Masters of the Moving Image

You can’t build a house without the right tools. We all know that, but
in this business, if you don’t know how to use the tools well or have
the vision of what the house should look like, not to mention the drive
and dedication to see the project through, well, you’re screwed.
According to Todd Mueller, partner and creative director at New York’s
PSYOP, the secret to this boutique’s success has been the right balance
of it all."I’d say we have the right combination of talent, passion and
technology," he says. "Each is interdependent and critical to the
process. It’s easy to have one or two of the right elements, but we’re
just lucky to have everything we need all in one house."
That house is located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, on the ground
floor of a store front. Why not a loft or digs in some swank office
building? "We like feeling connected to the street culture," says
Mueller. "Though we have had occasions where people just wandered right
in, saw an available workstation, and sat right down- thinking we’re an
Internet cafà© something. It’s pretty funny, actually."
PSYOP grew from humble beginnings – in a living room – five and a half
years ago. In its current 7,500-square-foot space, the creative team
takes on projects that range from TV commercials and music videos to
short films and broadcast design. With one look at their work, anyone
can tell that this team of 32 (including its seven partners) has simply
mastered the art of the moving image. Music videos for Sheryl Crow and
the Red Hot Chili Peppers, spots for McDonald’s, Diet Coke, Nike and
Aero, and branding for Fox Baseball and ESPN, have put this boutique
right at the top of its game.
Where do we begin? PSYOP’s innovative use of power tools like Avid’s
SOFTIMAGE|XSI and Discreet Flame is what sets this shop’s signature
style apart from those of its fellow effects houses. “Good Is Good,”
the first music video from recording artist Sheryl Crow’s latest CD,
Wildflower, typifies that style in each luscious
frame. Crow inhabits a 2D/3D world of finely inked paintings that seem
to come to life as she moves through each scene. In another project,
for Aero, a face appears, then disappears, then reappears with subtle
dimension and undulating texture. Where do they go for inspiration?
Several years ago, the team would gather at their favorite local bar,
which later became their office. After the bar closed down and was
available for rent, Mueller says, “We rented it, moved our machines in
and set them up all around the bar. We tried to keep the bar in place
for a while. It was really cool, but we realized we weren’t utilizing
the space as best we could.” These days, they need room for their
growing team and spin-off sister company, Mass Market. While PSYOP
focuses primarily on “animation, design and storytelling,” Mass Market
focuses on visual effects. “Although the two [markets] might seem quite
similar, there is a very different creative quality or process that
goes into doing visual effects versus design and animation,” Mueller
points out.
Lots of cool toys live in the PSYOP crib, but the big two are
SOFTIMAGE|XSI and Discreet Flame. "XSI is definitely our most utilized
system," says Mueller. "We also rely pretty heavily on Flame." What’s
the workflow? "We basically create a lot of cel frames in 2D and 3D and
do a lot of creative work on stills," Mueller explains. "While we’re
concentrating on the overall look and feel of a project – the color
palette, textures, attitude and overall visual quality – we’re focusing
on it in still form. We try to encourage the designers to approach a
project with complete and total disregard of the technical process of
how to make it move, how to make it animate. And I think that’s where
the software helps us most. Because of the flexibility of the tools, we
don’t need to worry about it. We know we’ll be able to make it move
because we have those tools. We just don’t want to worry about it in
the beginning when we’re trying to just think creatively."
Most 3D software packages, says Mueller, "end up trying to make things
move and look like reality," which isn’t always what the artist has in
mind. "We don’t really use software packages in the traditional ways.
We try to put the human hand in our work, add our own interpretation of
reality. So, we need to work with very flexible software packages."
Mueller says the technical support at XSI has been particularly strong.
"The XSI team has really helped us out through various projects," he
says. "We’ve been very fortunate to have built a good relationship with
What’s his advice to newer users who want to navigate their way around
the tool’s range of features? "With packages like SOFTIMAGE," he says,
"they’re so deep. There’s so much they could do. There’s animation,
modeling, rigging, mocap, shading, lighting, etc. Within each one of
those categories, there’s a wealth of utility and functionality that
goes hundreds of layers deep. What I tend to suggest to people is to
try out the tutorials and pick one thing that you really like. Decide
on which tutorial you like the most and concentrate on that one area.
That way, it’s a little less intimidating."
Close up on "Good Is Good"
PSYOP recently completed the music video for Sheryl Crow’s first
single, "Good Is Good," off her new CD, Wildflower. The video was
directed by Todd Mueller and Kylie Matulick. According to Mueller, this
was probably one of the most elaborate, yet straightforward projects
his team has ever done. The team began by creating very lush,
high-resolution illustrations for the entire video – about 30 paintings
in all for each section of the song – 8k frames, one for every 4 or 5
seconds throughout the video.
The next step was to look at each of the paintings, break them apart
and decide which elements needed to be 3D, which needed to be 2D, how
they were going to move, if there would be any render technique
necessary, and to look at the integration between animation and
composite, and if they needed to share camera data.
"Generally, in a project like this, we take one scene and pull it all
the way through the pipeline," he says. "That way we know if we need to
use additional elements, if the textures and renders need to be
different, if the camera data needs to be different. Then we proceed."
Mueller says they wanted to lend a "very personal" feel to the project,
so only brought SOFTIMAGE|XSI and Flame in once the paintings were
complete. "Our goal on that video was to make the piece feel very
autobiographical, because the song and the whole record actually feels
very autobiographical. We wanted it to look like sketches that might be
in her journal. So, we wanted to give it a two-dimensional quality, but
still have a lot of three-dimensional dynamics. There was a lot of
interplay between 2D and 3D, like the willow trees being three
dimensional, but a lot of the clouds and water effects were very two
dimensional. When you start to have three-dimensional camera moves
inside a two-dimensional world, there’s a lot of counter animation
going on. You have to implement some systems to trick the computer into
rendering it with a different sense of perspective. That was one of the
more significant technical tricks of that project, in playing with
two-dimensional space in a three-dimensional software package."
Close up on Aero
This Aero spot was directed by PSYOP’s Marco Spier, partner, creative
director and Marie Hyon, partner, creative director. As Mueller
explains, the goal here was to create a seductive face that appeared,
then disappeared, then appeared again, so you kind of saw it and then
didn’t see it.” Softimage|XSI and Flame were the
primary technical tools; again, the creative team needed to figure out
how to work around the 3D software’s natural tendency to create images
that looked realistic. “It’s very dimensional,” says Mueller. “But it’s
actually quite tricky to make that not so apparent and subtle. And,
added to that, the elements that were making the face were meant to be
moving in an effervescent way. We had the challenge of creating a face
that had really detailed facial animation and that, throughout the
sequence, appeared and disappeared with moving design elements.”
Mueller says they "shot the actress, scanned her, modeled her and then
developed the motion elements. We thought we were going to be able to
do it essentially with particles, but it ended up having to be almost
entirely hand animated. So, what appears to be particles is actually
hand animated."
Close up on McDonald’s
PSYOP also employed SOFTIMAGE|XSI to complete this spot for McDonald’s,
a much more "traditional animated-like project, as in cel-animated,"
says Mueller. "Here, we wanted to work with a cel-animated look in a
way that allowed us more flexibility than traditional cel animation
could give you. And maybe it’s a slightly cleaner look. The creative
pipeline on that was probably the most traditional. The first round was
all about character designs. We looked at what the outfits would be
like, what the proportions would be, what the physical relationship was
between the characters on screen and what kind of environment they
would be in."
This particular project largely depended on motion capture, done at
House of Moves in L.A. with a new facial-capture system that was
reported to be able to capture body motion simultaneously with facial
animation. PSYOP cast the voiceover talent. "We had a playback on set
and the motion talent would essentially sync to their own voices," says
Mueller. "We did a prerecord of the script, so the talent voiced as
they performed. That way, we were able to get some of their facial
animation. And then, we modeled them, did all the texturing and had
House of Moves clean up the mocap. However, we found that typically
mocap does limit the expression that you see with the naked eye. But
it’s a good place to start; it’s a good base layer."
Though the approach was more traditional, challenges crept in. "We
really had to struggle with the facial animation because the characters
were rendered flat and two-shaded," says Mueller. "We didn’t have the
shading of their faces to work with- the highlights and shadows that
really help the expressions. So, we had to push the expressions beyond
what was actually there. We have been able to work with mocap and
blending mocap together and adjusting the timing of mocap, which used
to be almost really impossible back in the day. It’s nice that you can
actually use mocap data as clips, essentially, and slide it around so
it matches the timing you want more accurately."
Sandy Selinger, partner, head of business affairs; Justin
Booth-Clibborn, partner, executive producer; Eben Mears, partner, head
of technology and 2D, Flame artist, director; Marco Spier, partner,
creative director; Kylie Matulick, partner, creative director; Marie
Hyon, partner, creative director; Todd Mueller, partner, creative
Discreet Flame, Smoke
Alias Maya
Apple Final Cut Pro
Adobe Photoshop
After Effects
124 Rivington Street
New York, NY 10002
ph. 212.533.9055