Musical Chairs


Every year, the BBC broadcasts the Proms (originally known as the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts), the world's largest and longest running classical music festival, held annually at the Royal Albert Hall. To support the event, BBC Creative collaborated with Ink and Giants, a design and animation studio in London, which was called upon to produce a title sequence, promo video, cover art for the concert guide book, and three high-res illustrations.

Managing director Peter Dobes explains how the event evolves from year to year, but for this special 90th anniversary season the BBC wanted to reboot the look and feel with a bold, concept-driven approach. "At the heart of the idea was the transformative power of music," he says. "The experience and effect of music that brings people to concerts and festivals like the Proms. Working together with BBC Creative, we decided to go for a minimalistic approach for the key artwork. Using light to represent the force music creates, we could visualise its effect in the symbolic transformation of clouds becoming birds."

Taking this idea, the team created the artwork for the guide book, before turning their attention to the 30-second TV promo and title sequence. "The transformation idea had lots of potential and we had a great time finding parts of the venue that could magically turn into something unexpected."

The Ink and Giants team began by building a stylised version of the Royal Albert Hall's interior, which was made to feel like the inside of a giant instrument. "The light source in the middle triggers transformations like a conductor," says Dobes. "We see the red velvet auditorium chairs perform a rippling Mexican wave, while one of the upper tier boxes turns into a flying ship that soars around the concert venue."

"The light bulbs on stage become fireflies and music sheets fold into paper airplanes and fly around the venue. The mushroom-shaped acoustic diffusers hanging from the ceiling are transformed into floating jellyfish and as the light bursts out of the ceiling of the hall, the clouds above it transform into birds."

Musical Chairs 1Musical Chairs 2

The scale of the project proved to be a major consideration for a small studio on a tight deadline; the six-person team had just two-and-a-half months in which to turn around two complex video sequences as well as artwork that needed to be output at 20K pixels resolution. "We knew we'd need as many people as we can fit in our studio to make the project happen," admits Dobes. "Our 3D team needed to work on different scenes and share assets simultaneously so we had to create a pipeline that would make team collaboration easier from 3D to effects and compositing."

Using 360-degree images on the Royal Albert Hall's website, the interior model quickly took shape using a variety of Cinema 4D primitives. Instancing and cloners were used to keep file sizes under control, as well as the use of layers to hide parts of the scene that might slow down the animation. "We ended up breaking the scene up into logical segments so we can hide and switch off the complicated parts while animating," Dobes says. "A good solid scene structure is essential for productivity."

Musical Chairs 3The interior panels were textured using high-res wood images. Cleverly, the gilded details were achieved using texture masks to combine the wood and gold materials, with displacement maps to create the bas-relief details.

To fill the Royal Albert Hall required 4,200 chairs, and to save processing power the team used a variety of setups, removing out-of-frame objects to speed up rendering. The chairs themselves were cloned from one master object, with the Mexican wave animation nested within. They then used a combination of MoGraph effectors to trigger the jump and add some variation to the movement. This meant they had to have the Render Instances function disabled, but it was worth the trade-off, says Dobes.

With the size and scale of the scene, Ink and Giants turned to Otoy's GPU render Octane for final output. "We were rendering on four PCs with two cards in each, using a mixture of Nvidia GTX 980Ti and 1080 cards. The machines were working around the clock; while we were sleeping they were rendering. With the combined power of the eight cards our average time was around six minutes per frame – which is still great considering the cinematic look we managed to get."

For other Octane users, Dobes has these tips: "Keep the shaders simple, bake them in as much as possible. And if you're over 2,000 to 3,000 samples and still getting noise in your render, check your scene for small light sources and try to eliminate them."

Despite the speed of the GPU renderer, there was still use for Cinema 4D's tried and tested Standard renderer, which was used to create the visible light beams. These were rendered as a separate pass and composited in later.

As usual, Adobe After Effects was the compositor of choice. "We tried to do as much in-camera as possible, but After Effects was still crucial for the finishing touches. The main passes were the beauty pass and the light beams, and we used different object buffers/render layer masks to adjust the grade and balance the values. We also use After Effects to add finishing touches like dust, light leaks and flares."

The object transformations that take place inside and outside the Royal Albert Hall posed challenges that varied in complexity but the clouds-to-birds transformation and the look and movement of the jellyfish took the longest to get right.

Musical Chairs 4The jellyfish went through countless iterations before the team settled on the final design, using Cinema 4D's Hair dynamics for the tentacles and deformers to animate the head. The transformation from puffy clouds into flapping birds was equally tricky: "From the early stages of the concept we had a stylised look for the clouds and birds. To create that smooth, almost stretchy transition between the birds and the cloud volume we used the xpSkinner in Insydium's X-Particles. For the various stages of the birds we created morph targets using the built-in sculpt feature, mainly with a simple inflate brush."

One of the key elements for this project was Cinema 4D's XRefs, which was essential for managing design changes across multiple shots. An XRef is an object that references an external scene file, enabling you to edit the original and have those changes propagate through all of your scenes. "For any project that has repeating assets over multiple shots, such as characters, props etc., it's a good idea to have them stored outside your scene as a master copy and link them in as XRefs," explains Dobes.

"It's very similar to instancing. You only have to update one model, which then updates in all the other scenes, but it's on a global scale across your production. It requires a bit more planning and communication, but pays off in the long run. When we have multiple people working on different shots it gets harder to keep track of changes and if they were equally implemented in every scene."

Musical Chairs 5Having employed instancing, MoGraph deformers, the Hair system, cloth dynamics, XRefs and XPresso for automation and rigging, Alembic caching, the sculpting toolset and the Standard renderer, the BBC Proms promo left few parts of the app untouched. "Once again, Cinema 4D's comprehensive suite of tools provided everything Ink and Giants needed to pull of this substantial project," declares Dobes. "With the help of other plugins like X-Particles for simulating the clouds and the birds transformation, and Octane for rendering, we managed to create a piece that we're all proud of."

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

All images courtesy of Ink and Giants and BBC Creative.

Ink and Giants Website

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