Creative COW Magazine: The Heavy Lifting Issue
South San Francisco, California USA
©2010 Megan McKenna and CreativeCOW.net. All rights reserved.
When the 10-disk "Neil Young Archives, Vol. 1 (1963-1972)" was released in 2009, it established a benchmark for what is possible with advanced Blu-ray authoring for multimedia that has yet to be equaled. In Creative COW Magazine's "Heavy Lifting Issue," we asked Megan McKenna to tell us about her team's work on this massive project, over four years in the making.
It all started with a ton of material.
Okay. Wait. It started with historical events and interpersonal experiences that influenced Neil Young. He then wrote a song or two.
Years pass, and he found himself with a very large amount of material. It was then distilled in the late 80s by Neil Young Archivist Joel Bernstein who organized, printed, and put it into a binder as thick as a yellow phone book. It was eventually tossed in the air, and landed with a thump on the desk of Total Media Group's Art Director, Toshi Onuki.
Neil had been waiting for all those years for technology to catch up to his vision of a career-spanning presentation of those archives, which begins with the newly released 10-disc set, "Neil Young Archives, Vol. 1 (1963-1972)."
Neil Young's truly distinctive handwriting -- and his hand doing the writing.
When Neil's Production Company, Shakey Pictures, approached us to embark on this project with him, only one thing was set in stone: the music had to be at the highest possible resolution. Everything else was to be designed around that.
As Toshi describes it, Joel began to speak about Neil's vision for how to present the archives. Specifically, the significance of each song, and how each piece of memorabilia was related to each song (photos, press, lyrics, supplemental audio and video) and much, much more. "I remember that the conversation and descriptions went on for hours," he said. "It was just exhausting and overwhelming. There was a definite sense of obsession in our conversations." This feeling became the cornerstone for Toshi's design.
The second thing Neil wanted was the ability to listen to the music while navigating through the vast selection of material in his archives. This is impossible to do with a standard DVD, where you cannot play the movie (or, in our case, the music) while also browsing menus and other files on the disk. It only became possible with the Blu-ray specification - and until the Blu-ray version of the Archives was released, a Blu-ray multimedia experience on this scale had never been attempted before.
Disclosure: I am in love with the design. The best way I can think of to describe the experience is that it's about as analog as it gets.
Click image for larger
As a kid, I would listen to my vinyl records while sitting on the floor, explore the album covers, pull out the lyric sheets, read the bios of the band and other notes, and look through the artwork and pictures in the included booklets. Through a tangible experience that drew me deep, I was totally immersed in the music.
This 10-disc set is so comprehensive and packed with memorabilia, press, ticket stubs, articles, and photos directly related to Neil Young's life and music that it takes a very long time to explore everything. I'm not talking "a few hours" long time. I'm talking weeks - even months.
If you choose to listen to the music on the Archives without browsing the extras, the analog experience continues in what we call the "Main Program." You'll see video of the song playing back on the medium it was recorded on - reel-to-reel tape, a cassette, or a vinyl record on a turntable, tracking to the exact place it would be if the album was truly spinning in front of you. [See sidebar: "THIS NOTE'S FOR YOU," below.]
This was music the way it was supposed to be experienced, and Neil Young has successfully captured that total immersion in his archives.
A small section of the timeline showing the historical and musical contect of Neil's work in 1963-1965. Yellow pins are added to the appropriate place in the timeline when new material is available for download with "BD-Live" enabled Blu-ray players, and turn blue after it has actually been downloaded. Click image for larger.
JOURNEY THROUGH THE PAST
Neil spent a lot of time with Toshi talking about how the archives should look and feel. He wanted the design to feel organic and natural, almost as if the images were on a desk in front of the viewer. The most important part of the design was to create a realistic environment that was also easy to navigate.
Toshi stepped back from the idea of a DVD, and looked into how people store, catalogue and display information in everyday life. His first stop was at a museum, where he viewed the display cases, noting that gray or black backdrops were used around or underneath documents and artifacts to make them stand out. Toshi utilized that treatment in the "assets gallery" to highlight Neil's personal documents and objects.
Next, Toshi visited libraries and government departments where information has been stored for over 50 years. "I found card catalogues," he said, "tattered and aged paper, note cards with faded writing, all stored in cabinets, filled to the brim."
This was a natural answer to the design dilemma. The viewer opens up an exaggerated file cabinet to find 10 years of Neil's work, organized in file folders, by song, in chronological order.
Disc 08-North Country (1971-1972)
Open up each file folder, and you find all the related information for that song: articles, photos, historical events, and anything else that influenced Neil, at that moment, to write this specific song.
The menu for the Documents subfolder within the song folder for "The Sultan" (Disc 00, Track 02), including Neil's handwritten composition of the song and a list of shows. Everything you see is a separate button, leading to its own destination. For example, note other folder tabs across the top of the image for Photos, Press, and Memorabilia. Click this image for the full-sized menu, compressed for the web.
Below, the buttons in the first stage of the flowchart representing each "button" that someone might press, and the first step of what would happen next for each of them.
The design was entirely organic and natural, and felt right for the project. Neil agreed.
We set up production in a back conference room at Total Media Group, and Will Mitchell and L.A. Johnson from Shakey Pictures moved in.
Archivist Joel Bernstein was in constant communication, verifying facts and finding more to include in the Archives. Neil came in when he could, and would participate by webcam and email when not able to be in the office.
We started work in the fall of 2005.
"I don't think we really knew how big the project was until we had everything delivered to us," Toshi recalls. It's true. Once we laid everything out on the table, we quickly realized that we were looking at over 3,000 assets to create.
Other than that massive task at hand, we knew two things: without strong procedures, this could easily turn into a workflow nightmare. We also knew that we had to move forward on the SD DVD files, not knowing what the future high-definition DVD platform would require, or how we would be able to repurpose our work for it. At the very least, we felt that the best way to begin was to create the original graphics in HD, then downconvert for the SD DVD version.
SD DVDs require two files for each menu: one file for the background image, and one for the sub pictures (button highlights). The DVD author determines the color change for all three states (normal, selected, and activated) within the authoring program.
One of the basic menus, with a basic option highlighted
Additionally, we needed to create what we called a captions page for most menus (where text would appear as an overlay over the background image with more details).
This translated to 3,000 background pages, plus 3,000 sub picture pages, plus all the related captions pages. No wonder we had more than 20 terabytes of data on our drives!
Setting up a basic template is the easy way to go for some projects. Create one design, add specific content, and apply to every page.
Not so for the Neil Young Archives. Each individual menu page - all 3,000 of them - needed its own TLC (Toshi Loving Care). This makes sense when you look at the content. In some images a bunch of people are standing around a Cadillac, center screen. In another, only Neil is seated on a couch, with a focal point a little lower than center right, and so on.
Below, the main menu for the first disk in the "Neil Young Archives, Vol. 1 (1963-1972)." As shown in the middle image on the left side, and the two pictures at the top of this image, he file drawer opens to reveal individual songs, accessible by clicking on the pictures of the file tabs. In center, a fairly traditional DVD menu -- leading to additional menus with completely different button layouts, such as the one in the upper right.
Click image for larger.
After each of the individual elements were composited, we placed text in relation to each specific photo, as the image called for it. Rather than a template, we let the IMAGES drive the design, keeping the organic feel that Neil requested.
This was true even for common menu buttons such as "Back" and the navigational arrows. Though it would have made for a quicker turnaround to create a "one-size-fits-all" design, Neil wanted to take the time to make sure each element looked its best, in the exact context it was actually being presented in.
With such a dynamic project, changes were inevitable. With multiple people working on the files, our first task was to set up standards, file management protocols, and solid lines of communication. Everyone was on a separate computer, so we also set up a dedicated in-house server to work from.
And, of course, a whiteboard. Click the image for a closer look at one small aspect of managing this massive project.
Everything else came down to names, numbers, and folders. Toshi created a filing structure organized by song for each disc. Each song had its related category: memorabilia, press, photos, etc. In turn, each category had multiple assets and associated pages like thumbnails, photo galleries, and captions.
Then, to make sure everything was in one place, we created a separate .PSD file for every song, with a dedicated layer for each element (i.e. menu buttons, captions etc…). This helped us keep all the layers contained, although individual files often reached several hundred megabytes each.
We were also very careful to keep everything nondestructive, so we could easily make changes later. One of our favorite tools was the Smart Object feature in Photoshop. Smart Object allowed us to scale down an image and commit it. If we needed to scale it up to its original size later, we could do so without losing quality. This is a great tool to use when design is fluid.
Blue-ray menu navigation diagrams. Click image for larger.
Below, the detailed flowchart of where each of those clicks takes you. Click image for larger.
Since each element was an original image/scan, we kept the related mattes, color grading and other treatments as adjustment layers. To keep things organized and flexible, we treated multiple layers as a Smart Object Subcomp, and reduced it to one layer.
For instance, we could combine five layers into one, making it easy to apply similar effects to multiple elements. Unlike merging layers, Smart Object Subcomps allowed us to open a layer comp containing each separate layer and make individual changes as needed, while maintaining a nice and clean layer palette. As insurance, we also kept uncommitted and flattened versions of every file at every step. We didn't want to be stuck putting the pieces back together from scratch again.
Click image for closer view of Photoshop comp for one "song"-level menu
Our file names were pretty straightforward. Titles started with the disc name, song number, and category, and version number if appropriate. So for Disc 00, song 01, the naming looked a little like this:
We also created separate files for transitions from one page to another, such as with the lyrics pages. So for Disc 00, song 01 again, the naming looked like this:
Once we designed all the files, we downconverted to SD and committed the background images, for a total of three files for each page: one background (the main image), one sub-picture for the menus, and one file for each image that had a related caption.
FORK IN THE ROAD
In February 2008, three years into the SD DVD project, it was announced that the HD format standard would be Blu-ray. That June, Neil attended the Sun Microsystems Java One conference at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, and announced he would be releasing his archives on Blu-ray.
Image courtesy Mashable
You may be raising an eyebrow and wondering what Neil Young, The Archives, Blu-ray and Java have to do with one another. The answer is: a lot.
In addition to the multi-tasking advantages described earlier, Blu-ray provides two methods of navigation: HDMV (the "High Definition Movie") with multiple button commands and limited animation; and BD-J (Blu-ray Disk Java), which includes multiple animation options and other extended features.
Blu-ray also offers BD-Live to network-connected players. This allows Neil to deliver new content through the use of BD-J. He has already sent out updates including new songs, and a retrospective blog that he has been typing out on a real typewriter he's been carting around while on tour. (The analog experience continues!)
This left us with two major challenges. First, to design an interface that could take advantage of the BD-Live capabilities, including the contextual addition of the new material Neil delivered. We also had to re-design all the navigation elements we had created over the past three years to take advantage of Blu-ray's interactive capabilities.
We partnered with San Francsico-based MX Entertainment for authoring, encoding, and BD-J programming, and together, developed a method to communicate to their programmers how each disc was going to behave.
Based on the sheer number of assets, combined with the subtleties of logic required for the Blu-ray version, we created a visual representation of the navigation for every single possible user click on the remote.
In addition to the layered PSD files that were the menu and buttons for each disc, we provided QuickTime movies to illustrate the button animations, an asset list with over 1,000 lines of information, and navigation flowcharts to clearly show every button and every menu's next move.
The flowchard for the Documents menu seen above. Click for larger.
Here is where we paused and took a deep breath. Our previous work for the DVD was definitely usable, but there was much to add, and we had less than a year to complete the design.
Among other things, we had to revise the PSD files to include the elements for the button animations in each state.
After discussions with MX Entertainment on the possibilities, we decided to go for a consistent five-frame animation for the selected state only.
The "Play All" option in disc 00 shows one example, seen below. When selected, each button grows a little larger and change brightness over five frames. In designing this, we created a folder for every single button.
Within the folder were layers that contained the buttons' relative state: the normal state, the selected state (with all five frames for the animation), and its active state.
The resulting layer palette in Photoshop for the highlights and button states looks a little like this:
Multiply this by every button, then multiply by 3,000 menus, and suddenly, there's a lot of work!
Editor's note: What you see above are the animation states for one single button.
Click the image at left for a full-size capture of the Photoshop Layers palette for the buttons on the Main Menu of the first disc in the Archives, over 11,000 pixels high!
AFTER THE GOLD RUSH
"The Neil Young Archives, Vol. 1 (1962-1973)" consumed Total Media Group's creative and production team for three years just to complete the SD design, and then another year to design the Blu-ray version. MX worked tirelessly, authoring and programming to leverage the platform for Neil. When combined with the treasures contained in the archives themselves, the finished project will change expectations of what the Blu-ray experience can be.
As I write this, the Archives were released less than a month ago, and we've barely had time to catch our breath. Recently, we took a moment to reflect on the design. L.A. Johnson, producer for Shakey Pictures, observed, "Graphically, the ‘Archives' project reflects Neil's sensibilities very well. Toshi has a perspective that only someone who wasn't in America during the 60s and 70s can have. Because he wasn't prejudiced by the time period or its iconic graphics, he could stand back and look at the individual images in the archive for what they were, and envision the entire project as an artistic whole."
"I was able to do this because I started as a non-fan," said Toshi. "I didn't know Neil Young's music at all, but after working on a few of Neil's studio session videos, I came to understand how he works with the music. I wanted to preserve that in the archives."
Total Media Group Creative Director Toshi Okuni, editing Neil Young's "Live at Massey Hall, Toronto 1971" using Autodesk Smoke.
While editing, Toshi stayed away from what he calls decorating the footage. Essentially, he faded in and out of the image, creating an excerpt, and didn't interject anything new. The result is that Shakey Pictures and Total Media Group created not just a music video box set, but a glimpse into Neil Young's life.
Many people ask what is next. I can tell you that Neil went out and bought an old-fashioned file cabinet and file folders. He is placing the songs of choice into the cabinet, and navigating through them by hand, as we begin to craft Volume 2.
South San Francisco, California USA
After many years as a DVD author and video editor, Megan now works closely with clients in corporate, medical, commercial, entertainment and independent producers, to help find and tell their story with creative production, events, and multimedia.
Megan did some work on the Archives, though she would tell you, "Not much. I mainly stopped in to marvel and say 'hi' every now and then.
We are grateful to Megan for her insight into this remarkable project, as well as to Neil Young and Shakey Films for their input to this article.
Want more articles like these delivered to your door, via First Class mail? Subscribe now!