Sunday, April 22, 2007

Procedurally Hip: Generative Motion Graphics

The title sequence for the latest Bond film Casino Royale is one of its high points (which admittedly is not saying much). It's a stylish motion graphics confection: stencilled rotoscoping, shatters with simulated physics, prominent Saul Bass references. More interesting for me, some of it appeared to use classic generative techniques, shape grammars and branching recursion. Playing card iconography grows into curvy tendrils and later, Mandelbrot-like blobs. There's some general info online but not much on specific techniques - are there Inferno plugins for doing recursive geometry? Did the designers do some custom coding? The sequence was directed by Daniel Kleinman and designed by William Bartlett and Adam Parry at Framestore CFC.

Procedural aesthetics in motion graphics are nothing new - Saul Bass used (analog, optical) procedural techniques. But the Casino Royale titles coincide with a recent trend towards custom coded generative and procedural elements in commercial motion graphics. See for example the Nike 'One' ads by Motion Theory and more recently the Audi TT teaser from Universal Everything & Toxi (which now has a making of video). I'm certainly not the first to observe that code-based tools like Processing are gaining a foothold in genres dominated by proprietary tools like AfterEffects and Shake.

I've started talking about this trend with my students, as a way to argue for why they need to learn to code (and initially at least, learn Processing). It works as an argument because motion graphics as a form is, for many of my undergrads, the sexiest thing around. It's the high-speed flagship of commercial visual culture - where new styles emerge, proliferate, and are superseded within a few weeks. Which is why this generative trend (if that 's what it is) is all the more interesting: is motion graphics going to chew through generative techniques like they're last year's hottest AfterEffects filter? Or will tools like Processing actually change the practice in this field? Custom code holds the potential for more aesthetic diversity, but how will that fit with the trend-driven visual economy of commercial motion graphics? What about the open source ethos? Whatever, it's bound to look really cool. And that's the main thing, right?

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