DBLG Designs a Flight of Fantasy for Decca Classics

“The brief was refreshingly open and we were given a real chance to experiment"

By Steve Jaratt

This promotional video for Decca Classics takes us on a serene yet surprising flight from one end of a glass violin to the other. Along the way we encounter a range of bizarre imagery and visual metaphors for the variety of music styles in Decca's vast catalogue of string artists.

"Working to the incredibly moving Arvo Pärt track 'Spiegel im Spiegel' we started to explore the emotional journey we're taken on by the sound of the strings," explains Jason G. Wiley, designer with London agency DBLG. "The brief was refreshingly open and we were given a real chance to experiment and take the visuals somewhere we felt was quite special."

The core idea, he explains, was to take the viewer on a voyage through various stylized abstract landscapes, with the intention of experimenting with animated textures as a feature of the final sequence.

The two-minute animation is actually one long continuous shot, which was inspired by a similar camera move in the 1979 Russian film 'Stalker.' However, this posed its own problem in managing the large file size. "We split the scene into five parts to be worked on individually," says Wiley, "then compiled them into a single scene for rendering. It was challenging to find out what the whole animation would feel like as one shot."

The piece begins with a violin made of glass, which Decca wanted to look like a classic Stradivarius. "We began with a basic model of a violin we had bought and then used Cinema 4D's modeling tools to adapt it accurately using references sent by the client. After we had finished accurately modifying the violin model we then cut it into two pieces!"

For the lighting, Wiley says the idea was to keep the scene bright and clean, mimicking an "other-worldly art gallery." This was achieved using just two area lights, without any high dynamic range images. "The first area light is designed to illuminate the entire scene equally," he explains, "and is directed downwards above the scene and casts soft shadows. The second area light is off to the right and its job is to catch specular highlights and enhance the geometry and bump maps."

"We thought the glass might be tricky," Wiley adds, "but were fortunate in the way the glass reflected and refracted the environment around it, which really helps to add realism to the texture."

The violin strings, which extend throughout the scene, were created using a Circle object swept along a spline. The End Growth value was animated in the Sweep object to make the strings appear as if they're growing. For those sections where the strings needed to sit on the landscape, a Spline Dynamics Hair tag was applied to the splines so they would fall due to gravity and conform to the geometry beneath.

As the move progresses we encounter a colorful swirling landscape with the appearance of flowing liquids. However, on closer inspection, the geometry doesn't actually move. Instead, it's a simple yet surprisingly powerful feature buried in Cinema 4D's Material Layer system.

"We'd been experimenting with animated textures within Cinema 4D and found some really interesting stuff within the Layer options of the textures themselves. We settled on using the Distort option within the texture effects, which enables you to distort textures driven by noise. It's very simple to use and gave us the flexibility to animate the textures in lots of weird and wonderful ways. We used this same animated texture for our bump map, which gives the feeling of a kind of fluid moving over the geometry."

After the smoothly flowing colors we arrive at a more angular area, with jagged strings and chunks of glass. The landscape is punctuated by animated scrawls, that were captured using a graphics tablet in Photoshop. "We really liked the idea of drawing these live and recording the screen," says Wiley, admitting that later on during the color grading process that they noticed that the cursor pointer had been left in one scene! "After converting the video to a JPG sequence it was possible to use this animation as a shader. The scribbles animation has an alpha channel so we camera-mapped this onto the floor to avoid any UV mapping issues."

Our journey continues over a gently billowing cloth with an animated texture. Unsurprisingly, Cinema 4D was used to animate it. "We love how quickly you can get results from Cinema's cloth simulations," comments Wiley. "It was a lot of fun playing with all the wind settings - in the end a gentle breeze did the trick. The textures on the cloth are animated in the same way the landscape is using the Distort effect within the texture. However, we didn't animate the bump map for this one."

The end of the piece sees the strings winding their way onto the violin's tuning pegs, an effect achieved by using the same Circle object swept along a Helix spline. The Sweep object's Growth values were then keyframed to match the rotation of the tuning peg.

V-Ray was the render engine of choice, combined with Cinema 4D's Standard Renderer, which provided the hard shadows. Global Illumination was used throughout, which Wiley says was crucial for adding the realism they were looking for. To generate the hundreds of HD 1080 TIFF images, Wiley turned to RebusFarm, the external rendering service.

Post work for the sequence was quite minimal: "All the textures are animated within the Cinema 4D scene, and we chose a single camera move for the video, so no editing was needed. We aimed for the best render we could out of Cinema 4D to avoid extensive post work, which might compromise the clean look of the piece."

Render passes included specular, area shadows, depth and a matte for the strings.
Additional work was carried out in Adobe After Effects and included compositing in the hard shadows from Cinema 4D as well as adding depth of field along with motion blur. "We also directed a color grade at Envy Post Production to really enhance the bright, clean look and wild, vivid colors," Wiley adds.

Cinema 4D provided pretty much all of the tools DBLG needed to complete the project in just two months using a single iMac. "It lets us express our imagination. It's like capturing a dream," claims Wiley enthusiastically.

Steve Jarratt is a long-time CG enthusiast and technology journalist based in the UK.

All images courtesy of DBLG.

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