It’s been a little while since my last case study! Oops… Between our RTX panel, a whole ton of shows for FIRST Night, and a ton of new shows coming down the pipe things got a little away from me. So! That means we’ll be looking at something that premiered a little while back during our pilot month in May and will be returning for its first official season this Wednesday (tomorrow!): Achievement Haunter!
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that my job is 100% problem solving in varying capacities. When it comes to VFX shots the problem is usually “we shouldn’t see this boom mic/wire rig/green screen/crew in the reflection/license plate” or “we should see an explosion/blood hit/gunshot/muzzle flare/sunset/amputation”. When it comes to motion design though, the problems are a little more nuanced. It’s more about “how do we communicate the feeling of this show?” and “how can we best implement designed elements in a holistic way” or “what looks coolest but is still legible?”.
These sorts of challenges are what excite me the most when working on the look and feel of a show. Achievement Haunter was a great project for this because we had to develop a fairly robust show package, including opening titles, lower thirds, supplemental on-screen displays and credits. And all of these elements had to be flexible enough to accommodate various different scenarios and be easily used and modified in subsequent episodes. Ultimately I made a lot of templates in After Effects for these assets, something I’ll probably break down from a technical standpoint in another post.
The Intro - Ideation
The marketing design team provided us with some awesome key art and logo lockups for the show. Right off the bat we have some interesting variations to consider, and the first problem that needs to be solved is what looks best in a video format.
For example, this circular lockup is awesome and plays really well with the ghost element, but can be awkward in a landscape frame. It’d look great on a t-shirt and for other merch/branding needs, but it leaves a lot of negative space on the left and right in a video frame, and there’s a lot of visual weight pulling to the center.
The horizontal lockups are definitely more suited for this medium, but again the ghost element holds a lot of visual weight that anchors the design to the left side (which we’ll take advantage of later).
This stacked vertical design with the type center justified works best for our purposes, so that’s what I moved ahead with. It sits very nicely in a 16x9 frame and the negative space is balanced well with the logotype.
The first thing I explored with the logo was how to animate the ghost element. It’s such a fun, vibrant piece of design that it was just asking to have some exaggerated, almost silly motion to it. A few keyframes, some puppet morphing and a dash of displacement mapping and I ended up with this.
Daniel Fabelo (the co-creator, and director of the show) and I talked a lot about how light played into the design and style of the show, exploring ideas like the long shadows cast by a campfire’s glow, and the frantic motion of a flashlight held in a scared ghost hunter’s hand. So the next idea I played with was using the animated ghost element as a gobo of sorts for a flashlight. Here is a quick test I made to demonstrate how I thought that might look.
This ended up being a little too on-the-nose, the mood of the show is irreverent, but also avoids playing it all up as a joke, so the goal was to explore something a bit more subtle and creepy. It also doesn’t feature the logo and title in a really prominent, clear way, which is generally important for an intro animation so we scrapped this direction.
At this point we’re starting to narrow down the look and feel of the intro. We know light is an important element to play with, but in a more subtle way and in a way that keeps the focus on the logo of the show. An important reference that I was moving forward with was the opening title to John Carpenter’s The Thing. Daniel really wanted to lean on what we could from The Thing’s design for a few reasons. It’s one of his favorite movies, it’s a horror story that takes place in a single location with a difficult to identify creature, and from a film history standpoint is kind of irreverent in itself, like our show.
They’re doing a really interesting reveal of the title by burning away the logotype and allowing the light behind it to shine through.This was definitely a practical effect, so it would seem they made the logo out of something like flash paper and ignited it, which revealed the light behind. My first attempts at recreating this was with a kind of hacky way in After Effects to simulate volumetric light.
Through this exploration we found that including the ghost element with the main title still felt very busy and overwhelming, so it was removed for the next version.
At this point we’re getting close, but it’s still not quite capturing the right feel. The fake in After Effects is decent, but it has some disadvantages. It’s tough to get the really long rays seen in The Thing’s intro, and there’s a lot of subtle detail happening with the real light that we’re missing. So the best way to match a real, practical effect, that uses accurate light casting (aside from actually doing it for real ourselves) is to simulate it in 3D.
Here’s what that setup looks like in Cinema 4D, it’s pretty straightforward because I had a good idea about how the effect was achieved in the first place, so it’s just a matter of emulating that setup digitally.
And this is what the render looked like after processing in After Effects.
Hey, this is really close! One of the remaining issues is that the reveal is pretty slow, and on its own there isn’t a whole lot of visual interest beyond that animation. There is a bit of motion with the light and atmosphere that can definitely be cranked up more.
This second attempt scraps The Thing’s “burn away” reveal effect and instead uses a light reveal that fills up the title from below. This is much better for two main reasons: 1) it’s a lot faster and 2) it emphasizes the focus on “light” more, acting almost as if it’s a flashlight discovering the logo and lighting it from behind. I also took the opportunity to really increase the motion and intensity of the atmosphere of the light to make it extra spooky.
The last piece of the puzzle was to add a creepy, woodsy background, some particles, and dump a whole lot of film grain and contrast over the entire composition.
I mentioned that the ghost logo would return, and what better way to incorporate a design with a pretty heavy visual weight than with an element that needs to be anchored to the left or right of the frame? Here are a few iterations of the lower thirds, taking cues from the animation of the intro but simplified for legibility and speed’s sake.
Our spooky ghost also makes a featured return during the credits.
As always, I hope this helped provide some insight into how I like to approach problem solving and developing graphics for our many shows. I’d love to hear what you guys think, and if there’s anything specific you’d like the next journal to address. And be sure to check out the premiere of Achievement Haunter this Wednesday on Halloween! You’ll see some additional, very fun design work for the intro of the show that I’m not going to spoil here.