Imaginary Forces Artfully Employs Abstract Concepts in Experience Design for L Studio and MoMa.

April 12, 2009 11:49 pm

Tags: 3D, CINEMA 4D, F5 Fest, Imaginary Forces, MAXON, Meleah Maynard, MoGraph, motion graphics, Renderosity

How do you think outside the box when there is no box? This was the challenge Los Angeles-based design and entertainment company Imaginary Forces (IF) faced with two recent projects that involved abstract ideas in the extreme. Known for their diverse portfolio, which includes title sequences for films like “The Pink Panther 2" and "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor," commercials for Pepsi and Microsoft, as well as an architectural design submission for the World Trade Center site, IF is also highly regarded for having the kind of artistic sensibility it takes to turn heady concepts into stylized visual experiences.

The first piece, called “Origins,” was made for Lexus’ L Studio. Launched in September, the new online broadband network features web video content from an eclectic mix of contributors, including comedian Lisa Kudrow and Doors’ bassist Ray Manzarek. IF created “Origins,” an episode in a three-part series called “Macros.” Each three to four-minute episode explores issues that affect the world around us. “Origins,” for example, takes on the topic of human migration combining traditional narration with very unexpected 3D animation they created using MAXON’S CINEMA 4D.

A single node particle spread on a timeline illustrates
Euro-American immigration in the early 1900s.

“They said, ‘You’re a visual company, what can you contribute to this website?’” recalls IF director and animator Charles Khoury. “So we came up with the idea of macros, the flow of information, or any sort of matter on our planet.”

After consulting with acclaimed historian Joel Kotkin on how human migration has dictated the explosion of culture and science around the world, the Imaginary Forces team came up with a script that takes the audience from the dawn of civilization to present day. Once digital storyboards and the voiceover were put into an edit, the piece was animated to accompany the narration. “CINEMA 4D is so user friendly and so fast that once you have approval, you already have elements from your storyboards to start animating,” says Khoury.

To make visualizing such an abstract idea as simple as possible, Khoury’s team opted for a monochromatic palette and basic particles and lines as their main animation elements. “We came up with the idea of having a central node that expands to another node or multiple ones,” he explains. Much of this animation work was done using CINEMA 4D’s Thinking Particles module, which allowed the animators to control how each particle and particle stream interacted while spreading across the piece’s black background.

Imaginary Forces used CINEMA 4D’S MoGraph module to create multiple cloner
objects with randomizing effectors to spread the particles in this overall view.

To further enhance the visuals, IF used CINEMA 4D’s MoGraph module. “Because it has so many randomizing tools you can have an almost infinite number of ways to animate particles,” Khoury says, adding that a 3D camera in space also helped the team make the journey dynamic and much more interesting than it would have been in a 2D environment. “With other software, it would have taken forever to do particles or procedural animation because we would have had to write scripts to make things more organic.”

Though the design of the episode was simple, the compactness of elements made some parts dense and complex. Couple that with the fact that the whole thing had to be done in HD, and Khoury says it would have been tough to meet their two-week deadline without CINEMA 4D’s ability to render at less than a minute per frame. “CINEMA 4D’s Sketch and Toon module also contributed to the speed of the renders because we could use the shader for the lines, so all three modules in concert gave us this look,” says Khoury.

The prologue to the Origins piece includes an abstract representation
of flocking featuring eight layers of animation.

For the second of these abstract undertakings, IF created a full-fledged virtual experience with their “New City” installation for New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s Design and the Elastic Mind exhibition, which opened last spring. Conceived by Imaginary Forces’ co-founder and creative director Peter Frankfurt in collaboration with architectural designer Greg Lynn and production designer Alex McDowell, “New City” is a multimedia piece that hints at how the Internet may in the future be used to explore new ways of living.

Inside a cave structure designed by Lynn, visitors are immersed among 12 rear-projection stations offering images of a new 3D virtual world. A short promo on IF’s website gives viewers a glimpse into how the installation was created.

This screen shot of the model shows the complexity beneath this seemingly simple design.
MoGraph Cloners are visible in the object manager (click image for a larger view).

Once the concept was decided, IF had three weeks to make the seven-minute “New City” film. Khoury oversaw the making of the piece, which was comprised of stock footage, 3D renders of virtual environments, data renders done in CINEMA 4D and cartography maps.

The first step, says Khoury, was to take the wire frame models they received from Lynn’s studio and begin to visualize how the installation would come together. “We started by thinking about how to represent the world and thought what if it still had that blue marble look to it?” recalls Khoury.

Though the barebones models lacked textures and environments, they were modeled in Autodesk’s Maya and the 300-megabyte file was exported using FBX. Rather than using the dense 3D models, they used CINEMA 4D’s Polygon Reduction Tool to create low-poly proxies. This allowed them to build their previsualization without using the cumbersome model. “After mapping out the whole choreography,” Khoury explains, “we went back to high-res models and texture mapped them and rendered them out.”

Imaginary Forces used CINEMA 4D’s MoGraph module to create
the look of boiling liquid for this transitional frame animation.

From there, the footage created by CINEMA 4D was taken into Final Cut Pro in order to edit that together with graphic elements, including live action and still frames of maps. The film, which Khoury describes as “twisting time and space,” had a polygon count of 3,039,000 and depicted cities and continents overlapping in ways that could allow anything to happen at any point in time.

Pulsating dots mimic the growth in population centers in parts of New City (click image for a larger view).

Data on things like population, crime, dreams and temperature were animated using CINEMA’s MoGraph module. “That really helped us because normally data visualization takes weeks or months and you have to have a coder involved and someone to gather data,” Khoury explains. “We were able give the impression of that kind of data using C4D’s tools to visualize it in the abstract, which was great because that was one of the biggest challenges we faced.”

Editor's note: Imaginary Forces will be presenting at the F5 Fest in New York City on Thursday, April 16th. The F5 Fest is a two day event, scheduled for April 16th and 17th. The Imaginary Forces presentation is on the topics of: Experience Design, Architecture, and Cross-media Design. If you are in the area, please consider attending this event. For more information, please visit the F5 Fest website.

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

April 13, 2009

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