Real elements, real lights and…LEGO bricks.
If you saw the neat main titles for the TV series NEXT, what you may not have realized is that, although they have somewhat of the look and feel of computer generated motion graphics, they actually came to pass thanks to a unique combination of practical in-camera effects from FX WRX and digital artists at FOX.
The practical elements from FX WRX—which specializes in this kind of work—included hand-made logo constructs, table-top shooting, macro photography and specialty-crafted lighting rigs. Shooting these elements was also approached in the same way as might happen on a typical live-action set; with a lot of experimentation, collaboration and ‘finding’ shots. The idea was to produce beautiful shots but also build-in some of the mistakes and aberrations that you can also get if you had to shoot things for real.
Then, these elements served as starting points, as motion designers finalized the titles in tools such as After Effects. For befores & afters, FX WRX co-founder Christopher Webb outlines how the NEXT titles elements were filmed, including how the lighting rig for shooting was even planned out to some degree with Lego bricks.
Where it all started
Christopher Webb: The conversation began with a call from Ian MacRitchie, the president of the Visual Innovation Studio at FOX. He says, ‘Chris, here’s what the show is about. These are design motifs and mood boards. Can you come up with a project shoot for us that will take us on an adventure, that we can realize this stuff in a way that the lensing and the lighting and the motion will be made alive for us, and we can see it and respond to it?’ It was all instead of them dictating things over a digital artist’s shoulder and reviewing renders. So that’s the magic. They want that ‘discovery.’
Then, our job is to say, ‘Okay, we’re going to do a host of things over a certain amount of time with this kind of equipment and workflow here in the studio. We need practical artwork. We are going to use the probe lens. Let’s use the vintage probe lens, because the way it handles the optics is so within that right spirit. Let’s build the ring. Let’s give it a big sweep, right by the lens, and treat it like a landscape. And how big should it be? How big should it feel? Let’s have the music going in the studio, so we can get the momentum and the pace and the grandeur that they want, and really come up with a little adventure.’
Planning a lighting rig…in Lego…
After I had that call with FOX and we just bounced around some things, I would just go and sit and stare at the studio. And I’m thinking about all these things. I’ll just start mocking it up and I truly take out my Legos.
I had worked for them, doing mechanical design, in my late teens. I have all these free Legos! And so, I built Legos of the jibs and the dolly and all that stuff. I like that over SketchUp computer models, because I can move it around physically and get ideas. I can go to get a coffee and come back and re-evaluate it again because the Lego models are always around the studio.
Dealing with circles
They had this cyclical theme in everything—in the story, and of course, in the ring. I just felt I could fly a light around the logo perfectly, and then also elliptically, by changing height. We had weighed using the TechnoDolly motion control crane for this but I just felt I wanted everything to be done by hand so that we could respond in the moment, kind of like music, like improv jazz, just to say, ‘Oh, that’s great, fly the arm up there. And then when I do this, you do that.’
And so we ended up having to design that whole rig, and we got this perfect little Japanese jib arm, that’s made so well. And it was just light enough that I could safely suspend it upside-down. And then we built a huge box truss rig and hung it over the set, and got this ridiculous parabolic torchlight, that’s just the hardest light I’ve ever seen.
The scale of it feels like a miniature sun, or a little spaceship—it’s just such a bizarre quality of light. We could fly that around by hand on the inverted jib so accurately that it would stop and put the light shaft through the split in the ‘X’. And I was so proud of that. That’s done by hand, and it felt like a truly graceful motion graphic to me.
Lighting the ring
For the ring, our art department built a laser-cut, polished, plastic table, about 4 x 4, in this special black semigloss, shimmery, black material that we like to use a lot. And then we placed the centre, the circle, within the ring. Then that’s sitting on a milk glass, which diffuses the light. Underneath, we have a robot motor that is able to be programmed. So it can move at a very specific pace.
We preferred a good old-fashioned tungsten light for that source, because it has just the right fall-off to give you a comet head and a tail, to really mimic that in a way that’s graceful and interesting and organic, right down to how it actually lit the walls of the ring in the black plastic. And then that became a whole little moving apparatus, actually, with the light and some little cards and gels that traveled around under the ring.
We actually built our own power supplies for those lights. So even though they’re tungsten, they’re on a pure regulated 24-volt DC. So it’s that weird blend of like mixing Charlie Brown Christmas lights and LED lights on your Christmas tree, we created a tungsten light that does not flicker to get just the right vibe. And then, of course, we get the lens in the right place, to give it that motion sweep sense of scale.
In the finished work, you’ll see an orange circle and then a blue — that’s in-camera. We took the same material, which has this soft reflection. It’s not like a black mirror, it’s like a sanded black mirror. You get a soft out-of-focus reflection. And we did this movement so that it would reflect the ring in it, in-camera.
The NEXT logo
We built the actual show title, and the light animation and all of that is real. We had the camera overhead on a very specific lens, and we had a textured handmade surface. So it’s painted, but it’s painted really well. And then the blocks, N-E-X-T, as handmade blocks, are all hand-finished.
The light would circle that and land through the X. So all the texture and shadow is real. The glowing kickback of the light, where you have the text object on the surface, and the light hits it, and it lights up back on the surface, like a little glow on the top of the T, and so on. All of that is real.
We would line up the same exact shot with white blocks on white, black on black, and then clear, with a black face on black, to get these little strange, prismatic effects. We would also shoot each thing multiple times, so a compositor can layer them as a motion graphic, because they want not just the plates, but the gestures, the combination of moments. The pacing is very important, that we get the timing right.
Finally, we handed all of these elements over to the digital artists at FOX. They’re editing and compositing is truly wonderful. We know they will use the best moments. And so, that’s an important ongoing relationship that makes this possible, too.