Conference openers have become the vehicle of choice for many studios to show what they can do without an overbearing client or agency brief hemming them in. The creative contraints for conference openers are usually very loose (probably owning to the guilt organizers feel for not being able to pay anyone for their work), inviting experimentation and risk-taking that’s hard to find in the commercial world.
While the budgets may be low, the expectations are very high. And for a conference about “the art of the pitch,” the expectations are unusually high.
A Meeting of the Minds
As usual, the audio deserves as bright a spotlight as the visuals — and in this case, the man behind the audio, John Black (CypherAudio) had a special role to play in this collaboration.
We got the inside scoop on the process behind the project from John Black, Anthony Scott Burns and Chris Bahry of Tendril.
Interview with Anthony Scott Burns, Chris Bahry (Tendril) and John Black (Cypheraudio)
John, let’s start with you, since it many ways this collaboration began with you. Tell us how that came about.
John Black/Cypheraudio: During my initial meeting with Stephen and Heather [of Stash Magazine, organizers of the Style Frames NY event], they asked me who I would be interested in working with to create the opening. I immediately suggested Tendril.
Not only have I been a part of Tendril’s creative team since they launched the company, but Chris and I have collaborated for over ten years. I knew that we could communicate ideas effectively, and I trusted them to create something exceptional.
Knowing that Chris and Anthony had mutual creative respect for each other but had never worked on a project together lead to me suggesting that they combine their styles for something unique.
I also wanted to represent Toronto and really push for an extraordinary experience. Having Stephen give us complete creative freedom was also amazing. He told us not to hold back at all.
Anthony and Chris, how did you frame your collaboration? Was it difficult getting started?
Chris Bahry/Tendril (Co-Director): Anthony and I were on the same wavelength pretty much from the get go. We recognized the project as a chance to express some pent up emotions about the positive and negative aspects of the industry and the somewhat taboo subject of pitching.
Anthony Scott Burns (Co-Director): When I sat down with the guys at Tendril, we all agreed that we didn’t want to do a bunch of render porn. So I went off and thought about what interested me about this process of pitching we all do.
I’m a stupid perfectionist (and I have Asperger’s), so the idea of creating frames of artwork in a matter of days that have to express your complete ideas for something that has “never been done” has always stressed me out beyond belief. But the relief and sometimes euphoria when you pull it off… It’s awesome.
We all make these mental offerings, or sacrifices, to get better at our crafts, and we put our ideas on the table to be judged.
Chris Bahry: The inverted pyramid that shows up in a few places is a hint at an inverted Maslow hierarchy. It was the perfect symbol for us of turning your life upside down to prove your creative self worth.
In our first meet-up at the studio, we came up with the basic kernel of the story, which would center around an individual going through the process of creating a pitch under the pressure of a ticking clock.
We didn’t have the visuals yet, apart from a guy at a desk — and that his pencil would break the second it hit the page — but we knew we wanted it to be visceral. We also decided that we would not show the characters face, so that the character would become a sort of ‘Everyman’ that anyone would be able to identify with.
How did you get from that idea to the final story?
Chris/Bahry: I’d say the early breakthrough came with Anthony taking all this and introducing the ‘gods.’
Anthony Scott Burns: I wrote “The Offering” (read the PDF) as a backbone for me to understand all the imagery we would create. I need to attach logic to the abstract.
Chris Bahry: We all agreed that this was our narrative hinge, so we pulled the best stuff out of our references and made a synopsis to send to Stephen Price. Stephen thought it was really cool, and so the next step was to start developing shots and an animatic.
Chris Bahry: One of the most interesting/fun parts of this was the montage ‘mood’ shots. These are moments like the plate of food that turns to worms, or the creepy man looking at us through binoculars.
Anthony had a bunch of ideas for these, and I had a bunch and we picked our favourites. To keep them coherent, we kept them really stylized and symmetrical so that they would have a very intentional and ‘staged’ quality.
Around this time, Anthony got hard to work at Tendril studio building a full-blown previs/animatic in C4D that laid the foundation for all of the God shots and the overall framework and shotflow. It was a critical and important step, especially when it came to shooting the gods themselves, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
Live action is notoriously expensive. How did you guys pull this off?
Chris Bahry: When it came time to shoot, we were very resourceful. Anthony and I would meet up, check our shot ‘task list’ for that day, throw the gear into my Golf and we’d drive around town trying to knock off as many as possible for that day.
It was run and gun no budget shooting the whole way. Most of the live action shots were DOPed by Anthony on his own RedOne with a bunch of Nikon lenses and his Red Pro 50mm, but we also shot quite a lot on a 5D and 7D (the elevator shots that open the piece, for example), especially for the macro stuff.
By the end of our shooting schedule, we had generated a whole library of shots for our editor Chris Murphy to pull from. Some of our favourites didn’t even make the cut!
The black liquidy shots are outtakes from some experimental stuff we had going at the studio and we threw it in really last minute. To us, it almost feels like a ‘molecular level’ view of what’s going on in the guy’s head as the deadline literally creeps up on him from behind.
So you and Anthony were out in the field, shooting like mad. What was the rest of the crew up to?
Chris Bahry: While Anthony and I were running around shooting, a team back at the studio lead by Vini Nascimento pushed forward on the god design while Andrew Vucko, Brad Husband and Renato Ferro pushed hard on environments and props.
Anthony defined the gods according to five attributes of the creative psyche. These attributes help give rhyme and reason to the designs. Anthony had personally made an amazing Zbrush design for the Technology god (the one with the horns).
I had a handful of really loose sketches for what ended up looking like an HR Giger piece (Rest and Play) and The Form and Function (Egyptian looking), Flesh and Blood (the eyeball) and Love and Passion (the nature / tree thing) came out of the brilliant mind of Vini.
At this time, über-artist Ash Thorp volunteered to do some brilliant concept sketches. But our gods had already gone down a very different, dark and unexpected path and we didn’t end up using them in the final work.
What about the costumes?
Chris Bahry: My partner, fashion designer Jessica Mary Clayton created the costumes for us. We asked her to make them almost like a uniform, but with unique touches for each god so that they wouldn’t feel like clones.
What we didn’t tell her is that she’d have to get in and out of them all day on shoot day.
How did you guys handle greenscreen shots?
The last step before compositing and tracking hell was prepping for the greenscreen gods shoot. We could only afford a single day and a grip.
Anthony shot the whole thing and directed the talent, while I ran around setting up lights. One thing we did have was a great Grip (Chris Atkinson). To get the effect of floating, we did two things.
- We had a teeter totter rig. That allowed us to lift our two actors off the ground for the shot where we see the gods creeping up from behind (check the photos at the assorted shots link).
- We had a chest harness on aircraft cable that allowed our actors to lean forward. For the flying shots, we’d do a pass on the dolly track and then we’d position that tracking data in 3D along with the footage and add a 3D camera to make it feel like the gods were moving through the space and not the camera! It’s almost a miracle that it worked as well as it did.
Let’s switch gears to audio for a minute. John, can you tell us about the audio process for this project?
John Black/Cypheraudio: Originally, Stephen and I got together and talked about music. He’s an audiophile who knows his stuff, and we got along immediately, aside from both having a proclivity for wearing all black.
[Chris and Anthony] put together a new edit using a track that they chose, and it immediately worked for a very general tempo and feel. We really needed to lock the cut as soon as possible, so I could work on the music and sound design as the shots were compiled, time was always a crucial factor.
I tried several sketches and discussed with Chris and Anthony what they thought would work, what wouldn’t and gradually the track evolved.
Composing for gods
John Black: One thing that we all knew was that when the gods arrived, there had to be a change, a theme introduced. After a few rough ideas, I hit the right progression, and we agreed that it had the effect that was needed.
I then went back and made sure that the music had a gradual progression that built in scenes from the intro into the Gods, then through to the crescendo and follow up.
Was this a different process than your commercial work?
John Black: It is fundamentally different from my commercial work. Although there were directors, I had input in the creative on this in a tangible way. We were making something that we would love first and that would come through to an audience of our peers. It’s not always like that in commercial work, not often enough at all.
What was the most challenging aspect of this project?
John Black: Time. I needed to spend enough time to flesh out the ideas, experiment, etc. while the shots basically dictated the timing.
I had to overcome many challenges making the music conform to the edit. I couldn’t change my mind after we’d agreed on the tempo, for instance. I was pleasantly surprised as some of these challenges actually made for more interesting outcomes.
I also really wanted to push for a real cinematic/soundtrack feel for this and do something that is maybe not what I usually do.
Chris Bahry/Tendril: The biggest challenge was reaching the bar we had set for ourselves. It was extremely ambitious both for time and lack of budget.
We had to work with what we had: our own gear, rely on friends and family — basically beg, borrow, and steal the whole way.
And we did some crazy shit. The shot of our guy in the water was achieved just before sundown in duck-shit filled freezing lake Ontario water with five minutes of sunlight to go.
We also broke more than a few laws getting our motorcycle shots under the highway on Toronto’s lakeshore with a friend riding his own Triumph Bonneville.
We got through it by just believing that we would get there. We had just a few shots to go when the Frankenstorm hit NYC. At that point we stepped away and took Christmas. We came back to it a month later for final colour corrects and greenscreen fixes and had a final file ready the night before the big show!
Taking on these non-paying gigs is a lot of work and stress. Why do you do it?
John Black/Cypheraudio: I get a feeling of real satisfaction, and I enjoy even the most stressful parts because I know that I am able to push my technique without having to compromise.
These are the projects that lead to better commercial work. People can see or hear what you are capable of without restrictions. It’s also a sense of belonging to a team striving to make the best work possible, which is important for me, especially because I work alone most of the time.
Anthony, you’re working a bit with Ash Thorp these days, right? What’s that about?
Ash and I are working together on several short and feature film projects right now. Mostly what industry types are calling “Elevated Genre.”
I’ve been developing one for two years, and this is the story that got us on the same page. Over the past six months, we’ve created several other amazing properties together that we are going to slowly unveil to the public.
Thanks everyone for your time and energy. Congratulations on a beautiful project well done.
Production Company: Tendril Design + Animation
Directed by: Anthony Scott Burns and Chris Bahry
Music and Sound Design: John Black of CypherAudio
Editor: Chris Murphy of Relish Editing
Executive Producer: Kate Bate
Creative Directors: Chris Bahry and Alexandre Torres
Producer: Molly Willows
DOP: Anthony Scott Burns
Costumes: Jessica Mary Clayton
Make-Up: Stacy Hatzinikolas
Grip: Chris Atkinson
PAs: Howard Gordon, Derek Evoy
Man at Computer: Travis Stone
Gods: Iain Soder, Jessica Mary Clayton
Motorcycle Rider: Kris Sharon
Guy with Binoculars: Dennis Pikulyk
Gods Concept Art: Marco Texeira and Vini Nascimento
Additional Gods Concept Art: Ash Thorp
Environment, Prop, and God Design: Anthony Scott Burns, Vini Nascimento, Chris Bahry, Andrew Vucko
3D Modeling: Vini Nascimento, Marcin Porebski, Renato Ferro, Andrew Vucko
3D Rigging: Renato Ferro
3D Animation: Vini Nasicmento, Marcin Porebski, Renato Ferro
Textures: Vini Nasicmento, Renato Ferro
Lighting, Render: Brad Husband
Compositing: Chris Bahry, Anthony Scott Burns, Brad Husband