Last of the Big Tuskers Motion Graphics + Poster
Animated by Dane Aleksander in Autodesk Maya, and rendered with Mental Ray; designed in Serif Affinity Photo.
In 2016, I backed a project on Kickstarter: Last of the Big Tuskers, a film by James Currie. I had not known James at the time though my impression was that we shared an interest in wildlife storytelling and in wildlife conservation, and in this case in a South African story about elephant conservation. In particular, this was a film about the last of the bull “super-tusker” elephants in Tembe Elephant Park. The project was successfully funded in part on Kickstarter.
I had reached out to the Kickstarter campaign to offer assistance with graphic art because I wanted to see the film about elephants succeed. At the very least, I wanted to help improve upon the cover art. The cover art, such as a film poster or a web header, is often a first impression for a film. A film can benefit from a visual identity that exists throughout its promotional material and then extends into the film itself. This includes the film poster and cover art, the film titles and subtitles, the film credits and main scroll, and the website and web content and so on. So the visual identity for Last of the Big Tuskers covered it all: the cover art and album art and so on, the film credits, titles (for people and for elephants) and subtitles (for archival elephant footage and for locations and so on), and the film website and so on.
See the (original) cover art for the Kickstarter project page.
South African Type
There was an early edit of the film cut in 2017. James shared his story and welcomed my assistance. We started with a discussion about graphics for the film, about changes to the cover art, and ultimately about what the story was about.
This story was unique to a part of southern Africa. Typography with reference to an African style, however, was often applied with dramatic colors or with skeuomorphic textures, such as wooden and handcrafted. And yet the shape of such stylistic typefaces was often enough to communicate the spirit of the lettering. Title design for the film was an opportunity to appropriate an African inspired typeface with a more moderate tone. A unique title design can take on a characteristic of a story and that character can transmit into the film. In this case, the typography helps to uniquely promote Africa as a part of the story.
This is Tabwa — a font designed in 2007 by Anton Scholtz for Scholtz Fonts, a type foundry that he founded in Durban, South Africa. The font design is inspired by the Zulu culture of the region as well as by the font named: Neuland — a font designed in 1923 by Rudolf Koch for Klingspor for titling, in which the letters appear cut in wood. The Tabwa font is a less “art deco” and more “modern” redesign in the spirit of the original Neuland, and blended with the spirit of Africa. The triangles that decorate the characters are described as typical of the patterns found in the Tabwa culture of central and west Africa.
The look of the lettering is a practical way to represent a story. Typography impresses upon the motive of a typewritten word, with a range of visual extremes. Neutral typography is a best conservative direction. The best typographic design, however, is of a style that suits the story. (What is the story about?) The imperative – especially with a unique title typeface – is then to repeat the typographic design wherever the title is on display: in the film and in promotional material in print and on the web and so on, and so on.
The Photographic Spots
When we first had a chance to chat, James had just arrived back from the very film trip that the Kickstarter campaign had raised funds to support. James shared photos from his return to South Africa and adventure in Kenya. The landscape photography presented an opportunity to introduce the visual language of the film along with the important locations — the national parks. The photographic spots help to establish the landscape of the story.
Last of the Big Tuskers photographic spot
The series of posters was a variation on a theme, which represented select locations (and exclusive content for select marketplaces).
This collection of photographic spots also presented an absence. The question is raised: “Where are the elephants?” (Are there any big tuskers left to film?) Yes, there are big tuskers in the film, yet the question is valid and the question remains: “Will there be any big tuskers in the wild for much longer?”
Last of the Big Tuskers photographic spot: “Amboseli National Park”
Last of the Big Tuskers photographic spot: “Chyulu Hills National Park”
Last of the Big Tuskers photographic spot: “Tsavo West National Park”
The photographic spots were always treated as an alternative option. The film was all about the last “super-tusker” elephants, and the “king” was Isilo in the sandforest that exists uniquely in – and around – Tembe Elephant Park. There was no beating around the bush — the cover art was always all about Isilo.
Last of the Big Tuskers photograph: “Isilo” (Kickstarter) © Erik Schram
The Cover Boy
The painterly style that appears in the poster was arrived at in concept art, out of the need to paint over a low-resolution reference image from the Kickstarter project page. The digital painting process for the cover art exercised almost exclusively a single digital brush: Khan Square Brush, created by the creators of The Dam Keeper (2014). This is a prefered software tool for blocking-in digital art in development. The painterly texture was repeated in the visual identity of the film: the film poster and cover art and so on, the “magnificent seven” elephant graphics, and the film subtitle straps.
Last of the Big Tuskers festival poster
A painterly style is less conventional, and less neutral, than a minimalist and monochromatic art direction. Any particular style presents a risk that the image distracts from the message. A particular painterly style is made appropriate in the context of a story that is equally as unique. This film about a niche area with a niche elephant population made the case. The art of the film has appropriated the unique character of the story with a treatment of texture and type. In particular in the cover, digital painting made it possible to render the landscape more abstract and draw the focus more to Isilo. The landscape is faded in the background and abstractly repeats the silhouette of Isilo’s two big tusks. The cover art was formatted for print as a film poster, and was updated with laurels collected in the 2018-2019 film festival calendar. Congratulations, James!
The cover art was redesigned for print on the digital video disc (DVD) labels, and was reproduced at different dimensions for digital spots on the web.
Last of the Big Tuskers album art
The visual identity was integrated into the official website of the film, which was designed and developed with the open-source WordPress information architecture. WordPress was implemented to maintain and manage the website as well as to allow any contributors and editors to easily access the web content. The website was designed to present the provided information about the film, and to showcase a focused narrative of the film: the big tuskers and the big support. The cover art was set as a web header.
Last of the Big Tuskers official website: bigtuskers.com.
Last of the Big Tuskers cover art
The Magnificent Seven
The painterly style that was introduced in the cover art was then extended to a series of elephant graphics. The elephant graphics each referenced a specific frame from the film and presented an opportunity to pause for a moment on each one of the featured big tuskers. There were seven featured in the film. This idea was executed in part: the elephants are commemorated on the website and the digital paintings made available in print in limited edition with proceeds going to wildlife foundations also featured in the film: Big Life Foundation, The Tsavo Trust, Tembe Tusker Foundation.
Last of the Big Tuskers elephant graphic: “Isilo”
This, once more, is Isilo. This references the last footage of Isilo alive in the film. This painting was a moment of reflection, and the tusks were the point of focus. The flow of the paths, the grass, the trees, and the pond and so on – all – leads into Isilo. The color takes advantage of an image compression that occurs when the reference image is a single frame of already compressed footage. The highlights and shadows on the skin of the mud-covered elephant appear to have subtle yellow and purple compression artifacts, which have been drawn upon to emphasize the royal tone of the “king of kings”. The warm highlight is like a crown on the head of the magnificent bull elephant.
Art of Last of the Big Tuskers : “The Magnificent Seven.”
The title design and cover art and so on were an obliged contribution. The proposed collaboration was a series of map graphics for the film. Art direction was likewise a discussion for the map graphics.
The Visual Effects
Simple graphics can be good. Simplistic can be clean. Realistic graphics have to be good to be cut with real footage. Then there is everything in-between. James shared an early edit of the film to review where the maps were requested. We considered what motion was required, which direction and why and so on.
We had five (or six) maps. They all had to be consistent, and each of them had to fit into the flow of the film. One particular map had to represent movement from South Africa to China, Hong Kong and Vietnam and we wanted this motion to transport the audience. There are any number of ways to represent this geographic communication. We considered just a few art directions: infographic, painterly graphic, and satellite image. We looked at respective relevant examples of these three different directions. However, any direction away from satellite-like imagery had to have raison d’etre in the film. This film represented an adventure to-and-from key landmarks for elephant conservation in Africa, and, so, the imperative for the art direction was clarity.
We looked at an overlayed data visualization of Earth in a Netflix original documentary, The Ivory Game. This graphical representation is animated less like a planetary model, and more like a desk globe or computer-generated model — more appropriate in the context of an undercover story, which imparts a tasked course of action for the protagonist in the film. (Think: a simplified, neutral white version of Tony Stark’s JARVIS in Iron Man and Iron Man 2 and so on.)
The Ivory Game (2016) © Terra Mater Film Studios, Vulcan Productions
More about the documentary film: The Ivory Game.
We looked as well at a minimalist painterly representation of Earth in an animated short film directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Last Days. This animated short film traced an illegal ivory trade route from Asia back to Africa. The minimalist painterly example represents one of a range of abstract art directions, which presented another opportunity to extend the character of the cover art into the film.
More about the animated short film: Last Days.
Last Days (2015) © Annapurna Pictures
We looked at last at a satellite image (or satellite-like imagination) of Earth in most BBC Natural History Unit documentaries, in this case in the Nature’s Great Events series, episode 3: “The Great Migration”. The images of Earth from space carry a certain significance — a reminder of where and who we are. This reminder is less pronounced when the representation is more abstract or more neutral. This particular episode of Nature’s Great Events tracked the seasonal migration of wildebeest in Africa, in a round about route, which is represented with bright and semi-transparent yellow-gold paths on satellite-like motion graphics.
More about the documentary series: Nature’s Great Events.
Nature’s Great Events e/3 “The Great Migration” (2011) © BBC
We realized no reason to pursue an art direction for the maps apart from realistic. The satellite view of Earth is a familiar image that carries contextual meaning and manages visual complexity without being a distraction from the message: the location, the path of adventure, the added layer of information.
We appropriated assets from personal and open-source projects to create a digital model of Earth.
The isual effects were rendered based on high-resolution satellite image data from the NASA project: Blue Marble, in combination with a computer-generated model of geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) and low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite systems. We referenced existing satellite and camera technology to maintain the familiar perspective – from space – and not venture into the surreal — to keep it real.
Last of the Big Tuskers “Blue Marble”
This image was rendered as a concept, with open-sourced satellite image data mapped to a computer-generated model of Earth, and with a view from a GEO satellite over southern Africa. We locked the art direction, simulated the trajectory of the satellite systems, and recorded a view for a window of time – over a given location – for each map sequence. Each map sequence indicated select international borders and national parks. Each frame was simulated then rendered in fifteen-to-thirty minutes with relation to the size of the indicated areas on screen. A few months of setup and review – plus three weeks, two days, twenty-one hours of render time – and we had our five or six maps. The renders were composited as layered uncompressed 32-bit color-depth image sequences, and encoded as Rec.709 DNxHR 4.4.4 compressed videos to integrate with the Avid editing system. The map graphics are pictured for a total of one minute and thirty-seven seconds. (2,425 frames at 25 frames per second.)
The first map sequence in the film is there to create a space for James to introduce the audience to Tembe Elephant Park, South Africa. The next map sequence is there to highlight Tembe Elephant Park in the context of Mozambique. Everything in the film is relative to Tembe. The last map in the film is there to place James on his adventure to Tsavo National Park, Chyulu Hills National Park and Amboseli National Park in Kenya, “far to the north of [Tembe Elephant Park].”
Last of the Big Tuskers “South Africa”
More about ESRI Conservation Program: “Revised extent of Maputaland Center of Endemism.”
Last of the Big Tuskers “Mozambique”
Last of the Big Tuskers “Kenya”
James Currie, Ashley Smith.
Special thanks to Erik Schram, James Currie, Johan Marais and Richard Moller for reference images of the elephants featured in the film. Thanks to the team at NASA Visible Earth for additional graphic data, in particular The Blue Marble collection. Thanks to the ESRI Conservation Group for additional map data, in particular the Maputaland Center of Endemism, as well as OpenStreetMap and its contributors for additional map data of national parks. Thanks again to James Currie for the opportunity to contribute to his story.
Satellite view of Africa: Amboseli National Park, Chyulu Hills National Park, Kruger National Park, Kenya, Maputaland, Mozambique, South Africa, Tembe Elephant Park, Tsavo National Park, and the ivory trade route(s) to China, Hong Kong and Vietnam;
The Dam Keeper (2014) digital brush.
Default: Helvetica Neue [55 Roman] (1983) by Linotype.
* This project page is concluded and is archived as a case study.