Creating an ident for an arts, music and ideas festival ups the creative ante, but new Manchester agency The Neighbourhood proved equal to the task.
All clients demand high-quality work from their agency, but when the brief is an ident for an urban festival of music, art and ideas there’s added pressure to deliver a first-class result.
When tasked with crafting an ident for the 2007 Futuresonic Festival in Manchester, illustration and animation agency The Neighbourhood knew the brief would be the most demanding of its one-year life (having been established in July 2006 by four people from fields as diverse as architecture, CG animation, digital media and illustration).
Co-founder and creative director Jon Humphreys says having a client with knowledge of animation, graphics and visual art “was great, as it meant we could have detailed discussions about the details of the production”, but admits it was “also slightly nerve-wracking as we knew standards would have to be very high to meet Futuresonic director Drew Hemment’s expectations”.
The Neighbourhood landed the festival commission after getting to know Hemment over a period of six months.
“After finding out more about each other, it was clear there was real potential for collaboration,” says Humphreys.
“Drew is involved in some fantastic art initiatives using new technologies – from mobile phones to urban screens – and we’re interested in creating engaging content for new platforms.”
Hemment asked The Neighbourhood to create the title animation for his annual Manchester Futuresonic festival, an audio-visual event for innovative new work exploring new technologies.
The ident was to be used as a promotional animation for the Web site, as a looped visual element in music events and as a show opener for film screenings.
“Futuresonic is really quite a unique and eclectic event with a wide remit, covering lectures, workshops, screenings, installations in strange places, gigs and DJ sets,” says Humphreys.
One festival theme was the 40th anniversary of the seminal psychedelic light show ‘happenings’ of 1967 at London’s UFO (Underground Freak Out) Club. “We were given license to use our imagination without any restrictions, other than it had to be worthy of representing the highest quality audio-visual work over the past 40 years. Absolutely no pressure then,” quips Humphreys.
He adds: “We wanted to create animated forms that responded directly to music and sound, and took our inspiration from some of the most innovative work in this area, the pioneering work of Oscar Fischinger and John Whitney, as well as the psychedelic light shows of the 1960s being celebrated at this year’s festival.
“The idea was to add dimensionality by placing the animated action in an empty white space which transformed into a multiple of dazzling configurations and installations. “We started looking at the work of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, particularly her installation ‘Infinity Mirrored Room’ from the 60s.”
Humphreys reveals that the client rejected these ideas because “Futuresonic has grown from its roots of electronic music and VJ culture to an eclectic event that explores art, music and new ideas”.
But he says their initial suggestions did help develop the brief with Futuresonic, because “they forced the client to consider what their most important messages were”.
There were three messages – that Futuresonic was about art, music and ideas; that its connection with Manchester was a strong one; and that the relationship between new technology the urban environment was important to its focus.
“The first point helped structure our animation in a very easy to understand jargon free way,” explains Humphreys. “The second and third points helped us define the graphic language of the animation with references to architectural spaces and Manchester specific locations.”
With the visual vocabulary now decided upon, Neighbourhood sketched thumbnail storyboards and ideas before undertaking any major computer work. “One idea to help connect the audiovisual aspect of the animation was to design a futuristic piece of technology that was a hybrid of a projector and a loudspeaker that would spread its messages across the streets of Manchester,” says Humphreys.
“The look and feel of this piece of technology was to prove important in the development of the ident.” The team examined classic android design in ‘Star Wars’ and other sci-fi movies, but felt this was too clichéd.
“It needed to be more iPod inspired – cleaner, minimal, usable technology,” says Humphreys. “The client was also keen the device didn’t seem oppressive in a Big Brother way; it needed to be friendly looking.”
The pod’s final design was spherical, and opened up to reveal a projector. The 3D modelling and animation was done by The Neighbourhood 3D artist Stuart Dearnaley using 3DS Max and polygon modelling techniques, and although it has an uncomplicated structure, achieving the final look was no cakewalk.
“Particularly important were small details such as the edge chamfering on each panel to catch the light and reflections,” says Humphreys.
“The pod was animated using a combination of keyframes and motion capture, using the mouse as a real-time controller to give it a random look.”
The team wanted a clinical Kubrick 2001inspired feel to the animation, something it achieved using V-Ray global illumination with HDRI reflection maps for realism.
“We’ve always found V-Ray to have the benefits of fast render times and good visual quality,” explains Humphreys.
The ident’s urban environment elements were a combination of photo collages of stock photography of Manchester and 3D models of buildings built by Dearnaley.
An urban screen structure was modelled to represent the ‘art’ component of the message, while we identified a local Manchester landmark as an appropriate signature for the ‘music’ element,” says Humphreys.
He adds: “Again, these were poly-modelled in 3DS Max from reference photos. Buildings were cut out from site photos and saved out with alpha channels to be used as texture maps. Flat planes were then positioned in 3D space and mapped with these textures.”
To ensure coherence across the festival’s promotional media, The Neighbourhood made the ident resonate with brand conventions defined in the printed brochure and posters.
“We looked at incorporating the most relevant parts to create consistency,” says Humphreys. “A strong black-&-white colour scheme, small rainbow-coloured elements and the use of Helvetica made their way into the animation’s final look.”
The rainbow elements were used as light beams projected from the pod device. “We used the plug-in Ghost Trails to animate these trails, applied to a shape animated along a 3D spline,” Humphreys says.
The final task was to put some sound design on to the final edit. “We collaborated with sound designer Andy Jackson ( www.thebubblesite.co.uk ), and he created a great piece in a very limited timeframe towards the end of the project.”
One thing above all else that the project taught Humphreys is that less is definitely more. “It’s a common mistake to throw more techniques and effects at a project and over-cook it,” he says.
“I think its success was in having a thorough understanding of what the client was trying to achieve, combined with clarity of the art direction. The animation is straightforward; there are no big tricks and no complicated composites. By clearly pacing the ident with extensive use of wireframe animatics we knew it would work before we committed anything to render.”
The project took three weeks, and the client delighted with the result. “The Neighbourhood created a visual language for the Futuresonic festival,” says Drew Hemment, director, Futuresonic Urban Festival of Art, Music and Ideas.
“They managed to convey the conceptual core of the event – a new kind of experience at the point where art, technology and the city collide.”
The urban environments of Manchester helped The Neighbourhood create the ident's visual vocabulary.
In the frame
Another graphic convention was the hands holding up the ident’s frame at the beginning and end. “This is a very recognizable element of the brochure and adverts, and was important to give the animation visual consistency, says Humphreys.
“This concept was extended to catch the pod device at the end. To achieve this we photographed Stuart’s hands, cut around them and composited them over the 3D renders in After Effects.
The Neighbourhood eschewed using filmed footage around Manchester in the ident because the client thought this might seem “a bit too War of the Worlds”, and so it moved the emphasis on to 3D structures.
Project: Futuresonic ident
Client: Futuresonic Urban Festival of Art, Music and Ideas 2007
Studio: The Neighbourhood www.the-neighbourhood.com
Software: 3D Studio Max (with Bytegeist Ghost Trails plug-in) V-Ray Global Illumination, Adobe After Effects