If “broadcast design” still conjures up images of shiny, monumental logos and busy clip montages, take a look at the show opens, promos and network IDs on the air today. Clean graphics, customized live-action footage and even fun character animation speak more of “design for broadcast” than the “broadcast design” of yesteryear. After all, it’s “good design and great storytelling that continue to define the networks,” says Bigstar’s Josh Norton.
New York City-based design, VFX and animation studio Mechanism Digital (www.mechanismdigital.com) creates promos and IDs for networks directly and show opens and packages for production companies and content creators. Executive producer Lucien Harriot sees a recent trend to more of a “flat, illustrated-type look” inspired by Apple’s new OS icons. And with so much reality programming on the air, live-action elements are very much in the forefront.
“Reality shows are so people driven that a show open often features a sequence of people for 20 seconds then a title resolve at the end,” he notes. Mechanism Digital doesn’t do live-action people shoots so for that type of broadcast design it edits together selects provided by the production company and crafts a poster-style resolve. The studio likes to use CGI elements whenever possible as in the show open for National Geographic’s American Fringe, which features a 3D blowing flag with text burned into it and A&E’s World Food Championships with 3D pedestals of food in a marble Coliseum-like space.
Although Discovery ID’s cleverly-named new reality series, Elder Skelter looks at old people who kill, the show open and broadcast design package created by Mechanism Digital doesn’t include any people. Instead, the very graphic approach sets the scene for stories hosted by three New York City socialites of a certain age and an audience demographic of women who enjoy whodunnits.
In the show open, the camera pans a vintage living room interior and skims along a tabletop replete with blood spatters. It comes to rest on the stem of a martini glass and pulls back to reveal the bowl of the glass, which houses a pair of dentures — the killer’s or the victim’s? Bold, chipped upper case typography spells out “Elder Skelter” in the background.
Mechanism Digital had a creative brief and brainstorming session with Mark Marabella, executive producer for Hot Snakes Media, which produces Elder Skelter for Discovery ID. “We decided on a high-contrast, saturated, dark humor, retro feel but nothing too campy or graphic heavy,” Harriot recalls. “We liked how the Helter Skelter cover design used a 1950s font in 1974 [for the true crime book on the Charles Manson murders]. We like using dafont.com for fonts; they have a nice search option and preview and many are free.”
Stock images of a pedestal ashtray and a big comfy armchair were found for the background and color corrected to look old. But Mechanism Digital opted to shoot elements for the blood spatter and glass. “We don’t have a studio but we set up lights, foam core and a Canon 5D camera on a tripod” to shoot the tabletop sequence and an office curtain for the background,” Harriot explains.
“We thinned chocolate syrup to the right consistency for the blood drops and shot a martini glass we got from a bar down the street. For the dentures we used two stock stills animated on top of each other. We wanted bubbles in the glass so we blew some with a drinking straw, but they were too big and fast. We tried a coffee stirrer, but the bubbles were too small. So we finally settled on a ballpoint pen with its guts removed and blew bubbles with it into a glass of water.”
The smoke element from the ashtray in the background was created in Adobe After Effects, which was also the compositing tool. An existing font was manipulated in Adobe Illustrator to show wear and tear. Mechanism Digital also delivered lower-thirds for the show featuring a complementary font and fabric elements from the chair or curtains plus bumpers and transitions. Nate Mulliken was Mechanism Digital’s creative director on the project.
“We love stepping away from the computer and shooting some live elements specifically for design projects,” says Harriot. “Computer-generated images can be a bit exacting at times, but elements brought in from the real world incorporate the chaotic beauty of organic motion and encourage happy accidents to happen.”
Other recent show opens and packages from Mechanism Digital include the graphic Amish Haunting for Destination America and the live-action based Secret Eskimo Escape for TLC International.
In Los Angeles, design-based production company BRKLY (www.brkly.com) displays its skills in motion graphics, live action, design and animation with broadcast design packages for the Top Chef franchise, Project Runway, the Real Housewives and ABC’s hit Scandal. Creative director/founder Neil Berkeley is a documentary filmmaker (Beauty is Embarrassing, Harmontown) so “we’re storytellers first and foremost,” he explains.
Although Berkeley says it’s “hard to generalize” about trends in broadcast design he’s seen “the Instagram look” come and go and thinks there will always be room for “the big, shining ESPN look.” But he believes networks and shows today are searching for “a voice” that will clearly brand them in a media-filled world.
“The new Esquire network has done a good job with a very graphic, artistic, print-based look,” he says. “They’ve stuck to what works in the magazine. And the Scripps’ networks really know their audience and have a clear mantra for DIY and HGTV. As much as people might want to try to find the next big interesting thing, they ultimately want to speak to their brand and not get caught up in the flavor of the month.”
Live action plays a major part in branding today. “There may be VFX or graphic moments but they’re living in the world of the show with the talent and their spaces,” Berkeley observes. “What sets us apart is that we have the sensibilities to do big live-action production with greenscreen, motion capture, stunt work. We can shoot, design and animate.”
The daring-do athleticism of The Property Brothers, twins Drew and Jonathan Scott, who are HGTV superstars and fierce and fun competitors, is shown in BRKLY’s live-action promo for the second season of Brother vs. Brother.
“The promo last year was great, but they threw the script out the window this season,” says Berkeley to achieve something that was described as “bigger, better, bad ass.” The premise is simple: both brothers spot a hammer at a construction site and want it. But they have to go through six big, Marvel-style stunts to get it.
Berkeley got Marvel stunt coordinators involved to combine the hammer gag with dynamic stunts that find Drew and Jonathan jumping off scaffolds, blowing up desks, sliding down ramps and under tables, spinning in the air, and landing in a three-point stance like Spider-Man.
“They’re very funny, very light — that’s part of their charm, so we wanted everything to be very tongue in cheek,” he says. “As much as the brothers are smashing around they do it with a smile and a giggle.”
The two-day shoot was helmed by award-winning director John Bonito and captured with two Arri Alexa cameras and a roaming Canon C300. The team faked the stop-motion freeze-time gimmick by building a 360-degree track and swinging the camera around as the brothers ran, then froze. “We added 3D particles and objects in space so it looks like a Matrix move,” Berkeley says. BRKLY cut together the promo’s stunt sequences, created graphics and performed VFX compositing in Maxon Cinema 4D and After Effects.
No sooner did the company finish Brother vs. Brother than they began a documentary-style promo campaign for another new Property Brothers show on HGTV. Broadcast packages for Bravo and MSNBC round out recent projects.
Broadcast design is part of the staple of film, broadcast and advertising work at New York City’s Bigstar (www.bigstr.com) where executive creative director Josh Norton is seeing a “more holistic branding for networks that connect the dots” of on-air, print, social media and online components. “Everything is cut from the same cloth and very consistent,” he reports.
Also trending, as BRKLY observed, is a “focus on the individual” whether they are reality show stars, celebrities or sports talent. “People are looking for the human story in entertainment and sports,” Norton explains.
The human element is very much in evidence in the main title sequence that Bigstar created for the new Showtime documentary series, Years of Living Dangerously, from creators Joel Bach and David Gelber. The groundbreaking show about global climate change features a mix of seasoned journalists and celebrity reporters, including Harrison Ford, Don Cheadle, Matt Damon and Michael C. Hall.
For the main title, Bigstar intercut clips of international locations and climate crises — droughts, hurricanes, deforestation — with the show’s correspondents on the ground, highlighting those featured in the current episode. Clips are layered and mixed with graphical elements; the color palette starts out cool with images of glaciers and ice melting and gradually warms up during the span of the open as the aftermath of climate change is revealed.
Bigstar was “fully engaged” from the outset with crafting the main title. “We had an energetic exchange with the ‘Years’ team, a vigorous back and forth of concepting, design ideas, storyboarding, narrative intent,” recalls Norton. “Climate change is a big story, and this series has huge personalities telling it. We wanted to project a sense of wonder about the planet, present the backstory of research and scientific diligence, and show the tension and drama of what we’re up against. And feature all 14 correspondents. That was a very rich challenge for us.”
Bigstar’s cut supplied live-action footage with Apple’s Final Cut Pro and used a wide range of techniques to create the graphic elements, including Autodesk Maya, Cinema 4D and After Effects with AE Scripts’ Plexus and Red Giant’s Trapcode Form plug-ins.
Bigstar also provided in-show graphics for the series’ nine episodes steering clear of conventional charts and graphs in favor of animations of lakes drying up and salt water invading the Mississippi Delta and a lot of satellite imagery that gives a more experiential feel for the audience. “We wanted to display information without taking the viewer out of the physical world,” Norton says. “We never wanted to detach the scientific story from the human story.”
Regina Sobel was Bigstar’s producer/art director for the main title and show graphics and Jake Zucker a designer/animator for both. Mo Ghayour was a designer/animator on the main title and Chialung Liu a designer/animator for the show graphics.
Other recent broadcast projects include the season four teaser campaign for HBO’s Game of Thrones and the show open for ABC World News with Diane Sawyer.
Culver City, California’s award-winning motion design studio Monkeyhead (www.monkeyhead.com) has witnessed a lot of trends in broadcast design. “Light 3D, heavy 3D, layered 2D, hand drawn, you name it. Our industry loves the extremes,” says creative director and founder Josh Sahley. “Now we’re commonly seeing a very clean 2D world, flat and simple. But more dimension and shadow will come back once the industry exhausts this cycle.”
Monkeyhead has been using live-action elements in a lot of recent show packages for Bravo and We TV. But it’s their character animation that breaks through in two 15-second promos for Fox Sports 1, the new premium sports channel from the media giant. The numeral 1 takes on human characteristics in The Victorious 1 where, sporting shiny track shoes, he nimbly soars across the bar in a pole vault competition, and in The New Year’s 1 where, clad in black tie and cummerbund, he parties a bit too hearty. Both spots end with him landing prone on the Fox Sports 1 logo viewed from overhead.
The studio had worked with Fox Sports before on more serious sports pieces. But for the launch of Fox Sports 1, the network wanted “to bring something different to the table,” says Sahley. “That gave us a lot of freedom. There was no set look, no designed character. They were up for anything. You can’t ask for a better creative partner.”
Monkeyhead devised several ideas based on character animation. Fortunately, the shape of the numeral 1 worked well for sprouting arms and legs. The serif-topped numeral’s “head” could even wear a sweatband or a funky party hat.
For The New Year’s 1, Monkeyhead initially conceived the numeral 1 as a solo partygoer on a city rooftop. “We filmed ourselves for quick reference moves — partying, drunk texting,” Sahley recalls. “Then we thought it would look cool to populate the rooftop with other 1’s in the background. We added layers and layers of details that you don’t notice the first time you see it.”
The Victorious 1 started out with a basketball theme, but the team found that pole vaulting worked best. Getting the numeral to soar over the bar took some trial and error. “It’s something you don’t know how to do until you get in there and experiment,” Sahley explains. “We tried making him ultra bendy then stiff and muscular. We found a nice mid-ground where he’s more bendy than a human but not over the top. Once you determine the character and its boundaries it becomes easier to keep consistent with the character.”
The Victorious 1 opens with a close up of the numeral’s shiny photoreal shoes. The animators built out a generic model of a stadium and filled it with a crowd composed of the animators themselves shot in different outfits on greenscreen. A big screen in the background follows the numeral’s vault in real time.
Tools included Cinema 4D for modeling and animation, Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, After Effects for compositing and Uberware’s Smedge for rendering in Monkeyhead’s large render farm.
“Character animation wasn’t always as common [as some other techniques], but it’s become more acceptable now,” Sahley notes. “We’re getting more and more jobs, from commercials to broadcast design, that want us to include a graphic or animated character even if it’s not the central focus.”
Among other recent broadcast design projects from Monkeyhead are a 3D/live-action show open for Bravo’s Untying the Knot and a redesigned package for ABC Family Network’s 13 Nights of Halloween.
Evolve, the Chicago-based boutique creative production company (www.evolveimg.com), offers a full range of services, including design, production supervision and direction, editorial, color, and sound effects and scoring. It counts show promos for National Geographic, ESPN and TLC among its broadcast design work.
Founder and president Joel Edwards and his brother Jesse see more variety than trends in their recent projects but live-action elements find their way into just about every job these days. “There’s a merger of live action and dynamic cinematography with VFX, sometimes in text, sometimes full-on motion graphics and design,” says Joel.
The proliferation of reality programming, especially action-themed shows, lends itself to that style of messaging. Take Wicked Tuna, now in its third season on Nat Geo. Evolve created six 30-second on-air and ad sales pieces for the show about competitive tuna fishing in the North Atlantic.
“We had done the previous season’s promos, and this year they wanted bigger, badder cinematography that played into titling and design,” Joel reports. The brothers went on a three-week shoot aboard the boats using a small crew and a Red Epic camera for an almost ENG approach and outfitted themselves with “all the toys,” including Techno dollies and Phantom cameras, for a bigger scope of production.
The network was open to the idea of using 3D for the main logo text, something they hadn’t done before, Joel notes. Evolve took the existing logo for Wicked Tuna and “extruded it, added bevel and glass, a shiny lighting scheme, a color scheme and some grunge texture we stole from the actual tuna boats.”
But it’s the dynamic camera motion on the main logo text that really sells the look, Joel says. “We fly through the text like a helicopter in one shot, and in another we settle on the text as the boat is bobbing on the waves.”
Lead VFX artist Ryan Trommer headed the Wicked Tuna team. The text was built in Cinema 4D with Video Copilot’s Optical Flares tool for light effects. After Effects and Imagineer Systems’ Mocha were used for tracking; After Effects was also deployed for compositing and titling. Everything was color graded and finished in Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve.
Evolve has received Promax art direction and design nominations for its promos for Nat Geo’s Drugs Inc. show, which features text treatments of common business terms — briefcase, cubicle — as applied to the drug world.
NuContext Creative (www.nucontext.com) is a full-service creative agency and production company with offices in LA and New York City that specializes in live-action concepts, creative editorial and post production. Over the last few years the company has seen “a minimalization of the very designed look of the past,” says founder and executive creative director Angela Guice. “Maybe because the media landscape is so cluttered people need a bold, graphic look in their messaging. Everything is more simplistic. The work and message speak for themselves.”
Show promos today seem to live “more in a commercial type of space,” she notes. “They’re counting on art direction and production design to speak for the brand.” NuContext’s season two launch campaign for FUSE’s highest-rated series, Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce, is a prime example of “high design in look and concept,” Guice says. “Although it’s all live action, it’s very much production designed.”
Freedia makes her home in New Orleans, and The Big Easy acts as a character in the show, says Guice. “We wanted to have New Orleans as the background, but not a cartoon version of New Orleans. So we shot in the Treme, in the streets where bounce was born, which gave great texture to the piece. It really showcases Freedia’s character and the character of New Orleans.”
In the promo Freedia leads a solemn procession through the residential streets of the Treme as her voiceover details New Orleans’ recent tough times and how hard it is for an artist there to make it. Then the music breaks out, Freedia twirls her parasol and her companions shake it up in a joyful demonstration of her big dreams for herself, her friends, family and community. “When we come together we’re unstoppable!” she declares.
NuContext worked closely with Freedia on the look of the promo, which was directed by Robert Hales. Freedia’s Uncle Percy, who designs all her costumes, partnered with Hales’s costume designer of choice. A local location scout found the Treme neighborhood whose residents “came out and danced” during the shoot. “That was definitely a New Orleans moment,” laughs Guice.
She notes that there’s been a trend to combine a show’s image campaign shoot with the key art photo shoot to deliver “a very cohesive look.” The Big Freedia production followed that model with well-known photographer Art Streiber shooting stills on the first day. DP Todd Banhazl, who chose Arri Alexa for the promo, tapped old Kowa anamorphic lenses and big lights to make Freedia pop against the gritty streets.
NuContext’s Chad Peiken did the creative cut and finishing; Prehistoric Digital’s Kevin Cannon performed the color correction.