3D Artist

The Art Of Motion Graphics

News & Features
Carrie Mok

We caught up with three incredible directors and designers to discover the secrets of amazing motion graphics

Motion design and motion graphics may just be one of the more intangible types of animation. Without a character anchoring and expressing themselves like in 3D, 2D and stop-motion animation, it may seem more difficult for motion designers to evoke different moods in film titles and credits, television channel idents, websites and promotional material – especially when you consider that animated text and elements have to be skilfully combined with graphic design. But being unconfined to a single discipline adds another layer of versatility and creative freedom.

Indeed, Nic Benns, creative director of Momoco, filmmaker and title sequence designer, typically comes up with seven storyboard concepts for title sequences of projects he describes as ‘great’. “The show has to be interesting, it has to really engage you and from the script, sometimes you don’t get the tone so it’s really good to watch an episode,” says Benns. “Then we go away and just do a lot of research and pull things out of that research that could form a story or base of a story. Some treatments create an emotional response, quite abstract like a book cover. Others can touch upon themes, like historical. There are a lot of ways to go; sometimes it could be like a prologue to a story and tell a backstory no one really knows about, so it fleshes out the drama.”

The Art Of Motion Graphics

Motion designer and independent director JM Blay, whose clients have included Paramount Pictures, Marvel, Nikon, Adidas, Adobe, Citibank and Activision to name a few, says that the storytelling aspect of motion design sequences

for films sets them apart from sequences for advertising. “Films, to me, are like the Champion’s League of the business because you have more freedom and you are not selling products. You
are selling sentiments; you are selling sensations feelings, moods – as a creative it is much better to sell the plot for a movie rather than a new cellphone. It’s not a product involved, that’s
why the main difference I think for me between movies and advertising is you are not selling a product, you are selling story. Storytelling to me is a really good thing.”

The Art Of Motion Graphics

With the freedom comes a real mix of techniques, for example with an amalgamation of the traditional and digital. Momoco’s Emmy-winning titles for Great Expectations had a mix of half-organic mummified insects with CG choreographed models. On the other hand, if a particular project requires only fluid dynamics and it’s appropriate for the narrative, then that’s the route that will be taken by Benns and Momoco’s art director Miki Kato. Fluids wouldn’t work for a Victorian drama film title, for example, but did for the studio’s titles for TV series Hannibal. “Hannibal was very challenging. We’d never done fluid dynamics before, so it was making them recognisable with this turbulent, abstract blood. We used RealFlow; it was actually a learning curve [learning it] in a few weeks. We have a small, great team for it.”

The most challenging project though, he says, was for Chinese film The Arctic. “There were so many systems to make organic that had to be learned, and we had learned a whole new rendering system with Arnold. We also shot
some systems to help us, like particles, but also we did some stuff with latex to bring in there to make it really fleshy.”

The Versus promo video created for MAXON’s Cinema 4D R18 release was no easy feat either. Created by design and motion studio ManvsMachine, the video features a collective of aggressive predators ready to strike and defensive creatures ready to join the fray, interspersed with shots of abstract particles and cells. Simon Holmedal, technical director at ManvsMachine, attests to the challenges involved in some of the more weird and memorable shots of the video. “They wanted to show off the new Fracture tool and so I got fed all these Alembic files with animal cells splitting apart in various ways, and then I had to figure out how to do something mad with that. I ended up creating a volume inside of the animal that I then had to simulate, so that however the pieces split apart, it would try to escape from the inside of the object… and fill that volume with another simulation so it was completely procedural. At the end, I had a system that could scale up to 500 shots if I wanted to, if I had the computer power to do that, because it was literally just changing an Alembic input and everything else just happened automatically after that. So that was a technical challenge: it was a fine balance between something exploding or something being stable, so it took some time to figure out.”

It’s no surprise then that the main tool used for a typical motion sequence by ManvsMachine is Cinema 4D, with Adobe products utilised for everything else sprinkled among a few Houdini users too. What’s most interesting is just how adaptable the studio is with renderers: “We use Arnold, Octane and Redshift, all the renderers, whatever makes sense for the shots really. Normally for the same project, we might render across three or four different renderers for different shots, because [if it] makes more sense to render it in a certain renderer we will use that. It might be because it’s faster, or it might look better in another one – we just do whatever people are most comfortable with.”

Benns, meanwhile, attests to the use of After Effects, 3ds Max, Cinema 4D, RealFlow and X-Particles at Momoco. “It’s really a simple workflow, it allows us to be quite immediate with our ideas and also deliver to quite a high level as is required for 4K right now. It allows us to visualise everything efficiently. We use Nuke only for stereoscopic work – there’s not a lot of graphic designers that can use a node-based workflow.”

The lightning-fast workflow is something to be admired at Momoco: the concept for the title sequence of Derren Brown Presents Twisted Tales was completed in just three days. “That concept was very immediate and it suited it perfectly because it had to feel like it was done in the early Eighties, so the crudeness was all part of the charm,” says Benns. “We shot on turntables and just strange objects we found in clock shops and antique shops. Then we made it look like it belonged to an optical process… like it had been printed on film, and created that look in After Effects, experimenting with film grains, offsetting the superimposition of the layers.”

Versatility in tools is still true for Benns, however, who says that he will bring in freelance artists with specialist knowledge to Momoco where necessary. With packages constantly changing and updating, it’s good for artists to open themselves up beyond just their core toolset. Blay, who is also head of motion graphics at Escape Studios, typically uses pen and paper to start out his concepts. “Today I use Cinema 4D and After Effects mainly, but I also use Illustrator, Photoshop, Premiere – but that can change because they’re tools, and tools may change.”

With 20 years of experience, Blay has worked in advertising, film, television, multimedia, games and more. Blay’s work speaks volumes of just how diverse motion design can be, and his own job title proves that a motion design sequence goes beyond just integrating animated elements and text – there’s live action to be directed and shots to be composited too. “That’s the beauty of motion design, it’s transversal to industries.” A good work ethic is paramount to Blay regardless, and he reinforces this point throughout. “People always think there are secrets and that we say, ‘Oh don’t tell them how to get into this industry’, it’s like this big secret and they think that we’re in Harry Potter or something with magic behind [it]. There’s no magic, it’s just hard work, that’s the only advice I can say. Just keep working, do stuff, finish things and move on. Finish work, work, work, work.”

Holmedal, however, says that it’s essential to be honest with yourself. “I know from school when I went there, a lot of the people that didn’t do that well didn’t really know why they were there. They kind of stumbled upon motion graphics, and you really need to know what you want when you do it, because it’s really hard. You really have to be a designer and a VFX artist to a certain degree, and a director if you want to work in motion graphics. Just be honest with yourself and make sure that everything that you’re learning will be something that will benefit you on a daily basis, and don’t go on an unnecessary tangent.”

He concludes with some core tips on a philosophy for the designers to bear in mind once they receive their first briefs. “You have to learn to take feedback and critique in a good way, otherwise you won’t get much work… You think you might know better than the client but at the end of the day you and the client want the same thing, and they are paying for it. You must remember that the project belongs to them and you’re just doing a service. That’s the thing, and as soon as you understand that and not take it so personal, it’s fine. But it’s really important you can communicate your ideas… You should have an answer about why everything looks a certain way, and why you’ve made certain decisions. And if you can take them on that journey, then they’re more likely to support it.”

Nic Benns, JM Blay and Simon Holmedal were speaking at The VFX Festival run by Escape Studios. The company teaches students the art of filmmaking and specifically VFX/animation.