The Ether's Greg Kupiec and John Haley on 3D Graphics and Bold Typography for Tower Heist

The Ether created snazzy imagery combining a cityscape, a skyscraper, and shimmering typography for the trailer for Universal Pictures’ Tower Heist. Cinema 4D maker Maxon and writer Meleah Maynard took Film & Video behind the scenes to learn more about how the project was executed on a short schedule. (Click on any image to see a higher-resolution version.)

In the action comedy Tower Heist, a ritzy Manhattan apartment tower is the center of attention, playing a major role in the film. Run like a machine and tricked out with all the toys its well-heeled residents expect, the tower’s top suite is home to a Wall Street guru whose empire was built on Ponzi schemes that wiped out the pensions of his staff. Out for revenge, they must conquer the building’s advanced security systems to get to Shaw. Hollywood design agency The Ether created a new visual of the tower for the film’s trailer, using 3D graphics and bold typography to emphasize its importance in the film. Watch the trailer, below, then read on to learn how the team executed the visual with Maxon Cinema 4D (C4D) and Adobe After Effects.

Tower Heist title

John Haley, a design/animator at The Ether, modeled the tower by hand using C4D. New York City, seen in the background of many tower shots, was created with Nick Campbell’s (Greyscale Gorilla) City Kit and built using MoGraph’s cloner set to Grid Array mode.

Having first been brought onto the project by Motive Creative doing, concepting, styleframes, design and animation, The Ether was soon asked by Universal Pictures to create graphics for their in-house department, as well. “Our involvement in the film grew as we eventually branded the entire campaign,” explains Greg Kupiec, The Ether’s founder. See their reel:

The Making of a Tower

Though it wasn’t a continual process, The Ether worked on the trailer for about 12 weeks, using C4D for design and animation and After Effects for compositing. John Haley, a designer/animator with the agency, spent weeks modeling the tower and animating the corkscrewing camera that moves up the outside of the building as giant 3D title “cards” float across the screen and reflect in the panes of glass. “After moving from title card to title card throughout the trailer, you finally make it up to the top of the building, revealing the main title,” Haley explains.

Reflections in the tower windows

Haley broke each of the tower’s windows into separate polygons and added a slight curve to create an interesting, random play of reflections.

Looming behind the main title is Haley’s model of the tower’s roof, where Shaw’s pool glows in the moonlight, showing off the bottom, which is emblazoned with a painting of a hundred-dollar bill. When creating the tower, Haley referenced images of Trump Tower in New York City. “I broke up the glass to make it reflective and I gave it a little bit of curvature, making it more photoreal,” he says, adding that he was striving to ensure the glass panels had different variations of color and reflections, as they would in reality.

Universal production’s decision to rebuild sections of the building on a green-screen set for some of the film’s VFX shots was great for The Ether team because it allowed them to get up close and see the details of the trusses and glass. “People don’t realize all the hours of labor that go into getting something to be more photoreal than CG,” says Haley.

Cloning floors in MoGraph

Once they were happy with a single floor’s level of detail, The Ether team cloned the rest of the tower’s floors using C4D’s MoGraph toolset.

To create the tower’s many floors, Haley first modeled one floor “until it was amazing.” He used MoGraph to clone that floor until the building was as tall as he wanted it to be, exaggerating the tower’s height. Haley also boosted the number of reflections of the city on the higher levels of the building. “Since the top of the tower is in the sky, we had to add extra reflections up there to keep it as interesting as the lower levels, which had more buildings to reflect naturally,” he explains.

Getting the titles right

“Typography serves one purpose, and that is communication,” says Kupiec, noting that all of the work his company does includes typography. Whether the agency is creating trailer graphics, main titles sequences, broadcast packages or animated logos, their process always builds on the foundations of traditional graphic design and typography. Both Kupiec and Haley say C4D makes it easy to create quality three-dimensional typography quickly. “C4D is very designer friendly, and we know we can get good-looking 3D type fast,” says Kupiec.

Modeling and refining type

Haley used options offered by C4D’s Extrude object to model the type and refine its edges.

To finish the titles, Kupiec and Haley created outlines of all the type and kerned each letter individually in C4D. “We try to stay true to the rich history that comes from typography,” says Kupiec. “Rules sometimes get broken in the digital age, but time should always be taken to set and kern type properly.”

Maintaining the feel of upward motion in some of the internal title cards was no easy task, Kupiec recalls. The team did several motion tests with different camera speeds and found that the movement created what he described as “an optical illusion due to the repetitive quality of the framework”. Sometimes, traveling up the building felt like you were going down. “We had to find the right percentage to move, since the cards just slam in over the building as the camera is tracking up in certain sections,” he adds. After trying various speeds up the building, they finally settled on very slight movement. Moving less turned out to feel like more.

Adding buildings to make better reflections

Although City Kit worked well for the city’s distant buildings, close to the tower itself Haley added several buildings he modeled himself in order to create better reflections.

Challenges aside, not much changed besides script tweaks and other small refinements from original concept to finished trailer. Kupiec and his team took that as a sign that their graphics were well received by the studio and the filmmaker, Brett Ratner. “This was a great project to work on, and I think it progressed smoothly because the idea was there from day one,” Kupiec says.

Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.