With film crews set to return to work under restricted circumstances and production companies likely to be working from home for the foreseeable future, the TV industry is facing a novel challenge. Producing new content is essential in keeping viewers engaged, but how can this be achieved by a dispersed team?
History 101, a new type of documentary series produced by ITN Productions, debuts on Netflix in the UK on 22nd May. The series shines a light on how new content could be created under these new conditions, and Moonraker’s animations were on the front line of making this possible.
Completed earlier in the year, prior to lockdown, it’s easy to say History 101 is eerily forward-thinking in that the production was compiled solely with a combination of stock footage and animation, requiring no filming at all.
Delving into a diverse range of subjects, from robots to HIV/AIDs to nuclear power, the show takes viewers on a historical journey through unique archive footage. Each episode examines the importance of the topic and its significance in the world today.
Building narrative and visual identity through animation
Working with a collection of shots from ITN’s archive, Bristol-based VFX studio Moonraker were tasked with the creative challenge of illustrating the complex historical narrative behind the footage whilst also creating a visual identity unique to the show – something that was impossible to achieve with archival shots alone. This was delivered through playful animated sequences, to create an overarching style over varied topics, presenting information to the audience in an engaging and humorous way.
From the outset, the challenge for the Moonraker team was to create a coherent style across such a broad range of complicated historical subjects and high volume of animations. Alex Dilworth, senior art director of the series, explains: “The challenge with archive footage is it can feel quite distant, our role was to inject humour and interest through animation, helping illustrate the complicated ideas within each episode in a fun way and bring the programme together stylistically.”
The team used a host of tools from the Adobe CC suite alongside C4D to create the animated content, which provided a stylistic identity to the series. Incorporating 3D and 2D animation, Moonraker were also keen to reference a range of animation styles, with the aim of adding further depth to the series whilst also bringing the stock footage, and all episodes, together using a consistent artistic style.
Executive director, Simon George, comments: “The animation and design elements for History 101 were critical for two reasons. Firstly, for providing clean and dynamic information sections for the viewers, and secondly in forming the overall identity for the show.”
Producing content with remote teams
While History 101 sets a precedent for how production companies can revisit old footage and repurpose it into new content that appeals to modern audiences, the combination of animation and stock footage is also a process that can be effectively replicated as the industry continues to work remotely.
Scott Metcalfe, who produced the series at Moonraker, is confident that the process can be repeated for future productions: “The way this project worked, using stock footage and then collaborating as a team to create the visuals, coupled with how we can work remotely, means we could do another series almost immediately,” he says.
“We could tackle any subject now with virtually no obstacles, even in lockdown conditions.”
Adapting to change
Even before lockdown, Moonraker has been working hard to replicate the systems and dynamics of the studio at home to facilitate home working. With a combination of early planning and remote logins, Moonraker artists are able to access the studio network and machines from their home devices.
Alex Dilworth, who recently joined Moonraker as senior art director, says this foresight is the reason the team have been able to transition relatively seamlessly to a new way of working. “The reason we can work almost as efficiently at home is due to having access to our studio systems. The whole network is still there”, he says.
In terms of the creative process and working collaboratively as a team, channels such as Slack have been an effective way to facilitate the informal conversations of the studio, whilst pipeline tools such as Shotgun enable the team to share and edit footage.
Dilworth concludes, “I am sure we will see many more programmes revisiting archive material in the upcoming months as the industry looks for innovative ways to produce fresh content. That being said, nothing replaces the collaborative process you get from the studio.”