By Randi Altman
To tell the story of how their high-end MH40 headphones are made, Master & Dynamic called on New York-based production company Interstate to create a film educating potential buyers. Interstate is the US branch of the Montreal-based integrated production company BLVD. It’s run by managing partner Danny Rosenbloom (formerly with Psyop, Brand New School) and creative director Yann Mabille (formerly with The Mill, Mill+).
This almost 1.5-minute piece talks about the materials that go into creating the headphones and describes the manufacturing process and why it’s all meant to maximize sound quality. There are images of molten metal, flowing liquids and magnetized metal shavings that transform into headphone components. To create the finished look, Interstate captured as much as they could in-camera, shooting with a birds eye view, and a mix of stop motion and visual effects.
For the liquid aluminum sequence, Interstate used a material called gallium for the melting aluminum effect — also used in the original Terminator movies — and cast and melted an aluminum ingot from it on camera.
According to Interstate EP Rosenbloom, “The material melts at roughly 80 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s the same stuff some magicians use to bend spoons with their minds — not all of them, of course, because the good ones really can bend spoons with their minds!”
Interstate’s Mabille, who co-directed the piece with Adam Levite, answered our questions and helped us dig a bit deeper.
How early did Interstate get involved with the project?
We started to get involved during the final stages of setting up Interstate, which makes this project our very first. We thought it was a great way to start.
Were you involved in the creative, or did the client come with that already spelled out?
Miles Skinner, who is a freelance creative director for Master & Dynamic, wanted to create a sequence that suggested a building process that had a specific elegance and artistic value while showcasing the beautiful qualities of the raw materials used to build the headphones.
At the same time, the goal was to stray away from the traditional pipeline representations, which are usually hands or machines interacting with objects etc. We were tasked with finding creative solutions to implement Miles’ ideas. We conceived a semi-abstract representation of each of the main steps of the building process, starting by glorifying the raw materials, processing these materials in an interesting manner, and eventually ending it in an elegant way to showcase the finished product.
How much is live-action versus VFX?
The product is very well designed and has a great finish, so we knew that it would look great on camera. Adam and I love macro-photography and were keen to feature the natural beauty of raw and noble materials on a small scale. This naturally led to trying to shoot as much as we could in-camera, therefore limiting the role of VFX in the sequence.
That said, CGI was used to animate certain elements that would have been challenging to puppeteer on such a small scale. In order to add light interactions across the lens, cleanup and retime shots, we used 2D. We wanted to retain a physical approach from the very beginning to keep all the wonderful qualities of the raw materials as genuine as possible.
Did you do any prepro?
Indeed. Most of the prepro was spent getting to know the materials we were going to work with and how to best represent the headphones, as well as all the components used for the construction process. For example, we ended up using gallium to simulate melting aluminum, and a specific metallic powder was brought to life to shape components, such as steel screws, which were also made out of wax that we then melted. Overall, it was obviously much easier to film deconstruction and reverse the footage to give the illusion of construction.
Can you walk us through the production and post workflow? What did Interstate shoot on?
Alexander Hankoff was the DP. I had worked with him when I was at The Mill, and I always wanted to work with him again as I knew he had a great eye for macro-photography. He can find beauty where you expect it the least. He did a great job over the two-day shoot.
We shot the whole spot on a Red Epic camera, most of it at about 120fps. Also, production designer Jaime Moore and her prop master, Gino Fortebuono, were indispensable to the process and did a great job bringing this to life. We shot the whole sequence in a fairly big studio to make sure we could use different set-ups at the same time.
Interstate produced and provided some post, but you also worked with BLVD. What exactly did they provide in terms of post?
Most of the time we will do all the post internally, but in this case we could not do all of it as we were just starting the company. BLVD was the right choice to help with the 3D and some of the 2D components, but their audio experience was key, and they also did a great job with the sound design.
How did you work with them on approvals?
We had daily reviews, which were all remote, but hassle free. Everyone was really responsive and engaged thoughout the process.
What tools were used for the edit, VFX and color?
Apple Final Cut, Autodesk Maya and Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve for color.
How did you describe to your colorist, Tristan Kneschke, the look and feel you wanted for the piece?
A very favorite part of the process for me is to establish a color look, but I also think it’s crucial to sleep on it. It’s important to step back when you do coloring since your first pass will often be either too extreme or off tone. Keeping a fresh eye is the hardest thing to do while coloring. Luckily we were able to do that with Tristan. We established a look, which we then refined over the course of a week.
What was the most challenging part of this project?
Besides figuring out how to get the most out of the materials we had — the components that make the headsets or the materials used to shape specific objects — the conceptual phase was crucial and the most challenging. It was key to find the right balance between an overly abstract and removed representation of the actual building process, and an elegant and somewhat explicit representation of that same process. It was important not to get too far away from a clear and palpable depiction of what happens to the materials in order to constantly keep the audience hooked and able to relate to the product.
What haven’t we asked that’s important?
The client was amazing — they really gave us total freedom. Miles is a rock star, every idea he had was great and everything we proposed he quickly came on board with. As a company, we really wanted to make sure that our first piece out of the gate was memorable. I think we got there.