Crafting an abstract idea into a compelling story

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) came to us to make a short video on the subject of corporate fleet efficiency. The goal: to further popularize the importance of reducing pollution across large corporate car fleets. Through our research we came to understand how every tiny action combined can result in huge positive benefits, for the environment and corporate savings.

Our visual research led us to Charles and Ray Eames’ classic film “Powers of 10”. This, among many other influences, led us to develop a cool visual language and a great central metaphor to tell EDF’s story—a story about the “power of scale.” With this central concept, the story idea fell quickly into place.

Watch the video now and you’ll have a better appreciation of the “making of” explained here.

To make the video visually exciting we chose to shoot using a combination of Tilt-Shift photography (a technique that, when used with highly saturated and colorful images, makes landscapes and humans look like miniature models) and the effect of time-lapse photography, in which time appears to fly by very rapidly. Finally we did a bit of stop motion animation using actual models!

All the visuals were done using a Digital Single Lens Relex (DSLR) camera, with a Tilt-Shift lens and a traditional lens. Playing with the concept of models, size and scale became a great way to visually illustrate the central metaphor.



Next we put together a shot-by-shot storyboard that would help us define the locations, people and models we would need, as well as the general timing for each section. This was a crucial step since every sequence was done by shooting a series of photos at different intervals, and we wanted to have the motion and all the action performed exactly in the time we had given. Having to slow down or speed up the footage would have created all kinds of artifacts in post-production and would mar the final image.

When doing the storyboard, we had to keep in mind the limitations of shooting locally, keeping in mind the temperature and environment changing rapidly as fall was approaching, meaning less sunlight and leaves falling off trees—we didn't want it to look gray and dull!

Here is a comparison of the storyboard vs. the actual scenes we shot:


Location Scouting and Test Shooting

While doing the storyboard we scouted locations and tested the Tilt-Shift effects, primarily in downtown Montreal. We also did tests in Photoshop to replicate the effect without it looking too digital and fake. A ton of testing was done to make sure it wouldn't look cheap, and that it would compliment the real tilt-shift sequences.

A Tilt-Shift lens is a special fixed focal lens (not a zoom) that allows you to tilt and move off-center its front element. It’s usually used in architecture, and when properly used it eliminates the perspective, making lines parallel rather than converging. It also creates greater depth of field so you can have all the elements of your composition in focus regardless of whether they’re close to or far from the camera. Intentional mis-use of the lens allows for the extremely shallow depth of field that gives the distinctive look we were after.

Example of Tilt-Shift tests and locations:


Solving Timing and DSLR Flicker Problems

We also tested to get the motion, exposure and time between each shot right, and to calculate how many shots we needed to get the desired effect. As we settled on having the video play at 24 frames per second, this was our starting point to find out within how many frames we needed our actions to happen.

We also knew that in a series of images that are shown rapidly to create the illusion of motion, it’s crucial that the exposure remain consistent from frame to frame—otherwise a noticable flickering can occur. Film cameras don't have this problem since everything is manual, but with a DSLR, even with all the controls set to manual some flicker might still happen. The aperture has to go back and forth from the setting selected to a wide open position for previewing, and sometimes it returns to a slightly different position. So the trick is to unlock the lens from the camera body and turn it slightly, to disengage the electronic contact between the two. It took a lot of time and research to debug this problem!

Here is a few clip, look very closely for the flicker:


Stop-Motion Animation

To really emphasize the scale concept, we chose to use toy cars for the sequence where we explain some numbers and statistics, and to animate them by hand. By building a fairly complex grid on a piece of cardboard, we figured out how many cars and how much space would be needed to display the numbers.

We needed just under 200 cars and didn't have enough time to order them online, so we raided every toy store in town to get enough cars that had a conventional look. No racing stripes or flames allowed! To make matters worse we needed a significant number of white cars in order to create contrast with the green background. White isn't a popular color for toy cars, so some hand painting was required.

As you might have guessed, the numbers sequences were mostly shot backwards, then played in reverse to give the illusion of super-orchestrated movement. For example: in the shot with the words “$2 billion,” the cars were placed in their final formation, then we made them drive backwards until they were out of the frame.


Post Production

There was some post-production done on the video, mostly frame by frame in Photoshop. We tried to add the digital manipulation so that it still looked analog and avoided the digital and CGI effect, to stay in keeping with our inspiration, the films of Charles and Ray Eames.

For the lights shutting down in the buildings, we first shot the cityscape over the course of 6 hours during sunset and well into the night. From theses images we created a composite shot with all the lights on, and a second one with all the lights off. By super imposing them in Photoshop, we then created a whole new sequence by erasing parts of the top layer (lights on) to reveal parts of the bottom layer (lights off). We ended up with about 200 frames with a semi random pattern of lights shutting down. Once this was done we chose our pace, we then took the original sequence and put them over our new composited sequence with a mask that would only show the clouds and the cars passing by. Once we were happy with what we made we added the blur and saturation to imitate the Tilt-Shift effect.


Putting it all together

During all of this, we worked with composer Sam Shalabi to come up with a soundtrack for the film, based on the music from the Eames films (particularly the score from “House After 5 Years”). Sam started by working on getting the right instrumentation, then established the musical vernacular, then something that would work with the film. Over 15 individual pieces were written before the final music you hear now was chosen and polished.

Here's 3 earlier drafts you can listen to

Example 1

Example 2

Example 3

Our close associate and successful blogger Ben Yoskovitz lent us his awesome announcer voice and after a couple of hours of recording, the soundtrack was finished.