Lockdown Projects: NorthHouse Creative

The video content studio turned digital show designers fuse augmented reality with visual FX amid the lockdown of live events.

Despite being best known for their video content design and direction exploits, following the ban on mass gatherings, NorthHouse Creative has spent the past seven months exploring new avenues. This includes virtual real-time technology, moving efficiently into show design and creating space for a series of lockdown projects – born out of restrictions faced due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the uncertainty of the live events industry.

“We had just finished Lewis Capaldi’s tour in March when the lockdown hit. From then, all the shows and projects in our diary gradually began to ebb away,” Creative Director and Founder of NorthHouse, Tom Bairstow began. “We’ve been fortunate enough that we can shift and adapt our work to suit the temporary virtual and digital era. I really feel for those who aren’t as fortunate in the events world. There is lots of talent going to waste so I hope that we get back to normality soon.”

From an outside perspective, NorthHouse’s exploration into augmented and extended reality could be interpreted as far removed from the design studio’s usual output with the likes of Lewis Capaldi, Little Mix and Coldplay live tours. Albeit framed by the immense challenge of a team working remotely, Bairstow assured TPi: “It was a natural progression. We use software such as Unreal Engine and Notch to a certain degree but with time, we’ve developed and reformed our capabilities.”

Beneficiaries of NorthHouse’s diversified skillset was The Green Carpet Fashion Awards (GCFA). Organised by Italian fashion body, Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana and sustainability consultancy, Eco Age, GCFA typically presents a star-studded celebration of sustainability in the fashion industry during Milan Fashion Week. As with most live events this year, the Awards’ ethos of togetherness was put to the test by COVID-19, upheld by a revolutionary show designed by NorthHouse.

The show was directed by Giorgio Testi and produced by Livia Firth and Pulse Films. NorthHouse provided a turnkey solution, incorporating cinematic footage with augmented reality, visual FX and hologram technology provided by AHRT Media, all of which helped transform a historic Milanese opera house, La Scala, into a vibrant magical garden.

“After we’d discovered that the most efficient way to fill an empty venue during the uncertainty of lockdown was to use augmented reality, our focus turned to ‘how do we make this digital content feel organic?’,” Bairstow posed. “We knew it was going to be extremely difficult to get ‘Hollywood-level’ visual FX with real-time software, but we wanted to see how far we could push it.”

A prototype show, borne out of the restrictions and uncertainty placed on the world during the pandemic, Bairstow said the project provided the opportunity to push boundaries, experiment with “big ideas” and harness technology in new and unconventional ways. “With a virtual space, your imagination is the limit,” Bairstow reflected.


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THE GREEN CARPET FASHION AWARDS 2020. Show Design, AR, Broadcast Graphics. We are so proud of this show. In a World that seems to be lurking in the shadows at the moment, it’s great to shed some positive light and celebrate the innovators that strive to make our World a better place through sustainable fashion. From a creative point of view, it’s enabled us to explore some pretty revolutionary methods to help share this message on Sky Arts and over the Internet, especially with the challenges faced due to various lockdown restrictions. We transformed this iconic empty theatre in the heart of Milan into a digital terrarium and virtually brought champions of the industry together in this fantastical venue with the help of AHRT media. Along with the show design and Augmented reality, we designed and created the show branding and broadcast graphics to give all aspects of the show a nicely packaged aesthetic. A 360 design approach that links all elements together in to one core concept. This is a project we’ll never forget. A piece of art we’ll forever be proud of. And an amazing team of people we hope to continue our creative relationships with for as long as we continue creating. Thanks for entrusting us with this crazy idea and amazing to work with you @ecoage @liviafirth @kimla29 @Charlie.lally @pulseitalia @giotesti @cameramoda @tendercapitalproductions @ahrtmedia And thanks as ever to the mighty NorthHouse team, pulling out all the stops to continuously push this creative as far as possible! #legends Tom x . . Creative Director & Producer: Tom Bairstow Production Designer & Creative Producer: Harrison Smith Lead Design & VFX: George Thomson Lead Technical Artist: Florian Lecoq Key Digital Artist: Sean Bone Lead Motion Graphics Designer: Lydia Caplan Motion Graphics Designer: Jamie Marshall Production Assistant: Dana Couling . . #gcfaitalia #showdesign #creativedirection #creativedirector #design #augmentedreality #ar #XR #extendereality #visualfx #vfx #motiondesign #motiongraphics #animation #video #videodesign #digital #digitalart #digitaldesign #unrealengine #titlesequence #branding #cinema4d #c4d #ae #aftereffects #events

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“We’re really proud of this show and between my team, Eco Age, Pulse films and all the amazing creatives who helped to build this show, we have created something truly groundbreaking. We’re thrilled to be at the forefront of this wave of new technology and excited for what the future will hold for live and broadcast shows even with all the challenges ahead.”

NorthHouse also designed the branding for the show along with the broadcast graphics, which ensured a holistic flow into the show design. “We came up with the concept of ‘terraria’ – a metaphor for the sustainable fashion industry – which provided a beautiful design aesthetic for the entire show from the title sequence through to the augmented reality and visual FX,” Bairstow explained.

From the title sequence, a green carpet of foliage grows across the continents towards La Scala from a beautiful CGI glass terrarium with the world inside. As the green carpet dives into the Italian venue, there’s a transition into real footage, upon which luscious foliage grows in augmented reality, transforming La Scala into the inside of a terrarium.

“It was a big step for us to move into the category of show design,” Bairstow admitted. “Thanks to Eco Age and Pulse films for affording us with creative freedom. We were using Unreal Engine in ways it hadn’t been used, to our knowledge.” To create the augmented reality and visual FX, NorthHouse’s team of digital artists (pictured above) used Unreal Engine to give the show its organic feel.

“We felt like digital gardeners, immersing ourselves in the 3D model of La Scala using VR and virtual plant foliage all around the venue,” he reported. “It was such a complex production process, and because it was a prototype, we couldn’t lean on any examples of prior knowledge, so it was a massive learning curve for us.”

Filmed in early September, only a small number of presenters were able to attend. Other presenters were filmed in separate locations all around the world by Pulse Films and ARHT Media before being ‘beamed’ in as holograms or composed as though they were on stage next to their co-presenter the whole time.

“We made the decision to convert our augmented reality workflow into more of a visual FX pipeline, utilising the real-time rendering capabilities of Unreal Engine to facilitate a very tight post-production timeline,” Bairstow said, explaining why filming ahead of schedule was crucial.

“This meant we could track cameras in post-production reducing the need for extra time in the venue for camera tracking. It also provided us with more flexibility for capturing quick and interesting angles throughout the venue and, of course, meant that we had a safety net if anything didn’t quite work on the day.”

With such natural results, Bairstow suggested: “We’ve never had to consider bringing in holograms from across the world because you typically fly people over, however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the show was a lot ‘greener’ because there were fewer flights taken.”

Considering the sustainability of future shows and touring, Bairstow believed that considering ways of bringing people together digitally to reduce the carbon footprint was an “interesting” concept. “This situation has taught me to go big with ideas. We’ve gone from a sticky situation in the business to innovating and exploring new ideas. Hopefully, we’ll be able to put together more ambitious projects, with a live audience, next year.”

The Green Carpet Fashion Awards was broadcast on 10 October across Sky’s European territories. The event featured a host of celebrities from the fashion industry and beyond, while Robert Downey Jr. presented an exclusive broadcast on YouTube globally.

“We’ve enjoyed the entire experience of the show, from the initial concept sketches in April to September. To see the final product and witness it broadcast on Sky Arts was incredible,” Bairstow concluded.

“We’re in talks with various shows and fellow creatives and production companies about many exciting projects. One thing that we really wanted to achieve with the GCFAs was digital content that felt organic. We’ve got lots of ideas to bring this to awards shows, tours, music videos and brand launches next year.”

This article originally appeared in issue #255 of TPi, which you can read here.