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Aurora: Making The Movie

When we set out to make Aurora we thought, “This can’t be that hard. We’ve made concept videos before.” But the complexity and ambiguous nature of the production process caught us by surprise, challenging us far beyond our expectations. From a hospitalized actress to a managing almost 1,000 art assets, this blog post will share some of the unique challenges we stumbled upon.

 


Casting
Usually, concept videos include wealthy white people in their mid-twenties. Our casting goal was to break that stereotype. The browser is an application for everyone, and we wanted to reflect that universality. Given limited budget and time, our first inclination was to ask friends and family to be our actors. But, with nine diverse actors to cast for three full days of shooting, we quickly realized we had to reach outside of our circle.

Craigslist proved to be an invaluable resource. In two weeks time, we held multiple casting calls, hired nine actors, and found our photographer, JP Dobrin. Working with professional actors, rather than friends, proved to be the smart choice, which is reflected in the acting and imagery in the final deliverable. As with any complex project, the unexpected happened during one shoot: an actress was hospitalized and we had to make last minute changes to our cast. Rebecca Blood (Jesse James Garrett’s wife and, luckily for us, an experienced actress) stepped in to play the role of Moira last minute. This experience reminded us that movie making truly is the art of creative problem-solving.

Location Scouting
The last minute juggling wasn’t quite over: the day before the first shoot, the toy store we planned to use backed out. Julia, the project manager, made a flurry of quick calls and found a store manager who graciously offered her store, Ambassador Toys. We didn’t get a chance to visit the store before the shoot, but we lucked out: the store’s bright colors and skylights made the setting come to life. Given the short window of time for shooting all of the scenes, we used one house (thanks to our HR Director, Jennifer Bolduc) to shoot two scenes: a farm and a suburban home. The trick was to alter the aesthetic of each room so that they appeared to be entirely different locations. Jennifer’s gardening gloves and boots made the farm setting more realistic, and she graciously let us move her furniture around to transform her living room into a suburban setting.

Props

In concept videos, props can easily appear unrealistic and distract from the narrative. We recognized that risk and strategically chose to limit the number of props while keeping those that we did use very simple. In fact, none of the characters use a mouse in any of the scenes. The mobile devices are simply thin plastic rectangles with green paper adhered to their surfaces awaiting animation. The screen in the living room scene is also a large green piece of paper made to look like it is part of the wall. We realized the less props we used to predict what the technology of the future looked like (besides the user interface of the browser) the more believable the final product.

Planning & Preparing for the Shoots

Given the limited time to shoot the video, it was vital that we had a thorough plan to guide our on-set efficiency. We utilized storyboards and one-page shoot summaries for each day of shooting to help us develop a detailed plan. We created the storyboards in Omnigraffle that captured three key components:

* A basic composition sketch of the shot
* Dialog or animation occurring
* Notes for photographer and animators

The Shoot Summaries briefly outlined and tracked every aspect of the production, such as setup and shooting times, when actors arrived, clothing/makeup arrangements, equipment and props needed, etc. We also met with Whiskytree, the animators/editors of the video, multiple times prior to the shoot to ensure that we fully understood the deliverables we were expected to produce. (Special thanks to Whiskytree for their patience with our asset production and remarkable turnaround time.)

Communication

That said, communication proved to be one of the most challenging, time-intensive, yet vital aspects of production, both in-house and with the animators. The visual design assets alone created for this video numbered close to 1,000. We also had to approach visual assets in an entirely new way. Usually, we create static visual compositions of web pages or screens, but in this case, the visual assets were animated — their sizes and positions changed. In fact, we sometimes discovered our ideas simply wouldn’t be possible in production and had to create alternatives. The variables were moving — literally. This meant that the details in all the visual assets were extremely important.

We found that the storyboards proved to be highly effective in helping the animators visualize abstract concepts, as well as giving the photographer direction during the shoot. Jesse James Garrett also created videos of himself acting out the actions in particularly complex animations, to give Whiskey Tree another visual communication tool. Face-to-face meetings internally with Whiskytree ensured we were all on the same page. While producing each asset took longer than we expected, we had detailed spreadsheets that tracked the status of each one that we used to communicate with the animation studio.

Directing

We discovered that we needed four people on set:


1. Director to guide the actors and discuss shot composition with the photographer
2. Assistant Director to watch out for continuity issues and maintain a “big picture” perspective
3. Photographer
4. Production Manager to handle logistics on the set (food being a vital logistic)


In the first few hours on the first day of shooting, we quickly realized the importance of having clearly defined responsibilities. Initially, the lack of clarity around roles slowed production down, but once resolved, we shot higher quality footage in less time. In fact, we budgeted three hours of shooting time for every two minutes of video, and we used all of it.


Ignorance is Bliss

On one hand this rang true for us, on the other, it made for long days and early mornings. Given that we didn’t fully understand what we were undertaking at the onset, we were neck-deep before we realized just how ambitious we were. As a result, we completed a very complex project that we might not have if we understood the implications of managing nine actors, four design firms, a photographer, and an animation studio. By the end, we were both challenged and exhausted by an intensely satisfying learning curve.

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