Sci-Fi By Design

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FDG, the year-and-a-half old 'creative concept studio' that specializes in broadcast design, could double as an eBay storehouse. Pop culture paraphernalia practically ooze out of the loftspace in Manhattan's Flatiron district. In one office, a tower of unopened MacFarlane action figures leans against the corner next to a decrepit baby doll and a weathered rubber Mr. T head. In the outer designers' area, a Levi's Flat Eric slumps atop a monitor, Superman wallpaper graces the computer screens, and kitschy icons like Godzilla, the Mummy and Barbarella leap boldly from posters on the walls.

The creative playspace of FDG (aka Firm Design Group) is the lab for what the company dubs "visual science," a philosophy that encourages innovation through collaborative experimentation. "Visual science, that's who we are and what we're about, because we always want to keep reinventing ourselves," explains executive producer David Edelstein. Edelstein, a former Showtime staff producer, started FDG with creative director Michael Uman and head of production Adam Kagan in the fall of 1998. Last October the company established a West Coast outpost in Venice, Calif., headed up by creative director Peter Burega, formerly of Telezign and 138 Degrees.

FDG has helped create and revamp the on-air images of entire networks, like USA, and individual programs on BET and CNN. Notable is FDG's overhauled look for the Sci-Fi Channel. The "Sci-Fi Me" promos depict a surreal layering of 3-D and 2-D cyber-animation over live-action actors to illustrate various techno-poems, recasting the channel's esoteric "monsters and aliens" identity into a sleeker, hipper digital persona.

Two of those plugs garnered nominations in the upcoming Broadcast Design Awards, making the cut of 316 out of the 4,100 entries this year. BDA Awards chair Pat Smith explains that prior to FDG's campaign, the Sci-Fi Channel as a brand drew only a discreet group of science fiction aficionados. "What FDG's spots did so well was to make it less sci-fi and more 'any and all things are possible,'" she says. Sci-Fi Channel art director Todd Mueller, who was involved in the project from the beginning, was impressed by FDG's speed, thoroughness, and creative passion. "They brought lot of stuff to the table," he says. "I felt like I was in good hands. They got it, and they were able to work on it without me being there 100 percent of the time,".

Like the Sci-Fi campaign, much of FDG's work has a live-action component. "We're better suited than most to handle the convergence of live action, design, and computer graphics," believes Kagan, whose background includes production work for music videos, commercials and feature films. "We're all designers at heart, but the reality is, both Michael and I think in live action," adds West Coast CD Burega, a former attorney who also works as a professional painter and film director.

Unlike companies that tend to regurgitate a single look for every client, the FDG scientists eschew formulas. "It's not one size fits all," says Uman. "You cater the style to the project. Some projects need a cleaner look. Some projects need a very layered, ethereal kind of look. All that stuff is in our arsenal."

Developing the FDG palette involves hard work, but also requires a serious "play ethic." The Manhattan HQ's "Things to Do" list (apart from a daily happy hour at 5 o'clock, during which clients and friends are invited to partake in beer and Playstation games) includes checking out the latest [FDG continued from page 46]

cultural trends for inspiration. Uman will often bring in movie or music video DVDs for everyone to watch. "The idea is things that inspire," he says. "You have to have playtime, you have to have other things to stimulate the brain. The worst thing you can do is just to look at somebody else's spots. You have to see what everyone else is doing, but you've gotta look outside - whether it's Jan Svankmajer's animation or the Quay Brothers' animation or some crazy Hong Kong thing."

Having started out as an illustrator before he went into broadcast design at Showtime and Viacom, Uman is also an experienced electronic musician with a 'filmic' point of view. He has composed music and directed live action on FDG's behalf. His influences range from hip hop and electronica to sci-fi, anime, manga and Hong Kong action flicks.

Developing FDG talent also includes encouraging staff members to explore their own creativity. The company recently pitched to Tri-Star, which was looking to globally unify and rebrand the look of its AXN network. Uman and Burega fleshed out the concept to frame the campaign along architectural lines. They then gave the FDG animators and designers some reference points, but basically let them play. "It was about the development of the process - not saying 'This is my idea, execute my idea,' because then you have a bunch of robots," Uman says. Adds Burega, "We honed the idea and let people just do their own thing."

What came out of the effort was a highly sophisticated branding 'tool kit' that offered the client graphical components that each branch of its international network could manipulate to fit to its own cultural personality. Edelstein and Uman say the project spawned some of FDG's best creative work. Unfortunately, the client told them that the work was "a year too far ahead" of the desired identity, but FDG didn't take that too hard. Says Edelstein, "You want people to think you're ahead of the time. To us, that's an ultimate compliment, even though we would have liked the job."

Undaunted, FDG is charging ahead with new initiatives. Last month saw the opening of FDG-I, an endeavor that will develop original live action and animated content for the Internet. Says Edelstein, "We don't think of ourselves as a broadcast design company. We don't want to be modeled as a traditional commercial production company or as a postproduction house, either. It's really about what the creative is. The idea is, how does our creative best apply?"