How'd They Do That Spot: Nat Geo's Motion Graphics

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The National Geographic Channel's on-air identity and promo package, themed "Always wonder," features various scenes from the channel's programming, presented in yellow frames that mimic the look of the magazine itself, all attached to a Calderesque mobile in constant motion. Hardly the kind of graphics that would make the typical viewer wonder at all; it appears to be just another piece of CG prestidigitation in the cable TV eye-candy cavalcade. It is, in fact, a 15-foot kinetic sculpture with some 16 moving parts, created by Austin fine-artist Konrad Bouffard, and commissioned for this project. Live-action elements are becoming increasingly common in such CG-based work, according to group creative director Brad Soderlund at San Francisco's One Six Eight Design, which executed the project in conjunction with the channel's agency, New York's Weiss Stagliano Partners. "But the use of a sculpture, particularly a kinetic sculpture, is distinctly on the rarer side," he says.

Why go to the expense and the trouble? "We went to a kinetic sculptor as a conceptual solution," he explains. "We wanted something that bridged the space between art and science. The thing about mobiles is they require all this accuracy, planning and balance to work just right, yet they're also beautiful to look at. We felt this was a really good metaphor for the channel and the National Geographic Society as a whole." It was imperative to build off of the yellow rectangle, known in the Nat Geo world as The Border, but a lot of options were explored before settling on the mobile, says Soderlund. "The Border needs to be treated with a lot of respect. You can't do whatever you want with it. We knew they had a big asset in their footage, and we wanted to work their footage and The Border into the same concept. Voila: The Border becomes the frame for the footage." Is this a visual leap for the client? "This is pretty edgy for them," says One Six Eight senior designer Anne Maroon. "If you look at their television over the years, it's fairly conservative, like the Society itself. So it's breaking new territory in terms of its content and visuals."

Wouldn't a CG mobile be easier? Or if it had to be real, wouldn't a miniature do? "We ruled out 3-D because we wanted to have an organic quality to the mobile that we didn't feel we could get in 3-D," says Soderlund. "We could get the moves, but something about it was always a little inauthentic. Authenticity is a marching order for the client. And we discovered that smaller-scale elements don't move with the grace of larger-scale elements. When you move something that's small, you get tight little turns and wobbliness, due to gravity and mass. So we needed something that was fairly substantial. It had to have the stability and grace so when we tracked the footage in, it would look good."

Hence the custom-painted steel, aluminum and wood museum piece, whose price remains classified, with the footage tracked in via Inferno. Would all-CG be cheaper? "If you have a 3-D department in-house, it may be cheaper to do it that way, but for authenticity and randomness, this is the way to go," insists Maroon. "Even though it's very large, there's still some play to it. 3-D wants to be completely mathematical; to make 3-D look organic and random is a far taller order than most people realize. To do it in 3-D and make it look this good would probably cost more."

"This is a highly metaphorical piece that ideally we can extend for years," adds Soderlund.

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