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Eric Jordan on the VFX of People's Republic of Desire
The team at FxFactory caught up with Eric Jordan, who did the graphics, animations and visual effects for the award winning documentary, People's Republic of Desire, and asked him about what went into creating the motion graphics of the film and how the After Effects plugin Yanobox Nodes was utilized in the process.
What was the goal of the project?
Director Hao Wu wanted to make extensive use of detailed motion graphics to create a dramatic virtual 3D representation of the live-streaming chat rooms featured in his dystopian, Black-Mirror-style film "People's Republic of Desire", where hosts entertain their audience, trade virtual gifts, and buy votes for huge sums of real money. Much of the narrative of the film is told through the dialogue and interactions that take place in the digital realm via online streaming video chat platforms, where the subjects of the film use their talents to build a fan base and gather financial support in order to move up the ranks of stardom. In order to make it easier for the audience to interpret the actions taking place during the live-streaming sessions, the director wanted to utilize 3D animation to visualize what is happening, as though the chats were taking place in a kind of virtual arena in cyberspace. Another aim was to use AR (Augmented Reality) style compositing to have the digital world seem to bleed over into the real world. Overall, we aimed for a surreal pop-culture look, almost video-game like, in order to give a sense of the 'gamification' of life.
How did you get this cool project?
The director had seen some of the futuristic world-building and animation I had done on many of my projects and felt that I could bring his vision of a virtual dystopia to life. Hao envisioned large digital environments resembling cyberpunk-style arenas, with crowds of virtual avatars representing users attending the live-streams and trading virtual gifts. He had been shooting footage for the film for many years in China and approached me to help art direct the environments, as well as the visual effects that needed to take place throughout the film to support the narrative. I come from a background of reading books by cyberpunk author William Gibson, where A.I. superstars exist in cyber-spatial dimensions - and I was immediately interested in the vision Hao laid out and felt that I could help him from a creative direction and VFX perspective.
How much time did you have?
The director had been working on shooting footage in China and developing the edit over the course of seven years. Once we had a chance to team up, he had a pretty solid edit and a good understanding of how many shots we would need to build. The visual effects portion took place over the course of six months, with Hao and me working directly together between New York, China, and New Zealand to build the many hundreds of VFX shots that needed to be integrated into the film. The scope of VFX to be completed was enough to keep a team of artists busy, but I was managing the entire pipeline myself, including all the creative - so it came down to working on several shots per day, often 12 hour days at a time.
What tools / Workflow did you use?
I used quite a different array of tools in order to achieve certain tasks quickly and efficiently. Much of the virtual environments, 3D avatars, digital gifts, and other elements were designed and built using Maxon Cinema 4D. Ultimately these environments were then either ported straight into After Effects using AEC4D or reconstructed natively inside After Effects when the scenes were simple enough. The scenes that centered around the virtual chat rooms were where most of the action was focused, with fans interacting with the live-streamers through digital gift exchanges, and so I set out to build a highly optimized universal master scene for this that ended up being a combination of Video Copilot's Element 3D and a series of background, floor, and ambient scene effects/transitions that were constructed with Yanobox Nodes.
What shots did you use Nodes for in the project?
Yanobox Nodes was used in most of the digital live-stream showroom shots, to create the vast feeling of an infinite data-space within the Internet, as well as many of the narrative sequence animations, AR shots, and cityscape montages.
Nodes allowed me to create a lot of the structural elements of the showrooms such as the grid floors, as well as the infinite cyberspatial background behind the live-streaming windows. I wanted to create a sense that these digital chat rooms were hovering in a kind of infinite hyperspace inside some sprawling Chinese network. The goal was to have many of the shots feel highly dynamic, as though the camera was racing through the virtual space and trying to catch up with the different live-stream camera windows where action was taking place.
With Nodes I could create a subtle network-node structure that helped highlight the movement of the camera through the space. I modeled an array of abstract complex geometric structures in Cinema 4D and exported them as .OBJ files, which were then imported into Nodes inside After Effects in order to fill the virtual world with these large geometric grid structures that felt like they may be clusters of data.
The power of Nodes really shines when you use it to drive complex 3D wireframes from 3D geometry, and then use oscillators and animation parameters such as nodes size phasing to add multidimensional noise effects that evolve over time.
Why are tools like nodes cool and how do they change the creative approach and workflow with clients?
Nodes is such an amazing tool because it acts as a force multiplier, especially in situations where you are trying to convey a sense of complexity but you don't have a whole lot of time to individually design each tiny element. Much of my work revolves around grids and 3D geometry, and Nodes is able to add such a high level of control and detail over the look and animation of these types of elements, especially when combined with custom forms like OBJ files to drive the nodal elements. Previously, before Nodes, I would have to create complex grids in Adobe Illustrator or model and export grid geometry from Cinema 4D in order to achieve the look I was after - and even then I had no control over the individual nodes that make up the element.
I often use Nodes right at the start of the creative process to design and export 3D grid environments for import into Adobe Photoshop as storyboard elements or style-frames. Once a concept is green-lit, it can then be animated straight-away inside After Effects. Nodes streamlines the entire approach from creative to animation.
How long have you been doing this and how did you start?
I've been involved in the industry of design & animation for over 18 years. I started a interactive design studio called 2advanced Studios in California when I was 19, designing and building experiential websites and then later moved into independent creative direction and motion design. From 1999 to 2013, I oversaw creative operations for 2Advanced Studios, managing a group of 35 designers and developers on a wide range of over 700 projects for major brands, movie titles, and video game releases. I now act as an independent creative consultant at a global level, and consult on a large array of projects including film, broadcast television, websites, smart phones, VR, electronic billboards, vehicles, print, and video games. I've had the honor and opportunity to build high level projects for companies such as Adobe, Boeing, Nintendo, Nissan, Activision, Warner Brothers, Motorola, Electronic Arts, and more.
What were your biggest success stories / projects?
Some of the largest successes and projects I've had the honor of working on were Activision's Call of Duty website campaign + game statistics integration, branding & event design for the Adobe MAX conference, interactive websites for the Lucas Arts Star Wars franchise, and of course the release of People's Republic of Desire which was just premiered in theaters across the United States and has won numerous awards and received rave reviews in the CNET, the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Hollywood Reporter, and the New York Times.