Channeling Audobon

Before I left for SIGGRAPH, our creative team had been given the awesome task of creating several videos for the Department of Biology. These videos highlight some of the exciting research and field work that undergraduate and professional students embark on as they pursue their concentrations of interest. These are the types of assignments that are especially exciting for those of us working in production, as they mean we get the rare opportunity to bring a camera into the thick of a swamp, tidal wetlands, into canoes, and other places more way adventurous than the studio. You break out the galoshes, sunscreen, bug spray, UV filters and essentially pretend you’re camera-manning for Steve Irwin. It’s a trip.

For this assignment, I faced the same fate as many post-production specialists on exciting shoots — which is, I didn’t go. Boo. Instead, I was tasked with creating the animated assets for the video, which proved to be an expedition of its own.

Using the paintings of renowned 17th century wildlife artist John James Audubon as inspiration, I wanted to create an aesthetic that, while maintaining a sort of classically idyllic, exceptional naturalism, still moved in a way that looked modern and lifelike. Lesley Bullock’s class is a real merger of centuries-tested ornithology techniques and 21st century data collection, so combining the 2 stylistic ideas reflected what we hoped to communicate about the course itself.


A preliminary sketch


To bring Audubon’s paintings to life, I had to think like Audubon — meaning that I took a bunch of assets and turned them into a monster composition, as one would a large-scale painting. I deconstructed several of Audubon’s paintings in Photoshop, and animated each as their own composition in Photoshop — fish were made to swim, birds flit, etc. Once they were all properly animated, I brought each composition into my main “Opening Sequence” comp and re-timed each so that every asset would have a brief moment as the camera’s point of focus.
I really love the way this composition looks when you step back from it; From a distance, there are obvious tricks at work to fool the camera’s eye as it travels the piece (big scaling differences, for example. Dealing with Zoom/Point of Focus keys in AE can be a little tricky, so this was my quick workaround). I like that even this small sample of Audubon’s work still looks pretty lush.

I feel that the time constraints of the video led to the camera having to pass over the scene too quickly, a little jaggedly; but in the future, I’d love to flesh this sort of composition out even further, with more assets, more subtle movements, and more time for the camera to travel over them and really take in the scene.

That’s about 200 layers of greenery, waterfowl, fish and feathers.

While the opening sequence was the main chunk of my work on this vid, I also had the opportunity to create some additional graphics for warbler migration patterns and lower thirds, too… and don’t get me started talking about lower 3rds. Those are so much fun.

This project was a great exercise in combining dozens of tinier compositions into a single massive scene, and it’s a technique that I can’t wait to apply to out next Biology Researchers vid. To see the finished video (with editing by the ever-slick
Max), you can mozy on over here.



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