Branded stories about elite athletes are mildly interesting. This one for sportswear brand, On, is riveting. Not to undermine its hero, Olympian skeleton race, Akwasi Frimpong, who has faced just about every obstacle a human on a mission can, but the power of this story lies in its storytelling. Australian filmmaker, Richard Bullock, uses the style of a graphic novel to tell it. The ten-minute film, Black Ice, intercuts hand-drawn images with live shots and the production is a unique combination of live-action footage fused with graphic design and animation.
Richard Bullock explained, “My philosophy as a writer and director particularly in the field of sports brands has been to avoid portraying the athletes as superheroes. I’ve done a lot of work grounding athletes as real people. But Akwasi’s story lent itself so directly to the notion of a superhero I eventually gave in and went for it. The key difference between him and superheroes is he is actually real. His superpower is resilience.”
After speaking with Frimpong, Bullock decided to approach the story in a different way from the many athlete stories told by brands. “Instead of a script or storyboard, I wrote down Akwasi’s story in the form of a graphic novel. I handed that to Dean Mortensen, my illustrator, who was tasked with bringing it to life as a graphic novel. The book itself, which was animated by Brett McManus for the film, became a character in the film, and it forced the filmmakers to think differently about all aspects of the production. ‘It’s uncomfortable and new for all of us,’ was the response. Probably what Akwasi felt like the first time he slid head-first down an ice run at 90mph.”
The film was developed over six months, and including segments filmed on location across Europe and Africa, Black Ice brings the pages of its graphic novel to life through the eyes of the children it aims to inspire.
At the age of 16, Frimpong, already a rapidly improving track athlete living in the Netherlands, became the Dutch National 200m champion, but his career was held back because he was unable to travel to European competitions due to his citizenship status. He was, however, accepted into the Johan Cruyff School where he worked to become International Student of the Year.
Then, while training for the 2012 London Olympics, Frimpong ruptured his Achilles tendon, putting his Olympic ambitions in danger. While recovering, he considered his options, applying to American colleges and being accepted by Utah Valley University, where he graduated with honours in Business Studies.
With an Olympic goal in his sights, Frimpong decided to turn to a different sport and took part in a skeleton trial in which he excelled. He worked hard and defied all expectations by qualifying for the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang in 2018. Frimpong became the first black male Skeleton athlete in Olympic history. Through self-determination, he then became the first African athlete to win an elite skeleton race sanctioned by the USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation and arrived at a new Olympic dream. He set his sights on the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022.
However, there is no place at this year’s games for Frimpong. He contracted COVID-19 on December 29 with three qualifying races left. This meant that was unable to accumulate enough points to climb into the top 60 world ranking (he was ranked 63rd at the time of his positive test) that would have given him a 2022 Games berth. There remains an outside possibility of a wild card entry but at this point, Frimpong is not going to be at the 2022 Olympics – a heavy blow for a man who has come so far to follow his dreams. He is currently considering his 2026 Olympic options.
“Black Ice comprises a highly original storytelling technique that is the sum of its live action and drawn elements that is rarely seen in a filmed production of this nature,” stated Feliciano Robayna, executive producer and head of sports marketing at On. “For a long time Akwasi’s dream was simply to make it to the Olympics. Despite all the setbacks, he soon saw the power of his achievements and what they could mean for Africa. He was no longer competing only for himself or a country, but for an entire continent.”
Bullock concluded, “Everyone who worked on Black Ice got inspired by Akwasi and his resilience and optimism – I think we all took something positive away from the experience. And I loved making this film. Being able to have the freedom to stretch and explore new ways of working is pretty rare. I’m so thankful to ON for the trust and faith they placed in my hands. There was an amazing team working on this film around the world – creative professionals in Cape Town, Austria, London, Sydney, Los Angeles and Auckland, for a client in Switzerland.”
Client: On Running
Starring: Akwasi Frimpong
Executive Producer: Feliciano Robayna
Producer: Gessica Giulini
Production Company: Hungry Man
Director: Richard Bullock
Executive Producer: Matt Buels
Producesr: Hannah Stone & Jack Beardsley
Illustration: Dean Mortensen
Animation: Brett McManus & Machines of Loving Grace
DOPs: Theo Tennant & Devin Toselli
South African Unit:
Production Company: Gatehouse
Production Company: Creative Creatures
Post Production: Heckler
Lead Editor: Andrew Holmes
Creative Producer: Coralie Tapper
Executive Producer: Will Alexander
Credits Motion Graphics: Maud Chapuis
Edit Assist: Daniel Page
Colourist: Fergus Rotherham
Music & Sound: Heckler Sound
Rerecording Mixer: Dave Robertson
Composer: Dustin Lau
Executive Producer: Bonnie Law
PR: Elliott Stares & Jessica Hartley