Making the Semi-Permanent 2015 opening titles with Raoul Marks

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Published:  August 28, 2015
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It’s very rare to be given complete freedom with a brief in commercial motion design. I think this explains the attraction we have towards titles work for design conferences. They are usually done for free, which allows us to really explore unusual directions for an audience who almost expects a completely individual approach to the sequence. So when Semi-Permanent got in touch about the 2015 conference titles, I was very excited to push my work in a direction I hadn’t gone before.

Semi-Permanent 2015 opening titles created by Raoul Marks.
All words and images by Raoul Marks.

I think the single source that started the whole thought process for this project was a series of photos from a 1968 copy of Life magazine. It showed the work of Stanford scientist Thomas Kane, who was researching if astronauts could twist while falling through space in a way similar to the movement of a cat when landing. Although purely functional, these images of an astronaut falling through a black void had such a strong emotive quality that I instantly felt I needed to turn them into something.

It won’t come as much of a surprise if you’ve seen the titles that the tone is heavily influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s seminal work 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film’s ability to suggest something larger than life without explicitly saying what, had me captivated from a young age. I was always fascinated by the beautiful detail and unnerving imagery, and when I revisit the film now I always find something new. From a non-religious point of view, it seems to hint at something awe-inspiring – the sublime. I’ve wanted to capture that same feeling in my own work ever since. I wanted to pay homage to a number of shots from this and other films, like Alien, Blade Runner, Under the Skin and Moon. Often across these films – across many years of cinema – you can see moments replicated shot-for-shot. In my Semi-Permanent titles you can see my interpretation of the port opening shot from 2001.

One other big influence on these titles was the work of Jeffrey Smart, an Australian painter active from the 50s until the 90s. He painted colourful, but dystopic urban settings – high rises repeating off into the distance, often with a very flat perspective. He had what was called a precisionist style, but to my eye was more surreal; his paintings always had an unnerving, unreal quality about them. I get the same feeling from his painting as I do from 2001: A Space Odyssey. I was also very happy to be able to use the beautiful imagery of Radiohead’s artist Stanley Donwood in the optical nerve scene. Donwood had a retrospective exhibition at this year’s Semi-Permanent, and I’ve been a big fan of his work since ever since OK Computer. It was quite an honour to use his work in the sequence.

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I find the creative process a curiously isolating experience. I’m not implying it’s a negative experience, more that it’s always an approximation of ideas when you try to put into words the feeling or mood of a piece. It’s always a simplification of an idea when you’re trying to pitch it to your colleagues. So, for the titles I wanted to do something that spoke to that creative isolation.

In essence I wanted to chart the progression of an individual’s creative spirit. There is a series of symbolic imagery running through the titles, but I wanted these to be open to interpretation by the viewer. They should be subjective, experienced subconsciously.

For me, the opening sequence is representative of a birth. The doors open and the figure is flung out into the void, sustained only by the umbilical cord. We’re then presented with the domestic and the humdrum of everyday life – a housing estate twisting in space. To move beyond this, our astronaut detaches their lifeline and floats into the unknown. We are met by the hand, which represents the artist’s craft and the honing of a skill. Beyond that we enter the eye, representing the development of critical thought. We see key influential imagery embedded in the optical nerve as our traveller starts to steady their trajectory. The trip concludes as we reach a fertile land, one’s own creative space.

Conferences like Semi-Permanent are a great way to bring people together. We all come in from the wilderness and spend a good few days indulging on all things design. I had originally wanted to represent that by having the astronaut join a group of fellow travellers at the end of the titles, but I felt this was a little too obvious. Instead I went for something a little trickier. Our traveller takes their helmet off, but we are denied a view of who they may be. My intention with the anonymity was to allow people to feel that they could occupy that spacesuit. Even with titles, I think it’s good if you can leave people wanting a little more, leave a few threads untied.

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It’d be unfair of me to expect people to unpick all that meaning, but I do find it useful that my work has some form of conceptual narrative to underpin everything. The titles we [at Elastic] did for Halt and Catch Fire and True Detective may seem, at first glance, a random collection of moments, but they all have a narrative arc running through them. It’s often a case of trying to balance not being too abstract, but also not being too didactic.

These titles were a solo production, so I was lucky enough to not have to pitch the concept in the conventional way. I had the overall arc of the journey in my mind, so it was just a matter of building the key assets. I then used those assets to create a key frame for each important moment in the story arc. Using those select key frames I could hone and adjust an overall mood for the sequence. I tried to keep the colour palette very minimal – black and white and a few moments of hot oranges and reds.

I spent just over a month creating the titles; thanks to a few technological leaps over the last year in rendering technology, it actually went pretty smoothly. There’s a piece of software called Octane Render that allowed me to move around, relight and mould the scenes with near to real-time feedback. That’s always been a bit of a holy grail for 3D artists and it’s been amazing to see those tools start to become available to us. Octane and Cinema 4D are so efficient; they were basically the only way I could attempt a sequence like this on my own within the time constraints. I wouldn’t have even dreamed of doing something like this a year ago.

A lot of this project was about being clever with resources. I needed to focus on how to tell this story while relying on techniques I was comfortable I could make look good on screen. I wanted to keep a high level of detail and also make sure we were jumping along at a steady pace. Just as we are starting to grow familiar with one setting I wanted to push through to something new and unexpected.

One of the more difficult props was the housing blocks. There’s a housing estate at the end of the street my office is on. I stare at it every day on the cycle home. I really wanted to capture its mood, but didn’t have the capabilities to photograph it in a way I could use in CG. So instead I photographed just a few of the faces of the flats. Then I spent a few arduous hours replicating and varying the images so I had a whole town block, without it feeling like an unnatural repeating pattern.

I really wanted to convey a sense of scale. So I needed to build assets that would hold up for distant shots as well as for extreme close-ups. This can be quite difficult when taking into consideration the sheer amount of data involved in complex geometry. NASA very kindly makes available the depth data from numerous planets it has surveyed, on a site conveniently called mapaplanet.org. From here I pulled some great resources that helped create the undulating and scarred terrain of the face. But to get these to work over an eight-shot sequence I ended up needing to build each shot individually, dialling in the detail based on the camera’s distance from subject.

I also spent a bit of time looking at detailed photography of all the NASA paraphernalia associated with space travel. There’s something quite lovely about its film stock photos from the Apollo era moon landings.

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I hit a bit of dead end for the final landscape shots. I really wanted to find something that felt fertile and primordial, but I didn’t want anything with familiar plant life in the frame. Iceland has long been a good source for that semi-alien styled landscape imagery. But I couldn’t find anything that I could source and use easily. By a bit of luck, Jake Sergeant had recently returned from a photo trip to Reykjavik, and he had some beautiful images of the fjords from the north of the island. He generously let me use those as the backdrops for the final few scenes. I used a technique I developed while creating the titles for True Detective, which involves projecting the image onto basic geometry that reflects the form of the mountains and landscape. I can then move a camera around in that landscape as if we are out there filming.

I come from a design background, and designers often think in terms of a visual composition, whereas a more conventional director may be thinking more temporally. They’d be focused on what the actors do over the course of the shot, but I found myself starting with a single image that represents the shot. I’m quite into a sense of perpetual motion that I try to maintain through a lot of my work. There doesn’t need to be a great deal of motion, it can be barely noticeable. But I like the pace of that motion to carry through to the following shots – almost as if there is a visual tempo to the sequence that the viewer subconsciously follows.

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