Culver City-based Design House, Monkeyhead, Goes Industrial and then Hip-Hop for Two Very Different Clients

April 17, 2009 12:57 am

Tags: 2D, 3D, After Effects, Army, CINEMA 4D, FEARnet, MAXON, Meleah Maynard, MoGraph, Monkeyhead, PyroCluster, Red Bull, Renderosity

It may be the ultimate struggle for creatives: the act of trying to hold on to some part of an artistic vision, while keeping clients happy at the same time. Now, imagine what it’s like when instead of having one client to please, you’ve got four. That’s what Culver City, California-based motion design house, Monkeyhead, was up against recently when they took on the job of creating a 30-second HD spot for the Army that was sponsored by the three networks that began airing it last week: G4, FEARnet and Versus. The spot not only needed to show viewers different ways people can be heroes, it needed to do so while making a clear visual connection to all three sponsors.

Using creative direction from the Army that the spot should have a “strong, tough” look and feel as a starting point, Monkeyhead came up with the idea of creating a dark, industrial-looking world. Inside the world, which was made entirely with MAXON’s CINEMA 4D, individual rooms were designed to reflect the characteristics of each network through visuals and voiceover that spoke to the hero theme. Viewers are transported quickly into and out of the world, as well as to and from rooms, on tracks or by speeding through tunnels. “We did a lot of research before we made this, looking at a lot of industrial buildings and other things that we thought had a cool look to it,” says Josh Sahley, Monkeyhead’s founder and creative director. (See their reel at

Monkeyhead’s artists used MAXON’s CINEMA 4D to model the sets for the 30-second Army spot. This screenshot shows details, including the turbine fan behind the G4 logo and the LCD screens being prepared for future compositing of footage in After Effects.
(Click image for a larger view)

After creating an exterior establishing shot, which included a slow-moving helicopter to give it more of an Army feel, Monkeyhead’s team of artists went to work on the G4 room where blue, glass panels are a nod to the network’s tech and video game bent. A spinning turbine fan adds to the warehouse-like atmosphere and serves as a backdrop for the G4 logo, while screens offer footage of a man parachuting from a plane and a man helping a woman flee a burning building. A hole in the floor leads viewers down a winding tunnel to the FEARnet room. Monkeyhead artists used a cloner object in MAXON’s MoGraph module to duplicate the bright yellow lights that ring the sides of some of the tunnel’s sections.

Once they established the look of the light, Monkeyhead’s artists used MAXON’s MoGraph Module’s cloner object to create additional lights going down a tunnel. “We tried to keep the tunnel simple since it was a transition,” says Josh Sahley, creative director.

Naturally, FEARnet wanted their room to have a horror touch, so Monkeyhead came up with a gray, dark world that’s hazy with smoke, the artists made using MAXON’s PyroCluster module. Two screens bordered by long, silver blades flicker with the image of a young man who seems to be trying to get himself, and a young woman, out of a scary, old building. All around the screens, a pulley system created by the artists makes it look as if the screens are suspended in some kind of elevator shaft. “We made this room feel a little more frantic, so we picked up the pace and added that crazy elevator shaft,” Sahley explains, adding that the Versus room was more down-to-earth with its bleachers, time clock and screens showing footage of a rodeo. From there, a final tunnel streaked with red lights leads back outside where a montage of footage shows Army personnel in action, bringing the hero-theme home.

Though they had two months to complete the project, the HD format made render times too long to be efficient, so Monkeyhead opted to take three days to focus on optimizing their files to speed up the process (the final polygon count was 4,481,721). “It took a long time to get approvals on a lot of things, which meant we had to work fast to meet our deadlines once we got the okay,” Sahley says. “By going through our files and getting rid of everything that wasn’t adding very much, we were able to cut render times from five to ten minutes per frame to about a half that.” It also helped, Sahley adds, that CINEMA 4D made it easy for the team to create a simple render farm. “Set up is quick and painless and we added computers throughout the day, so we probably had about five octo-core Mac Pros on the farm and that really saved us so much time.”

For the outside world, seen before entering the industrial interior spaces, artists created a moody, dark scene “with seemingly no end in sight,” says Sahley.

Another advantage of using CINEMA 4D, Sahley says, is its ability to make outputting footage fast and easy. Monkeyhead’s team of artists used the software to make placeholders for the footage that appears on the screens, allowing them to make changes in After Effects without having to go back into their 3D files each time, making final compositing much easier. “We were lucky because most of the changes were pretty minor, so, in that sense, we were able to keep a lot of our original vision intact,” Sahley says. “With that many people involved with a project, we think that was a pretty good feat.”

3D Meets Hip-Hop

Red Bull has been a longtime client of Monkeyhead’s. So, when the energy-drink maker asked them to come up with a 30-second show package that would loop on screens during Red Bull’s “Big Tune” contest as it moved from city to city earlier this year in search of up and coming hip-hop producers, Monkeyhead jumped at the chance. The biggest challenge? They only had two weeks to do it. “They were thinking we’d keep it simple because we were under the gun,” Sahley recalls. “But we didn’t just go with 2D. We took on the challenge to use 3D to add life and energy and make it feel unique.”

To add life to the 2D Red Bull Logo, Monkeyhead artists recreated the text and speakers in 3D. The speakers were animated to pump to the music.

Wanting to steer clear of the usual gold-and-diamonds “bling” that often accompanies hip-hop, Monkeyhead created a look with an edgy, underground look. Black-and-white images of the cities the show stops in appear one after the other, unmistakable icons, such as the Space Needle in Seattle and the Statue of Liberty in New York, helping to make clear the location of each place. Colored microphone cords race through each city, creating a visual link between scenes before plugging into an amp at the end of the piece.

Monkeyhead used bright colors to give the gritty black-and-white images a more hip-hop feel. Recognizable Chicago icons include a speeding 3D elevated train, which seems to shoot just past the camera.

As they did with the Army spot, Monkeyhead used CINEMA 4D to create the bulk of the Red Bull piece. Once they had the cities mapped out and had planned the camera moves through them, they chose the elements they wanted to make 3D, including the Washington Monument, the Space Needle and Chicago’s elevated train. After rendering the 3D scenes, Monkeyhead’s artists used the camera and position data from CINEMA 4D to composite in the 2D imagery. “Because we were able to do this in CINEMA,” Sahley explains, “we got this fluid feel so you couldn’t tell what was 2D and what was 3D, it was just this cool world.”

Editor's note: Monkeyhead’s Josh Sahley will be presenting at NAB in MAXON’s Booth # SL1827 from 3:30 PM – 4:30 PM on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, April 20th – 22nd.

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Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer. Contact her at her website:

April 20, 2009

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