A Question of Perception: How This Innovative Studio Sees VFX From a Different Angle
If you watched the end title sequences for Marvel’s Ant Man & The Wasp: Quantumania and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, you’d be forgiven for thinking that these main-on-ends (MOEs) were created by entirely separate visual effects companies. One is somber, muted, and reflective; the other dynamic, colorful, and kaleidoscopic.
But it might surprise you to find that they both emerged from the creative artists inside Perception, an Emmy-nominated visual effects company based in New Jersey. And if you didn’t see either of those title sequences, you’ll definitely have seen their work elsewhere, as Perception’s client list is populated with top-tier brands including Intel, IBM, Disney, General Motors, and Nike. So it’s fair to say that this is an agency that’s doing something right.
Oh, and they also made this…
The secret to success
So how do you build a visual effects business serving some of the most demanding brands in the world? On the surface, you might think that it’s Perception’s knack for imagining technology that hasn’t been invented yet.
Judging solely by their Wakandan user interfaces and Iron Man holograms, their work certainly seems to sit very comfortably in the realm of science fiction. But take a closer look, and you’ll find that it’s not all blue-limned bleeps and chirps. There’s a much stronger foundation that sits beneath everything they do.
As Perception’s creative director Greg Herman explains, “It always starts with the story. The client decides when they’re ready to talk titles and we start the design process. But whatever direction we end up taking, whatever solution we come up with, it’s one hundred percent based on the story. And it’s never the same thing twice.”
“It always starts with the story.”
Greg freely admits that not every story needs a big finish., “Sometimes all it needs is white credits on black. And that tells a story, too. But the opportunity to extend the storytelling into the credits sequence is a really exciting thing that’s been evolving for years.”
This leads our discussion to the title sequences that have inspired them, and the moments when they first realized the potential of this very particular medium.
For Greg, it was seeing the production of Digital Kitchen’s opener for the critically acclaimed HBO series Six Feet Under. The combination of cool-toned sterility and symbolism carried by Thomas Newman’s lilting, oddly jarring score was a clear demonstration that title sequences have narrative value that goes far beyond setting the tone.
For art director Christian Haberkern the inspiration landed a little later, with the opener for Columbia Pictures’ Zathura—which, as a quick aside, was the last movie Jon Favreau directed before getting swept up by the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
This bold, graphic intro with its Dan Dare-style gamebox artwork and swooping parallax effects couldn’t be more different from the reflective mood of Six Feet Under, but both are perfect examples of how style follows the story when you’re building a title sequence.
Putting the story first means that agencies like Perception are usually brought in quite late in the process (though they may well have been involved in the production of visual assets in the movie before this point, as was the case with Black Panther). This can be both limiting and liberating, as you’re getting involved at a point when all of the key creative decisions have already been made.
As Greg puts it “It’s rare that a title sequence will affect the storytelling. They’re usually about the tone, a feeling, or an extension of the piece.” It’s clear that, to them, the main-on-end is a functional component in the storytelling toolkit and not just an aesthetic add-on. Like a sustained chord or note at the end of a song, it draws out the story and extends the engagement, instead of jarring the audience back into reality with a fade to black.
The team is also surprisingly sanguine about the chances of the audience leaving early to avoid the queue at the car park instead of sticking around to watch their hard work playing out at the end of the movie. Though this is likely due to having Marvel as a frequent client, as Greg explains.
“No one stays for the crawl unless it’s a Marvel movie, right?”
“We’re pretty lucky that Marvel has trained everybody to watch the MOE tag.” he laughs. “And then after the tag, they’ll have another tag after the crawl. [The plain text rolling titles.] Usually no one stays for the crawl unless it’s a Marvel movie, right? But now they do because they want to see that sizzle of what’s going to happen next, or how it’s all going to tie into the next thing.”
It’s a phenomenon that we’re probably all very familiar with. So much so that it’s becoming increasingly common even for non-Marvel titles. It should be apparent that the romcom or docudrama we just watched is extremely unlikely to feature a teaser for the next movie in the sequence, and yet here we all are, watching while the credits roll to a sizzle-free conclusion.
But even without the payout of a tantalizing minute or two of extra story, the Perception team agrees that watching the end credits is time well spent. It’s not much to give, and it’s the only opportunity we get to appreciate just how many hands lifted the movie we just watched.
(Greg admits that he’ll stop his kids from leaving the movie theater before the credits are done for this very reason. He doesn’t describe how well this direction is received.)
As a result of this new storytelling convention, title design has gone from being a largely unknown artform to being something that people talk about on the internet. The Perception team has been in the business for long enough to have experienced this change firsthand. And the benefits of this long tenure in the visual effects industry can be seen when you stop and take a closer look at what they actually do.
Take the example we started out with. While the MOEs for Ant Man & The Wasp: Quantumania and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever are radically different in tone and style, they’re actually connected by the very same thread that runs through every piece of work that Perception creates—and that’s a close relationship to the known physical world.
It’s easy to assume that everything is CGI these days—particularly if you just watched a movie shot in a virtual production volume where only the actors and a small stage exist—but neither of these MOEs are predominantly CGI. They’re based on practical effects shot with real cameras.
So rather than simply grabbing the latest particle engine or physics simulator, the Perception team instead chooses a different approach from most of their peers in the industry. This might mean burning sheets of bespoke fabrics in a warehouse—rather than compositing fire footage or simulating flames, which would have been so much easier—or building a cloud tank and filming crazy chemical reactions at 3:00am.
“That’s one of the reasons why I love my job as a title designer who works on these types of projects,” Christian says. “Throughout my day I’m really just looking around for inspiration, looking at things differently…it’s not like any other job.”
“I live up on a mountain and I often go for hikes just to find inspiration out in nature,” he adds.
And you can see this connection to the physical world in particular with the Quantumania MOE, where the Perception team worked with Chris Parks. Chris is an expert not only in creating violent and beautiful chemical interactions, but also in capturing them on film. And they’re a perfect match for the fantastic sub-atomic setting of the Quantum Realm, where the normal rules of time and space no longer apply.
The result is something that’s both abstract and emblematic, with vibrant organic moments grabbing the viewer’s attention without drawing too much focus from the credits as they roll. “It was just magical and one hundred percent not makeable in CGI, it’s so detailed,” says Greg, who’s clearly a huge fan of Chris Parks’ work.
That’s not to say that there wasn’t any digital manipulation involved. In order to take the footage created in the cloud tank and build the necessary symmetry and impact, the team used After Effects to hammer out some of the kaleidoscopic aspects and chromatic aberration in the final sequence that you see in the film.
The only constant is change
The studio has also been around long enough to see the industry face some seismic shifts, and is no stranger to adapting and adjusting to new technologies and audiences. In particular, the challenge in satisfying so many audience segments at once: cinema vs home, desktop vs mobile, SDR vs HDR…it keeps everyone on their toes.
“HDR is a thing now. It didn’t used to be, but it’s definitely a thing now,” says Greg. “HDR is definitely tricky when it comes to exposure because we deal with a dynamic range that’s so big. When we’re shooting live action it forces us to make sure we’re capturing a range that’s suitable for HDR. So we’ve had to adapt our workflow.”
“When we’re shooting live action it forces us to make sure we’re capturing a range that’s suitable for HDR.”
“We remember the days when it was just 4:3 and we’d think renders took forever, and then we switched to 16:9 and HD and we were like ‘Oh god!’ and now it’s 4K—who knows where we’ll end up?”
Considering the company’s practice of finding inspiration in the real world, blending the physical with the virtual, and digital with analog, they treat the software they use in the same way they would any other tool. Useful when it’s useful. But certainly not a replacement for the creativity they bring to a project.
Christian is happy to be labelled a VFX hipster, and there’s clearly an affinity for old techniques and analog approaches in the crew as a whole. In a way, it’s their superpower, and makes their work stand out in a field that’s often populated with very similar ideas.
But that’s not to say they don’t see the value in tools that take the grunt out of the grunt work. For example, Christian will frequently lean on After Effects’ Roto Brush 2, because it gets a thankless job done faster. Greg offers up a tip for Photoshop’s Super Zoom neural filter—storyboards. “If I have a medium shot and I want to push it in the eyes, I can press the 4K button and I’ve got a crisp closeup that I didn’t shoot,” he explains.
“It’s always just finding the right moment to insert it into the perfect project.”
“There’s always room for everything,” he says. “There are always a lot of things on the deck. We’re constantly thinking ‘Ooh, there’s a project we can finally use that one thing for.’ So whatever the tool, it’s always just finding the right moment to insert it into the perfect project.”
Keeping an open mind and avoiding dependency on a particular medium or toolset isn’t unique to Perception, but it does seem unusual that a visual effects company would put practical effects upfront in so much of their work. And there’s a lesson for us all here. It’s easy to get comfortable with sitting at a workstation and creating simulations that are impossible to differentiate from reality, but there could be so many creative alternatives living on the other side of window. So maybe take a break. Go outside.
If inspiration isn’t coming to you, get out there and find it.