Static Logos Be Gone

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How Imaginary Forces brought the Science Channel’s “Morph” logo to life

Like a tadpole that becomes a frog or a caterpillar that transforms into a butterfly, the Science Channel rebrand began with a fledgling logo designed by Discovery Communications that had a lot of potential. Fittingly, they called it “Morph.” And, they wanted Imaginary Forces to orchestrate the metamorphosis of the little black oval-shaped logo into a character with a shape and personality that could literally morph in different ways to correspond with Science Channel’s programming.

Imaginary Forces gave Discovery’s black, egg-shaped Morph logo a wide array of characters and personalities to correspond to different network programming.

The idea, says Ronnie Koff, creative director on the project and the designer responsible for a long list of titles and trailers, including “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”, was to make Morph visually compelling, but also imperfect. “We wanted the science robot, for example, to have scratches, and look worn and dented,” he explains. Confronted with the design challenges of the project, Imaginary Forces opted to use Maxon’s Cinema 4D, “because it’s fast and allows artists to work in an intuitive way.”

The robot-like Morph character looks menacing but retreats into its shell when it gets scared.

It becomes robot-like for Popular Science’s “Future Of” and other science/technology shows — Morph is funny, bouncy and full of energy for sports programming. Changing again into something more organic in an amoebic way for sci-fi shows, Morph can also become a mechanized-looking nautilus shell, a jellyfish, an urchin-like creature and the universe. At some point, though, Morph always turns back into its original, black, egg-like shape. (You can see the network rebrand on the Imaginary Forces website.)

Koff says the unconventional rebrand is meant to “take the edge off science a little bit” and give the Science Channel a fresh, new look that appeals to wider audiences who appreciate offbeat offerings like ‘The Idiot Abroad.’ “Science doesn’t traditionally have popular connotations, so we wanted to do something that turns science on its head and offers the perfect storm of elements that make a really good brand,” he explains.

IF’s creative team used Cinema 4D’s displacement maps to create the urchin character’s many spines.

From the start, the network embraced the idea of creating a wide range of Morph characters for promos, network IDs and logo bugs. “They were in it to make it good and they were great to work with,” Koff recalls. “I would throw ideas by them and they would love them or we would work together to change them until we all loved them.” All told, very little actually changed between initial concepts and final execution. If anything, he says, some ideas became simpler and more iconic “for the immediacy of TV.”

Not just eye candy

There is a fine line between making eye candy and making something clever, Koff and his team believe. That meant nothing they created was arbitrary. The robot, for example, was based on a pillbug or (or roly-poly bug). “He has the same kind of shell and exoskeleton and we designed him so when he gets scared, he can roll up inside his shell,” says Koff. (Check out the robot clip here.)

Modeled from propane tanks and auto parts, the nautilus shell was hand-animated in C4D.

And though the nautilus shell is designed to look more mechanical than natural, it is based on an actual nautilus shell found in nature. Made from car mufflers, lawnmower engines and propane tanks that they cut into pieces, the shell is meant to look as if it were built in someone’s garage by backyard hobbyists. “Throughout the brand we tried to give Morph more layers of meaning, aside from just looking cool,” Koff explains. “So it’s mechanical in content but rooted in science.”

Imaginary Forces used The Pixel Farm’s PFTrack to track the motion of the hand in the universe-themed spot. Data was brought into C4D where they created the universe, which includes a destroyed planted, modeled with ZBrush.

With just two months from start to finish to complete the project, Koff and two other designers had to work fast to design the 200 elements that made up the final rebrand. He credits C4D with helping them make their deadlines. “We did have some time to craft things,” he says. “But in TV you do something and they show it to 15 people and you have to redo a lot, so nothing can take an hour per frame.”

The urchin’s spikes, for example, were all done with displacement maps in Cinema 4D. (Click here to see the urchin clip.) “We didn’t have to model it all out first we just used deformers,” Koff recalls. “Same thing with the robot and other characters: we just modeled, textured, animated and rendered in Cinema and we were able to do so much so fast.” For depth of field Koff’s team relied on the Frischluft’s Lenscare plug-in (Learn more at the Frischluft website.)

The jellyfish, which was used for programming about unusual hobbies and creatures, retains the jelly-like aesthetic of Morph, says Koff. “And by taking it out of the water it becomes an oddity.”

C4D’s noise shaders also came in handy when the team needed to layer many different textures for things like the meteors in the universe network ID. “When we made the universe Morph we thought it might be intriguing to put this tiny alien universe in the palm of someone’s hand,” recalls Koff. That way, the logo could connect more directly with shows like “Through the Wormhole” by marrying human investigation and space.

Making space feel miniature was a unique point of view for the design team to take on, he says. In contrast, the urchin Morph, which should logically have been small, was scaled as if it were a huge building. “So we were able to go from micro to macro in a single network package,” Koff adds. Watch the universe ID here.

No longer bound by static, print conventions, the Morph logo is free to move around and assume many forms. This, IF says, is the future of logos.

While final compositing is done in After Effects, Koff usually has everything go through Imaginary Forces’ Flame department before delivery to be sure everything is good to go. “I like to do final color correction in the Flame and in this case, with so many elements to deliver, it really helped to just pull them all into our Flame to keep them organized.”

Logos for the future

Imaginary Forces describes Morph as the logo of the future. No longer grounded by the constraints of print design, the logo is free to move around, making it suitable for the motion-graphics-driven media of today.

“Static logos are a thing of the past,” says Koff, who has a graphic design background. “It’s not that I don’t understand the logic behind print design. It’s that things have changed and now every time you see a logo it’s usually in some form of moving media, so there’s no reason to have print design be the foundation for logos anymore.” Not surprisingly, this stance has drawn some critics. But that’s okay with Koff.

“People are polarized about this network branding and whether it’s the future and that’s what makes it worthwhile,” he says. “It’s fun to kind of pull at those strings and stir people up. We’re supposed to evoke emotions.”

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