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Ten Different Takes on Reality - Designing the Titles for TEDxSydney
Substance, BEMO, and Bullpen describe the making of the latest TEDxSydney titles
Sydney, Australia-based Substance Studio has been creating TEDxSydney’s memorable opening titles and accompanying graphics packages since 2017. So Scott Geersen—Substance’s founder and creative director—could have easily stuck to the studio’s tried-and-true approach in 2020. Instead, he decided to switch things up and recruit a global team of talented studios to tackle the conference’s theme of “REAL.”
The result is an artful animation that brings together wide-ranging interpretations of the concept of REAL by using 2D and 3D to visualize the complex, varied and personal nature of reality and the power of dreams.
We talked with Geersen, Bullpen Founder Aaron Kemnitzer, and BEMO’s Brandon Hirzel and Brandon Parvini to learn more about how such a vast topic was translated by so many artists into one moving visual story. Here’s what they had to say.
Scott, how did Substance first get the job of making the TEDxSydney titles?
Geersen: With an introduction from a personal connection, we were able to begin our relationship with TED in 2017 relatively smoothly. So, luckily, there was no need to pitch. They’ve been so happy with the results that they’ve worked with us ever since. These titles were more extensive for a lot of reasons, including COVID-19, which meant we had to create for a live stream event rather than the panoramic layout the conference usually uses.
Why did you decide to do this one as a global collaboration?
Geersen: It was such a vast subject to interpret something as elastic as “reality.” So we thought it would best to have different artists take the topic in their own visual directions to demonstrate exactly how variable it was. Substance organized and curated the project, and our own animation contributions were the scenes of the pregnant woman dreaming.
The project coordination alone was a huge undertaking, but with our animation included, it was almost more work than previous years, despite the collaborative aspect. But having multiple viewpoints from around the world was a key part of this, and also in line with our goal of helping TEDxSydney become a global brand.
How did you describe what you wanted the other studios to do?
Geersen: REAL was the broadest topic we’ve had so far for TEDxSydney, and we wanted to involve studios that we’ve admired for a long time. We’re lucky everyone who works in motion design is so congenial, and it was very important that each studio had the chance to craft something representing their own unique view in their own style.
To make it easier for them to jump in, I created a fairly extensive brief that included about 20 or 30 different interpretations of the concept. We asked artists to choose one that interested them as a starting point. Then, we offered some basic design principles like playful, upbeat, fun and colorful.
We always knew we would need a thread running through the piece to tie everything up, and that became the story of the young mother and her dreams—her hopes and fears for the world of her child. The other nine animations are her dreams, and I’m really happy we were able to get a mix of 2D and 3D. We were really hoping for that, and we knew that whatever these studios did would be visually stunning.
Tell us about how you your scenes with the mother character.
Geersen: Substance collaborator Jess Herrera modeled the mother in C4D, and she also did the rigging and animation. She actually did a demo of the making of the character at one of Maxon’s 3D and Motion Design Shows last year.
We pulled together detailed style references for the character’s hair, face, body, limbs and clothes. That gave us a specific blueprint to aim for, but we also wanted Jess’ style to come through strongly. She excels at making these sorts of appealing characters, which is certainly true for the mother-to-be whom we called “Theadora” after her namesake, TED. Jess also modeled and rigged clothes but, in the end, we upgraded the clothes and bedsheets with Marvelous Designer cloth sims for a more tactile feel.
We leaned heavily on Redshift to bring Theadora and her apartment to life, as there was a lot of geo and textures to manage, as well as the need to balance realism and render time. Theadora is asleep in many of the animations, so we introduced the idea that her colorful dreams would manifest physically and cast light into her gray world. To do that we set up projections of rainbow refractions in Redshift, which gave her nighttime imaginings a poetic depth that was really beautiful.
Aaron, tell us about the animation that Bullpen made.
Kemnitzer: We called our animation “Future,” and we focused on what the future might look like with everything from wind turbines, green energy and restoration of the moon. We used Photoshop for the illustration and then After Effects for compositing. There are also subtle uses of 3D, which were done in Cinema 4D. We often like to mix 3D elements into our 2D designs and still have them feel as seamless as possible.
What was it like to be part of this global collaboration?
Kemnitzer: Our studio has always been a remote company, working together from different locations and often different continents. After COVID-19, everyone has seen how working remotely not only works; it also opens up possibilities to collaborate with a more diverse range of clients and friends, like Substance. Having the chance to work alongside others whom we deeply respect and admire was incredibly inspiring and uplifting during a difficult time.
Brandon Hirzel and Brandon Parvini, tell us BEMO’s animation, “Choice.”
Hirzel: We had this idea that you choose your own destiny, depending on the archetypes that we all have inside of us. It was exciting to explore what makes a person them in a visual fashion, and it was a great opportunity to do something where we could put together all of this different knowledge we have and step into new terrain.
Parvini: We’ve been playing with non-photorealistic rendering for some years now. It really started for us with Adult Swim’s Dream Corp LLC (https://www.adultswim.com/videos/dream-corp-llc), which forced us to get into this uncomfortable landscape and do things we’d never done before. Now we’re constantly scratching at the boundary of what 3D animation needs to look like. This project felt magical to us because Scott hired us to do something and really wanted to see our approach.
We usually rely on motion capture for character animation projects but, for this, we decided we really wanted a hand-animated fell. We got into the weeds a bit, but we like risk and trying to solve problems. We started our using ZBrush and then used Cinema for rigging, materials development and overall look design with Arnold and toon shading systems. Final compositing was done in After Effects, and we brought in a cel animator to create some of the connective tissue moments. We also had an illustrator work with us up front on character design.
Hirzel: We worked internally to draft up the initial sketches of the character andBrandon P went into ZBrush to sculpt the main character. Next, we moved into Cinema 4D for rigging and material development in Arnold. We brought in a long-time collaborator, Scott Hassell, to work with us on the character designs a little bit. He helped with doing what we refer to as paintovers for some of the face elements, which help soften the looks of the characters.
In practice, paintsovers are simply isometric outputs of the character where the illustrator can literally draw or paint over the model. Then, we work to reproject that back over the model and mix it back into the material dev. It was important for us to be able to get the linework and form feeling right as we knew we wanted a specific sharpness to the character. So we tried to stay really intentional in how our exaggerations and edgings flowed for the character dev.
This was such an amazing project to work on because we were in the ring with all of these other studios co-creating a piece. Instead of pitching against each other, we were collaborating on making a piece of art for a really good cause.
One last question for Scott, the sound design and music are so striking. Tell us about that process.
Geersen: We asked Ambrose Yu to compose the music for the titles as his style suited the mood we wanted perfectly. But in our initial conversations we didn’t yet know how long the piece would be or what each studio would produce. To solve that, Ambrose worked on creating a motif as a base that could run the narrative and expand in different ways.
If you’ve listened to some of his work, you’ll know Ambrose has that magical ability to create a range of interesting moods and moments with one piece, so we trusted him to compose according to his own ideas. His music brings everything together musically in such a thoughtful way, supporting the individual animations, as well as the whole story.
Speaking of individual animations, because each piece can stand alone, we had the opportunity to create an additional purpose for the project, an ident series where each piece got its own unique soundscape. Sonos Sanctus came on board to help produce and match some amazing sound designers to the idents, so we owe them, and all of our audio partners, a tremendous thanks.
It was a huge value-add that we could offer the idents to TEDxSydney because, usually, it’s much more difficult to cut standalone moments out of most titles. TED used the idents between talks, online and to help promote the event, which was great.
Client: TEDx Sydney
Project Concept & Curation: Scott Geersen
Produced by: Substance_
Managing Partner: Alex North__
Animations (A-Z): Bemo / Bullpen / Mighty Nice / Mixcode / Nerdo / Oddfellows / Post Office / Spillt / State / Substance
Original Music & Sound Design: Ambrose Yu
Meleah Maynard is a writer and editor in Minneapolis, Minnesota.