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Amsterdam DNA revisited

There has been a surge of motion media on the museum-going experience as of late — which will be elaborated on in a later post — and Amsterdam-based PlusOne studio’s recent production for the Amsterdam Museum really paints this type of exhibition work in excellent light.

This project has been drafted from the Quickies because, in addition to the trailer posted earlier and their meticulous craftmanship of the antiquities’ stories, they’ve released an excellent portion of the seven-part series, Revolt Against King and Church.

The whole of Amsterdam DNA was a massive undertaking in short order — seven films plus trailer plus video wall content — which perks interest into how a studio of PlusOne’s size handles multiple deliverables for a project of this scope.  So, PlusOne director Martijn Hogenkamp was kind enough to extend full insight into the process.

Synopsis

End 2010, the Amsterdam Museum contacted us for a new prestigious exhibition: Amsterdam DNA. They told us they liked our approach of storytelling and the way we infuse this with design (specifically referring to the animation we made for “Beelden voor de Toekomst”. A meeting was set up and the Amsterdam Museum presented their brief. The idea was to develop a three-dimensional travel guide, which takes the visitor on a 45-minute historical tour through Amsterdam. Carefully selected highlights should tell the story of this multifaceted city in seven chapters.

Because of the 45-minute time span, a small collection of objects were showcased in the exhibition: In each chapter a specific exhibit forms the basis for the story of that particular period. The stories needed to be told through films, which were going to be projected onto big glass screens in the middle of the gallery.

Specifically we were asked to create seven films, in 10 languages, accompanied with a start screen for each film that loops until a visitor activates the content with a QR code. This code is printed on a booklet the visitors receive at the entrance. Next to this they asked us to develop a video wall of approximately seven by three meters. Once the project was finished we were also asked to create a trailer, which features the highlights of the films:

Process

Before we were commissioned, the Amsterdam Museum wanted us to prepare a presentation about ourselves (our mission statement, vision, show reel, etc.). As the museum was unfamiliar with the work flow of creating films like these, they also asked us to present a plan of action: an explanation of our approach and all the phases we were going to go through. When everybody knew what to expect and was convinced that we were the right party for the job, we got the assignment. This is where the creative process began.

From the start we wanted to visualize the DNA of Amsterdam in a clear way, but the films had to be intriguing and visually appealing at the same time. The aim was to offer the visitors a different perspective of the images (mainly paintings). To achieve this we chose to add an extra dimension by making the images three-dimensional.

Another dimension, sound, was added to make the whole even more appealing. Lifelike sounds and soundtracks that fit the spirit of the age add luster to the scenes. Real instruments were used during the recordings in London:

Anne Frank by Lennert Busch
Final score for Film #6 about the Second World War

In close cooperation with the curators we developed seven scripts of about 90 seconds each. When everybody was happy with the outcome, we created animatics for each film:

These rough edits were very helpful. It gave a clear vision on the content of the films. Next to this it also provided an impression of the flow. When everybody approved we locked it and started working on the shots. Also the final voice-over was recorded in ten languages.

All in all it was quite a time-consuming process. We worked on the project for six months with a team of 10 people.

Where there any major hurdles that you had to overcome?

Well, for a relatively small studio like us that had to deal with such a big project there were a few challenges to overcome. First of all we weren’t familiar with a museum as a client. Even though they are mostly labeled as a conservative party the collaboration was delightful. They were open to our vision and inspired us as well.

This was especially the case with the first film, which concerns the 11th until the 16th century. It highlights how Amsterdam was built: on wooden poles. About this subject almost nothing was conserved, so the first film had to be created from scratch. This is what we do on a daily basis, though this was different. Since we were creating an important part of the past, it had to be historically correct. This meant a lot of research was necessary. Norbert van Middelkoop, one of the museum’s curators, provided us with a lot of input and together we constructed the animation:

The objects were sometimes very delicate. For instance the globe of Blaeu . . .

In the animation we wanted to orbit around the globe. At first the curators were skeptical about this, because of the value and the fragility of the object. That’s why we couldn’t do it in-camera and had to recreate the globe in CG after taking pictures from all angles. In this way we also could animate all kinds of details, which the globe is enriched with, such as the ships:

The most important challenge was to bring the masterpieces to life without affecting their identity, or rather, their soul. That’s a thin line to walk, but something we kept in mind during the entire process.

Was your vision always in sync with the curators’ requests?

In the beginning we had to get used to each other, mainly because they have never been in a process like this and we’ve never worked with a museum. However, it was a great collaboration from the start; it was a pleasure and really inspiring to work with the curators.

We met once a week to make sure everybody was up-to-date and happy with the created assets. To get feedback, work in progress was shared as well as a plan of action for the shots we were going to work on. This step-by-step approach was very helpful to finish this project successfully. Since all shots were very labor-intensive, it was necessary to make sure everybody was happy before investing precious time in creation.

When we delivered our first preview the curators were blown away. They saw the paintings in a way they’ve never seen before. The added dimension caused a totally new experience for the curators based on something they are so familiar with, exactly the effect we were aiming for.

Did you aid in the physical installation, or just produce the content for it?  What obstacles arose there, if any?

The big glass screens on which the films were projected as well as the video wall were set up by the Amsterdam Museum. However we tested various projectors, lenses and foils. For the video wall the main difficulty was its size — measuring seven by three meters. Three projectors were needed, so we needed to divide the animation into three parts including some overlap.

During the construction of the exhibition we discovered a problem with the projectors of the glass screens. The angle was incorrect: Light was projected right into the visitors’ eyes. Luckily there was enough time to lower the position of the projectors before the official opening.

How do you feel about the integration of animated/interactive digital content in traditional art museums? Do you feel that they complement or fight each other? Do you foresee these types of visual explanations expanding further in museums?

The technical abilities these days are great tools to portray the collections of museums in an appealing manner without losing the identity of the pieces of art. This enables museums to reach a broader (and younger) audience. So we believe they complement each other.

For this particular project, unfortunately the budget didn’t allow us to add interactivity, but this would make it even more playful and the audience will be literally involved in the narrative.

Software

3DsMax, Cinema4D and the Adobe package.

Credits

Commissioned by: Amsterdam Museum (www.amsterdammuseum.nl)
Client: Bianca Schrauwen, Joost van de Weerd, Norbert Middelkoop, Laura van Hasselt
Agency: PlusOne (www.plusoneamsterdam.com)
Direction: Martijn Hogenkamp
Production: Marcel Vrieswijk
Motion Designer: Sander van Dijk
Lead 3D: Tim van der Wiel
3D: Noam Briner, Chris Rudz, Hans Willem Gijzel, Richard Lundström
Music: Lennert Busch
Sound Design: Mauricio d’Orey
Thanks to: Harold van Velsen

Thanks very much to Martijn Hogenkamp and PlusOne for their time, assistance, and patience with the development of this post.

Posted on 29 February 2012 |

2 thoughts on “Amsterdam DNA revisited

  1. I was just at this museum a few weeks ago. The animations were awesome and the whole place is very well designed. They used very creative ways of displaying information with infographics and various interactions.

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