Behind the Curtain

Here. realscreen takes a closer look at innovative animation and VFX approaches for recent non-fiction TV and film projects.
November 1, 2010



In 2007, while working as the graphics team on Bloody Omaha, an episode of BBC’s ‘Timewatch’ strand dealing with the Omaha Beach invasion of World War II, designers Colin Thornton, Neil Wilson and Steve Flynn posted a ‘making-of’ clip of the show’s D-Day landing scene on YouTube. Illustrating how the team recreated the mayhem of the event – including explosions, peals of gunfire and scores of authentically-outfitted soldiers racing across the sands – with green screen, a Sony Z1 HD camcorder and a fair amount of compositing skills, the clip racked up over three million hits and gave the trio celebrity status amongst the VFX crowd.

John Farren, then editor for ‘Timewatch’, was en route to the Realscreen Summit when he’d heard about the clip’s explosive ascent on YouTube. ‘Bridget Whalen [VP of development for National Geographic Channel], who I had a meeting with, was interested,’ he recalls. ‘She said, ‘There’s something really interesting in there for television and I don’t know what it is.”

Soon enough, Whalen, Farren (now heading up 360 Productions) and NGC EVP of content Steve Burns came upon the concept for Making History, a four-part series that takes pivotal moments and figures from history – among them, Nostradamus, Hitler and the ancients who built Stonehenge – and recreates them through the three designers’ modern-day VFX wizardry and spit-and-polish ingenuity. In one example, the ‘bullet-time’ technique made popular via The Matrix is duplicated with a camera and a bicycle wheel.

Footage of the design trio (which operates under the name Compost Creative) recreating events such as the moon landing (pictured) in the Nostradamus episode or the Nuremberg rally in the Hitler episode is balanced with interviews with top historical experts to provide a healthy dose of factual takeaway. But the series, dubbed ‘the most insane and bizarre documentary series to hit TV screens in years’ by Scotland’s Daily Record, gets its edge from its intrepid After Effects experts.

‘You have three appealing, colorful guys who are setting out to recreate something and have it look as good as it would in a big-budget movie, but they’re having to do it using a camera, a green screen and a few costumes, as well as their wits,’ says Allan Butler, executive producer of the series for NGC. ‘A huge part of the fun is seeing them coming up with their outrageous ways to create these money shots.’ BW

Project: Diva Universal branding

Studio: WeAreSeventeen, London for DixonBaxi, London

When surfing channels, women’s programming is too easy to spot. All you have to look for are the pink ribbons, batted eyelashes and hour-glass silhouettes swirling around the screen.

‘For some reason, when you do a female channel, there’s a sense that you have to show lipstick and you have to show stilettos,’ says Simon Dixon, co-founder and creative director at London-based design studio DixonBaxi.

In 2009, NBC Universal Global Networks rebranded as Universal Networks International with a focus on five core channels: Universal Channel, 13th Street Universal, Syfy Universal, Diva Universal and Studio Universal. When the time came to refresh the look of female-centric Diva earlier this year, the company identified several core values inherent in the channel: ‘fascination’, ‘illumination’ and ‘celebration’.

It was up to the creative team at DixonBaxi to imbue the logo and graphics package with those characteristics without resorting to make-up bag clichés. In a series of idents produced by design and motion graphics studio WeAreSeventeen, swirling liquids, brightly-colored shapes and wood-textured surfaces meld together to form the channel’s glossy white logo. It’s as if the designers melted the interior of a high-end fashion retail shop.

‘We were very keen to treat it in an asexual way,’ says Dixon. ‘It has a female-skew, but the design methodology was the same way we would always design something, which is: what’s the right outcome for the right audience based on the content you’re delivering?’

The studio assembled a brand council representative of Diva’s global audience to understand how colors, textures and typography would be interpreted in different cultures. The resulting color palette is a sophisticated blend of purples, bright greens, blues and orange set against a muted gray background.

DixonBaxi also dimensionalized the logo, softening the edges of the type to add warmth to it’s angularly and slightly aggressive feel. The graphics package is designed to be flexible in part to allow for customization according to language and local colloquialisms. Adaptability is also essential in a graphics package nowadays to account for sudden shifts in programming direction.

‘You might find yourself very reality-based one season and the other season you might find yourself with narrative-based shows,’ says Dixon. ‘Even if the tone of it changes in six months, 12 months or 18 months, the design can account for that.’ KR

Project: Cool It opening titles

Studio: Big Star, Los Angeles

Children set ablaze, continents sinking into the sea, penguins dying – this nightmarish vision of earth under siege unfolds in the minute-long opening title sequence for Cool It, director Ondi Timoner’s documentary based on a book by controversial Danish environmentalist Bjørn Lomborg.

In the film, Lomborg argues that climate change initiatives, such as the Kyoto Protocol, are failing, and offers alternative solutions by showing how the public money spent to combat the problem could be better allocated.

From the first frame, the film zeroes in on what it considers as the alarmist rhetoric that has informed the climate change debate by showing interviews with British schoolchildren that believe global warming will trigger a horrifying apocalypse. The filmmakers asked the kids to illustrate fears and gave the resulting crayon and pencil crayon drawings to a team of animators at Los Angeles-based prodco Big Star to use for the title sequence.

A large number of the company’s clients are documentary filmmakers. Recent projects have included Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job, Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story and Alex Gibney’s Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer.

Creative director Curtis Doss was intrigued by Cool It‘s provocative premise and by the opportunity to create a cheerful, high-saturation opening sequence with a dark undercurrent.

‘One of the kids thought that everything would be on fire and actually illustrated himself burning,’ he says. ‘It really shows how vastly these fears can affect people and how much the media actually has a hold on your thinking.’

The company began work on the doc last November and worked on several revisions to the sequence up to a month before the world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. Doss says Big Star is becoming involved earlier and earlier in the production pipeline to help the narrative take shape.

‘The whole paradigm is changing currently. It used to be that we would get involved with the film very much toward the end to create these graphics based on holes [the producers] had to fill,’ says Doss. ‘A lot of times they’ll ask us for something and we might actually throw back at them we don’t think the film needs it. It might not be a good idea to animate something for animation’s sake.’ KR



National Geographic Channel’s seven-part series, Great Migrations (profiled in realscreen‘s September/October 2010 issue), has been billed as the most ambitious multi-platform project in the 122-year history of the National Geographic Society. Much of its ground-breaking nature stems from technological advances in natural history photography, used to great effect to capture the inherent drama in the migrations of wildlife species from around the world. Any animated or CG elements incorporated into the story would have to act as a complement to the spectacular visuals and not overshadow them.

Thus, in order to visually represent the migratory paths of the assorted species, Nat Geo turned to Bethesda, Maryland-based design studio Pixeldust to create a pictorial representation of the activity that sees millions of animals traverse the globe, their paths dictated by instinct.

The Pixeldust team created assorted views from space of planet Earth, making the migratory paths visible via glowing patterns that would stretch across the globe, in line with data provided by Nat Geo. Land migrations were depicted in gold, while ocean migrations were traced with a light blue.

Pixeldust president/creative director Ricardo Andrade says the project required ‘a balance of style and accuracy,’ with both components offering their own sets of challenges. ‘[Nat Geo] has a department of standards and practices that scrutinizes every single graphic to make sure it’s accurate, especially with something like this,’ says Andrade about creating the criss-crossing paths that chart the migrations. ‘The research was the most time-consuming part of it.’

And although the work, created in Curious Maps, After Effects and Maya, may not be the flashiest on the Pixeldust reel, Andrade says that while flash may have taken a back seat to function in this instance, creating realistic map work is a must in factual programming.

‘I notice it whenever I hire a new animator – map work is an art,’ he says. BW

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