Interview: Troika Design Group

Talk to enough seasoned west coast mographers and you’re bound to hear Troika come up in conversation more than once. In addition to fostering a lot of great talent over the years—both on the creative and business sides—Troika has created design solutions for almost every imaginable network. When it comes to broadcast design, Troika’s portfolio is one of the largest, most consistently successful of any currently operating studio.

One of Troika’s latest efforts is an ambitious rebrand of MHD. An exotic blend of illustration and character animation, the campaign draws on disparate sources of inspiration ranging from ancient religious texts to Indonesian shadow puppets.

Take a moment to check out some of the work:


Creation

Drums

Scratch

Fiddle

 

I spoke with Dan Pappalardo, one of Troika’s original three founders, via email about Troika’s background and the MHD project.

Background and Industry Trends

Who started Troika, and how long has it been around?

Troika was founded by Chuck Carey, Mark Bohman and myself, Dan Pappalardo, in April 2001. Chuck is the Senior Executive Producer and Mark and I are Executive Creative Directors.

How large is Troika now? Where is it headquartered, and is that location a key factor to its success?

We’re a staff of 25. When you include freelancers, we typically have 30 to 40 people working on any given day and expand further during times of heavy live-action production.

We’re located in Hollywood, on a really lively pedestrian strip of Melrose Avenue that’s world-famous for people watching because of its colorful street culture and shopping. There’s plenty of visual inspiration to be had here since Melrose has traditionally attracted a funky/alternative kind of crowd. We’ve even implemented something called “Design on Fridaysâ€? in which we take our office on Friday field trips to cool art gallery openings and film screenings in our neighborhood.

Our office is also located close to many of our network clients in Burbank, Hollywood and the Westside.

It seems that we are in the era of boutique design shops. Larger, long-standing entities are competing with a rapidly growing number of smaller studios. How does Troika see the landscape changing? What’s Troika’s place in this new world (if it is, indeed, a new world)?

There’s room for all types of companies.

At Troika, we work on large network identity projects and other complex creative assignments that require a high level of client service. While that doesn’t preclude us from working on smaller scale projects, our unique strength is our expertise with projects that require considerable senior-level creative thinking, a collaboration of talents and thorough project management.

Our team has a great deal of experience with large, multifaceted assignments. We enjoy the creative challenges they bring and we like having creative involvement from conception through completion. Design is at the heart of what we do, but we often also find ourselves handling the writing, branding and marketing strategy, music and sound design, producing and directing live-action and, of course, animation. We work together as a collaborative group, sometimes involving as many as 3 creative directors on something as large as The CW launch.

This type of assignment isn’t for every motion design company, and conversely, there are motion design assignments that we aren’t suited for. As for the future, our skill set only seems to be getting more and more relevant as networks and brands in general struggle to communicate in an ever more complex multiplatform world.

As networks struggle to adapt to the changes that the internet and other consumer-centric technologies are imposing upon network television, does Troika see a need to change its core strategies? Put another way: How is network branding being effected by the rise of new entertainment technologies?

Network identity assignments used to be much simpler. In the 90s, network packages often centered on a few expensive on-air IDs.

Today it’s much more complicated. Troika’s strategy is to support our client on multiple levels, from marketing communication and branding through multiplatform design. We typically coordinate overlapping efforts with various groups both within the network as well as with the client’s other outside vendors.

Take ABC, for example. We created the communication and design for the network’s new fall identity, which is a comprehensive multi-platform effort involving Primetime, Daytime, Affiliates, ABC News and ABC Studios (formally Touchstone), and which is designed to integrate across various platforms: on-air, on-line, print, mobile, iTunes, DVDs, outdoor video panels and in-theater. We worked with multiple divisions within ABC and with ABC’s web design and print vendors to customize the brand experience for all of the different media platforms.

MHD and “Theater of Music Mythology”

Let’s move on to the MHD project now. What is MHD in a nutshell?

It’s an all music cable channel in HD that combines programming from MTV, VH1 and CMT.

Troika has a strong reputation for creating clean, crisply designed network packages that are decidedly conservative. Given MHD’s non-conventional format, why do you think they chose Troika for the launch?

They needed more than a cool looking ID for the network, so they came to us to provide the bigger-picture perspective. Our goal was to deliver a package that was not only visually compelling, but could serve as a conceptual foundation for the brand in the future.

Stylistically, the MHD package is a mix of many disparate elements. What was the overarching concept for Troika’s approach?

The concept was conceived by designer Mike Mikulec and is called “Theater of Music Mythologyâ€? or “Music Mythâ€? for short. The idea was to create ancient mythological stories that explain the origins of music and the transformative effect it has on the world. The concept supports MHD’s emphasis on the music experience by focusing on musical performance (live concerts and music videos), while taking full advantage of the immersive experience MHD provides through high-def TV and 5.1 surround sound.

The moral of the stories is that music enhances life. The world was a dark and dull place before the creation of music, just as before MHD, the music lover’s world just wasn’t as rich and dynamic as it is with MHD. As a music channel, MHD takes music experience to a whole new world.

The channel features a wide range of musical styles, from hip-hop to pop to classic rock to country, hence the eclectic mix of characters and the diversity of musical references.

We incorporated layers of music iconography within the design of the characters and environments, down to using audio cables for the gazelle’s head feathers, rocks that are boom-boxes and even obscure references to the cultural influences behind the different music genres. Our intent is that the viewer will have the opportunity to discover something new on repeated viewings.

Unlike many network packages, characters play a central role in the MHD packaging. What was the thinking behind that decision?

This particular network package is unusual in that it is so story-based. There’s a 40-second image spot titled “Creationâ€? that tells the back-story of how the world of music came to be. Subsequent 10-second IDs elaborate on the world as parables. New parables can be added to the package indefinitely.

The project included a toolkit of graphic elements that make up the typical bread and butter of a network package, such as line-up menus, promo elements, a logo bug system, etc.

Tell us about the character design process. How long did it take? What were the challenges you encountered?

The lead designer, Heather Kim, is a fantastic illustrator and designed and developed the characters and stories. She created all of the characters beginning with detailed pencil sketches that she then scanned at 600dpi and painted digitally using Adobe Photoshop and Corel Painter.

The characters were deconstructed into separate pieces – torso, limbs, etc. – so they could be animated as articulated puppets for a crude, lo-fi effect that is in contrast with the purity of Hi-Def television.

The painted elements were projected onto 3D geometry in Autodesk Maya and animated using IK (inverse kinematics) skeletons. Comping was achieved in MAXON Cinema 4D and Adobe After Effects. The design and production process took about four months.

One of our greatest creative challenges was in creating a look that felt raw and handmade but also sophisticated. We didn’t want MHD to feel too much like any one medium, so we mixed hand-painted elements with CG and live-action elements. Our greatest technical hurdle was dealing with the duel CG platforms of Maya and C4D. The benefit was that it enabled our animators to work in their preferred platform, but it required considerable planning and teamwork.

There are two notable features of the characters: 1) The visible joints in their limbs suggest puppetry, and 2) Stylistically, the animalistic designs suggest the ancient Egyptian pantheon. Am I looking too closely at this stuff or was there some reasoning behind these design decisions?

The client wanted MHD to have a raw and primal quality. They were interested in infusing the design with references to the ancient origins of today’s musical styles. We also drew from biblical references, especially The Book of Genesis and The Tower of Babel.

The character design style was inspired by Indonesian shadow puppets. We liked that they are both crude and eloquent at the same time. Our characters aren’t exactly puppets, but their rough, puppet-like movement is raw and primal.

Character animation is a skill that hasn’t shown up too much in Troika’s portfolio to date. Was it difficult leaping into the world of character-centered design and storytelling?

We enjoy working with character animation when we have the opportunity, and we don’t consider creating characters and stories too much of a leap for us. We acknowledge that the art of character animation is a specialty however, and we were fortunate to have those skills in-house to handle all of the character work on MHD.

How much involvement did MHD have in this project? Was it a collaborative experience or more of an iterative design-review-design process?

It was very collaborative. We worked closely with the team from Vh1, who manage the creative for MHD.

The concepts and the design evolved over the course of the project with significant collaboration between our team and the team at Vh1. We had many productive back-and-forths and free-form brainstorm meetings together, especially in regard to the writing and concept development. We have a long history with them, so the process was really fun for us.

Once we got into full production, the process was streamlined for efficiency sake. By that point we were in more of a design/review mode with MHD.

Thanks very much for your time, Dan!