When design group Troika created the identity for MTV’s new high-definition channel, it looked to legends to create a fantastical solution.
MTV’s high-definition channel MHD – an all-music HD cable channel comprising MTV, VH1 and CMT – delivers a captivating audio-visual experience, and so when the company sought branding for its new creation, the solution was always going to have to be similarly sumptuous.
Through HDTV and Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound, HDTV delivers the highest-resolution image and best-quality sound imaginable, making it a music experience that’s the closest thing to watching live music in your own home.
“The goal was to express the visceral connection we have with music, says Heather Kim of Troika, who was lead designer on the project.
“The client likened this to the goose bumps you get when listening to a great song or extraordinary live performance. It’s primal.”
Hollywood-based agency Troika knew its work would need to be comprehensive, too. “The channel had some visually stunning IDs on air but lacked any real cohesion,” explains Kim. “Troika was hired to develop a conceptual umbrella for the brand, together with a consistent visual language.”
The focus of the six-month project was a 35-second spot that sets the stage for the identity, but there were also three 10-second IDs, an on-air promotion toolkit and a logo bug system.
The challenge was to create a network identity that reflected the combined programming from the three channels, which span musical styles including contemporary rock, classic rock, pop, hip-hop and country.
The identity had to be flexible, it needed to address the ancillary communication needs of the channel – such as print advertising and on-air promotion – and had to provide a brand that could evolve with the channel.
Troika’s solution was a concept drawn from ancient Greek and Roman mythology. They called it ‘Theatre of Music Mythology’, or Music Myth for short.
“This focuses on creating ancient mythological stories that explain the origin of music and the transformative effect it has on the world, with the moral being that music enhances our lives,” says Kim.
“Before MHD, the music lover’s world wasn’t as rich and dynamic. As a music channel, MHD takes music experience to a whole new world.”
The first month of the project was taken up largely with brainstorming. Some of the ideas not to make the mix included music-related imagery bursting forth from a musician’s hairdo, creatures with odd musical anatomies raving in mosh pits, deconstructed musical instruments and light matrices.
“We also cut paper pieces and pasted them together in a jazz-like interpretive musical frenzy,” says Kim. But it was out of such fevered creativity that the concept of Music Myth was born – and it struck a chord with MTV.
The first piece to emerge from the Music Myth concept was a 35-second image spot titled Creation, which tells the story of how the world of music came to be.
Kim takes up the tale: “Devoid of music, the world is a dark and bleak place. Drones, following a great calling, toil day and night to build a monumental tower compiled of discarded musical instruments from long ago.
“In a dramatic offering to the Gods, the drones hoist an amplifier to the top of the completed tower and raise it to the sky. The clouds darken and the tower begins to electrify. Suddenly, in a brilliant crash of lightning, the clouds part and the earth cracks open, unleashing music into the world.
"A cacophony of music characters spew from the earth as the world transforms from eerie and oppressive to a strangely magical place full of colour and light.”
Troika also developed three vignettes to work as on-air image spots and IDs. The ten- second IDs focus on specific music genres. Scratch deals with hip-hop. In it, thunder brings sub bass into the world, and it includes Egyptians and African styled birds that chirp in the manner of a DJ scratching vinyl.
Fiddle shows fiddle-playing devils springing from the earth as flames lick around them. They jam in a country-music style, as a bucking Pegasus leaps from the earth and flies to the heavens on wings of flames.
In the ID Drums, meanwhile, raindrops inspire a griffin to introduce rhythm into the world. Of this bizarre cast of characters, Kim says: “We created a vast diversity of creatures that reflect the channel’s wide range of musical styles.
“For the character development we studied a lot of iconic music albums, and researched myths and legends from different periods and cultures. Many spoofs had already been done with musical icons, and we really didn’t want to go there.
"We wanted to make sure our characters were both original and were sophisticated enough for an adult audience.”
But the client also wanted to keep the feel raw and primordial, meaning the characters needed strong roots in music to best define the channel.
“So we added references to the ancient origins of today’s musical styles, and drew from biblical references, especially the Book of Genesis and the Tower of Babel,” adds Kim.
“There was a lot of R&D for the character animation because we were using digital technology to achieve movement that looked hand-crafted,” explains Kim.
"A method we often used was sketching the motion in a more traditional style, with smooth curves and ease-ins and outs. After that, the animators would go back in and just mess up the animation curves a bit so that it felt a tad jerky and had a little more hand- animated personality.”
There were challenges in creating the right backgrounds, too: “Our artistic challenge in the matte paintings and texture for the 3D environment was having elements appear more painterly and stylistic than photorealistic.
"Sometimes the illustrator would have to go in and deliberately brush out details in the matte paintings because the background would begin to look too ‘realistic’."
That backgrounds were linked to genres of music was another complication: “In every scene there had to be a balance in the amount of musical genres shown.
"The viewers would be hard pressed to notice, but in the close-up shot of the musical tower where the amp is being hauled up by two trolls, boom boxes and guitars and speakers are placed strategically so that no single genre dominates the scene.”
For Troika, the biggest technical hurdle was creating a workflow that played to everyone’s strengths. “The biggest challenge was dealing with dual platforms. Our character modellers and animators were Maya users, while our compositing artists worked in Cinema 4D.
"As a result, we ended up building our cameras and ground planes in Cinema 4D and then exporting the camera as an FBX data file to Maya, where our characters were built, animated and lighted. The characters were rendered in separate passes and composited back into the environment using Cinema 4D.
"The final colour adjustment and atmospheric effects happened mostly in Adobe After Effects.”
Another technical headache proved to be dealing with HD 1080i resolution and the amount of layers within files. Photoshop files were more than 4k in pixel size, and more than 1GB per file.
“Even with low-poly models for wide shots, some of the 3D scenes were too heavy to render and had a tendency to crash our machines,” recalls Kim.
“Instead of sacrificing detail, however, we kept rendering separate passes and then layered all the renders together.”
Because Troika was branding an HD Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound music channel, sound effects and music composition were always going to be a driving force in the production.
“The primal and epic nature of the concept was also infused into the music and sound effects,” she says, adding: “There was an interactive back and forth process between the designer and animators and the composer.
"Most of the time the composer would create music based on the look of style frames and animatics, but there would also be times when a riff of music would inspire the designer to draw a certain type of creature to match a certain kind of sound.
"The animators also relied on the composer to set a tempo and rhythm for the animation because many of the IDs were performance-based.”
HD is a nascent technology, and HD channels like MHD will evolve as the technology matures. For this reason, it was important that Troika give in-house MTV creatives the tools to allow them to grow the MHD brand.
For the on-air promotion toolkit and logo bug system, Troika re-purposed a number of environmental textures and graphic motifs from the 35-second spot.
“Once they were built as loopable and modular elements, textures and animations were delivered with the After Effects project files to provide MTV’s in-house team with tools for future creative development,” explains Kim.
Time is always the enemy on complex projects like MHD, and Kim admits that, given more time, they would have done some things differently.
“Some of our decisions were made with the caveat we’d come back and address it later but in the push to meet the deadline we had to make compromises. We would like to have had the opportunity to fine tune some of the elements that ended up in the final pieces."
That said, Kim says the project let the Troika team spread its wings. “We have created many recognisable network identities at Troika, including for ABC and Fox. MHD, however, is unique in that its broad creative parameters enabled us to take an unconventional character and story-based approach.”
Kim adds: “We feel like we achieved the high level of energy and fun we were aiming for, and we definitely had a blast making the spew of hybrid musical creatures and monsters.”
The MHD brand stands on an elaborate back-story, with unlimited opportunities for incidental story vignettes. “We often referred to MHD throughout our creative process as a Bosch-like tapestry of fantastic creatures and stories that somehow seems infinite and primordial, yet familiar,” reveals Heather Kim, head designer.
The style of the characters was inspired by Indonesian shadow puppets, because Kim’s team liked the way they are both crude and eloquent at the same time. “Our characters are not puppets, but they do have a coarse puppet-like movement that is primitive and raw,” she says.
Conceptual sketches for the characters and environments began in pencil, and these were scanned at 600dpi, and digitally painted in Photoshop and Corel Painter (see overleaf). The painted body parts were projected or texture mapped onto 3D geometry, and animated using Maya’s IK skeletons.
The dual-platform approach also affected decision making: “A change in camera angle or shifting a character’s position during the final comping were not light-hearted decisions. For this, we had to go two steps upstream in the production flow instead of having just one person retrace their steps. Also, the HD resolution had the compositors working harder to maintain the subtleties of colour and texture that was worked into the style- frames.”
Myths and legends from many different periods and cultures were studied for the character development, as well as iconic music albums.
Project: MHD brand identity
Studio: Troika, www.troika.tv, 001 323 965 1650
Software: Adobe Photoshop, Corel Painter, Autodesk Maya, Next Limit RealFlow, Maxon Cinema 4D