Hamish Stewart, Executive Creative Director of R/GA Sydney, reveals to adobo magazine the makings of the award winning 'Through the Dark' interactive music video for Google Play Music and Australian hip-hop legends Hilltop Hoods.
How did the music video come to be your project?
In late 2015, the team at Google Play were looking to support Australian music by creating collaborative projects with some of the country’s top artists, and invited the R/GA Sydney team to work with them.
Exactly what form the projects would take, none of us really knew. All we did know was that we wanted them to be ambitious, interactive and authentic to the artist’s vision.
The Aussie hip-hop group Hilltop Hoods were an obvious choice. They’re as successful as any artist of recent times, with four number one albums, countless Facebook followers, and multiple ARIA Awards (the local music industry’s top prize).
The project they brought to Google was the track ‘Through The Dark’, an extremely personal song from one of the band members, Dan Smith (MC Pressure). It’s based on the true story of his then eight-year-old son Liam’s battle with leukemia and the six months they spent in the hospital as he underwent treatment. Daniel originally wrote the song just for his son, with no plans to release it until one of the other band members, Matt Lambert (Suffa), persuaded him to.
The song touched such a chord that fans from across the country contacted the group to tell their own stories of cancer and its impact on their lives. This inspired them to create a new initiative, Side of Stage, that would give young people affected by cancer the chance to go backstage to meet their favorite artists.
So how could we tell the story of ‘Through the Dark’, and help launch Side of Stage? Teams from R/GA Sydney, Google Play Music, and Hilltop Hoods got together to talk about what could be. The outcome was a vision to convey this intensely personal journey through our most personal device: the mobile.
Tell us about the concept.
The team developed numerous concepts, finally settling on the theme of light and dark. In a literal sense, the experience of caring for someone with cancer is filled with emotional highs and lows, good news and bad. But light and dark are also universal symbols of good versus evil, hope versus fear, and life versus death.
A story told in two worlds, dark and light.
From this came the idea of two worlds running simultaneously, allowing the user to control the journey for themselves. Using 3D cameras mapped to the phone’s accelerometer, the device would be tilted and rotated to reveal a father and son’s journey through two animated worlds — the dark and the light. We’d use mobile technology to capture the sense of a world turned upside down.
How involved was songwriter Dan Smith of Hilltop Hoods in the creative process for the interactive video, especially in the imagery (forest, a loyal wolf companion, etc.) chosen to evoke the song's narrative?
The project actually began with full day workshop involving Google, R/GA, the band and their management. Later we introduced director Mike Daly and the animation studio, XYZ. The agency and Mike worked closely together on the storytelling, referencing the narrative arc of timeless myths, then flew to Adelaide to spend the day with the band and Google, discussing and refining the story. We wanted to balance a traditional story structure with something broader and more allegorical, and it was essential to have Dan’s input.
Actually, as you can imagine, all creative decisions throughout the process were run past Dan and the group to ensure they were comfortable with the approach. We never lost sight of the fact that we were telling a very personal story, for one of Australia’s most important artists. Their fans expect something really special from the band so it had to feel true to them and be something really exceptional.
As Dan describes in this interview, there was a lot of discussion about the shape and style of his character. Originally we tried making it look more like him, but he felt it made him look like Astro Boy! We eventually settled on more of a mythological approach, the “bearded fisherman,” which I think makes the experience much richer and more universally accessible for any viewer.
The style of the video is monochromatic and polygonal—the better to reduce the bandwidth needed for the animation that is rendered on the fly. It also fits Eran iHlleli's style of illustration. What other technological limitations contributed to the video's stark and effective style?
The primary reason for choosing Eran’s haunting style was simply that we loved it, and felt it would elevate the story we were trying to tell. The fact that it helped with the technological limitations of rendering in real time on mobile was a bonus. Black and white just made sense once we’d settled on the dark/light narrative of dealing with the ups and downs of going through an experience like that.
Although the polygons helped technically, they also presented a challenge. At one point we needed to pair back the complexity of some scenes because even high-end mobiles simply didn’t have the processing power. So the developers needed to go through and reduce the number of polygons, one by one. The bird scene, for example, originally had hundreds of birds, but it was simply too much for a phone to handle.
The entire project required a constant balancing act of creativity and technical performance. Part of the skill was not compromising either and finding that magical place just on the edge – pushing the limits of the technology as far as possible to deliver a stable experience, whilst retaining the integrity of the initial vision.
Aside from Dan Smith's son Liam now free of leukemia, what are the other accomplishments of the video? How much did it raise in donations for canteen? How many listens on Google play music did the video elicit?
Fans helped to raise $35,000, which Google and Hilltop Hoods donated to help launch ‘Side of Stage’, in partnership with local charity CanTeen. This project had been a dream of the Hoods’ for some time, as they’d often heard from seriously ill kids who had wanted to attend shows but simply couldn’t. Being able to help make that happen was really satisfying for the whole team.
Apart from that, the project earned a huge amount of positive sentiment among the Hoods’ huge fan base, earning 14 million “potential” earned impressions in social in the first week, a doubling of Google Play’s social share of voice (from 11% to 24%) in the first 2 weeks of the campaign, and 408,000 total unique visitors - a significant number for a localized campaign in the Australian market.
- Title: Through the Dark
- Agency: R/GA Sydney
- Client: Google Australia
- Musical Artist: Hilltop Hoods
- Design: Eran Hilleli
- Associate Technology Director: Blake Kus
- Copywriter: Kate Allen
- Creative Director: Michael Armstrong
- Executive Creative Director: Gavin McLeod, Hamish Stewart
- Production Co: Exit Films
- Director: Mike Daly
- Executive Producer: Kim Wildenburg
- Animation Studio: XYZ Studios
- Senior TD: Richard Osellame
- CG Lead: Stevie Watkins
- Executive Producer: Garett Mayow
- PR: Poem
- Animation & Illustration for Websites & Digital Design, Yellow Pencil
- Graphic Design / Digital & Mobile, Wood Pencil
Webby Awards 2017
- Web: Best Use of Animation or Motion Graphics, Webby Winner
- Web: Best Use of Animation or Motion Graphics, People's Voice Winner
- Film & Video: Best Use of Interactive Video, Honoree
ADC Awards 2017
- Digital: Interactive: Interactive Film, Gold
- Digital: Craft in Digital: Art Direction, Silver
- Advertising: Art Direction: Motion, Merit
- Advertising: Art Direction: Digital, Merit
One Show 2017
- Mobile: Visual Effects / Animation, Bronze
- Branded Entertainment: Mobile, Merit
- Film: Online, Merit
- Interactive: Visual Effects / Animation, Merit
- Moving Image Craft: Visual, Merit
- UX / UI: User Experience, Merit
- FWA of the Year 2016
- People’s Choice Award 2016