After creating the opening titles and supporting graphics for TEDxSydney for the past 3 years, delivering unforgettable gems like Legacy and Humankind, Scott Geersen and Substance returned with a bigger and bolder concept for the conference’s theme of ‘REAL’. Uniting the best motion and sound studios in a curated collaboration of kaleidoscopic proportions, the 2020 TEDxSydney title sequence navigates through the elastic nature of reality, pulled together by the dreams of a mother-to-be. Interweaving an eclectic mix of techniques, styles and concepts, the animation tells a story of fear, hope and everything in between, perfectly capturing the emotional rollercoaster that was 2020. We were delighted to invite Geersen back to DN and chat about the practicalities of producing and participating in a global collaborative project during a pandemic alongside an enviable roster of fellow creatives featuring BEMO, Bullpen, Mighty Nice, MixCode, Nerdo, Oddfellows, Post Office, Spillt and STATE.

Motion studio Substance, piloted by you, has been creating the opening titles and event graphics package for TEDxSydney since 2017. Why did you decide to mix up what was already an established recipe for success, and turn the 2020 title sequence into a global, collaborative project instead?

For us, Substance is the spark inside a story that ignites purposeful connection. That spark becomes our guiding flame in all aspects of the work. For REAL, we saw that the most powerful connection would be found through a different execution method. What’s ‘REAL’ is so vast and open to interpretation, that a single-direction expression simply wouldn’t do the topic justice. Instead, we embraced multiplicity: a variety of subjects and styles that could demonstrate the nature of reality to be personal, elastic and interpretive.

It’s also been our ongoing strategy to position TEDxSydney as an event and brand with global impact, and so when the theme led us towards multiple viewpoints, there was an opportunity to align with strategy in forming a shared, global endeavour.

Talk us through your production process – from coming up with the concept, to making sure that each studio was able to shine with their unique idea and style, yet still managing to bring everything together in a singular vision at the end.

Once the collaborative approach was decided and we’d talked with each studio about the potential subjects (sub-realities?), we set up a Slack workspace and brought everyone in. It was hugely important that each studio had the autonomy to direct their own work while being aware of how other animations were shaping up. This led to a wonderful spirit of open support and inspiration and was essential in building towards an outcome in harmony with the theme: reality as the sum of unique (but shared) experiences.

It was hugely important that each studio had the autonomy to direct their own work while being aware of how other animations were shaping up.

Of several concepts, the dream narrative was the most evocative, something we can all identify with personally as blurring the lines of reality, and recognised as possessing unlimited possibilities and transformative power. People rarely dream the same dream twice, so it was a perfect means to embrace the many different creations.

The music and sound design have an otherworldly quality, seemingly combining classical with modern and futuristic notes in a timeless harmony. How did you and Ambrose Yu work together to find that sound and was the music composed before, after or at the same time as the visuals?

That special quality is exactly why we reached out to Ambrose – his ability to blend the cinematic and the electronic in pieces with scale and depth, but also weaving in upbeat playfulness, blending through genres to create something both new and familiar – and exquisitely balanced. In our initial conversations we talked about some of his past pieces we loved, and why, and what we hoped his music could bring to REAL. And this was no small ask – to compose a score that would both unify and support, sympathetic to each while still giving the whole a sense of completeness.

If you’ve listened to some of his work, you’ll know Ambrose has that magical ability to create a range of interesting moods and moments with one piece, and we so trusted him to compose according to his own ideas.
And here I’ll pass over to him…

“There was no shortage of visual inspiration to compose to! But the real challenge was finding a motif or common thread to run throughout. We talked a lot about how the music should feel very cohesive while still highlighting the individuality of the pieces. In the end, the motif we landed on was simple but very open-ended – a simple progression of 2 notes and their respective octaves. 

This motif creates a sense of time passing, emphasises the exploratory nature of the dreams, and reminds us of the world (or reality) that we started in. Present at the beginning of the film, it fades as we enter the first dream, then returns mid-way through the piece and grows gradually, until it brings us back again to the starting point.”

Juggling so many artists’ workloads, time zones, schedules and egos can’t have been easy. Was it all smooth sailing or were there a few bumps along the way?

With tools like Slack and Dropbox, and room in the schedule for flexibility, timezones were not a big issue, and even prior to COVID-19 many studios had experience working this way. At Substance we’ve included remote teams since 2016. What made the collaboration flow is that each person, in every studio team (shout-outs especially to producers) was kind, humble, supportive, and excited by the project. It’s easily the best thing about working in motion and animation: the people are universally wonderful.

We embraced multiplicity: a variety of subjects and styles that could demonstrate the nature of reality to be personal, elastic and interpretive.

But all projects do have a bump, and like most of the world, for us this was COVID. Through that uncertainty, the most inspiring aspect was the determination and support shown by all to keep the project going. Here, we’d also like to give Sono Sanctus a special thanks for coming on board late in the process, to help produce for the sound design for the standalone idents (the secondary application of the animations outside the titles).

In the past, the TEDxSydney opening titles have been quite serious and thought-provoking, whereas the 2020 film feels much more light-hearted and hopeful. Was this in the brief you were given or was the change of approach your idea?

Each year the brief from TEDxSydney is simply the one-word theme. We’ll always discuss with the core TEDxSydney team in detail, but they have a lot of trust in us, so the direction is left open to myself and the Substance team. Previous directions followed what we felt to be the cultural and emotional outlook at that time, aiming to prompt change through reflection – as TEDx says, “ideas worth spreading”. But the tone of 2020 was simply so intense, holding a mirror would only make things feel worse. As we said to TxS in our treatment, instead of the serious, we now needed the sincere. Rather than a mirror, we needed a dream, and within that, a spirit of optimism and hope.

Are you happy with the final result and, how do you think this TEDxSydney 2020 title sequence compares to the previous years that you produced?

I think I speak for all partners, sound and motion, when I say we’re thrilled with the final result! If we were going to compare, we’d look at outcomes. Was it effective? Did it prompt you to think further? Was it memorable? And did it speak to something inside you – perhaps something you’ve not been able to put in words? If any of these are yes, then the project is successful as event title and embodiment of the TEDxSydney brand.

What advice would you give to anyone who’s about to take on a big collaborative project for the first time?

It’s not something to undertake lightly. The idea that many hands make light work is only true to a degree. Whomever is organising or producing is still going to have a huge amount to process, especially if creating and producing!

The idea that many hands make light work is only true to a degree.

Can you tell us anything about TEDxSydney 2021 or have you been sworn to secrecy?

We can tell you it will be a great event, but for now… that’s all!

What other projects are you currently working on or have in the pipeline?

For 2021, we’re looking to develop something in-house this year, around our other client work. Whether this will come to be, we’re not quite sure – we’re fielding a lot of projects and the studio is expanding and we have some big plans, so we’ll see!

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