Background from the Directors
COMBINED PROCESS WRITING WITH LAYOUT CUES
Cassidy Gearhart: Save Our Supplies is a PSA for the non-profit Doc2Dock that Julian King and I directed in early 2011 for the production company Shilo and the agency Modernista. We got together with Michael Cina, the designer of all the boxes, and assembled some thoughts about the process of planning, concepting and designing this project.
TIMING A VISUAL VOICEOVER
CG: The first challenge we faced was timing out Modernista’s skillfully written script to be read and absorbed visually. Our goal was to establish an editorial rhythm similar to the cadence of speech: a voice-over in visual form. We began by cutting a rudimentary previs sequence that set the words of the script to our piece of music.
Julian King: This “word-o-matic” allowed us to begin dividing up the statements of the script box by box, and to structure a music edit to serve as a skeletal backbone to the flesh of the statements.
Here are two of the “word-o-matic” edits:
REFINING THE NARRATIVE
CG: Early on, the agency made it clear to us that there were two sections to the script: the problems at hand (U.S. medical waste and countries that desperately need medical supplies) and how Doc2Dock addresses those problems. In the initial agency brief, the narrative was set entirely within the shipping container, yet we strongly felt that the two sections needed to be contrasted. We proposed that the introductory “problem” section be set outside the shipping container, placing them in and around the storage areas of the shipping facility.
JK: By making these introductory messages more isolated and inert, we would further emphasize the problem at hand: Valuable medical supplies are left unused and forgotten. This allowed us to make the “solution” section of the script more active, using faster camera movements and time lapse, with the transition signified by a box being picked up and loaded into the container for the first time.
PREVISUALIZING THE PIECE
JK: We shot a rough pass of the whole piece to see how it worked and flowed. This process led us to refine camera movements in the “problem” section and to experiment with the time-lapse sequences that conclude the piece (which incidentally was our first ever attempt at real stop-motion work). We quickly realized that our biggest challenge was making the time-lapse sequences depicting the filling of the 40-foot shipping container dynamic, readable, and continuous.
CG: The specific difficulty in capturing the loading of a 10-foot wide by 12-foot tall steel box in time lapse is the potential lack of depth reference as the camera moves backwards. How do you tell that you’ve changed positions? How do you avoid its feeling flat? Our initial attempts suffered from lack of dimension and a feeling that the shots weren’t connected by continuous action.
JK: Through repeated experimentation we realized that we had to avoid starting or ending a time lapse as a flat wall. By making the entry and exit point of each shot a multi-rowed, randomly stacked “Tetris”-like shape, suddenly there was a more believable jump in time.
INSPIRATION AND REFERENCES
CG: We reached a consensus with the agency that the design should feel connected to the shipping process, taking inspirational cues from cardboard box packaging, packing labels, address markings, stamps and stickers. All of these formats are rooted in grid-based design and tend to utilize san-serif typefaces and bold icons. This approach immediately made us think of getting Michael Cina involved in the project.
Michael Cina: I pulled inspiration from work done by nondesigners, such as box and label design. This was a huge inspiration to me early in my career; I have sketchbooks full of found labels, stickers, etc., from the sides of boxes. Another strong influence was information graphics and Swiss design. In the end, the result was a strange hybrid of all three of these forms to create something unique, yet believable.
TYPOGRAPHY, ICONOGRAPHY, SIMPLICITY AND FORM FOLLOWING CONTENT
MC: My first objective was to figure out how to visually communicate the message in the most efficient manner. This entailed figuring out the proper typeface families and employing the use of iconography to assist the message being shown…all within the design vernacular that you would expect to see on shipping boxes.
Like most functional designs, it had to be reduced to its rawest state, which was crucial here because of the necessity of a quick read. As a result of the boxes’ design and the use of motion to introduce and present them, the viewer is invited into a real setting where the boxes actually live.
JK: While Michael was designing, we were developing our shot sequence, and as a group, we were all working to match form to content and concept. Paring everything down to its simplest possible state, we wanted no decoration, flourish or detail for its own sake.
EVOLUTION AND IMPLEMENTATION
MC: It took a bit of experimentation to refine the voice that the graphics would take. If the boxes got too playful or overly designed, it took away from the legitimacy of what was being said. It was when you employed all the ideas together that the project really started to flow and develop a cohesive voice.
I am a huge fan of packaging supplies, especially since I used to own a design shop that shipped hundreds of boxes every week, so I have a very close connection with the shipping process. I also have a collection of tape and stickers that I’ve accumulated from boxes over the years, so it was natural (and extremely fun) to create an archive of visual messages to assist the written word.
What also makes the iconography so important is that it adds a level of legitimacy. When I receive boxes from another country, they end up getting littered with stamps, stickers and wear from travel. It was essential to include these details.
CG: Jeff Everett, our production designer, and his team, led by art director Keith Evans, assembled all of the message boxes using Michael’s designs as the blueprint. Jeff tracked down corresponding stamps and stickers that worked with the catalog of designs that Michael had created and also printed custom stickers that Michael himself had designed.
JK: Additional background boxes that filled out the backgrounds of the wider scenes were created as needed throughout our shoot day. Realistic details such as marker scrawlings, packing stickers, postage stampings, inventory numbers, and a judicious amount of dust were all added to these boxes scene by scene. Michael’s designs were a great point of reference for all this work.
Motionographer Questions About Doc2Dock
Can you tell us a little about Doc2Dock?
CG: Doc2Dock is a Clinton Global Initiative nonprofit that takes medical supplies from U.S. hospitals that otherwise would be discarded and then transports the specific supplies needed by hospitals throughout the developing world. Their service not only helps people desperately in need, but also helps reduce unnecessary waste.
How did you get involved with “SOS: Save Our Supplies”?
The most satisfying moment for us was sitting in our edit suite with the agency and screening the film for Doc2Dock’s founder, Dr. Bruce Charash, for the first time, and him asking to us to keep replaying the spot.
CG: Tracy at Shilo contacted me about the project at the end of last year. Modernista responded to the pitch we put together and I brought Julian King on to collaborate with me, and then we got Michael involved.
The finished project seems to be getting some great response online. How has Doc2Dock responded?
JK: The most satisfying moment for us was sitting in our edit suite with the agency and screening the film for Doc2Dock’s founder, Dr. Bruce Charash, for the first time, and him asking to us to keep replaying the spot. I know for us, and the agency, that was a great feeling.
How long did it take you to produce the designs in your process documentary?
MC: It was an ambitious deadline. At first they were thinking two days but when we saw they needed around 125 boxes, not including the extras, it turned into two weeks. So I did everything from start to finish a little shy of two weeks.
Just curious: Did you have a screen-capture app just running the whole time? If so, didn’t that make you self-conscious?
MC: I turned it on five times during the assignment because I knew they wanted documentation from the very beginning. I was working like a madman so I didn’t have a lot of time to really think about anything else other than the assignment. Having the screen capture on was actually wonderful because it made me focus on working. Those little distractions such as e-mail and phone were off limits.
How much research did you do before diving into Illustrator? Or were you mostly shooting from the hip?
MC: The first thing I do on most projects is sketch, so I did that for a half a day. I pulled my copy of Hans-Rudolf Lutz’s “Today’s Hieroglyphs” and a ULINE catalog, but neither were a lot of help. After that it was visual trial and error. I have a pretty concise way of working and narrowing down the look and feel. I would say it took doing 10 boxes before I really got things right. While I was working I was also screen capping ideas and putting them into a shared Dropbox so the other team members could view them. Every now and then I would get a critique when the film crew came up for air.
What role does research typically play in your work?
MC: If I need to do research on a project, I will do it until I understand the task. This was a project that was so natural to me that it didn’t take much. I am interested in so many types of design that I am always researching something.
You obviously value iteration and experimentation in your design work. Can you expand a little on that topic? Why is it important to iterate? When do you know you’ve got the right design?
MC: Completely. Through the years I have developed my own way of working. It stems from how I was taught to design. It involves sketching and coming up with a lot ideas, then expanding on the good ones. I don’t come from the school of thought where the first idea is the best idea. I think it takes a lot of work to get excellent and, most of all, appropriate work.
Some designs took 20 tries and others only a couple.
During the first part of the design process, I consult the brief and read it as many times as necessary to make sure what I am doing is on target. From there I explore as many ideas as it takes to get it to a place where I am happy with the look. Some designs took 20 tries and others only a couple. The most useful, and hardest, skill is knowing when to stop and go to the next piece. When you are doing 125 boxes in two weeks, you feel the weight of that deadline coming at you. Oddly enough, I didn’t have to work any crazy hours, only one weekend.
On this project I think that not all of the best designs may have been used, but the most appropriate ones rose to the top. There is a big difference between a design that “works” and something that only “looks great.” I was fortunate enough to learn that the two are not the same thing and that you strive to have both.