Breaking the Barriers of Sound


Breaking the Barriers of Sound

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.

Julien & Jamie Brainstorm

Lee Narby - Gaffer

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.

Daniel Ashcraft's Design Desk

Daniel Ashcraft Sketching Speaker Design

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.

Jamie Adjusts the Set

Red Epic & Zeiss Superspeed Lenses

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.

Matt Pilots the Porta-Jib

Eric - Grip

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.

Drafting Table Pre Visual Effects

Drafting Table Post Visual Effects

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.


Taos, NM

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Taos, NM

I hitched a ride with the Rustic boys to New Mexico where their short doc “Blocking the Bread Aisle” was screening at the Taos Shortz Film Festival. All in all, the trip was a reminder of their roots as filmmakers.  As Julien put it over dinner in a softly-lit restaurant after a day of film screenings, baths in riverside hot springs, and mountain hikes under the New Mexican sun: “this is why we make films.”

And over the course of a weekend hanging with them in Taos, I discovered what he meant.

When Jamie and Julien are making films, they are in constant conversation with their surroundings. This exchange of ideas and stories is the driving force of their work.  Seeing their final product on the big screen in front of the audience is definitely gratifying, but it isn't the end goal; it's only one part of the ongoing dialogue, which weaves from one topic to another without ever losing its momentum. 

While Julien cruised us through California and Arizona and into New Mexico, Jamie spent much of the fourteen-hour drive with his MacBook cracked open on his lap doing post-production work for a HVW8 film so they could have a finished cut by that evening.  Meanwhile, if a certain permutation of the landscape caught their eye – a fleeting moment when the desert sun began its descent over the mountains in the distance, or a roadside shack steeped in vintage gas station memorabilia – they didn’t hesitate to pull the car over and step out onto the open road to get the shot.  This is the conversation in action: enthusiastic and fluid, resolute yet at the same time roving, spoken ultimately through images.

Taos has the sound of magic to anyone who hears its name.
— Gendron Jensen

Taos, we discovered, speaks to artists with a certain quiet power.  The festival had arranged for us to stay at an inn at the edge of town, and we arrived there at dusk after our long journey on the road.  We were greeted by our host, Richard Spera, who showed us to our three-bedroom casita, one of five adobe homes that comprise Casa Gallina.  It didn’t take a trained eye to see that this place, from its adobe architecture to its warm interior design and deft lighting, is a work of art.  The following morning we had the chance to see the grounds: a vegetable garden, a chicken coop that delivers farm-fresh eggs every morning, sculptures and totem poles from local artists peering at us across the lawn, and the mountains looming over us on the horizon.  But before first light, we were in for a night of eating and drinking in town.  Richard pointed out a few recommendations on a map.  The night air was cool and the sky was clear with stars.  The country roads were dark and quiet - a stark contrast to the gridlock of LA - and the nightlife was calm enough to carry a conversation but still loud enough to keep us mingling.

We spent most of the Saturday outside hiking and taking photos. What struck Jamie and Julien, and what they sought to capture through the lens, was the way that the arrangements of the small town weave into the landscape -- an old decaying fence crawling over a field at the foot of the mountains, a massive concrete bridge overlooking a gorge, an adobe house perched on a desert hill.  Our destination was a hot spring tucked under a cliff on the bank of the Rio Grande River.  The journey was simple enough, but we never would have found it (or known of its existence for that matter) without Richard's clear guidance: follow a certain dirt road until it ends, and then hike down the wall of the gorge until you arrive at the bubbling pool hiding under a boulder.  


That evening we caught some films at the festival, had a late dinner at a place called Love Apple where we soaked in the good vibes of smiling couples finishing bottles of wine after their meal, and then checked out the Taos Mesa Brewing Company, which moonlights as both a bar and a venue for artistic performances.  It was here, while Jamie and Julien were talking with fellow documentary filmmakers about the trials and tribulations of their medium as a solo act from Denver, Laura Goldhamer and the Silvernail, played her songs with the support of self-made film animations playing on a screen behind her, that I began to comprehend the power of this place: art is the currency of Taos, its gold standard upon which every exchange is defined and experienced.

Sunday morning, we caught Jamie and Julien’s doc in a block of films titled “Morning Artscapes.”  I was especially moved by the depiction of an artist named Gendron Jenson who draws bones in the short doc “Poustina.”  The level of the precision with which this man spoke matched the mesmerizing detail of his drawings.  After the screening, Jamie and Julien and the other filmmakers in attendance took the stage.  Jenson, accompanying the director of “Poustina,” was among them.  When he had the opportunity to speak, he gave his thanks.

Taos, as he put it, “has the sound of magic to anyone who hears its name.”

Magic. Indeed, I can think of no better word to describe the power of communion through art that we experienced in Taos.  After the show, Julien ran into an old friend from high school whom he hadn’t seen in years.  She had performed the night before at the Brewery as part of a dance troupe that opened for Laura Goldhamer.  We also met a couple of writers who were spending a few months in Taos on a Wurlitzer grant to finish their novels in progress.  All of us, old friends and new, went to brunch at the Farmhouse Café and Bakery.  Later we went down the road and checked out the Earthship residences, which are made completely out of recyclable material. The otherworldly architecture, in conjunction with their desert-like surroundings, invokes Luke Skywalker’s moisture farm in the original Star Wars.  On our way back, we stopped by a neighboring town where we met a fellow Ohioan who makes holed pottery by the unique process of shooting clay with a wide array of guns.  That evening, we had everybody over to Casa Gallina, where we continued the discussion on films we’d seen that morning.  Ultimately, the conversation came to focus on Taos, the place that brought us together, and the ineffable grip it has on each of its visitors.

The boys plan to pick up on a few riffs they had there, and return soon.  It goes without saying that a guy who shoots bullets through his art as a part of his creation process would make a great subject for another short doc.

And so the conversation flows onward, discursively, from one place to another.

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Lovingly Made in China

We had been called to Shanghai to film a project that required us to map out the rapidly-growing city’s independent design scene, and we stumbled upon Sherry Poon’s company, Wobaby Basics, in the midst of the search. We were struck by Sherry’s background: a Canadian architect who decided to apply her design sensibilities to making eco-friendly clothing for children. But it wasn’t just her story that brought the film together; it was the way her everyday life reflected that story, and the fortune of being in the right place at the right time to capture a brief moment on film.

When we went to meet her at her workspace, her children were bouncing off the walls. We watched as she played with them, corralled them, and quieted them. The inspiration for her work was clear, and this clarity allowed us to connect with her as designers before any formal words were exchanged. We let the cameras roll, even though there was some concern that the children’s antics would interrupt the shoot. In retrospect, it’s no surprise to us that the kids’ impromptu participation actually had the opposite effect: it revealed the soul of Sherry’s work.

Sherry didn’t tap into the children’s clothing market as a businessperson. She fell into it as a designer when she started making tailored clothes for her babies. People would come up to her on the street and ask her where she’d bought them. So she began making more clothes, and the company was born. 

Although we wished we had more time with Sherry, the brief experience (and the footage that came out of it) became the unanticipated anchor of our time in Shanghai. We discovered how her story fit into a greater narrative of the city’s emerging design landscape. What we found exciting about the community is something that Sherry repeatedly stressed when discussing her approach to her work: the close relationship that she maintains with the site of production, and the confidence in production standards that comes from this relationship. For Sherry and other designers in Shanghai, the phrase “Made in China” does not carry its familiar negative connotation. For them, it’s a statement of pride. We were excited by Shanghai designers’ devotion to every stage of the creative process, and they felt this energy flowing throughout the city. As Jamie observes, “Shanghai is in its infancy in a lot of ways and still defining itself through its work. We sense a little insecurity among the creatives there; they have an edge and a desire to prove themselves and put Shanghai on the design map.”

For us, the experience in Shanghai has helped shape Rustic's focus on design-related subject matter that reflects our own sensibilities as filmmakers. It has also opened the door for more extensive collaboration with Chinese brands. The goal, as Jamie puts it, is “to humanize [these brands]: make them relatable to global audiences and share their energy and optimism for what is coming from China.”