Wes Anderson’s film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou does not rank as one of the filmmaker’s most memorable, but it is notable for at least one incredible set piece. Literally cutting a boat in half, Anderson presents the inner workings of a 150-foot-long oceanic research vessel, his camera panning lovingly across its many cabins, nooks and crannies.
To create a life-sized boat with one entire side exposed in the year 2004, when the film was released, Anderson had to actually have the thing built as an intricate sound stage. Today, he wouldn’t have to (though he probably still would). Computer graphics have “evolved so that stuff looks much more architectural, kind of hyper-real,” said Nick Scott, creative partner at Studio Hansa in London.
Scott and a team of clever motion graphics artists got to put that claim to the test recently. Refreshing the brand for the “4” family of channels in Hungary, Hansa designed a series of “living diorama” idents that turn the brand mark for Story4, Film4, TV4, and Galaxy4 into bustling buildings, their interiors exposed to give the viewer a voyeuristic peek of what lies within.
“We kind of knew that they weren’t going to stray too far from the numerical four logo,” Scott said. “So we started asking, ‘how do we take that into a new direction?’ We started talking about the architecture of the four, the sides of it, about building it out more physically and going into it.”
What emerged, he continued, are “physical, beautiful architectural models that have a life of their own, with these little zones and cities that live next to each other and look quite cute because they are very unexpected juxtapositions.”
Working with the motion graphics artists Chris Schofield, Ruye and The Rusted Pixel, Hansa aimed for nuance over bombast, layering each ident with tiny details that only reveal themselves upon additional views.
“We knew that we wanted some really obvious things, like the smoke on the car or the cake production line on TV4,” said Chris Schofield. “But we also wanted to add little subtleties wherever we could as well – a flickering light in a morgue, or a chair toppling over in a dining room, for example.”
Preproduction on the spots, Schofield continued, involved mapping out three different “scenes” on each ident, one on each visible side of the three-dimensional logo.
“We didn’t storyboard anything for these idents, which is quite unusual for me for sure,” he said. “We started by padding out the camera moves for each scene, moving around the blocked-out geometry which we had from the concept phase. This helped us to choreograph the timing and positioning of any animated bits. We used a lot of different techniques to get things moving, from Cinema 4D’s built-in Mograph tools, to plugins such as X-Particles and Hot4d, as well as some manual keyframing.”
Much like The Life Aquatic boat, the idents are whimsical yet grounded in an earthy physicality that makes them “feel kind of wondrous, like you could literally go into a room in one of them,” Scott said. “We were playing with the line between reality and fantasy.”
Toward that goal, carefully crafted camera movements help the imaginary spaces feel like actual places. In the real world, Scott said, “We are constrained by what our camera does,” so the movement of the idents’ animation is defined by “very cinematic” movements that are “realistically set up.” This adds to the illusion that “they have been physically built,” he said. “Like they exist somewhere in a beautiful studio or something.”
In lieu of a linear narrative, such “kinetic little details are the next best thing to pregnant pauses,” Scott said. “You’re always there after the car crash, or you’re at the burial scene following the murder rather than witnessing the murder itself. What we’ve done is a portent of what’s going to happen or the aftermath of what happened. The stuff that actually happened is on the channel.”
The programming for the TV4 channel, for instance, includes both British Bake-Off style cooking shows and period dramas including Agatha Christie mysteries. To encapsulate both ends of that weird spectrum, its corresponding ident opens on a crash featuring an old-timey Bentley then swoops out to reveal rooms with a Downtown Abbey aesthetic. A conveyer belt of wedding cakes finishes off the assemblage, working its way around one edge of the Four logo as the camera cranes up to give a full overhead look at a structure that manages to artfully combine dessert with cobblestone intrigue.
In the Film4 ident, a wedding chapel dominates the “roof” of the structure, implying a programming slate of romance movies and other female-centric fare. As the camera moves, we pick up an actual film reel clicking through one corner, a daytime talk show set replete with a TV studio camera, and organ pipes sending softly animated music notes floating through the air. The overall effect communicates “female-centric film about weddings, celebrations, and stuff like that,” Scott said. “But not Pretty Woman. More like television movies.”
Then there is Galaxy4, the rare channel that offers chilly, noir suspense programming known as “Scandinavian crime” or “Scandi crime,” alongside competitive video-gaming shows. The channel’s ident spools outward from the aftermath of a murder scene by some pine forests, a car with its trunk open parked near a dug ditch. Down below, an Atari-like 2D spaceship fires away at blocks and a prison cell occupies space next door to a gamer’s den replete with electric guitar and comfy chair. Part of the roof is composed of a Nintendo-style control pad. Somehow all of these elements coexist and even compliment each other as the spot moves toward its final logo reveal.
“They look like these fantastical mash-ups, but they’re actually very literal representations of channels that have very disparate content,” Scott said.
Paired with gentle yet insistent ambient music, the idents are rich in atmospheric detail yet minimalistic in design. It’s an ethos that radiates throughout the 4 family rebrand, which continues to pull from the 4 mark’s distinctive curves, as well as its 33-degree slant, to create layout grids that carry the structural integrity across the channels.
“It’s super simple and bold and reductive,” Scott said. “Nobody else had those kind of curvatures going into a line. We said to the client, ‘you don’t need to add too many more bells and whistles. Just make the ones that you have really nice. Use the angle. Use the curves. Trust that.’
“People get bombarded all the time,” he continued. “Reductive messages are beautiful. In people’s busy lives, there is a reason why very simple stuff stands out.”