The Neighbourhood looked to DNA and flowers for inspiration in creating an abstract showcase website for luxury property branding agency Be Collective.

In just three years, Manchester-based design studio The Neighbourhood has racked up a number of high-profile clients such as Sony and CBBC, and created a volume of work that has seen it scoop several industry awards including the Grand Prix at the Fresh Digital Awards 2008.

Founded in 2006 by managing director Ben Davies, creative director Jon Humphreys, technical director Tim Woods and art director Jon Hey, The Neighbourhood has grown to a 12-strong team that works on a diverse range of 3D visualization, web and motion projects.

One of the studio’s most recent projects is a two-minute showreel for Be Collective, a new luxury property design, branding and communication company.

Commissioned to create a simple website featuring a promotional animation, The Neighbourhood avoided the traditional showreel approach in favour of an abstract that conveyed Be Collective’s business ethos.

“The client was looking for something that set them apart from other companies in their field, but the actual creative brief was open for our interpretation,” says Jon Humphreys, creative director at The Neighbourhood.

Capturing another company’s ethos in a visual abstract is a particularly challenging concept, he notes. “It’s a lot more than creating an edit of their work in a traditional reel, and involves getting under the skin of the company, discovering what they are about, finding out their likes and dislikes and taking that as a start point.”

The Neighbourhood began the project by assembling a wide selection of animations and short films to show as part of a brainstorming session with the client.

But ultimately the team found creative inspiration for the animation visuals in one of Be Collective’s own design philosophies – that of ‘brand DNA’.

The property design company’s business approach involves the process of “unpicking their own clients’ DNA” in order to understand the brief in hand.

“The concept of DNA provided a rich graphical starting point of ideas from biological structural forms, the double helix, molecules, hives, flocking to forces of attraction,” explains Humphreys.

Rather than storyboarding the animation, the team first created a mood film using selected parts of the reference films set to suitable music.

This was essential, says Humphreys, as it allowed the client to see the direction the studio was taking and meant the team could test the creative concept for the animation.

Twisted logic

The mood film highlighted the fact that the film needed more ideas than DNA alone. “What became clear is that while double-helix structures in DNA are interesting shapes, they didn’t have enough diversity to hold a longer animation,” says Humphreys.

“We started experimenting with unravelling the DNA to form more complex spiral shapes, which the camera could travel down to create a more expressive journey. Once we had created an animatic for these sequences, we had a better sense of timings and pacing.”

The resulting animation takes the viewer on a journey through a swirling mass of abstract glossy 3D spirals, glowing lights and glass-like flower heads that burst into bloom.

The animation’s emerging flower head structures act as a sort of punctuation to this journey, and served as jumping-off points where the viewer is introduced to Be Collective’s previous work.

The studio created the animation in its standard 3D tool, 3DS Max, using its built-in particle system Particle Flow to generate the spiral shapes and to prevent the animation from appearing too regimented, giving it an element of randomness and diversity.

“I had been experimenting with similar techniques for a Channel 5 spot we were working on at the same time, working with flocking and forces of attraction, so there was a degree of shared R&D on the projects,” says Humphreys.

The team also needed to create evolving fractal shapes in 3D geometry. For this, they turned to an old BlurBeta plug-in, Lsys. “I don’t think Lsys is still in wide circulation but it can produce some great complex forms. I wish someone would develop it further,” says Humphreys.

The project’s short turnaround time meant that complex lighting and compositing had to be avoided, so The Neighbourhood team used V-Ray to render the 3D geometry.

“The scenes were lit with V-Ray lights which gives an even, diffuse light on everything; these area lights also acted as useful reflector planes,” explains Humphreys.

“The positioning of additional reflector planes was crucial to getting the right reflective look on the high-gloss materials, as there wasn’t an environment to reflect.”

The Neighbourhood then used After Effects to add glows and finishing touches to the animation, along with colour correction.

The scattering of flowers

The animation’s flower heads were quite simple to build and animate, says Humphreys, as most consisted of simple geometry, keyframed to deform and then arrayed to form more complex forms.

These arrays ranged from simple circular to scattering along the surface on other objects, he adds. The glassy texture of the flower head required careful tweaking to ensure the reflective and refractive quality of the material looked right in the absence of a background environment.

Seeing ghosts

To give the particle motion a solid form, The Neighbourhood turned to 3DS Max plug-in Ghost Trails.

It was crucial that the animation’s spirals didn’t appear too structured or regular.


Project: Be Collective showreel
Client: Goliath Artist, Interscope Records
Studio: The Neighbourhood,
Software: Adobe After Effects, Autodesk 3DS Max, BlurBeta Tools Lsys, ByteGeist Ghost Trails, Chaos Software V-Ray