were all on the floor. Because the phones were not on the floor, we had to see the world from that angle. So most people were rarely standing during the shoot. We all had to pretend we were kids, trying to set up this world for these 4- to 5-inch characters. So many behind-the-scenes photos floating around where we are all on the ground. I will remember this project as "the floor job," and I love that. I crawled as a kid. I played on the floor as a kid. And I guess I will always stay a kid.

Finally, JAMM VFX's Andy Boyd, who supervised effects on the the spot, talks about getting those handsets to do his bidding: 

Andy Boyd: Our team hand-animated phones with Mario Kart-style driving dynamics throughout scenes in different towns around the world. Since the phones start off vibrating on tables and in people's hands, a lot of the shots with interactive moments with people or the environment were puppeteered with rigs that were painted out in Flame and replaced with CG replica phones. As the phones drive through the environment, they generate friction with the ground, kicking up bits of dust created with a combination of CG-simulated and in-camera shot elements composited together. Later in the spot, the phones crash into a table as well as some kitchen counter objects. We used the same shooting methodology as with the vibrating phones: Rigs puppeteered the in-camera action, then were painted out in Flame and replaced with CG phones.

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David Gianatasio
David Gianatasio is senior editor at Clio Awards.