Tom Bridges, co-founder of Neon, reveals how a skateboard video the studio created seven years ago changed the advertising landscape for broadcast technology today.

Neon is a visual effects and motion graphics boutique that has been creating award winning commercial work since 2010. Amongst their other valued clients, Neon are proud to work with household brands like Sky, Sony, Nike, ITV, Woolmark, Fox Sports, and more.

How do you win work?

We rely heavily on word of mouth, or people seeing our working and getting in touch with us. We don’t do any outbound marketing. Maybe we should be cold calling ad agencies and mailshotting our showreels or courting brands in the traditional way, but the truth is that we don’t. We’d rather spend that marketing budget on an R&D film that people might see.

Our belief is simple. We believe that if we do good work, on time and on budget, then people will come back, and recommend us. That sounds incredibly obvious, but I’m continually astonished by how rare this seems to be in our industry.

I have no doubt that there’s been an element of luck in the last seven years for us at Neon. We could scale up and take on more work, but we’re very comfortable with our size and the care and attention to detail that this allows us to give our clients. What we have works for us: we’re not intent on changing that.

Who are your key clients?

We have a number of long standing clients and partners. Our current work for Sky was commissioned by Venturethree.

Venturethree came across an R&D piece that we did several years ago which was all about skateboarding–  the principles of the creative can be seen now in Sky’s advertising campaign for Sky Q. 

Funnily enough, we created it with Sky in mind. We wanted to make something to explore a new 3D technique we’d found, but it was important to us to make something that made narrative sense, that wasn’t just us showing off for the sake of it.

So we called in our all favours and begged, borrowed and stole to shoot a micro-short in a an abandoned chapel in Peckham, London. Our  ‘Macro’ skateboarding project was released as a Christmas card for a close network of friends and family. We hoped they’d like it, of course, but it defied all expectations. Within a week it had over one million views, and was selected as a Vimeo Staff Pick.

Why was the skateboard project and the subsequent Sky campaign so successful?

It is hard to put your finger on just one reason. Charlie, our Creative Director, invented the original ‘Fragments’ technique for Sky back in 2007, where we painstakingly animated still images to give the effect of ultra-slow motion footage. It was ideal for advertising the (then) new medium of HD on an SD screen. It was a campaign that lasted for over seven years, which must be some kind of record.

We developed the photo-real macro technique to try and build on this, to add insight to a physically interesting moment. It’s based on photography, so we’re using real textures and lighting, but the camera is free. What’s great is that we can create shots that would be optically impossible to shoot, but still appear photoreal.

What is a recent example of your work for Sky?

Sky want to highlight ‘Ultra HD’ and the benefits of Sky Q’s 4K resolution – magnifying the details that you’d otherwise miss with regular HD viewing.

The first football video we created in this campaign was a goal scored by then Liverpool player, Emre Can.

Our latest commercial (that we can talk about!) was a spot for Sky that re-visited a goal by Mohamed Salah for Liverpool FC against Manchester City last season.

The finished commercial which continues to be used by Sky is below.

What were the technical challenges of these projects?

We’ve been looking at different ways to explore these macro moments so that they don’t become stale. We think extensively about camera position to create tension for the viewer – we want them to question what they are watching.

Salah’s goal was a complicated storyboard exercise: the ball is moving away from the foot when the leg strikes through, the boot has to come under the football, pulling up turf and soil as it accelerates through the shot, to give the ball the loft required to sail over the goalkeeper. And then there’s the bounce of the ball before it hits the back of the net. It’s not just kicking a ball – there’s more to it than that.

Through each cut, it is important to tell the story of that particular moment. We spent a lot of time with the edit – telling the story but with the privileged viewpoint that a virtual camera gives us. We did at least fifty edits in pre viz, and each edit experimented with different cameras, lenses, frame rate, ramps, and shot orders.

Creating and rendering the CGI on time and on budget was, and is always, a major challenge.

How do you render CGI on time and on budget?

We are relatively quick with our CG pipeline. We’ve used Cinema 4D (C4D) for many years.

As an all-round 3D package, C4D really is quite astonishing. We achieve great results quickly, but it still has the control and ability to rival far more established production pipelines.

For the Salah Sky Q commercial, the timeline was seven weeks from greenlight to final delivery. With a relatively small team, a 4k brief, and no huge render farm on site, we turned to YellowDog to help us with the final renders to ensure delivery.

The pre-viz and 3D scanning process took a long time, so we had a tight production schedule after that. We estimated that we could render the majority of the commercial on our own render farm. There were 3 key shots we knew that we wanted to send to YellowDog.

The heaviest frames in the key shots were taking between 1.5-2 hours per frame on YellowDog’s high performance 36 core, 72 thread, 256 gb RAM machines. On our own render farm, we were getting render times of several hours per frame. Photo-real 4K renders have long render times in a CPU pipeline – even with extensive scene optimisation. If we kept those key shots rendering in our own studio, we’d probably still be rendering them into next year.

Why YellowDog?

YellowDog is great for two reasons: the platform and the people. The YellowDog platform is super easy to use and for our commercials, it performs very very smoothly. But it isn’t just raw horsepower; their in-house expertise is what really makes the difference. They consult with us: whether that’s me, our production managers, or the artists submitting the shots. They’re familiar with the production process: they know the pressures, they feel the deadline, and ensure that we aren’t left in the dark.

We’d used other render farms before we found YellowDog – the one farm actually worked pretty well in terms of rendering a lot of frames very quickly but getting the frames back was a nightmare. That was incredibly frustrating and we suffered from a lack of custom and close support.

We receive frames back much faster with YellowDog – their on-demand machines are a higher specification than anyone else we know of and their file transfer system with YellowDog Sync is super simple.

Overall, the combination of performance and great support makes them a better solution than anything else that we know of.

Is Cloud Rendering cost effective?

Like most studios, we submit a fixed price bid to win work and we don’t (and often can’t) pass on variable costs to clients.

When we draw up budgets, we keep a pot for Cloud Rendering if we need it. I think that we and the industry need to accept that with a fluid production process like rendering, sometimes we will win, and sometimes we won’t on budget expectations. Until we get to our final scenes, we can’t totally predict the length or cost of the process if we send that out to a service.

The reason that we use YellowDog for cost is because we get a fixed price rate that we can work within our existing budget contingency and they totally understand our processes. There is an intelligence in the YellowDog software and team that holds infinitely more value for us than a cheaper GHz per hour rate or whatever other people use to estimate budgets.

We use Cloud Rendering and we render on our local farm too – we make it work on cost and we keep winning fresh work because we invest in our production delivery.

What’s coming up? More commercials for Sky?

For this latest spot and the campaign as a whole, Sky are delighted. We hear that it is doing well with ‘David Reviews’ too which is always nice.

We started with a group of three Sky commercials to test the water and they’re coming back for more – how far that will go, and in what direction, is unknown but it is incredibly exciting.

We will continue to learn through our internal studio projects. Working without the direction of an external brief, passion projects help keep our approach fresh and interesting. We’re unlikely to replicate the success of our skate film every year, but that’s not the point. As long as we’re learning, we’ll keep at it.

Opportunity for Neon came from their side project work.  People who like this article, love our interview with Visual Effects pioneer, Ari Rubenstein where YellowDog helped the studio to render V-Ray for the short film: The Blues Crab