"The Unforeseen" Director Laura Dunn had been accepted into the 2007 Sundance Film Festival with a rough cut of her documentary. I was a producer on the film. With 4 months left before premiere, she asked if I would tackle adding motion graphics to depict development from "plan" through completion.
[RANT]So many documentaries use graphics like editor's grout. Doc filmmakers typically have little sense of the tools and often are at the mercy of whomever they've hired. You've got some talking heads you need to break up, so you just jam very obtrusive B-Roll of some "animation" by "your graphics guy." Often they just bust out the newest weapon in their visual arsenals and lard up a movie with the highly conspicuous use of some trendy technique. [/RANT]
In discussing this with Laura, we both wanted to strive to maintain a "documentary ethic" about the graphics. In other words, depict the exact areas described by the interview subject. We edited footage of him looking at his Blueprints immediately before showing "the Clean Canvas" soon to receive his "Plans." The music track was Jeff Beck's "Plan B" which was used slightly ironically given how awry the subject's plans were to eventually go.
Being vaguely familiar with the concept of GIS (Geographic Information System) information, I approached Austin city planners and requested copies of the GIS Data sets and then had to procure aerial photos (for Before and After.) Original Aerials were shot from planes in black and white. Final Aerials were of course color satellite imagery. But how to animate? I knew After Effects could handle vectors very beautifully, but finding a way to port the vector data formats of GIS into After Affects was the real challenge. Eventually I found an amazing Illustrator plugin called "MAPublisher." This proved to be the Rosetta Stone that enabled City of Austin GIS data to be converted into Illustrator. Amazingly, MAPublisher adds essentially GIS spatial awareness to Illustrator -- which is a fancy way of saying that when I imported a Layer of "Water Lines" and a Layer of "Waste Water" lines, they landed in just the right place. Road names were not available from the sets, and so I had to bring additional PDFs in and manually align them over the GIS.
The final project had the following layers from bottom to top:
• Base Layer - 80s B&W Aerial Photography
• Grid Lines - Grey - These come in very subtly during initial zoom*
• Road Layer - White - As Bradley says "The Road is kinda the Basic Blueprint."
• Road Names/Plots Layer - Black - These are PDF layer from a different map, imperfectly aligned.
• Water Lines Layer - Blue - Water INTO The houses/Pool, etc.
• Waste Water Lines Layer - Green - Sewers basically. I mistakenly chose an unsafe Green for video. Ooops.
• Finished Aerial Layer - Color Satellite image.
The developer is in essence drawing the map with his spoken words. The layers give way to each other as he speaks them into being. This is really to allow the film's text to draw the graphics. We really strove to make this aesthetic serve the film as opposed to interrupt or grout through a narrative gap.
I was rendering the film's graphics up until 1 week before the Sundance world premiere. I never knew if it would get rendered in time or not and wound up connecting 12 or so Macs together in a home render farm to get this finished. I'm very glad Laura asked me to try this. We were nominated for a Cinema Eye Best Achievement in Animation and Graphics (documentary.org/content/nominations-announced-inaugural-cinema-eye-awards-nonfiction-filmmaking)
Laura went on to win the Independent Spirit Award for The Unforeseen. (youtube.com/watch?v=bkb0VeoylhU)
• Grids were just to correspond to Wendell Berry's poetic reading from film's opening sequence
"Some small human understanding seemed to have arrayed itself there without limit, and to have cast its grid upon the sky, the stars, the rising and the setting sun. I could not see past it but to its ruin."