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Tell us a little bit about Blind: the culture, the artists and environment. We love knowing about how different studios operate.
Blind is a brand strategy design consultancy, located in sunny Santa Monica, CA. It was founded in 1995 by Chris Do. In the past we’ve been known for our motion graphics work, like our “Crazy“ Music Video for Gnarls Barkley, and TV commercials for Audi and Sweet N Low. Since then, we’ve expanded our expertise into brand strategy and digital experiences. Whether it’s helping Xbox launch a new console, or rebranding a massive event like Anime Expo– it doesn’t matter the deliverable. At our core we’re problem-solving designers looking to help our clients anyway we can.
The culture of Blind is open, transparent, and is in a constant state of learning. It’s the result of great leadership embodied in Chris, who also runs an education and media company known as The Futur. So half of the office (Blind) is focused on serving clients and helping their businesses grow. The other half (The Futur) is dedicated to teaching design, business and user experience through the original content we create.
There’s a lot of cross-pollination and overlap between the two companies in the building. It’s an amazing energy and chemistry we have going on here.
The X Box One X trailer is truly a work of art, how did your team become involved in its creation?
Blind has had an ongoing relationship with Xbox (client) and Ayzenberg Group (Agency), which began a few years ago when we first collaborated on the “Jump Ahead” anthem video for E3 2015. Since then we’ve worked on several projects together such as the “Characters That Matter” film and the “Xbox One S” launch video from E3 2016.
At the beginning of 2017, we received a call from Gary Goodman (Executive Creative Director at Ayzenberg). He invited us to discuss in person, a highly secretive assignment, “Project Scorpio,” the codename for the console at the time. We hopped on a plane up to the Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, WA and sat down with the Marketing and Industrial Design teams.
Craig McNary (Director of Global Integrated Marketing, Microsoft Devices and Studios) lead the meeting. He described the vision for the launch. We discussed the key marketing goals to hit, the design details of the console to highlight, and brainstormed ideas around what the Project Scorpio launch video could be. I also had the pleasure of getting my hands on an early prototype of the new console. I’m a bit of a fanboy, so yes, I geeked out.
I flew back to LA with a head full of information to synthesize. The challenge for us was to come up with a design solution that captured everything discussed in that meeting. The next couple of months involved rounds of iterating ideas, storyboarding, designing style frames, experimenting with animation, and ultimately creating the spot that debuted at E3 2017.
Can you tell us a bit about what inspired it? What types of reference did you pull? In what ways did you keep the idea of 4K gaming in mind throughout this part of the process?
The key challenge for us was to figure out a way to convey what a true 4K gaming experience looked, felt, and sounded like. Early on we focused on the incredible power of the console– how it was capable of creating rich sights and sounds.
We looked at tons of references of ads for 4K TVs who’ve explored ideas in this space. We gravitated towards the ones with pixels building a large, beautiful picture. At the same time, we also looked at a few Nike commercials that had threads weaving together to create a shoe.
With the design team at Blind, we explored combining these references to come up with a unique visual language of our own for the brand. The concept we landed on was “Pixel Threading,” where digital pixels weave together to create high-fidelity 4K imagery of Xbox characters.
How much does the final render differ from what was initially planned?
The final renders stayed fairly close to the look of the initial style frames we created. We ended up adding more embellishments to the aesthetic once we saw the results of our animation tests.
What was your role as the Creative Director? Can you give us an idea of what your day-to-day involvement looked like?
As the creative director on the team, I was deeply involved in many aspects of the project. Externally, I worked closely with our partners at Ayzenberg, chatting daily about work in progress, new ideas, and how to interpret feedback from the various stakeholders involved on this project. Internally, I managed the team, assigned responsibilities, and had a hand in the design, animation, edit, and compositing of the spot.
Typically on projects, I’m not so hands-on, but this one had so many moving pieces to it that I needed to be heavily involved to keep up with the project. I felt like I had to have my hand in everything so I could maintain a tight running ship focused on our goals.
What type of software was used on the trailer, and why did you opt for it? Did you stick with the tried and true, or something new to accommodate the higher-caliber of graphics?
We ended up using a wide range of software for this project. We used Maya and V-ray to create most of the hardware shots and the beauty passes of the characters. A lot of these assets were coming to us natively in this format, so we went for the path of least resistance here.
To create the “Pixel Threading” effect for the spot, we used a combination of Houdini and X-Particle simulations out of Cinema 4D. These passes were rendered out of Insydium’s new GPU powered renderer, Cycles 4D. We spent a couple of weeks just doing R&D tests, experimenting with different ways for particles and meshes to crawl across the surface of the characters. At the same time, our compositors were bringing in the tests to find out which combination of passes would work in harmony with each other.
Since we had a decent GPU farm setup for Cycles 4D, I also wanted to test out OTOY's Octane in a larger production pipeline. So for a few of the shots (like the chip building up in the intro), we created those in Cinema 4D and rendered them out of Octane. It performed well, and I’m impressed by its speed and power to iterate and create beautiful imagery.
The FX work and "pixel threading" is certainly beautifully executed. How big was the team of FX artists? What was their experience like creating the stunning woven imagery?
Thanks. The team specifically dedicated to FX was five people. Like I mentioned earlier, the process was very experimental at first, with lots of testing and iterating in the early stages.
Like most projects, where you’re given new problems to solve, the process was fun and fluid at first, because of all of the exploration we got to do. Then we hit the wall. When it becomes frustrating wrestling with the technical details preventing you from getting the results, you see in your head. Until finally, you’re on the other side, the comp artist has done their magic, and it somehow came together under the pressure of the delivery date. It’s always rewarding to see the results when you know you’ve overcome new challenges you haven’t tackled before.
Can you call out any specific obstacles that were particularly difficult to navigate through? What was your workaround for these?
The assets from game developers came in very different states– as far the as topology and complexity of the meshes– so we had to figure out a slightly different approach for each asset.
One big hurdle we had to overcome was how to stick particles onto the surface of an animated character. The problem we ran into was that once a particle was born, it would stay in place or follow the dynamic physics of the simulation. This would cause a visible sliding between the different passes we were trying to combine.
With Houdini, we were able to get the simulations to stick onto animated meshes. The problem with that is the files took hours to process, they were massive in file size and were difficult to use once we brought them into X-Particles. We had to get resourceful to stay on schedule.
We ended up creatively breaking up the geometry into large groups (e.g., head, neck, body) and then simulated each those assets static, without character animation. This way the particles generated would stick perfectly to its surface, while still following the dynamics of the simulation. We then parented those sims back onto the animated rigs. This created a much faster and smoother bridge between Houdini, X-Particles, and Cycles 4D.
As a creative director, who do you turn to for help in tense situations?
Whenever I hit a wall regarding story sequence or design, I turn to Chris Do, the Owner and Executive Creative Director of Blind. He’s a master at sharpening concepts and tightening up stories. He was my professor at Art Center College of Design, so he has a knack for communicating with intent and clarity.
When I run into technical challenges or unexplored territory, my first call is to John Robson, who was the Associate Creative Director on this project. I’ve worked with John on and off for the past decade, and I’ve always found him to be on the frontier of all things mograph and VFX. He’s always adopting and experimenting with the latest software and tools. It was him who convinced me to use Houdini, Cycles 4D, and Octane for this job.
Whenever I get antsy about resources, budget, or schedule, my Executive Producer, Scott Rothstein, takes care of everything. He makes it so I don’t have to worry about the logistics so I can focus on making creative decisions.
To what degree did the 4K component alter your own professional process? What type of learning curve did you experience, and with what aspects specifically?
In the past, we’ve done smaller 4K deliverables, but nothing at this scale. To work this into our process, we did our best to stagger our rendering so that we weren’t running them all at the same time. Rendering happened over several weeks to alleviate potential bottlenecks. Luckily our team had the foresight to plan ahead with some padded buffer time for mistakes. We certainly needed it.
One surprise that we discovered through the process was that particles look very different at HD than they do at 4K. For most of the project we were working with low-sample HD renders to be more agile and quick with iterations. To our surprise, when we hit render on our 4K passes, finer particles all of sudden became visible, while larger out-of-focus bokeh elements rendered out brighter and sometimes larger because of higher sample levels.
It’s something I wish I knew ahead of time so I could plan to do more 4K spot checks throughout the process of the project.
What did this teach you about your own technique? We're interested in knowing of some methods you learned during the process that you'll be bringing with you to your next project.
On this project, I expanded my knowledge when it comes to particle systems. Going through the process of bridging Houdini and X-Particles together really opened my eyes to the various types of particle systems we can create. Also learning how simulation properties (i.e., age, distance, velocity) can translate over to the render properties of the Cycles 4D renderer has me really excited about exploring new visual territory in the future.
When it comes to rendering, I am thoroughly impressed by the power of GPU-based renderers. It’s the most efficient and effective way I know of creating high-fidelity work at incredible speeds. I’ve already committed to going all-in on an Octane pipeline for my next project.
And finally, what did it feel like to see this so well received during E3?
There was so much on the line, both for the client and for us who have been entrusted to help launch the Xbox One X. For weeks we worked on this project inside a bubble, hoping it comes out well. Leading up to the debut at the Xbox E3 Press Briefing, I was both excited and very nervous. Would the audience love it or hate it?
Then, the moment of truth came along. The lights in the auditorium went down, and our work came up on screen. The room when silent.
The two minutes felt like two hours as I watched every frame go by, trying to read the crowd’s reaction. As the spot came to its crescendo, the audience burst out into applause, and I felt validated.
It’s a surreal and rewarding experience hearing an auditorium full of fans cheering, right next to you, for the work you made.
We'd like to thank Matthew for this awesome insight, and congrats to the team at Blind for a fantastic release! Be sure to follow both at: @matthewencina and @BlindLA