Ever since cloud computing entered the popular lexicon a decade ago, designers, graphic artists and other visual creators have struggled with how to depict the concept without relying on…well, a picture of a cloud.
That was one of the many challenges faced by Oakland, California-based 1/29 Films when they were asked to create a 3D animated film about a new cloud-based Web gateway solution from computer security giant McAfee. Working with art director Devin Earthman, Nick Seuser, 1/29 Films’ executive creative director, used Cinema 4D to create the two-minute spot (http://www.129films.com/project/mcafee-rethinking-web-protection/). Taking the piece in an abstract direction was a priority from the start, he says.
“We wanted to make it visionary,” Seuser explains. “But with the ultimate goal of satisfying the client's need for a singular message that communicated to their audience McAfee's expanded Web security capabilities in the cloud by introducing a new, more agile web security and identity solution.”
McAfee entrusted 1/29 with the project based on work the production and design studio had done in the past, including an animated promo spot touting McAfee’s next-generation Web security (http://www.129films.com/project/mcafee-next-generation-web-security/). “They’ve been a longstanding client of ours,” says Seuser. “We understand their brand well, and this new launch integrated their Web Gateway and Cloud Identity Manager products into a more powerful and agile single solution.”
Exploring a mostly red-and-white color scheme based on McAfee’s brand colors, the film takes the viewer through a city where molecules of data journey skyward from devices and networks into a cloud of semitransparent crystals. The visuals make clear the importance of keeping data safe and accessible as it travels on and offsite with its user.
Starting From Scratch
Seuser and Earthman came up with the conceptual world that evokes network, enterprise and Web security. To get the desired look, they sketched out some of the imagery, mindful of the fact that the future of IT security is the cloud. “Our biggest concern was how to represent the cloud without simply depicting a billowy, realistic-looking cloud, and still have it be instantly identifiable as a cloud.” says Seuser.
Earthman says the turning point in the overall look of the spot, which took about three months to make, was deciding on the use of blocks and other strict shapes to create the various visual elements and ensuring an airy look using transparency and some tricky texturing techniques. “The original inclination was to try something more realistic looking since we knew the typical drawn-cloud iconography wouldn’t fit in this world we created, but that wasn’t right either,” Earthman recalls. “Building something representative of a cloud, out of the elements we already had in the world, seemed like the way to go.”
Buildings seen in the spot were all modeled from scratch in Cinema 4D. Earthman relied heavily on MoGraph for cloning. Using C4D’s volume effectors, he was able to take a basic shape such as a pyramid or a cube and tie it to the camera, essentially ignoring all of the clones that were outside the camera’s field of view. “That really helped me optimize scenes since I only had to calculate what I was seeing on the screen, and it may have not been possible to render otherwise,” he says.
After Effects was used for compositing, color correction and lens flares. For the sky, Earthman chose Red Giant’s Trapcode Horizon. “It allowed me to have an endless sky in all directions that matches the camera motion from Cinema 4D while maintaining the flexibility of being able to change the look in After Effects instantly without having to re-render anything from Cinema 4D,” he says.
Perfecting the Details
Creating the lens flares was a key part of the project, Seuser says, because he and Earthman felt that since the sky was to be relatively realistic, the sources of light should interact with the shapes and figures in a believable way. “Whenever I had to use lens flares I tried to avoid standard presets, so I looked for any warm and sunny effects that could go with the sky to contrast what was going on with the main 3D graphics,” Earthman continues. The other challenge was getting a lens flare to show up against such a bright, off-white world. “It took some more unconventional layer-blending modes such as lighten and overlay, which allowed the color of the lens elements to show up without getting lost in the scene.”
One of the project’s most challenging aspects, Earthman says, was animating the words access, security and flexibility as they appear to burst out of the cloud. First, he tried using automated Dynamics, but the words jiggled and wiggled without ever quite settling down. “So I turned off collisions and had the words appear in the cloud, and used Dynamics to push the words away,” he explains. “I know I cheated a little in that they aren’t colliding with each other, but the end result was fine.”
Seuser credited McAfee with giving 1/29 Films the creative freedom to come up with a spot that captured the right message in an unconventional way. “There’s a lot of specific and technical information in this spot,” he explains. “Because we took a decidedly conceptual approach, our challenge was to craft a story built around compelling visuals that the viewer would grasp instantly and our client was extremely pleased.”
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Article by Dan Heilman
Dan Heilman is a St. Paul, Minnesota-based writer and editor.
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