These past couple months, Rustic has been hard at work on a project that began in the car on the way back from Taos. At that point, our ideas were as ethereal as the place we were driving from. The final product bears little resemblance to our first conversation on the dark desert highway. And we’re all the better for it.
Rustic had been in talks to produce a sixty-second product video for a new set of high-end home speakers from Harman Industries, under the revived brand name Infinity. The challenge of this kind of project, as Jamie put it, “is to to bring these inanimate products to life, communicate [the product’s] features, and tie it all into a concept, in sixty seconds.” The speakers look sleek - a more aerodynamic shape than your traditional boxy sound system - and the Infinity brand complements the equipment’s stylish aesthetic with a techno-noirish vibe. If Knight Rider were a home audio system (and this were the eighties) then Infinity would be apprehending criminals with its technologically advanced sound delivery.
I showed up at their place early one morning to help write the copy for the spot. They’d received the project brief from Harman the night before and needed to get the concept and script out by midday. One-and-done; no room for hesitation. Jamie and Julien showed me the previz boards depicting a scene in which the speakers come to life in a living room from a sketch on a drawing board. One of the major inspirations for the concept was a previous spot that Julien directed for JBL. “Dan Ashcraft’s office and desk fascinated me," Julien says. "It’s where he designs speakers for JBL. I wanted to explore the concept of where ideas are formed, where those first thoughts develop into more tangible constructions.” Julien gave me a rundown of what they had in mind: a broad conceptual theme about the growth of an idea, or something along the lines of this famous ditty. The goal, as Jamie described it, wasn’t just to showcase the system’s sonic chops; it was to somehow capture the impressive (dare I say infinite?) depth and scale of the work that goes into the creation of this singular product and the quality of the sound it delivers, all the way from the first thought of its design to its physical realization. So, without the burden of time to second-guess myself, I jotted down a voice-over script that analogized the evolution of an idea to the expansive movement of soundwaves. After one or two revisions, we had it approved.
The biggest challenge of pre-production was finding a good location; there was even a point where Julien and Jamie were afraid they might compromise the whole project. “We were really struggling to find a place that would speak to a global aesthetic,” Julien described. “We wanted something that would appeal to the North American market as well as Europe and Asia.” At the last minute, they closed on a place that was exactly what they were looking for – a modern-style home with lots of options for different speaker set-ups throughout the house.
The shoot day started at 9AM. The family who owned the home was still milling around – a German couple with a son around the age of 4 or 5. The interior of the place was so precise in its modernist décor that it made me wonder whether the family actually lives there or just spends all of its time making sure every corner looks pristine and untouched.
The large red front door leads into a dimly-lit atrium where the grip and electric crew staged all of their equipment. Past the atrium was the main room where we set up most of the shots. The shelves were adorned with geometric sculptures open to interpretation and magazines about expensive home décor and a collection of dusty black hardcovers that comprised twenty-three volumes of Goethe’s collected works in the original German.
We did quick work (the whole morning) transforming the main living room into the scene for the first shot. “This is the mother load of set-ups,” as Jamie put it. “This shot needs to be killer. Everything else is gravy.” My contribution to the scene was the timely on-site construction of a few pieces of inconspicuous furniture. The key was to get the speakers to really pop with perfect lighting, and so the director of photography spent a lot of time getting the lights just right. Our grip closed off the large wall-sized windows facing the back patio with black solid fabric to achieve a night setting that corresponded with Infinity’s dark aesthetic. Initially, the scene looked a little sterile, so they added some color with various objects – what Julien referred to professionally as “accent elements” (a ceramic bowl with a red and purple swirl in the middle, a big fern plant placed off in the corner to block the outlets) – to “break up the shot a little,” and make the scene appear homier. Matt captained a massive Porta-Jib and dolly cradling a RED Epic camera to get the smooth movement they were looking for.
After lunch, we flipped the room to shoot the “drawing room” scene, most of which would be achieved in post-production with special effects. For now, the goal was to get a good tracking shot of the drawing board. This shot took most of the afternoon. We spent the rest of the evening setting up different arrangements for the speakers in other parts of the house – bonus shots for more options during post-production. Once the crew achieved the final shot, there was less time than we would have hoped to break everything down and return the house to its original state.
The post-production visual effects work was its own unique challenge, and it depended largely on the success of the footage during the shoot. If the framing and camera movements weren’t precise, then it would have been impossible to achieve the creative transitions Jamie and Julien were going for. Jamie described to me how they approached the task of creating these transitions with the help of visual effects:
“The visual challenge is getting from [the] 2D world where the drawing and design happens to [the] real world where the product is configured in different living spaces. It’s a trick to transition between setups seamlessly. We look for moments of visual congruency. The obvious answer we use a few times is how a line forming one wall of one speaker can break away and draw the line of another wall of another speaker cabinet. Or the driver components of the speakers are the same [and] the cabinetry changes, so we can use the drivers to take us between cabinets. Some of these ideas worked, some didn’t.”
The most important transition was inevitably the hardest to pin down. It’s the point where the sketches on the drawing board, which were created in post-production, become the actual speakers as they stand in the living space. This is the moment when idea becomes reality; it’s the hinge upon which the whole concept of the spot turns. Jamie described the transition as the “2D world falling away to reveal the 3D world.” Eventually they realized that the effect of the transition must originate from the speaker illustrations themselves. “After all,” Jamie says, “this spot is all about the speaker, so it makes sense for the dissolve to be motivated [by] the speaker.”
The client at Harman told the Rustic boys that they’ve “hit it out of the park.” Indeed, the project came together nicely. The last touches on the visual effects have taken on a unique stylization in the form of ink blotches traveling through a page. This last-minute touch - completely unanticipated - evokes the movement of a sound wave expanding, and its a perfect example of what the Rustic team are able to find by keeping their eyes open at every stage of the game.