It’s not every day that a film comes along that within its three-act structure you witness hundreds of flamingos spelling out a single word, thousands of people jumping up and down with joy and a list of some of history’s most accomplished and inspiring people…all within 30 seconds. And there’s more: It was created entirely in 3D in dramatic shades of red.
While it may sound like a surrealistic creation from the likes of Salvador Dali, it is in fact a 30-second broadcast spot for the University of Wisconsin-Madison called “Change.”
Written, produced and directed by 1/29 Films, a California-based production and design studio founded by Executive Producer, Nick Seuser, the spot utilizes a combination of Maxon’s Cinema 4D, After Effects and custom illustrations that turn the typical, collegiate commercial on its head.
A Wisconsin Connection
Before launching 1/29 Films in 2008, Seuser had an established career in television and film. In addition to a long-term stint at Industrial Light & Magic as the creative editor for a variety of award-winning national commercial campaigns, Seuser freelanced for over a decade editing national commercial spots and various forms of branded entertainment. After joining ESC Entertainment, the VFX house behind The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, he began producing TV spots.
Still, when Seuser opened the doors to 1/29 Films, he had to drum up work for his newfound company. Raised in Madison, Wisconsin, and a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he figured he’d give his alma mater a try and see if they were looking to do some advertising.
Sure enough, UW needed a new 30-second spot and they wanted it within the next six months. While there was room for some creative freedom, there were plenty of parameters in place. The spot needed to be intelligent, spirited, engaging, beautiful, friendly, Midwestern, comprehensive, big, challenging and progressive. And the overall theme had to be “change happens here”.
1/29 Films was one of 20 competitors vying for the job. “We pitched the UW marketing team that our goal was to create an iconic, design-driven broadcast spot that was 180 degrees different from the typical collegiate commercial of beauty shots of campus and students sitting on blankets on the quad,” recalls Seuser.
“We wanted it to be a uniquely UW-branded concept that looked different from everything else out there, while still remaining identifiable and memorable. Focusing on pure design and animation, we knew we could take viewers on an otherwise impossible visual journey rich in history, emotion and style.”
Their pitch, and Seuser’s enthusiasm for the project, won the bid. “It was definitely a feather in our cap,” he says. Next, the challenge was figuring out how to make good on their proposal. Originally, they thought they would create something in 2D. But after trying to make the camera fly and move around objects that would be featured in the piece prominently, Seuser realized that wasn’t the right choice.
Having used Cinema 4D on a regular basis for the past couple of years, Seuser and Jonathan Warner, the lead designer and animator on the project, decided 3D was the way to go. “We determined that we weren’t going to be able to fully develop the key scenes in the script if we were limited to 2D,” Seuser recalls. They discussed their options and gravitated to C4D in part because it is “a huge time saver” that allowed them to move quickly and easily between C4D and After Effects.
The spot begins with a shot of iconic Bascom Hall, which is situated atop Bascom Hill, the heart of the UW campus. The image of the Hall was painstakingly re-drawn in Adobe Illustrator with hundreds of individual vector lines using reference photos taken from different angles.
“We wanted all the details to appear at different, specific times,” Warner explains. “So we imported all the layers full of lines (window panes, frames, columns, etc.) and used animated Sweep NURBS for everything. It's kind of crazy, but every single line is a separate Sweep [NURB]."
As the camera pulls back, viewers see dozens and then hundreds of flamingos. This seemingly incongruous sight was actually inspired by a prank some UW students pulled off over 30 years ago. Seems one morning all the students woke to the sight of 1,008 plastic flamingos perched on Bascom Hill. Fast-forward to today and the image of a flamingo has caught on to the point where in 2009, the Madison, Wisconsin Common Council designated the plastic flamingo as the city’s official bird.
"The flamingos are one of the main reasons we needed 3D," explains Warner. "We wanted to pull back the camera through them at ground level, then fly up into the sky revealing that they spell out the word CHANGE. The only way to do that was with true 3D shapes outlined with our custom Sweep NURBS lines."
THE SPORTING LIFE
Thousands of people in a football stadium jump up and down. The camera swoops from behind some people at the far end of the stadium and shoots across the football field to the other end of the stadium. Under the scoreboard the word “Change” is spelled out on placards held up by fans.
The University of Wisconsin’s Badgers football team plays at Camp Randall Stadium. Years ago a tradition was started where between the 3rd and 4th quarters when the crowd jumps up and down and the stadium erupts to House of Pain’s song “Jump Around.” It’s such an infectious sight that sometimes even the opposing team’s players will jump around too.
To re-create the signature ‘jump around’ moment of UW football games, Seuser and Warner decided to create a stylized crowd. "We drew the simplified people for the crowd using as few points as possible for their outline paths because we were going to use tens of thousands of clones," says Warner.
As with Bascom Hall, Camp Randall Stadium was re-created using hundreds of individual Sweep NURBS lines for the field, stands, scoreboard, and crowd. "We used offset key frames and Random, Plain, and Step Effectors to draw everything on in a more natural way," says Warner.
The camera swoops over the backs of the chairs in a large amphitheater lecture hall and down toward a screen at the room’s floor level. Next, the names of famous alumni and UW’s notable accomplishments are shown on the screen. "The classroom scene wasn't as technically difficult as the Bascom Hill or stadium sections, but there is still a fair amount of 3D," says Warner. "Everything draws on using the Sweep NURBS and Effectors and the chairs even swivel as the camera flies over them."
Originally, they thought they would show different areas of study, such as a student planting a seed and then an arboretum would appear, but that proved to be limiting with the time constraints of the ad. They then came up with the idea of listing the university’s most famous alumni as well as the university’s numerous accomplishments, to steer the spot back to academics. This proved to be expeditious as well as impactful. They placed the names and honors into a 3D space of floating type so this section was engaging and consistent with the rest of the spot.
"We shift into two-and-a-half-D as we enter the classroom screen, but there are still 3D strokes that wrap around the individual 2D elements," says Warner.
The list of names, honors and accomplishments fade out. The words “Major in Change” and then the university’s logo appears. "After creating and animating almost every element in 3D using Cinema 4D, we rendered out loads of multi-passes for compositing in Adobe After Effects," says Warner. "All those passes allowed us to really customize the exact color and look for every individual element in the spot."
“The University of Wisconsin - Madison is unlike any other institution and we wanted to match its quality of life and accomplishments with an approach that would fittingly stand apart from typical university brand spots. Pure motion design allowed us to explore uncharted territory in this genre,” notes Seuser. “We had amazing partners throughout, from the UW marketing department to the post studios involved. Together, we created a piece that truly captures the UW spirit.”
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Article by Scott Strohmaier
Scott Strohmaier is a writer living in Los Angeles living with his wife and son.
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