Creator Q&A: Greg Barth
Designer turned director Greg Barth has been impressing us with his vibrant, colorful, simplistic aesthetic for quite some time now. His stop motion series for the Russian TV channel 7TV wowed us with its fantastical precision, his music video for Passion Pit's "I'll be Alright" shocked us with its glittery exhibition, and his personal project "Essays on Reality" provoked our thoughts with its subtle subversion. We caught up with him to discuss his design background, the process behind his videos, and how he manages personal projects and commercial work.
VVS: So you have a background in design. How did you make the switch to video?
GB: I was born and raised in Geneva, Switzerland and I went to a design school in the Swiss tradition, very strict on typography and a minimalist design layout. It was a great school and I learned a lot. I then worked at a few agencies in Geneva, but unfortunately it’s kind of a small city and not very creative. So a friend and I decided to come to Montreal to go to school and learn 3D and After Effects for video. So we came over here in 2006, did this school, and it was cool but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. The thing was, I got tired pretty fast of working on the computer. Luckily I was contacted by Ubisoft to do a video for their opening ceremony for their annual event and it was strictly stop motion. I was like ok let’s do something fun, I’ve never tried this before. I was kind of stuck, I didn’t know how it was going to turn out, but at the same time I loved the thrill of that. It was just this whole challenge of something that’s spontaneous — figuring out solutions to everything as opposed to knowing exactly what plugin to use where. I got kind of addicted to it and changed my portfolio to only show that piece to aim to get more stop motion work. And from then on I became independent and began to focus on stop motion animation, but always kind of design driven.
VVS: Could you walk us through the process of creating the 7TV Channel idents?
GB: The first step was branding, because we were acting as the ad agency and production company for the client. Once the client validates the plan, I sketch everything up in 3D. They come back with their comments, and once the final look is approved I do an animation in 3D that shows how everything is going to come together. It’s also a good guideline for us on how to build the objects because a lot of objects deconstruct themselves. Once the client validates that, I send the objects to be built. Meanwhile, I print out all these very exhausting sheets of animatics that have precisely every single animation that we’re going to be doing — every single stop of every single object that unfolds in a framed timeline. These idents were seven seconds each, so that’s about 750 frames. For the idents we had a quarter of a circle camera movement so we have to know precisely when an object comes in and out since the camera is moving. It’s a very boring looking timeline but it allows us to be very precise.
Then, basically everyone has an object and animates it, respecting the timeline. Often the things that you create in 3D are not possible to create in real life so we have to come up with quick turnaround solutions. It ends up being a very manual process and a stop motion piece, but it almost feels computer generated because it’s been calculated in advance. I like the precision and the freedom of having 3D tools to start off, but then doing it by hand with stop motion and live action.
Left: Sketches of props for the 7TV idents. Right: A sample of the timeline used to animate the idents. Images courtesy of Greg Barth.
VVS: In watching the behind the scenes video, I was surprised at how far you actually get with the 3D animation. Why not make whole thing on a computer?
GB: I get that question a lot. I find that even though I make smooth stop motion animation, with a minimum of 20 frames per second — which is a lot for stop motion — it still has this feel and organic element that brings it to life. I love the whole romantic aspect of handmade animation. I try to make it as slick as possible, but I find it much more powerful and real to see the actual thing come to life. I guess it’s that romantic, flawed, yet not-so-flawed technique that I really enjoy about actually physically rebuilding everything I design. And actually, most importantly, I do it because it’s just so much fun not to be behind a computer all day. That’s a major factor. I was getting really sick of the 3D render times, the After Effects render times. I was doing the night shift and I was always behind the screen, so this is really cool. You’re building stuff, and you get to have other people involved too. Each person on the set has an object they’re animating, so it kind of becomes their piece of art. It becomes this collective atmosphere. We all have a lot of fun, and that’s a big part of why I continue doing things that way — the fun factor of getting people involved.
VVS: How many people worked on these TV idents?
GB: In total I hired 25 people. But it was a big project because it was more than the idents — we created the logo, did the ad campaign, and the branding. But for the idents themselves there were probably ten of us working on that.
VVS: How long did the project take you?
GB: It was probably a good week in building, painting, and setting up. And then we had 18-20 hour a day shoots per ident.
VVS: Do you ever build the objects yourself?
GB: Unfortunately it’s mostly other people who build, especially for the TV idents project. I enjoy the craft and building things on my own time, but the industry demands are so tight. I’d rather be able to think of the concept and develop it and hire people who are really good at building. I’m always on the set helping to hang and paint, but most of the time I hire people to build.
VVS: What was the biggest challenge you faced working on this project?
GB: The biggest challenge is not knowing how you’re going to manage to pull this off. Because even if you were totally prepared, you had to improvise solutions. It’s kind of stressful.
VVS: What was the most rewarding aspect of the project?
GB: I think the most rewarding aspect is actually seeing the animation in the end. Everyone spent long hours at the studio and had their own object to animate. At the end when you can actually play it, it’s magic! Because it’s very smooth and the lighting stays the same it’s not like raw stop motion. Everyone says ok we understand why we took so much time today animating this.
VVS: You've also delved into live action with your Passion Pit video. Can you talk about that format?
GB: The motivation for that came from this thing about liking new challenges. I kind of wanted to start working with actors. I love stop motion, don’t get me wrong, but I wanted to explore other avenues and actually act as more of a director, using real actors but still conserving this design-driven, quirky colorful universe that I really love and identify with. I wasn’t used to directing actors at all, and it was a shoestring budget, but I love the challenge of not necessarily knowing what I’m doing. It gives me this adrenaline rush that gets me focused and very efficient.
VVS: And in Essays on Reality you've mixed stop motion and live action.
GB: Yes, that’s really what I love to do — to get to the stage where I can blend the two. I like being able to mix techniques, so you don’t really reveal how it was done. People see it and ask is that 3D? is that stop motion? is that live action? You have some sort of magic going on in real life, I find it really exciting.
VVS: How does the medium you chose and your personal aesthetic lend to the message you wished to convey in those pieces?
GB: I obviously love working with bright colors and happy environments, but I do sometimes have a cynical mind. “Essays on Reality” was an idea I came up with when reading the New York Times. I wanted to play with some of the articles that were there and do short caricatures about them in my own way. I wanted to keep this very naïve and colorful design appearance, but have a theme that is sort of dark and cynical and play on something at multiple levels — it looks cute and colorful and nice, but underneath is a hidden message that’s more powerful.
VVS: From your Vimeo account it appears that Essays on Reality is the only personal project you've released. How do personal projects fit in with the commercial work you do?
GB: The thing is this 7TV project I did last year was big, and I managed to get enough budget for it to be more comfortable this year, so I swore to myself that I would do personal work. I don’t have kids, I’m not married, so I said it’s now or never. It’s not every day that you can actually put the time aside for these projects, but if you can, I strongly encourage it. You get out of your routine and get out of the work you would do for a client. When you get too used to working for clients you start thinking the way they do. You think maybe I won’t go too crazy because I know they’re going to say no to this or that, and you start getting a bit tame, you start knowing what they want and adapting your style to them. Having a personal project is kind of a rebirth. It’s what you want to do, there’s no client involved, and you get to go a bit crazy. It’s really good for your inspiration and your drive.
VVS: Which filmmakers or designers do you draw inspiration from?
GB: There’s a very well know designer in Montreal, Julien Vallée, who’s been a great inspiration. He’s actually one of the guys who started the stop motion thing in Montreal and he kind of got me into that. He has a designer background too, so he has been a big inspiration. Obviously I have a very strong feeling of identity with the whole Swiss design movement, that’s most of my inspiration — really minimal design, especially of that era that’s before computers or Tumblr, where people are now feeding off each other’s work to create new work. It’s kind of mind blowing that these guys were so ahead of their time, their composition was so beautiful and timeless. Wes Anderson has been a great inspiration in terms of color coordination, and Michel Gondry is absolutely a god to me — he’s amazing, just so creative. Even though I don’t go with his choice of aesthetics, just the ideas that he has are absolutely amazing.
VVS: How does airing on TV compare to sharing your work online?
GB: The thing about TV is that you don’t really know what’s going on because you’re not there. Obviously online is great because you can monitor what’s going on, and you can see a response to your project. When I did my Essays on Reality I was surprised that people loved it, and you guys featured it as a Staff Pick. That really touched me, because it was more from my heart than any other project.
We caught up with director Greg Barth to discuss his design background and the process behind his work.
New to Video School? Read our Frequently Asked Questions.
Browse by Category
Submit Your Tutorial
Most of the video tutorials in our Video School lessons come from Vimeo members. If you have a tutorial you'd like to share, please submit it here.