Interview: Creating the Memorable ‘Humankind’ Titles for TEDxSydney

by Meleah Maynard

A behind-the-scenes look at Substance’s making of the TEDxSydney 2018 titles.

How everything was realized using Cinema 4D, Redshift, Houdini, and ZBrush.

All images via Substance.

The brief for TEDxSydney’s 2018 titles was just one word — Humankind, and Scott Geersen, creative director of the Sydney Australia-based studio, Substance, ran with it.

The result is a moving journey through imagined museum galleries that, in less than two minutes, manages to make uncomfortably clear the deeply complex nature of humankind.

For Geersen, creating the title sequence was the perfect opportunity for Substance’s team to use their skills to say something bigger than much of their day-to-day work allows.

“We wanted to do something that was not just designed for design’s sake,” he says, explaining that they named the studio Substance specifically because they like to approach concepts on a deeper level. “A lot of title sequences, especially for events, look great, but often miss the mark in terms of communication. We loved layered, nuanced design. For an event like TEDx, we really wanted to consider the platform and the speakers while reflecting the goals of TED.”

Interview: Creating the Memorable 'Humankind' Titles for TEDxSydney - Protest

Substance’s Humankind titles aim to offer an honest look at both the positive and negative aspects of life.

Here, Geersen and 3D artist Rich Nosworthy offer a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the TEDxSydney 2018 titles, including how they wrangled such a weighty topic in a short amount of time and visually realized everything they wanted to say using Cinema 4D, Houdini and ZBrush.

Let’s start by talking a bit about who you are. 

Scott Geersen: I started out as a motion graphics designer and VFX compositor and I also worked full-time as a Flame artist for many years until I was VFX supervising. At that point, I felt like I was pigeonholed, as the big studios tend to have rigid job definitions that aren’t conducive to working across disciplines.

I started Substance as a way to remove those limitations, and to have control over the quality of project I was spending my time on. These days, I am mostly directing, working with both local artists and remote collaborators.

Interview: Creating the Memorable 'Humankind' Titles for TEDxSydney - Sculptures

Sculptures and their environments were linked with halls and traveling shots to give viewers a sense of moving through an imagined TED museum.

Rich Nosworthy: I’m a freelance 3D artist and animator, currently working out of Auckland, New Zealand. My background was film VFX and then motion design for a number of years. I met Scott at Node Fest in Melbourne two years ago. He was one of the speakers, and we’ve stayed in contact.

I studied computer science at university but, afterwards, got interested in 3D animation so I taught myself how to use Maya, Cinema 4D, and After Effects over many years.

At first, CG was a massive side hobby, but then I started working in junior roles for the VFX film industry and things just went from there. I loved VFX work, but you can get a bit pigeonholed, and I was interested in learning other areas such as design, editing and compositing, which led me into doing more motion design work.

I’ve been doing 3D for about 17 years and freelancing for the last three, doing mostly a mix of animation, modeling, lighting and rendering.

Interview: Creating the Memorable 'Humankind' Titles for TEDxSydney - Rebuilding

After scenes of military corruption and destruction, the theme shifts to rebuilding and human ingenuity because the future will be built by generations to come.

How did you two team up for the TEDxSydney titles this year?

SG: I’ve reached out to Rich before, but he wasn’t available. This time, he was the first person I got in touch with and he said yes when I asked him to do lighting and rendering for the titles.

Then he also busted out some hard-surface modeling, ZBrush and Houdini, and while I knew he used those tools too, it was incredible to see him working with all of those at once. The whole team, Jeff, Rory and Ezequiel all brought much more than expected to the table.

Interview: Creating the Memorable 'Humankind' Titles for TEDxSydney - Love

Rich Nosworthy used Cinema 4D and Redshift to create the Love is Love robots scene.

RN: Scott had already done a load of work for this when he reached out to me. He sent me his previz animation and the shot blocking and timing looked great. My job, along with the other 3D artists, Rory, Jeff and Ezequiel, was developing those shots and sequences, doing look and lighting development and adding extra elements and details to the scenes.

Scott put together a lot of great real-life references for us from galleries and museums, things he was looking for, like overall mood, lighting and material references. It was like a reference bible for establishing the piece, and having a clear path to where we wanted to get to really helped and saved us so much time.

Scott, you also did the titles for TEDxSydney 2017, so did they just trust you on this?

SG: I think so. Last year was the first time we’ve worked with TED, and the clarity of our treatment for the theme, “Unconventional,” brought them back to us this year.

This time, they just explained the one-word brief and asked if we wanted to do it, and I said we’d love to. It is such a huge topic. We went right into brainstorming, trying to figure out what we wanted to show.

Interview: Creating the Memorable 'Humankind' Titles for TEDxSydney - School Shooting

Geersen included the school shooting scene, believing in the importance of facing the ugly and difficult aspects of humankind as a way to bring about change.

We did so much self-editing because we knew there was only so much we could achieve technically in the time we had. To capture the educational aspect of TED, we imagined it as a museum filled with sculptures that said something about the past, present and future humankind. We don’t comment on anything, so the audience can have its own experience.

Interview: Creating the Memorable 'Humankind' Titles for TEDxSydney - Class

Scenes of learning, wonder and innovation offer hope while embracing the goals of TED.

Once we got the 100-percent signoff on the storyboards from TED, we were able to start thinking about who we needed to bring on for everything. I blocked out the animations and roughed out each of the main sculptures.

Interview: Creating the Memorable 'Humankind' Titles for TEDxSydney - Class Arm

After I designed each scene’s centerpiece, I would think about how the environment could be built to support the idea of each sculpture.

Rich and Ezequiel Grand used ZBrush and Houdini to sculpt out additional details, and they along with Rory McLean and Jeff Briant worked on lighting and texturing. Joe Morris, an old friend and one of my most trusted collaborators, was the editor.

Interview: Creating the Memorable 'Humankind' Titles for TEDxSydney - Hand

While the titles show the dark side of humankind, they also depict humans’ capacity for love and kindness.

Rich, the prosthetic hand scene is just beautiful. Can you talk about what you did?

RN: Sure, I really like using Cinema 4D as the base 3D application for most of my work. But Houdini is usually better for simulation and procedural geometry processing, and I like ZBrush when I’m sculpting or working with really dense models.

For this shot, Scott had already blocked out the scene with Daz3d, so I had all the base models set up. I started by using Merk Vilson’s Trypogen plugin for C4D to create the prosthetic arm’s lattice-style mesh because I like the low-polygon feel.

Next, I brought the mesh into Houdini to grow the paths down the arm from the shoulder to the fingers. Then I just exported those splines back into the main C4D scene and used Mograph cloners to generate tiny LED lights on those splines. Adding just a bit of motion and variation to the LEDs going down the length of each vein, gave a nice fluid feel to the motion, yet it still seemed grounded in the technology.

Interview: Creating the Memorable 'Humankind' Titles for TEDxSydney - Hand Model

Houdini was used to generate early concepts for the prosthetic arm’s geometry. On the right, final veins have been grown within the arm.

To finalize the look, I used a translucent material with some subtle subsurface scattering for the main arm lattice, a simple SSS shader for the veins and a light shader for the LEDs.

The music is a key part of these titles. How did you choose Cypher for this?

SG: From the start I knew that I really needed the right composer for this. I knew of John Black from Cypher because they’re one of the best audio places in the world.

We were already using one of his pieces as the temporary editing track, so it was the next logical step to ask if he’d be interested in working with us. He wrote back right away and said, ‘Yes, we’re interested,’ so we took it from there. What John created added so much power and emotion to the piece, I have no doubt that’s a huge part of the titles’ effect on people.

Interview: Creating the Memorable 'Humankind' Titles for TEDxSydney - Title

This is the second time Substance has created the titles for TEDxSydney.

What kind of reaction did you get from fellow artists?

SG: One of the nicest things was that, after the titles were released, several artists I admire in the industry got in touch directly, or sent out tweets, saying how much they liked that we had approached the titles as a vehicle for social commentary.

People talked about the impact the titles had on them, but they also said that they are the kind of work they would like to see more motion designers and directors doing. In such a commercial-oriented industry, we don’t get to use our abilities in that way very often, and I think we’d all like to be able to do more to change that balance.

Client: TEDxSydney
Director: Scott Geersen
Layout, Cinematography: Substance
Look development, shading and lighting: Rich Nosworthy, Rory McLean, Jeff Briant, Ezequiel Grand, Scott Geersen
Edit: Joe Morris
Additional Sculpts: Ezequiel Grand, Rich Nosworthy
Original Music and Sound Design: Cypher Audio/John Black and Tobias Norberg

You can see more stills, breakdowns, concept art, and more on Behance.

Meleah Maynard is a writer and editor in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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