How do you tell people who you are in ten seconds or less?
Creating a motion ident—or the short, animated clip of video at the beginning of a movie that identifies the studio or channel—is one of the hardest, and most fun, aspects of filmmaking. They are critical to the brands involved in the movie; think of how enduring the shot of Disney's Magic Kingdom or the roar of the MGM lion are. Here, we take a deep dive into crafting the 10 second ident for a film school in hopes that you can apply the lessons we learned to develop your own motion ident.
Crafting an ident for a film school is a particular challenge because it will be seen by film students (who can be a highly critical bunch), critiqued by film professors with decades of knowledge of film history to judge it by, and will go out to the world as a beacon to say "this is our brand, our personality, our voice." A film school needs that ident to demonstrate that it offers both personality and technical skill. So, you know, no pressure. In 2017, after a conversation with chair Jonathan Wacks at Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema (where I teach), I approached a student about creating a visual identity for the school. The student and talented visual artist, Ali Vil, jumped at the idea, though I doubt either of us frankly understood precisely how long the process would go on and how many twists and turns it would take along the way.
For the first step, Vil put together a presentation of all his favorite motion picture idents as a conversation starter, to talk about which ones were most inspiring and, most importantly, why. Whatever your feeling about their content as a studio, no one can deny that the Dreamworks ident is highly memorable, graphically takes you through several dynamic shifts, and clearly evolves into the brand in an organic fashion. The great thing about the Dreamworks ident is that, while it has some clever visual twists (the reflection getting interrupted by the water droplet, shifting our perspective), it doesn't rest solely on them. The signature image you are left with at the end evokes the meaning of the studio without trickery.
The original idea for our Feirstein ident was to find a way to graphically demonstrate how the local film industry is pivoting from Manhattan to Brooklyn since, after all, the ident is for Brooklyn College's filmmaking program and is intended to reflect that very same changing dynamic. In addition, we wanted to convey a "morning" feeling, the idea that the sun was coming out, a new wave was coming. Feirstein is a mission-driven school, a public university film school founded to promote diversity in the film industry. Therefore, more than just a pure geographical pivot, we always wanted to capture some of the feelings of "a new day." The first wave of brainstorming ideas all built around the idea of movement, from one part of the city to another—the center of gravity in the world changing.
Getting to what works
This lead to a period where there was an elaborate animatic with the idea of creating a digital animation of a 3D model of Manhattan and Brooklyn, moving the camera backwards, starting with just a pure Manhattan skyline, up under the Manhattan bridge, and then through the Brooklyn Navy Yard and back to reveal the school. However, this approach was quickly abandoned as being not only incredibly complicated for an individual artist to create, but also simply too much action to pack into the goal runtime of 10 seconds total.
The idea worked well on paper, but as soon as we tried to do anything resembling a video animatic, it was clear that the camera would either be zipping so fast it felt like an action movie, or it would last so long audiences would wonder if the movie itself had started. Nothing is worse than an ident that is nearly as long as a trailer, so we re-focused on the original goals and cut the project down to the essence: the shift from Manhattan to Brooklyn and the reveal of our school building.
Our next realization was that modeling our school building in 3D could be potentially problematic on our timetable. 3D models exist on websites like TurboSquid for iconic buildings (like the Brooklyn Bridge), but our school building hasn't achieved that level of fame yet, though it's a building that is well known to our students and thus our errors would be picked over. In addition, we looked again at one of our favorite idents: the RKO spinning globe, which we know best from the opening of Citizen Kane.
Building a model
The RKO ident was such pure beauty, and it was built around a physical model. While we're a digital-oriented film school, we decided that it would be a good idea to pay tribute to the history of cinema by working with a physical model of our building in Steiner Studios and its iconic, cold war era radio towers. Conveniently for us, Doug Steiner, when he took over the Navy Yard location and built a studio, decided to add lighting to the towers, which gave us even more visual information to work with. Working with the talented model maker Yuki Nakamura, we were lucky enough to get a beautiful classic scale model of the school crafted. For our iconic towers, that are used for navigation by many in the neighborhood, we had a tremendous stroke of luck. It turns out that the radio towers on top of our building look exceptionally similar to the trophies that are given out to star employees in the oil & gas industry. We were able to source two of these trophies that Nakamura mounted with $4 LED lights from eBay, and away we went.
Shooting the model
Our initial plan was to shoot the model on a green screen, then on sunset plates, and composite them together. Ultimately, we shot against green, with a unit on a dimmer (hidden by the blackwarp in the video above) creating a "sunrise" effect and a dolly back combined with precise focus moves to give ourselves the sense of flying through the towers. Pulling focus was difficult with the camera so close to such small objects, and while we worked with the largest depth of field we could to mimic what would happen with 50-foot tall towers, it was still tricky. Over the course of a full day, we did more than 40 takes on the green screen shot alone.
However, after we evaluated our green screen footage and secured a location where we could shoot our setting sun plates, we had the crazy idea; should we drag the model up to the rooftop and shoot it practically? I had gotten a slider out on review from Syrp, and away we went, doing our "day to night" shot with the model on a nearby rooftop with the NYC skyline in the background. Of course, as a backup, we also set up a RED 8K Weapon getting a clean plate of the skyline in case we still wanted to do a composite. The fireworks were complete happenstance, but an appreciated happy accident. It's a good reminder to always check local news and events calendars before shooting, as the fireworks could have ruined our shot.
The end result was better than we could have imagined, and gave us a good platform to inspire Ali Vil's creativity, as he worked to explore the variety of visual ways he could integrate the mood and emotions of the school and take advantage of the dynamic nature of the F logo. One idea that I hoped for was to build the ident out of bokeh, cued by a sunrise flare, and have it coalesce into the logo in the end, but as with many ideas in this whole process, we tried it and it never quite worked. The key with this ident, like most creative projects, was to just keep going, trying, fail again, and fail better.
Creating the music for the ident was also particularly complicated. Short bits of "iconic" music are notoriously difficult, with Brian Eno apparently taking weeks to create the now universal "windows 95 startup sound" that we all know so well. The music here was composed by Mike Cassedy, who was given the direction to "start with a night time that feels like you've been up too late, but end with an optimism that sounds like you've walked all day in the heat to the lake and bought a can of soda and just popped it open and heard the fizz."
The trickiest part is that an ident sound also needs to be somewhat neutral. While a super rocking vibe might work in front of some movies, it won't play well in front of a tense family drama, so a sound needed to be found that introduces all movies without flavoring them. Amazingly, with such a specific brief, Cassedy was able to deliver a creative and evocative cue that perfectly relates to the emotional theme of the ident, which is a dawn in Brooklyn. See our final results below: