Why Breaking Language Barriers and Ditching the Storyboard are Crucial to the Israeli Studio's Global Success Story

Even before he opened Yambo Studio in Tel Aviv five years ago, CGI artist Yam Ben Adiva (a.k.a. Yambo) had been struggling to speed up render times without compromising design. Finally, after a lot of experimentation, he settled on a set of tools he liked and had 11 GPU-based render engines combined with water-cooled hardware rigs shipped to him from Poland. But while this allowed for fast previewing and the ability to design frames directly in 3D, there was still one more hurdle Yambo needed to overcome — finding a team of artist collaborators who were comfortable with the same tools and workflow.

“I couldn’t find enough artists in Tel Aviv, so I decided to put together a skilled team who could work globally on high-profile projects using mainly Cinema 4D, Houdini and Octane Render,” Yambo explains. To manage workflow, the team relies on affordable, easy-to-use software including Dropbox Business for file sharing, Slack for communication and Frame.io for commenting on video.

Frame.io screenshot

Frame.io allows Yambo’s global team to quickly comment on video and work together to make changes.

Canadian motion designer and 3D artist Jeff Briant was one of the first artists Yambo reached out to. As they began worked together, it quickly became apparent that their collaboration meant Yambo Studio could be productive 24 hours a day. “It was great, because I could deliver things to him at the end of my work day and his day would just be starting in Toronto,” he recalls.

A small part of Yambo Studio’s team, from left to right: Mariusz Becker, Jonathan Lindgren, Yambo, Luke Brown and Liam Liam.

Two years on, in addition to Briant, Yambo Studio’s database includes more than 50 multidisciplinary artists from all over the world. (See some of the core members’ bios at the Yambo Studio website.) While Yambo leads every project, additional artists who specialize in using C4D, Houdini, ZBrush and other software are brought on board as needed.

Recently, 13 team members worked on a Xiaomi Redmi Note 5 spot for Chinese electronics company Xiaomi. Though it was the biggest project the studio has handled to date, the spot was one of several Yambo has created for Xiaomi. Bridging the language barrier has been tricky. But Ben Adiva has found WeChat, a multipurpose messaging, social media and mobile payment app widely used in China, extremely helpful. “People in China use WeChat for everything, and we find it works really well to keep communication open so they always know what we’re doing,” he says, explaining how right-clicking on a message written in Chinese instantly produces an English translation that his team can respond to.

Still images from spot

The spot begins with something glowing falling from space, creating an explosive cloud of energy from which the Xiaomi Redmi Note 5 takes shape.

In addition to working globally with a team that is largely offsite, Yambo Studio’s workflow does not involve storyboards. While this non-standard approach is not popular with agencies, many other clients seem to like it, especially once Yambo explains his thinking. “If you want to create something very unique in terms of its look, I like to start by doing R&D, because storyboards can be very restrictive. Being able to experiment with the edit as we all work together always produces something better.”

Screen shot from Redmi Note 5 spot

Like other environments in the Redmi Note 5 spot, this scene was created in Cinema 4D and is completely designed around the shape of the phone.

That’s why the Xiaomi Redmi Note 5 spot and all of the other projects they work on are approached in the same way. After getting a brief overview of what a client envisions, the team begins building a previsualization outlining the basic structure of the spot. This project, for which Yambo brought on Director Tal Baltuch, involved only a few client requests: use neon, some palm trees and shots of the phone.

Screen shot from Redmi Note 5 spot

For this scene, Yambo merged his desire for a circular patio with octagonal windows with a design that mimics the phone’s shape.

“With the Xiaomi phone, we tried to highlight product features in creative ways by doing things like comparing the phone to striking architecture and showing of its superpowers, like the high-capacity battery which is shown supercharging entire buildings with its energy,” Yambo explains. Sticking with the brief, the spot does include neon and palm trees, but in an abstract, artistic way that plays up the beauty of both electronic energy and nature.

Screen shot from Redmi Note 5 spot

Among the phone’s “superpowers” is a battery powerful enough to energize cities.

Though the first previz, which includes things like reference images, video clips and ongoing tests, will change over time, it is created in conjunction with the music because each influences the other. Clients are shown previz 1, as well as early styleframes to get a sense of the visual direction and pace of the narrative.

Xiaomi Redmi Note 5 – Early Previz R1.

Screen shot from Redmi Note 5 spot

From the first previsualization, the design of a shot showing a statue taking a selfie was well underway.

Based on client feedback, the team moves on to previz 2 and 3, where they finalize the animation and create the final presentation. By the third iteration, the animation and music is so refined, the client usually has only minor changes.

Screen shot from Redmi Note 5 spot

Four phone colors are highlighted against the backdrop of a new day in brightly colored land.

Like most of Yambo Studio’s work, the Xiaomi spot is otherworldly, alive with light, color and motion and made up of unexpected moments, like a statue taking a selfie. Yambo attributes some of that magic to allowing music to guide the artists as they imagine design possibilities. In the end, he says, what he loves most about the work is “the fusion between technology and art. That’s the main thing I consider, whether I’m working on a product spot in the studio or doing something personal.”