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Ride the Future Together - Mill Design Studio's Trippy New Animation

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How The Mill Design Studio created a trippy, animated film to promote VanMoof’s line of ebikes.

Creatives appreciate when they get the opportunity to truly be creative. So when Dutch bike maker VanMoof asked The Mill Design Studio to create a brand campaign—that included a short film, “Ride the Future Together”—the team was excited...because the rest was up to them.

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Working closely with VanMoof, The Mill used Cinema 4D and Redshift to create the versatile campaign, which has worked well on social media while also being modular enough to be used segmentally for a targeted ad campaign.

We talked with The Mill’s Henry Foreman, head of design, and Tosh Fieldsend, who served as art director on the project. Read on to learn more about how they tackled this fun project from concepting and script writing to animation and music.

TELL US ABOUT VANMOOF’S BRIEF AND HOW YOUR TEAM EXPANDED ON IT.

Foreman: This brief could have been interpreted as a product demo, but we were fortunate that VanMoof is a very forward-thinking brand. So we were able to show off product features in an artistic way rather than having to break things down and explicitly label them, which gave us so much freedom. We have a great relationship with them, so we were able to have very fluid, open calls that were really helpful.

The client wanted a campaign to promote their product, but it was equally important to convey the positive environmental impact of coming together and riding bicycles. What started as a light-hearted comment on a call, soon turned into the reality of including a frog as the symbol of their message.

That idea kept evolving and it went from being a character that just sat and watched what was happening to going on a flowery, psychedelic trip to a greener future.

THAT’S SUCH A WEIRD IDEA, HOW DID YOU HANDLE THAT?

Foreman: We’re lucky enough to be part of a much larger studio. We got support from our VFX CG team, which gave the frog idea a head start because they already had a base frog model rigged and ready to go. The CG team customized the frog for this project to make it unique for VanMoof. We worked the frog in early at our previs stage to flesh out the best and most charming ways to include him.

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WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE MILL AND THE MILL DESIGN STUDIO?

Foreman: The Design Studio is very much part of The Mill and is made up of a team of passionate motion designers with a broad range of skillsets; from cel animation through to procedural CG. This allows us to take on a wide range of design-focused projects and still leverage the scale and experience of the VFX teams when we need to. We scale up or down, fly solo or integrate with the wider company on a project-by-project basis, whether that’s adding design lead-elements to a larger VFX project or completing an end-to-end motion design brief.

CAN YOU WALK US THROUGH YOUR PROCESS FOR MAKING THE VANMOOF FILM?

Fieldsend: We built our previz in Cinema 4D, which allowed us to do quick viewport renders to check out ideas. The speed at which you can previz in Cinema gives you the flexibility to iterate fast and try out lost of avenues. Speed was essential for this project because we only had five weeks from concept to delivery.

We normally work that way, lots of previz and iterative previz to get the edit locked down. It works well for projects like this where we have more control, but this was unique because we had control over everything.

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Foreman: We did spend more time in development than we originally anticipated, so all of the rendering was condensed into a very short timeline. We used Redshift for this because GPU rendering allows us to have much smaller groups of people tackling higher-level projects. It’s been a game changer for us.

HOW DID YOU MODEL THE BIKES?

Foreman: The client sent us CAD models of the bikes, and they also sent some bikes to the office so we could take pictures of them, which was really helpful to understand the fine detail of the textures. We had to do some CAD cleanup to make the models work for us, which is an example of how we can leverage the scale of The Mill to tackle this kind of task at breakneck speed with experienced CG artists while developing the design-led creative in such a short time.

We have guys here who use special in-house tools to clean up CAD models that are in bad shape, which takes the pressure off our designers to make that technical aspect work.

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WHAT PART OF THE PROJECT DID YOU ENJOY MOST?

Foreman: I really like how the shots flow and connect together. That was a really fun bit to work out. There had to be some kind of logic to the sequence of events because the visuals needed to be a metaphor for people coming together, and they also needed to show off all of the detailed bits of the bike. I love the way the animation builds piece by piece to the psychedelic crescendo after the frog arrives in the saddle.

We wanted to make this style of animation unique and sympathetic to the tone of the track, and the ebb and flow across the cuts takes this technical, exploded-diagram approach to a new place that feels soulful and charming. It helped that we had a great lead artist on this project who really has a flare for this style of animation.

The client called out the parts of the bike they wanted to hit on, like the e-shifter, as well as specific elements, including some of the bespoke screws they designed instead of buying off the shelf parts. That gave the lead a toolkit of elements that felt natural together and in sequence. He created beautiful, seamless animations across the cuts with every iteration of the previs, which meant we were in a great position when it finally came to rendering without much refinement.

TELL US ABOUT THE FROG.

Fieldsend: We made the frog in Maya, and we used Substance Painter to texture it. We were going for a photorealistic look, so we’re very lucky to have a brilliant character animator who could handle all of the subtleties that made the frog feel alive. The iterative detail we were able to add with Redshift really made it pop. Lighting and rendering were my favorite aspects of the project, and the level we were able to get it to with subsurface scattering helped it turn out really well in the end.

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HOW WAS THIS PROJECT DIFFERENT THAN WHAT YOU NORMALLY DO?

Foreman: Before this project, we hadn’t had many opportunities to create some product-focused work in our London Design Studio. That, combined with the creative freedom we had, meant we could make a standout piece of motion. This is the kind of thing The Mill Design Studio does really well, and we’d like to do more projects like this, so we’re glad to have this to show people.

Meleah Maynard is a writer and editor in Minneapolis, Minnesota.