Architectural projects specialist Uniform adopted a glossy, abstract broadcast approach to its HD promo for a soon-to-be-built London icon.
The beauty of specializing is that it’s possible to become a standard bearer in your field – a tack taken to great effect by Liverpool-based design agency Uniform, whose work showcases some of the most iconic buildings in the UK.
Its projects in the architecture space include campaigns for Beetham Tower in Manchester, the tallest residential building in the UK, and the Liverpool One development for Grosvenor.
But with its latest all-HD work, Uniform has made real what will become an iconic London landmark in 2013: Foreign Office Architects’ Trinity EC3 office scheme.
The development will consist of three cut-gem-shaped glass office buildings, and is being developed by luxury property developer Beetham Organization. Beetham commissioned the film to launch its proposal for the property trade show MIPIM in Cannes.
It wanted a film to inspire and engage people ahead of the building’s completion in 2013. Beetham was keen to see what Uniform could do based on its previous film and animation work for other clients.
Uniform’s creative director Laurie Jones explains that the company “reacts to briefs in a creative and challenging way which isn’t often the case in our industry. It’s this approach that ensures we’re a design agency and not a visualization company”.
There was no set brief, says Jones, but rather an “ongoing discussion” between Uniform and Beetham about general criteria such as location, transport links, style, historical issues and floor space.
These criteria were filtered down to the core purposes – which were to build the brand of Trinity EC3 as a high-value, design-led development, and portray its location as part of the City ‘cluster’.
Although the three glass edifices will be highly visible, Jones says that the architects were clear that it was not going to be another high-rise statement, but rather, crystalline creations that will create a kaleidoscope of light and reflections.
This gave Jones and his team at Uniform a breakthrough in terms of the creative challenge: “We discovered what we didn’t have to show was as important as what we did have to show.
"This allowed us to take a more abstract and visual route with the film rather than it becoming an ‘infomercial’. We then had the freedom to employ narrative and art direction you’d normally find in broadcast commercials.
"From a technical point of view, it meant we were going to have to deliver the slickest-looking visuals we’ve done to date.”
The film plays on the architect’s inspiration: the structural aesthetic of crystals and the reflection and refraction of glass. Uniform created a moodboard using film references to develop the look-&-feel for the piece, then a storyboard and animatic to communicate this vision to the client.
The animatic consisted of a hand-drawn background with 2D animated crystals over the top to portray the basic idea of the film: three crystalline structures that explore the design features of the development and the architecture of London using the City as a cinematic backdrop.
Before filming, Uniform took reference shots of appropriate locations in the City, including structures such as the Lloyd’s Building and the Gherkin. Filming took place over four days last September, and a lot of time was spent waiting for clouds to move.
“In one or two of the shots we missed out on playing with the refractions and reflections of the crystals because of the lack of direct sun,” says Jones.
Further footage was shot from a helicopter with a gyroscopic mounted camera, that moves independently from the helicopter.
Uniform also shot high dynamic range images (HDRIs) using a standard digital camera with a fish-eye lens. These were used for the skylines created in 3DS Max and for reflections in buildings such as the Gherkin.
The team used Combustion to grade the footage to set the mood and match up all the shots, something that proved one of the trickiest things to master because changing weather conditions meant colour tone varied hugely across the shots.
“We used Combustion to convert the bit depth of the footage from 8-bit to 10-bit to give more levels of colour and subtlety of lighting,” says Sam O’Hare, senior designer at Uniform.
“This allowed for fine tuning when matching colour across the shots. We then did another grade to give the footage a cold, bluer tint for mood, pulling out the colour of the foreground, background and the Gherkin.
"Combustion’s industry-standard colour correction tools made this a swift process, even when working on uncompressed HD footage. The final colour of the piece ties it all together.”
All modelling and animation was completed with 3DS Max. The crystals were modelled by hand, and Uniform used a technique from the games industry to morph them as they move. One was copied five times to ensure that all variations had the same number of sides, vertices and polygons.
Using the morpher option, the shapes could be blended together, creating an infinite number of shapes. Uniform used a Maxscript to create its own user interface to control how the crystals morphed.
Two film industry techniques were used to make the crystals and buildings more accurate and realistic. Camera maps were projected into the block-modelled buildings and backgrounds behind the crystals. The crystals then reflected these backgrounds, making them more believable.
“Since all you see in the crystals is refracted scenery, this was very important,” says O’Hare. The other film technique – matte painting – was used on a tight overhead shot of the building from the fish-eye lens camera to produce accurate reflections in the sides of the building.
Separate render passes were created for every element: each of the crystals, reflections, mattes for reflections and other ‘per-shot’ passes such as the Gherkin’s grid of windows.
These were rendered using a variety of third-party renderers such as Brazil and Mental Ray to get different looks and effects from the crystals, from caustic light reflections to realistically refracted light.
Scanline Flowline was also used for producing mattes for the compositing process. All the passes were then composited using Combustion, with each shot being made up of four passes or more.
Multiple render passes were needed to get the crystals to match the background footage correctly and reflect realistically in the buildings. Tinted reflection mattes were used to cut through the existing reflections on buildings and allowed the rendered passes to be laid seamlessly over the top.
This gave much more flexibility to adjust the colours and tones to fit the footage perfectly, meaning less re-rendering. Crystal is the first piece that Uniform delivered in full 1,080-pixel HD format, so all of the scenes are much more detailed than usual.
This meant polygon counts were very high on some scenes. “We used the 64-bit support of 3DS Max 9 to make it feasible to render all these scenes at full resolution,” says Jones.
“The final result was played back on an LCD TV through a dedicated HD player and it looked great. It was definitely worth the extra time!”
Jones is happy with the results: “It looks realistic and reacts exactly how we wanted it to in terms of reflection and refraction. I’m also proud of the team’s efforts with the imagery of the building – the Trinity scheme looks fantastic, particularly when matched into the aerial footage.”
Creating another London icon
Uniform has spent the past two years focused largely on film projects, for which it uses Autodesk products 3DS Max and Combustion. Its HD film to promote Foreign Office Architects’ Trinity EC3 office scheme in the City of London will help pave the way for another icon for London’s skyline.
EC3 will consist of three glass office buildings, and will also allow direct access to Aldgate Tube station, a new bus station, as well as shops, restaurants and a 23rd floor panoramic conservatory with views over The City.
Developer Beetham has worked with Uniform for several years, but had never commissioned a film before. It was keen to see what Uniform could do based on its previous film and animation work for other clients.
Project : Trinity EC3 promo
Studio: Uniform, www.uniform.net
Software: Autodesk 3DS Max, Autodesk Combustion, Autodesk Mental Ray, SplutterFish Brazil, Scanline Flowline