The 2017 SXSW Gaming Awards, presented by IGN and Imaginary Forces, took place on Saturday, March 18 on the closing night of SXSW Gaming. With a captivated audience of thousands of viewers both online and live at the ceremony each, the show has been elevated to a whole new level thanks to the creative works of Imaginary Forces.
This week, we sat down with creative director Jeremy Cox to see just how these wonderful videos come to be each year at SXSW.
Who are you and what is your background in animation? What are some key projects that you’ve worked on at Imaginary Forces?
I’m Jeremy Cox, a graphic designer by training and currently a creative director at Imaginary Forces in New York. I’ve been at IF for over 10 years and have worn many hats during that time: designer, animator, compositor, VFX supervisor, art director, and now creative director. There is never a dull moment, and a lot of fun projects have come across my desk. Early on I was a designer and animator on the opening titles for AMC’s Mad Men. Soon after that, I was on a beach in New Jersey with Steve Buscemi and a bunch of bottles shooting the title sequence for HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. More recently I won an Emmy for my work on the opening titles to the WGN show Manhattan.
Gaming has also been a fun medium to explore. I worked on in-game cinematics in the God of War franchise, as well as trailers for God of War: Ascension and Splinter Cell: Blacklist. And of course, I’ve directed the opening to the SXSW Gaming Awards for the past three years.
What is the creative process like when creating a video at Imaginary Forces?
We always start by having a conversation with the client. It is important that we begin with as much information as possible about the problem we’re trying to solve and are aware of the parameters we need to work within. From here we go off and come up with potential solutions to the client’s brief. We try to start the process without any preconceived ideas and keep the thinking as broad as possible. This stage is very collaborative and open to all team members. We welcome ideas from anyone involved. We’ll refine the concepts until we’re satisfied and present them to the client using some combination of storyboards, style frames, reference, writing, motion tests—however we can best convey the idea.
Once a creative direction is approved, we flesh it out further if necessary, and move into the creation of the final piece. Depending on the solution, this could mean 3D animation, 2D animation, setting up a shoot for live action elements, or combinations of all of these. Throughout the process we’ll be editing everything together, creating music and sound design, and ultimately crafting the final piece that the world sees.
Our process with SXSW Gaming has been a little different. We’ve developed a great relationship where we’ll go off and make something beautiful and fun with very little input from SXSW. It is flattering that they trust us this much, and we get a huge amount of joy when they see what we’ve made for the first time without any idea of what is coming.
As creative director for each of the SXSW Gaming Awards intro videos, what has been your approach with each of these projects? What lessons have you learned from each year?
The Gaming Awards have been an amazing opportunity for us to explore and try new things over the last couple of years. We also try to just have fun with it and create something that we enjoy. I find that if we’re having fun creating it, that joy will come through in the final piece.
Since Imaginary Forces is a sponsor at SXSW Gaming, it is partially an investment on our end to create these pieces, so we need to be smart about what we decide to do creatively and logistically. The biggest thing I’ve learned over the years is about being efficient with resources and putting energy where it will have the biggest bang for the buck.
Where do you draw your inspiration from when approaching these projects?
Every year we’ve created something entirely different, and that has been a very conscious choice on my part. Rather than just improving what we did last year, I really enjoy taking on a brand new challenge. An opportunity to learn something new.
The first year I was interested in the idea of graphic abstraction. I’d been looking at modernist movie posters that took graphic simplicity to the extreme and thought it’d be fun to do something similar with games. We used abstract visuals and recognizable sound effects to play off the nostalgia of the viewer.
The second year I wanted to try something with more ambitious storytelling. A proper narrative rather than just an impressionistic experience. What it is like to actually play a game? The repetition, learning, and accomplishment. What are you putting game characters through every time they die? We took these ideas and created our own faux game with the SXSW Gaming logo as our character.
This year I decided to be more visually ambitious and go with a more realistic photographic aesthetic. I started with the idea of using gaming hardware, something we hadn’t done yet. The challenge was, how do I show it in a unique way? The landscape was inspired by NASA photography, and it was a Futurama episode that inspired the idea of a miniature civilization floating through space. I’ve always loved the covers of retro science fiction novels, which, together with the NASA imagery, lead to the astronauts being our characters.
I’m just starting to think about what we could create next year, and my focus is on areas and themes of gaming we haven’t touched on yet. Maybe the drama of multiplayer? Or something fun with the style of 70s and 80s Atari game packaging artwork? I still need to find that hook to get us in for the next one.
Which of the videos has been your favorite thus far?
They’re all so unique that I enjoy different aspects of each, though I am extremely proud of what we were able to pull off in the latest one. We were very ambitious, and it took more than a few late nights to make it happen, but I was always excited to spend that extra time. We put a huge amount of ourselves into it, and hopefully that comes through in the final piece. That being said, for the first couple months after finishing a project, all I can see are the faults and things I didn’t have time to fix. It takes time for me to see it objectively and not have the process cloud my opinion.
Are there any new projects we can look forward to from you or Imaginary Forces?
My colleague and friend Alan Williams just finished a title sequence for the upcoming CBC & Netflix show Anne, an adaptation of the book, Anne of Green Gables. It demonstrates a really cool use of beautiful oil paintings put into dimensional space.
Any words of advice for aspiring animators or special effects creatives out there?
One lesson I’ve learned from working on these SXSW pieces is to be flexible with your vision. Happy accidents happen, new ideas reveal themselves, and the project will organically take a shape that you may not have expected. You’re setting yourself up for failure if you don’t allow the project to evolve from your initial vision.
SXSW Gaming Awards 2017 Behind The Scenes
Media material courtesy of Imaginary Forces