Screen gems: The art onscreen at TED2018

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A monumental part of what brings the TED conference to life is the speakers and the amazing ideas they share on the TED stage. But here’s a riddle: What also shares the spotlight with each person who spends their 3 to 18 minutes speaking on the red dot? The magnificent session art, of course!

TED has collaborated with design firm Colours & Shapes since 2014. They are the minds behind the mesmerizing animated art seen at the start and throughout each session, which is tailored specifically to that session’s theme.

We caught up with Colours & Shapes in their hometown of Vancouver, BC, to learn more about the process behind an integral part of what’s brought TED2018: The Age of Amazement to life.

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A globally changing landscape forms the backdrop for Session 4, the Audacious Project. Over the course of the evening’s session, the light slowly fades onscreen.

Q: Tell us about your team and company:

Colours & Shapes was founded in 2012 by Gordie Cochran and Anthony Diehl. We actually sort of stumbled into it. We saw an opportunity to leverage our diverse backgrounds in film, events and tech to craft amazing, meaningful experiences. Our passion has really been to architect “moments” that stick with you; moments that resonate with that deep “why” behind any event or experience.

Q: Take us through the creative process: from receiving the prompts to fruition … were there technical considerations or concerns you had to troubleshoot?

The creative process has been really wonderful. We love how open the TED curation team is to some pretty “out there” visual ideas. Our process was really all about understanding the session themes and curation and finding ways to to unpack “amazement” in each. We started with really rough sketches and motifs. We gave particular consideration to how we could use projection on the stage and the beautiful wood cases. We knew from the start that we wanted to treat the entire stage and screens as one unified canvas for content. We worked really closely with Mina, Mike and Martha to find just the right tone for each session. Our looks moved pretty quickly from sketches and moodboards to illustration and animation.

The creative process really followed the development of the sessions. As we learned more about the speakers and topics, there was so much great inspiration to draw on visually. From the unique red laser light in Mary Lou Jepsen’s talk to ocean exploration and intimate storytelling, we wanted each session to feel like the perfect space to hear each TED Talk. Our team worked incredibly hard in the weeks leading up to TED to produce all these diverse session environments. And we worked in a lot of different mediums! Traditional animation, illustration, film, compositing, VFX … At one point we found ourselves smearing around a lot of tea, cream and sugar in macro videography for one session look (Session 5: Space to Dream).

Q: What were you most excited about when you heard this year’s theme was Age of Amazement?

Love the theme! We were immediately intrigued and drawn in when we starting talking about this year theme. Each session really has its own way that it interacts with the theme in a way that is really fun and interesting. The early creative motifs we developed were all about exploring “amazement” through a variety of lenses: emotions, optical illusions, perspective shifts, shadow play, etc.

Q: The art for each session is based on the session title — any secret inspirations? (A little birdy told me about song lyrics inspiring Session 5 … are there others like that?)

  • There were a few sessions that we really wanted to tie into. The red laser light for Session 9: Body Electric is a nod to Mary Lou Jepsen’s talk.
  • Nerdish Delight is a playful nod to the ubiquitous “sexy tech product reveal” video. It’s all cool sculpted lines, slick materials and studio lighting … except we never get to see just what the product is!
  • “Wow. Just wow.” is an M.C. Escher-esque optical illusion. It’s all about the thrill of a perspective shift, that “wow” moment when you realize you are seeing something completely new and exciting.
  • “Space to Dream” really started as we asked ourselves, “What do astrophysicist daydream about?” We imagined ourselves staring into a cup of tea and losing ourselves in a waking dream about beautiful unseen corners of the universe. In one of our creative meetings with the TED team the lyrics to the Blondie song “Dreaming” came up: “I’ll have a cup of tea and tell you of my dreaming …” It’s a beautiful deep space daydream that is built entirely from filmed elements like tea, sugar, cream and food coloring. No actual nebulae were harmed in the filming of that session.

Q: Any “easter eggs” we should look for?

The Blondie song connection above is a fun one.

Session 10, Personally Speaking, is a session all about little scenes and objects that suggest a story, but don’t quite give you all the info. Sort of like the opening line of a good short story. The wood cases on stage and “rooms” in the session environment shift and turn.

Q: What do you want the audience to experience while watching your art?

In a word? Amazement! Our hope is that each visual environment serves to support the deep, intentional and thoughtful curation that has gone into each session for TED 2018. In working closely with the team at TED, we have worked to extract as many insights, themes, inspirations for each session and then have endeavoured to create visual environments that effectively captures the DNA of each session in thoughtful, creative and whimsical ways.

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The shifting panels and details of Session 2’s screen reflects the session title: “After the end of history …”

Q: What are you most proud of from this project?

Definitely our talented team members! Producing great experiences and beautiful creative takes a team that can bend and bow with evolving ideas and creative discovery. Getting to partner with the brilliant team at TED and come alongside and be able to visually bring big ideas to life in the theatre has been a really fantastic and creatively rich experience for C&S. Hard to pick favourites from the content but we really love how the conference opener came out. Jorge Canedo Estrada’s sumptuous animation is second to none. Also, seeing Mike Ellis’ gorgeous illustration come to life in a crazy shifting 3D world in “Wow. Just Wow.” is something we could watch all day!

Q: How many people work on making this happen?

We pulled together a team of multidisciplinary creatives to built out the visual worlds for TED2018. We have collaborated with a team of illustrators, designers, animators and composers, 13 people total.

Q: Any interesting or fun stories you’d like to share that happened during the process?

The intensity of taking everything on with a short timeline, and then throwing the opener into the mix weeks before the event. This led to some long nights in animation! But seeing it all come to life in the theatre was incredibly rewarding.

Q: Anything I’m missing? Anything you’d like to add?

Thank you to Chris, Mina, Mike, Martha and the TED team for having us along for the ride this year!

Bright colors and natural motifs tell the story of Session 11, “What matters.”

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