In early 2019, we won an international pitch to rebrand the adult learning strand of Da Vinci Learning. Da Vinci are an educational channel, based in Germany, who broadcast to more than 100 countries. Our brief was to create channel idents, break bumpers and a graphical presentation kit. However, the visual design had to represent the channel’s vast range of subject matter.
In March 2020, we were thrilled to pick up a British Animation Award for Best TV Motion Design. Following this, during the winter lockdown, we had some more good news. The body of work that we created won a Royal Television Society Midlands Award for Production Craft Skills (Post-Production). This is Second Home’s fourth award in this category. We have previously won it for ‘My Motorbike’ for CiTV, ‘The Engineering Machine’ and our animation and visual effects work.
The Da Vinci brief fascinated us from the start. It was very much aligned with our innate curiosity about, well… everything. Da Vinci create learning material which must successfully cross borders, languages and cultures and the branding had to reflect this. We had the past, present and future contexts of so many different aspects of evolution, ingenuity and learning to consider. Mixed in with all this was a bit of philosophical future gazing about where human invention might be leading us.
The Animation Concepts
The final kit of idents comprises 14 different concepts. Some of which embody multiple subjects of learning at the same time. The simplest jumping off point was of course, the logo. This is the signature Nautilus shell, which embodies the distinctive Fibonacci spiral – so pervasive in nature, evolution and mathematics. It’s one of those phenomena which is spookily everywhere. The perfect emblem for a broadcaster whose singular purpose is the dissemination of knowledge.
We took the Nautilus and extruded it into 3 dimensions in order to have some fun with it. For the Nautilus to embody so many different things, we needed investigate it in many different ways. We travelled around it and through it. We also pushed it, pulled it, froze it, melted it, buried it, and dug it up again. Which is a bit hard to do when it’s as flat as a pancake!
Once they had seen a pre-visualisation of the ‘Amber’ ident, the team at Da Vinci were fully behind our approach. From the start, we always wanted this to be a mixed media project. We knew we’d be working with CGI, 2D Animation, Stop motion animation and some good old fashioned studio effects. Here are some thoughts and shots from us making a big mess and enjoying every minute of it.
We really had some fun with this one, using everything we had to hand. We used a mix of live-action, stop-motion, motion control, CGI, plus some fake snow chucked into fans. The ice cores were created using CNC machined flat pieces of MDF, which were then dowelled and glued together. The natural ridges between the pieces created the kind of layered striations authentic to actual ice cores. Once moulded from silicone, we casted them in transparent polyester resin. We added long strands of packing film draped into the moulds before pouring, which created fake cracks and imperfections. Just like real ice.
Faking The Ice Store
Ice cores are normally stored horizontally in huge, refrigerated sheds. We wanted to show the cores magically retracting into a refrigeration unit which emulated the shape of the Nautilus shell. However, our fake cores were a lot heavier than normal ice. So, we racked the camera and the set up through ninety degrees and placed them on a vertical riser. This meant that we could lower the cores incrementally whilst adding a slight camera move to the shot.
A human presence was needed in the shots. We wanted to see hands pulling and hefting the cores from the ‘wild’ ice into the refrigeration unit. So, our designer, Carl, adorned in Da Vinci branded ski-wear, volunteered to be our explorer.
To give the ident a sense of place we researched and mocked up the interior of an Arctic weather station. This gave our explorer character somewhere to return to. The corner of an industrial style door gave us an abrupt entry point with a flurry of snow blasting in. With an appropriate sound effect, we achieved the effect of a sudden entry into the base.
The fact that our ice caps are receding is hard to ignore. We couldn’t very well create an ident about Arctic science without acknowledging this. Consequently, the final shot of the ident is a motion control time-lapse shot of chunks of ice slowly melting. Into this we placed Da Vinci branding to reference the channel’s enormous volume of learning content around this environmental emergency. You can see the finished ident here.
Here’s the finished ident:
Arts and Culture were high on the broadcaster’s list of subject matter to be covered. So, we needed to create a sense of place within an urban setting. An architectural model seemed to us to be the best starting point for creating a location. It was also an ideal opportunity to imbue the ident with the inventions and artwork of the channel’s eponymous namesake. We used the Nautilus shape to create a stylish looking art gallery. The interior chambers of the shell became gallery spaces, adorned with different pieces of modern art.
For the opening close-up shots, we designed art pieces which carried some recognisable iconography from Leonardo Da Vinci himself. We styled a range of idents based on Leonardo Da Vinci’s engineering designs, anatomical drawings or artistic works.
Society Writ Small
Preiser models are known the world over for supplying miniature figurines for model railway enthusiasts, modellers and crafters. We asked, and they courteously allowed us to populate the model with a diverse cast of characters. Our intention was to create a snapshot of society, writ small, in moments of transit, rendezvous and contemplation, around works of art. We added minimalist trees, crafted from wire mesh, and metal rods to give this art gallery plaza an architect’s touch.
With the people frozen, mid-poise, we brought in our motion control rig to add movement and scale to the scene. The movement, of course, also creates the grand reveal of the model design in the shape of the Fibonacci Nautilus. You can see the finished ident here.
The history of communication presented some exciting opportunities for visualisation. The trick with this one was to create interesting transitions between the scenes for them to make sense. We used fast moving light effects and screen wipes to achieve this. We knew it had to start with a cave painting stencilled crudely onto a cave wall. Transitioning to a Da Vinci style hieroglyph felt like the next logical transition, this being crafted from foamboard and wood.
Our next jump took us to the printed word using wooden letter presses. Some of these were kindly loaned to us by Nicholas Birchall from Cleeve Press. We placed the Nautilus front and centre. This was an especially cut block commissioned from Small Scale CNC in Manchester.
We couldn’t resist the urge to inject some cool looking graffiti as a nod to Berlin’s culture of street art. We then burnt through this with the lasers of a 3D printer to reach our final scene: a tumble of printed pieces around the logo. With this technology advancing so quickly, the most photogenic method of printing seemed to us to be one which forms solids from liquid using lasers. Or in our case, a vat of glycerine.
We’re always looking for an opportunity to recycle any modelling materials. So, we gave the wooden letterpress a second life by creating dozens of printed pages. We then shot them on our rostrum camera to create two ‘Letterpress’ break bumpers.
Here are ‘Signs’ and ‘Letterpress’:
The premise for this was simple: history equals human footprints. We start with a bare footprint in a muddy jungle. This transitions to a boot print at the ice cap and then to a footprint on the moon. However, in our final destination, the human presence is notable in its absence. It is a robotic Martian rover which takes the place of the human explorer in this scene. This has a double symbolic meaning. Firstly it alludes to our present limitations as life forms able to undertake long haul space flight. And secondly, the possible inevitability of our complete absence from any exploration which ventures beyond our own solar system.
The eerie Nautilus canyon seen at the end is given no explanation. Its presence is as much about human ignorance as it is about our ability to excavate, claim and discover.
Stained Glass and Paper Cut
Some of the idents were – we confess – done very much for the sake of it. Papercut was pieced together by Carl Hadley from the offcuts of the stencils used to make Pulse. Some heavy cross lighting, shallow depth of field and textured paper can be enough sometimes. This largely keeps to the convention of the Nautilus being seen in 2 dimensions. Similarly with Stained Glass, we used CNC cut acrylic pieces of the red shell and yellow segments. We then allowed light and shadow to do the rest, adding movement and mystery to these clips.
A number of the idents had to be done entirely in 3D. (You can see them here). These also presented the most fantastical opportunities for world building. Home is our homage to all things space related, and also to some of our favourite sci-fi tropes. The slightly wonky looking version of a 2001 space pod which comes into dock also keeps it quite playful.
Amber was the initial concept which got us in the door with Da Vinci in the first place. Palaeontologists have learned a great deal from insects trapped in amber. So, it felt appropriate to acknowledge this with our Nautilus at the centre of the story. We were tempted to sharpen our chisels and carve out very own Fibonacci tree stump. However, photogrammetry and computer generated liquid amber gave us the most flexibility to tinker with timing, space and lighting.
Of course, we had the perfect opportunity to feature AI and machine learning as part of the technical subject matter. So we created ‘2.1’ which showed a humanoid machine being switched on for the first time.
We also used CG to trace the history of human architecture. The ‘Structures’ ident spanned from the early stone carvings of Easter Island to the future of ‘agritecture’ in the form of a skyscraper which just keeps going and going.
Da Vinci Learning were so thrilled with the end results that they flew from Berlin to thank us in person. They brought with them some rare Nautilus ammonite fossils and presented them as gifts. These now have pride of place next to our RTS and BAA awards.
We hope that gives something of an insight into how the Da Vinci Learning work was created. We hope you enjoyed it. And, of course, if you’d like to commission anything similar to this work, then we’d love to hear from you.
Thanks for reading!