Taking Art to the MAX
In a series of videos, luminous type and animals fly through deserted Los Angeles streets, lighting up the night. They dance, bounce, and curl around corners, transforming the mundane into pure art and inspiration. The videos are a fusion of vector art, film, and motion graphics; they’re also the 2018 identity for the Adobe MAX conference.
Inspired by Tao Tajima's Night Stroll, the Adobe creative team commissioned vector illustrations from three artists with very different styles: Paris-based Yo Az, Sydney’s Melissa So, and Berlin’s Michela Picchi. They animated the 2D art and composited it with footage of LA street scenes, crafting video narratives that pulse with life.
2D ART IN A 3D WORLD
Co-creative director Dan Cowles was in charge of the camera and video work. “We loved Tao Tajima’s idea of mixing real-world environments with beautifully composited art,” says Cowles, “but we wanted to make it more relevant for our super-creative MAX audience, and make it LA-specific.”
Cowles shot location photos in three distinctive LA areas: contemporary downtown, retro downtown, and the Hollywood/Sunset area. “Even though we were shooting in classic LA neighborhoods, we tried to avoid cliché and over-used locations,” he says. “We wanted to capture the vibe of LA and some of the instantly recognizable landmarks, but we tried to portray these familiar scenes in ways that you wouldn’t typically see them. So you instantly know it’s LA, even though you’re seeing it from a slightly different viewpoint.”
For the video shoot, Cowles had what he calls a “nimble little crew” led by director of photography Mike Burton using a RED Vista camera to capture 8K background video plates. “We got 105 shots in three nights,” Cowles says. “Because the reflections are so much better on wet streets, we had a rain truck water down some of the locations, and two cops to help us close off streets.”
Cowles and co-creative director Kashka Pregowska-Czerw invited three artists whose styles matched the vibe of each neighborhood to invent a story for that locale. “Yo Az’s work has a surreal quality, and we loved the idea of these stylized animals running around the empty streets of downtown,” says Cowles. “Melissa’s type treatments seemed to work nicely with retro downtown LA, and Michela’s artwork has a 1970s feel that worked well with the classic Hollywood feeling.”
The artists received raw edits of their background video for reference, and not much else: no script, no storyboard, no key messaging. “We wanted to let the artists create 2D art that fit the space, and tell the story themselves,” says Cowles. The concept behind the project, says Pregowska, was to “give a voice to different artists coming from different parts of the world and different disciplines, to see how they would take over the space and how their art would come to life in LA.”
Each artist created 10 to 20 illustrations in Adobe Illustrator CC and handed them off with a rough idea of the sequence. From there, the Adobe creative team got to work storyboarding, animating, and compositing the art into compelling narratives.
The hardest part, says Cowles, was figuring out an animation style that worked for each artist. “For Yo Az, we landed on a neon style. Melissa So’s piece, because it’s type-based, is a particle-based LED-type glow. Michela Picchi’s is more a luminescent kind of reflective paint. In all three cases, we were trying to take types of light from the physical world and put them into the 3D space.”
Motion graphics designer Steve Ogden took the lead on the compositing and animation in After Effects. “We started by establishing some treatments,” says Ogden, “figuring out how to stay as true to the source artwork as possible, separating the illustrations in After Effects 3D space, but giving them lighting characteristics that made it feel like they existed in the scene. The RED footage and After Effects adjustment layers allowed us an incredible dynamic range, so we could colorize and adjust the scene, however extreme, and then still bring back all the details we needed where the artwork illuminated parts of the footage.”
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“Then we focused on behaviors and did a series of motion tests—really starting to consider the music and the harmony between movement and sound,” continues Ogden. Each test took one small section of the animation and produced a more polished render that showed how the elements would move, glow, and reflect.
“We had some great conversations throughout the series: ‘How does this artwork behave? Is it a neon sign? Is it an LED panel? Is it playful? Are they wandering? Do they have a destination? Do they obey gravity and physics?’” says Ogden. “All of those conversations paid off. They established a construct to make creative decisions regarding movement and lighting and composition, which all mesh together into something cohesive and engaging.”
Using mostly After Effects camera tracker, Odgen matched the handheld camera movement of the footage to the After Effects camera on the graphics. “It’s always exciting, when you set up all your animations and then drop the whole comp into a tracked camera scene and see it become part of that environment,” he says.
Then it was a matter of taking his style treatments as a guide and building out a compositing recipe: a layer for footage, a layer for art, one for the tight glow, one for the wide halo glow, one for illumination, one for direct reflections. “Each scene had 10 to 20 layers in the final composite,” says Odgen, “but since everything was animated inside After Effects, we were able to build it in a way that making a change to the movement didn’t mean re-rendering and recompositing the CG. All the changes would cascade into our final composite.”
BELIEVING THE IMPOSSIBLE
“Taking glows to that extent and breaking them down into so many components is probably where I learned the most,” says Ogden. “We put a lot of thought into the refraction and illumination behavior, to make sure that if the light behaves one way in one scene, it does the same in the next. The trick was to invent a believable way the 2D graphics illuminated the scene. The illustration isn’t just sitting there, it is lighting up the environment around it, so its glow bounces off a window, for example, differently than a wall or the street.”
“We must have had 200 reference images of neon signs to figure out how neon glows actually work,” says Ogden. “It ended up being a composite of about seven layers: the tight glow of the inner glow of the tube, the outer area around the tube, the wider atmosphere around the tube, and then the softer glow multiplied by every surface that it’s hitting. It’s a lot of layers to get that glow and reflection.”
Once he nailed down the light behaviors, says Ogden, he added motion. “We wanted the art to behave in a way that you would never see: a neon sign flying down the street. So to make a look that’s believable, we had to give people a frame of reference to something that they’ve seen, but have it doing this impossible thing. The whole series blends something believable with something unreal.”
To get realistic reflections, Odgen used a multi-camera technique in After Effects. “A reflection is just a different point of view,” he says, “so to get reflections off of multiple surfaces that are all reflecting as the camera moves, you need three different comps with three different cameras.” After Effects uses formulas to create those camera angles for the various surfaces, synchronizing hundreds of animation keyframes and parameters in each camera angle. “The technique lets you animate within a single comp, yet keep the camera and tracking information separate in three different comps,” says Ogden. “It’s a huge time-saver.”
MUSIC AS STORY
Creating a storyline presented different challenges, because rather than start with a script, the team worked with the artists to create the story as they animated, through trial and error. “The artists hadn’t worked in motion before, so they weren’t as familiar with some things we take for granted about scene flow and editorial flow,” says Ogden. “But they were very flexible in letting us interpret the vector illustrations into something that worked from shot to shot, to tell a story.”
For the overall narrative flow, Ogden relied heavily on the soundtrack. “I listened to the music for cues on influencing the rhythm and speed of the animation. To me, what drives each scene I’m working on is to have some kind of backstory in my head to be able to make the next decision. It might be a phrase in the song, or an instrument coming in: it’s a way to time your decisions.”
Ogden says the music makes a big impact on how you feel about the piece. “These are empty streets at night, which traditionally feel lonely, but the music feels alive and full of possibilities in this landscape. So you have this great allegory of creatives independently travelling in the city, coming together in a big empty world, and converging at MAX at the end logo lockup,” he says.
“This kind of project is always a satisfying departure,” says Ogden. “You get a hall pass from the rigid creative brief. Instead, we shot gorgeous footage, received beautiful artwork, got an awesome soundtrack and Tao Tajima’s inspirational reference as a starting point, and then it was just, ‘Let's see how this story unfolds.’”