Interview - Alma Mater




Alma Mater
Creative Effects Company

 5700 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90038

Hello and thank you for taking the time to talk to us. Tell us a bit about your company, when did you start, what are your goals?

We started ALMA MATER earlier this year with two primary goals: First, we wanted to focus on more selective creative opportunities, so that we could pay more attention to crafting the details of each project, and provide each client with more individual attention. And second, to create a fun, collaborative environment for our clients and ourselves, to really nurture the creative process.

Do you collaborate with other production companies or manage everything in-house?

We typically manage projects in-house from live action through post. But depending upon the needs of the job, we are open to collaborations with other companies when appropriate. In our opinion, the best creative end product is key, so it is important for us to remain malleable to easily adapt to the best methodology for each opportunity.

What programs/plugins/scripts do you use? How do you keep up with all the changes in technology?

Our tools vary depending on the creative needs of each endeavor. We use Maya (typically rendering with V-Ray), Cinema 4D and After Effects for animation, Final Cut Pro for editorial, the Adobe suite for design work, and Flame for finishing. When necessary, we use utilize specialty software such as PF track, Z brush, and Real Flow depending on the needs of the project. The bottom line is that we want to continually challenge ourselves creatively, and those demands often require exploring new techniques and tools to achieve our collective vision. Luckily, there is a community of people out there doing amazing work that inspires us to keep trying new things.

How involved is the interview process at Alma Mater?

For us, it's really about the quality of the work on the reel / portfolio, the specific skill set of the individual, and their attitude. We want them to be as invested in the work as we are. We are always interested in meeting new, talented people who share our sensibilities and enthusiasm for creative work.

With the market becoming more and more competitive, what do you believe is a must that an artist has in his portfolio or skills?

In addition to talent and a great attitude, we really look for artists who demonstrate strong conceptual thinking. This really can elevate a portfolio. And when it comes to designers, the ability to design in 3D has really become a true advantage. For animators, we look for high-end, photo-real CG, combined with an eye for design.

The Spike Series looks great. What were the challenges on this project? Can you give us an insight on the process, the goals of the project and the difficult parts?

The challenge of Spike "Momentum" was quantity. The goal of the project was to create a promo, which showcased Spike's new tagline, "Get More Action." We wanted to make a piece that would make viewers feel like they just got a rush of adrenaline. We wanted it to feel like a fast-paced series of scenes from a high-end action film. We felt like any sort of graphics would remove the viewer from this, so we chose to infuse the live action with Spike's colors (black and yellow). This enabled us to brand the look of the footage without any extra graphic fluff. The tricky thing was we wanted the pace of the edit to be fast. Really fast. As we cut together an animatic we kept speeding it up until we felt like the rhythm seemed right. Unfortunately, this created a 30-second edit that had about 50 shots in it. To accomplish this, we had two extremely intensive shoot days. We had a large stage, and set up multiple stations for the various vignettes. We spent the two days quickly bouncing back and forth, hammering through the shot list of machine guns, fighters, and explosions.

What were some of the challenges on Google Chrome Interactive Reaction?

The two main challenges were the brief and the schedule. The brief was completely open; the only stipulation was that the piece ended with "Google Chrome. A new way to get online." Beyond that, we were allowed to define everything from the story, to the visual style and duration. It was amazing to work with such a great brand and have this kind of freedom. However, while a blank page can be very liberating, it can also be overwhelming given the endless variety of directions that a solution could take. We quickly focused on the idea of discovery. We wanted to emphasize the fact that this browser was a new entity that people were discovering for the first time. We also wanted to hint at the diverse content to which this new browser provided access. To support this concept, we decided to use the form of the Google Chrome logo, but we presented it like a piece of art in a gallery that people were observing/documenting. The schedule was the next big challenge. This was like a design marathon. We had 14 days to create this piece from concept to completion. We (James Anderson and Brian Mah) created all of the design and animation involved in the piece, and shot the back plate in a local gallery space. Usually, when a project has such a tight deadline, you always wonder what you could have done to improve it with more time, but in this case, we were happy with the end result.

What other supporting departments do you typically involve on an average project? How large does this list grow when you’re working on a longer project like Bauer Re-Akt?

In addition to utilizing freelance talents for design, modeling and animation, we also work with sound designers, editors and composers. Depending on the duration of the project, there can be several designers and animators who contribute throughout the process.

Do you use the same techniques from one project to another? What is your company’s strongest point (creative concepts, motion capture, storyboard, animating, VFX)?

We begin each project from a conceptual basis and always prefer to approach the project as a whole. It is the idea along with the budget and schedule parameters that contribute to the choice of the technique.

Our strengths lie in conceptual thinking with an eye towards the design and beauty of each shot, and we achieve this using live action, animation/VFX, or a hybrid of both.

Was there ever something you wanted to do in a project and couldn’t? (Technology wise) Which design do you believe was the most difficult to achieve?

Our Propel spot had some difficult obstacles. This is a perfect example of how important it is to stay flexible and open to alternate approaches when you are trying to solve a creative problem. A lot of times it is less about whether you CAN do something, and more about whether the method is best for that particular need, whether it be from creative standpoint, or a logistical one. This project called for creating a number of scenes with liquid moving around the talent and interacting with the product. We originally planned on generating the majority of the liquid in Real Flow.
However, in the time allotted, we were finding the Real Flow process to be too slow for the quality that was required. The amount of time it would take to generate the necessary quantity of simulations was painstaking, and made it difficult to have a constructive review process. We opted to produce a small insert shoot to create a larger library of practical water elements. This fluidity in our thinking helped us achieve a much better result in a shorter timeframe.

Tell us a little bit about Powerade “Science takes the Stage”. What were some of the challenges?

This project was the first in Powerade's "Science takes the Stage" campaign. The challenge was to create an aesthetic that simultaneously featured Chris Paul, but also established a branded look for all subsequent spots. We needed to come up with a device that would enable Chris to interact with a virtual screen around him, a screen that would display everything from archival footage from the Olympics to dimensional iconography and information. We honed in on the most basic element in the Powerade Brand, the ION 4 icon. This was an "X"-shaped graphic symbol, commonly used throughout the brand. We selected this form as the basis for the visual style. We manipulated the linear strokes of the "X" to expand into a modular grid, delineating scene planes to house footage, as pointillistic building blocks to form tangible objects, and as a stream of particles to accentuate the dynamic movement that Chris displays on the court. By keeping the connective element simple, it proved to be very versatile and effective for the campaign.

What techniques do you use on a project like Time Warner Cable “Stream of Consciousness” that deals with matching virtual environment with real backgrounds?

We like to incorporate real backdrops and textures when possible, so we shot the people on painted flats, which matched the color of the 3D environment we were creating. This allowed us to have natural references for the lighting quality and behavior for the digital world that we had to seamlessly blend with the practical one. We also shot as many of the objects in the scene as we could.
For instance, in "Anthony," we shot a conference table of people on a 12-foot high platform of steeldeck, slowly booming up on a crane past them. After transferring the footage, we stabilized the move, and then tracked it into our CG camera move. This allowed us to place the vignette wherever we wanted in the scene, while maintaining the natural perspective shift you would expect as you move from below the table to above it. In addition to this we shot HDRI images of the practical environment to integrate the CG objects even further.

How important is it to have a proper education in this field?

We feel that a proper education is very important. There are certainly exceptions to every rule, but our experience has been that solid design skills and strong conceptual problem-solving have traditionally been forged from educational environments. Over the past 10 years, the very best designers, and animators that we have worked with have all brought these skills to the table, above and beyond their personal taste and fluency with software.

Do you still find time for projects outside the advertising industry? What do you have up your sleeve for future projects?

We all have our own side projects. Unfortunately, the big challenge is finding the time to commit to them! Brian, for instance, has more than a few:

Brian Mah: Although the majority of the work we do is motion-based, I still have a love for print as well. I love taking photography, and I also own a Vandercook letterpress, and enjoy working with typography in such a tactile medium. I also am slowly chipping away at a traditional animation side project. Sometimes I get overwhelmed with all the irons in the fire, but I do find them to be helpful in informing our studio work. I will often learn or discover something on a personal print project that informs a solution for my motion-based work and vice versa.

If you had the opportunity to spend a day with anyone from this industry, who would it be?

As a group, we all agree on David Fincher. We've always admired his visual style and technical expertise, and have been following his career since his music video days. He seems so meticulous with every detail of his craft; any artist with such a distinctive voice must be exciting to watch and learn from first hand.

Editor's Note: Several of the projects / images referred to in this article were directed by Brian Mah while he was at Imaginary Forces, including American Express, Spike, Google, Propel, Powerade, Time Warner Cable, and Southern Company.