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Making Of Key Art + HEROES Case Study

This is a long blog, so before you make an investment in reading it, let me describe the audience that I had in mind while writing. If you are an emerging; filmmaker, entertainment content creator, business owner, actor, graphic designer or copywriter interested in marketing and branding a product, film, TV or web series, podcast, talk show, play, live event or any entertainment-based content, this is for you. If you are an independent contractor, work at a boutique design, advertising or marketing agency or an entertainment studio or production company, you will also be interested. If you're working for any of the above and seeking solutions to streamline your creative process, you’ll definitely take away nuggets to apply to your workflow. You're a seasoned graphic designer interested in creating Key Art.

"The adage "A picture is worth a thousand words" refers to the notion that a complex idea can be conveyed with just a single still image, or that an image of a subject conveys it's meaning/essence more effectively than a description does. It also aptly characterizes one of the main goals of visualization, namely making it possible to absorb large amounts of data quickly" -Wikipedia. This is also the main goal of Key Art. From my experience it takes a very talented and passionate team of entertainment industry design and marketing experts to create an award winning brand-marketing campaign that also captures the consumers’ attention. Sure there are a few lone rangers that live and breath Key Art Design, but the best concepts come form collaboration and bouncing different point of views between designers, marketers and the content creator.

Producing Key Art is about telling a story with one image that is understood by the consumer in less than 10 seconds. This image becomes the initial brand encapsulating the core essence of a show or film without giving away the plot or full story. Typically it’s a still image, but it’s only a matter of time before this could be an animated looped image as along as it’s not to annoying. The purpose is to stimulate awareness and generate hype enticing the consumer to watch or listen and share with others. It’s a mix of talent, a simple concept, great photography, graphic design, logo design and typography combined with a solid understanding of the core essence of a film, TV Show, play, podcast or any scripted or non-scripted entertainment property and how it fits into the marketplace. It takes time, patience, strategy, planning and open communication to create the best Key Art.

I’m a Creative Director and as of the date of this blog post, have developed and created Key Art for 250 TV Shows, Web Series, Podcasts and Films. You can view some of my favorites on my website by CLICKING HERE & HERE.

For the most part, Key Art is a still image and tagline applied to a teaser poster or advance marketing material promoting an entertainment property. I apply my years of experience and a similar process to launching or re-launching a brand, a person (e.g. speaker, life coach, author, etc.) product or business.

At its core, Key Art is an original marketing image evoking an emotional response crafted to attract an audience, sales or clients. The best Key Art stands out from ALL the visual noise we ingest daily; as we surf the Internet, drive in our car, read in magazines, shop, walk on city streets and watch entertainment content on the big and small screens.

Many times Key Art becomes an iconic and historic image and is applied to all digital, print, video and social media marketing assets. It will live on for years, possibly becoming a historic digital or printed artifact. And it often times becomes the image most people will remember from the series, film, or person.

Below I’ve described the process of creating Key Art while I was at NBC in 10 steps. If you’re a small design boutique or a freelance designer, the process will be shorter. You will gain insight into how a large team on the client side manages the creative process from Creative Brief strategy to final approvals and distribution. I’ve Included a glance into project flow, concept development, team structure and management process. Throughout I've integrated samples from HEROES Season 3 with detailed project notes at the end and click-through to 3 real-project slide shows.

Step 1 ~ Marketing Goals for Creative Brief

The NBC Marketing team, made up of Brand Marketing Directors, Copywriters, Creative Directors of Print/Digital/Internet/Social Media/On-Air Promotions, Media Placement, Publicity and Photo Producers have a joint meeting with the Creative Executives, writers or Show Runner of a TV show/film. Everyone in the room has either created the show or read the pilot script and/or season synopsis to prepare for the meeting. The presentation from the show team many times consists of mood boards followed by a conversation where questions are asked and answered getting a better understanding of the look, feel, character roll out, theme, message and essence of the show from the creator’s voice and vision.

From an Art Director and Copywriter POV, this is a magical time to soak up all the information required to understand what audience we’ll target and what emotions to trigger to help craft initial ideas and communicate clearly what will inspire the full design team.

Each team member goes off into their respected silos to create a rough draft of…

  • A marketing creative brief

  • Sketch super rough images (many times the sketching is unrecognizable but can be used alongside scrap* to communicate an idea)

  • Gather image *scrap (e.g.. Similar art in the genre of the project, stock images, graphics, colors, photos, videos, etc.)

  • Write tag lines, video promos and social media marketing attention grabbers

Step 2 ~ Debriefing the Design & Production Teams

The Creative Director and Copywriter meet with the full design and production team sharing a brief overview of the meeting described above with a few initial concept and concept triggers. Depending on timelines, this can happen immediately following the meeting above, or a day or two after so there is time to write and get approvals for the marketing brief to make sure everyone is on the same page and working efficiently. Art Directors and Copywriters working together also helps accelerate the process, converting ideas into reality.

Step 3 ~ Group Brainstorming Session

The full design team made up of Designers, Art Directors, Creative Directors, Account Directors, Copywriters, Project Managers, Production Artist and Interns individually prepare initial thoughts and ideas to brainstorm the core messaging and visual concepts as a group. This gives everyone equal ground to share ideas and inspires collaboration & project ownership versus dictating and stifling creative flow.

I do my best work living with the content quietly soaking up the information from the creative brief, script, bio, meetings with the creators, business owners, person or holding a product in my hand. I research similar work in the same genre and if time permits, experience first hand a similar and opposite product, person or content to triggers ideas and prepare me for brainstorming in a big group. Some people are more spontaneous, being sparked creatively by bouncing off of others – similar to what happens in improv comedy. I like a combo of both, but do much better being prepared than going in cold turkey.

For all sized projects with large or small teams, I’ve experienced successful creative collaborations both remotely online through apps like BaseCamp or Slack and face to face in a room with a conference table or bean bags riffing ideas using a traditional whiteboard with markers or a huge digital screen sharing images, creating lists or a mind map to hone in on concepts.

All ideas are welcome > bad, good, indifferent, crazy and expected. At the end of the meeting, we’ll have a clear direction of next steps and a few directions to explore to work out sketch comps.

A few brainstorm techniques you can Google to keep ideas flowing:

  • Asking what if?

  • Combining Ideas

  • Forcing limitation

  • Word Association

  • Write out a list of core emotions you want to trigger in the viewer.

  • Teleporting Storming

  • Figuring Storming

  • Mind the gap

  • Reverse Storming

  • CLICK HERE to read a blog I thought described a few brainstorm techniques nicely

NOTE: Choose one person to take notes documenting the process. The Creative Director, Marketing Director, Account Director or Project Lead helm the meeting keeping it flowing. All ideas are documented and distributed to the team following the meeting.

Step 4 ~ Individual Concept Development

Brainstorm notes from session above is emailed or posted on a shared digital space for entire team to reference as each works individually to concept ideas with PhotoShop sketches, photo scrap or rough pencil sketches (AKA Chicken Scratch). You don’t have to be an illustrator or know how to draw for this part. Using stick figures, scribble, shapes and words to communicate an idea is perfectly fine. When your idea is presented to the group, you can act it out (charades with words) or describe it informally out loud. As a Creative Director and as the project timeline allows, I initially like to give each person the opportunity to choose and work on ideas they resonate with first, even if a few people are working on the same concept. If time is tight, I’ll assign concepts, so we divide and concur covering all comps for a group critique. Many times this phase will inspire other concepts, which is also encouraged. If a designer is disappointed they weren’t assigned a concept, it is encouraged to speak up during the group critique integrating their thoughts into the comp if it wasn’t covered.

All comps developed during this phase are posted on a physical or digital wall depending on how your group creative space is set up. Everyone reviews the concepts quietly. The Creative Director leads the critique focusing on time and staying on target strategically Each creator has the opportunity to present his or her ideas to the room for discussion. Some concepts are enhanced, mixed or matched and often new ideas are conceived. In the end, the full team votes on the best concepts to sketch tighter comps. Following the big meeting, a smaller group will meet, made up of the CD, Account or Project Director, VPCD and Copywriter to discuss what concepts resonate closest to the creative brief and strategy to move to the next stage.

Step 5 ~ Tight Pencil Sketches with Support Images

5-20 comps are selected to be sketched tighter working with a sketch artist or using Photoshop to combine existing images off the Internet, stock photos/art, photographing stand-in objects & people to best communicate the idea. I’ve found using a combo of all of the above is the most efficient to generate and present original ideas. Art Directors and Designers collaborate with a sketch artist to produce their ideas just as they envision. The Creative Director and Copywriter create the final presentation made up of the sketch, tagline, images for mood, tone, color or lighting not represented in the black and white sketch. A short marketing concept description to communicate the idea forward also helps.

I adhere to the school of thought; “if you have to communicate with words what your visual comp means, it may mean you need to tighten up your concept”.

We’ll meet again as a group welcoming our VP of creative to discuss, enhance and select what will be presented to the Client/Executive for final approval to prepare for the photo-shoot with talent. This step can be repeated a few times until we get to a place where we're confident we have strong concepts to back with excitement.

Prior to this meeting and while the design teams are working in the trenches, there are multiple cross-functional meetings with the network marketing team executives and creative leads sharing progress, new research, and insights. The learning’s in these meetings help to formulate the overall campaign message and notes given to the design team.

Step 6 ~ Audience Testing and Photo Shoot Pre-Production

3 to 5 directions are chosen. If there isn’t a clear winner or uncertainty of what direction to move forward with, concepts are tested through the research and development team by showing comps to a random group of people who fit the demo of the show. By this time, video promo, digital, social media and marketing have their concepts roughed out. The entire campaign can be presented for feedback, analytics and data to help us make the final decision.

While testing is conducted, the Creative Director and Art Director are preparing for the photoshoot collaborating with the photo department who hires the photographer and pre-produces the photo shoot. Talent and location are secured. Logistics coordinating with Print, Digital, On-Air Promo and Press/Publicity to capture all the images required in one day are scheduled and managed.

The Creative Director or Art Director creates a “Shoot Deck” containing the concepts, talent shot list, prop list and mood board to present to the Photographer, photo team and set Art Director. If the shoot requires a set to be built, location found, props or furniture found or built, the production can take up to a week to coordinate. If simply shot on white or gray seamless with platforms, less time is needed to produce.

Step 7 ~ Photo Shoot

Kick Off photoshoot Meeting: The Photo Producers, Photographer, Show Executives, Creative Director, Creative Marketing Executive and Talent meet to discuss the “Shoot Deck” preparing everyone for next steps. This can be a tricky step if working with A-list talent. It is recommended that communication is clear from the top down how the process works and how much time and effort has been invested up until this point, so concepts are backed and talent and show creators are just as excited about the photoshoot to deliver the best results.

Pre-Light: The CD collaborates with the Photo Producer, Production AD and Photographer to create and finalize the placement of props, furniture, decor and lighting. Stand-ins are used during the pre-light, which preferably occurs the day before the official shoot. For shoots on seamless with simple lighting and a short shot list with small cast, set up can happen the morning of the shoot.

Day of the shoot is exciting, exhausting and exhilarating as you watch the ideas come to life.

It is a well-orchestrated circus if produced well. The Photographer rules the set. Depending on the Photographer and talent, the Photographer will give direction to the talent. If appropriate, the CD and Photographer will collaborate, both giving direction. Otherwise the CD, AD & Photo Producer are at the monitor watching and giving direction on occasion to make sure all angles, emotions, actions, facial expressions, and body language are photographed. Thousands of images are shot so we can choose the very best images to create the photo comps. As an example, an arm will be taken from one shot and applied to another body of the same person to create the exact position required for the final Key Art image or a section of hair was out of place in one shot can be applied to another. I call this Photoshopping or Frankensteining. With this said and for the record, we always aim to retain the integrity of a person, object or environment so not to alter beyond recognition or break the professional code of authenticity. For example, if someone has a mole, scar or aspect of being, we will not remove or alter. We have slimmed, tucked, adjusted skin tones and ironed out a few wrinkles for the times a camera angle, and lighting was a little off on a shot.

Important Note: In addition to talent, it’s imperative that “clean plates” with no talent are shot of the set, environment, location and props. This will save tons of time and money in the final design phase building comps. Fewer stock images are purchased and time isn’t wasted cloning out people or adding onto props or backgrounds from multiple images when talent moves around.

Step 8 ~ Photo Comps

After the photo team processes the images with a preset naming system and image filter the photographer chose, images are uploaded to a shared digital portal or server for talent to approve and select members of the design team can being producing the approved pencil sketches into photo comps using PhotoShop. More often than not, additional comps within the approved strategy will be created. It’s important to note that the most current available highest res images are supplied to the design team to work with. Google; “highest resolution photography” to best understand the importance of this part of the process.

There will be quite a few design team meetings lead by the CD to review the comps as a group, massaging each design to be presented for final approval. Sometimes 3 final photo comps will be tested as was described above in the tight sketches.

NOTE: Many designers start with this step creating marketing materials from existing photos and concepts. The work put into steps 1-7 go a long way. I liken it to creating historic content. The photos shot from our ideas will be applied to 100’s of projects throughout the years and beyond to market the show.

Step 9 ~ Producing Final Art

We have an approval! The approved key art was created at a lower resolution, so the designer can work fast and not eat up hard drive space or lose time by waiting on the computer to process. As computers get faster, this challenge will not be a concern. At the moment, one comp can easily have hundreds of layers and take up much disc space and render time if built to large.

TIPS for Designers, Art Directors & Production Managers

  1. Designers and Art Directors, learn how to organize and name your PhotoShop layers as you work early on in your career. You will save tons of time and money during the final production stages when your comp is re-built at a high enough resolution required for posters and Out Of Home Advertising such as billboards & bus shelters.

  2. Build your Photoshop files keeping in mind that the image will be applied to both horizontal and vertical applications in print, social media and digital. An example at your fingertips. Facebook pages have both a very horizontal main image and a square for the profile image that will also be used on iTunes and all other media applications to distribute and display the show. For OOH, visualize a bus shelter, 14’x48’ billboard or side of a bus. Don’t assume this can be figured out in post with the production artist. If your image background is complicated or you crop in on the talent, the Production Finishing Artist will have to figure out each layer to recreate the image again. Some elements of your file can be rezed up saving time and money w/o losing quality, so it's important to work smart and clean.

  3. The finishing process is a skill unto it's own. A finishing artist takes the rough comp to the next level creating a polished look and feel learned through years of practice and application. This gives the art that extra "zing" bringing it to the professional level. At times it can take up to a week for one image. Production managers, build this into your timeline. This step is worth every minute and dollar. I've seen what I thought was an amazing piece of Key Art go to levels of stunning! and wow! with this attention to detail applied. I personally enjoy the finishing stage and highly respect the talent and skill at this level. Because my eye is trained, my notes can be more then the norm and I choose to dig into the final Photoshop file finessing the image myself. I learned this skill early on working at a small design agency where I wore many hats from all stages of the creative process. I've always found the process meditative and relaxing, plus I know the art will be delivered just as I and the design team envision. Of course one has to learn when to let go, knowing the average consumer eye won't see what I see.

To segment into The Heroes Season 3 Case Study that had 15 unique pieces of art created. All images were applied to multiple sizes, shapes and media in both print, digital and the Internet. This size of a project can easily take a few weeks to produce in final production. One surprise lesson I now remind myself and the design team is to solve your art keeping in mind that the talent may need to be lifted off the background. Meaning each object, person or layer has to be created with the possibility one would be used without the other. For the digital Internet campaign we animated the art. 3 examples were; 1. Making Clair's hair flow in the wind. 3. Peter's fireball glowed and moved toward camera. 4. The background on the group shot was used separately with tease copy and animating the cast members on individually.

Step 10 ~ Outside Vendors and Producers

I’m guessing the Heroes Season 3 campaign was the largest media buy in NBC History up to that date. I was proud to work side by side with our amazing Print Production Director to help manage the process and outside vendors. Our campaign took over every media placement position in NYC Grand Central Station. See Image of the subway maps I created (below and by clicking on the image to see the full slideshow), guiding the media installation team of where to place each pice. Every trash can, wall, beam, staircase, subway platform and even an interactive motion sensor animated billboard was adorned with HEROES KEY ART. We also took over very populated areas throughout NYC, Los Angels & Chicago. Everywhere I drove in LA I would see Heroes and clearly knew the season premiere was coming back in a big way. I traveled to NYC for a Celebrity Apprentice Photoshoot and was blessed to see in person the Grand Central Station Domination. What an amazing site. A colleague took video providing a glimpse of the experience. If there were drones at the time, they would have captured the experience fully. All I currently have are still images of some of the posts included in the slide show you can view by clicking on any of the Heroes images in this blog.

In addition to OOH, the print, digital and Internet campaign was also massive. The art was seen in every entertainment print and on-line publication that season.

Click on image to see full slide show of case study

Step 10 ~ Awards and Rewards

Take the time to enter award competitions The rewards help keep the creative team motivated, the content is distributed to a wider audience and you are giving back by inspiring other designers.

I'm not one to feed my ego, but it still makes me smile each time I google a title I've worked on and see how many people have shared, liked, altered or included the image in an article, blog or commentary. A gift that keeps on giving!

Specific Strategy and production stories creating the

Heroes Season 3 Campaign

The Heroes Season 3 Campaign strategy started coming to focus around stage 5. It was decided that we wanted to give a big thanks to the fans for making the show such a huge hit, plus we knew if we created really cool art, it would be shared and distributed organically. The core of the show had a comic book theme, and we wanted to bring this to life with the full cast. We aimed to create art as live comic book heroes by using dynamic angles, perspectives and action to visually imply movement and action. All seasons prior, the cast was standing stagnant and boring as a group. No concept. A typical, perfectly arranged cast on a set with arms crossed, hands in pockets and etc. Average, expected and unexciting.

Heading into the photo shoot, the photo scrap outnumbered the pencil sketches. We shot the entire gallery with Photographer, Mitch Haaseth using two gray seamless stages on one of the Heroes sets filming on the Sunset and Gower Studio lot.

We created 3 setups.

  1. On a platform to raise the cast up high for a Hero shot. We added a plexiglass base to capture shadows and reflections. This helps tremendously in post.

  2. Shooting above eye line from multiple angles

  3. Birds eye (or UFO) view described below in more detail. The Cast was fully present and we all went for it.

Mitch and I developed a process of working together that we applied to many shoots following this one. Since we couldn’t get all cast members in one place at one time, we shot each separately during one of their production days. To make sure eye lines and body movement matched, we developed a system of 3 action movements for each cast member to perform while Mitch took the photo; A: 1,2,3 walk to camera. B/C: 1,2,3 walk an angle to the right and left to capture a natural body movement. We would do this a dozen or more times asking the actors to look at camera, away from camera and at specific spots we marked while they walked. We also had them do a 1,2,3 jump where Mitch would capture them at specific heights from different angles. The third angle Mitch was perched up high and strapped in on a scissor lift shooting down to capture the POV of an alien looking from a UFO at the full cast standing on the roof of a skyscraper looking up. We had a mark for each cast member and giant fans blowing hair just enough to give the illusion of wind w/o losing the beauty of the actors perfectly primped long hair. We shot this at a few different heights. This shot was also on a gray seamless floor with reflective surface. We added the rooftop and environment in PhotoShop.

This project flowed nicely from start to finish. Approvals were easy at every stage once we had the concept locked. As Creative Director, I was hands-on from start to finish, working with an amazing team of 2 Art Directors, 1 Senior Designer, 2 Production Artists, Copywriter, Production Director, Account Director and VPCD to produce this campaign from start to finish. As I mentioned above, I enjoy the finishing and production phase of a project just as much as the creative development. I enjoyed many hours making final tweaks on the finish files myself to get each piece of art just right. I’m very proud of the team and all that we accomplished on this project. I was and still am a huge fan of Heroes which added to the joy. I was honored to be part of the team to launch a successful Season 3 in a big way with big tune-in numbers.

Not every campaign flows as nicely or is as complex and big as Heroes. There are lessons to be learned on every project. I never get board, because the challenge of getting into the project headspace of each show, product or idea is always different and I find it stimulating to solve each in a new way that is refreshing, familiar and engaging to both the consumer and industry pro.

In closing, I've included 2 shorter case studies from Parenthood and Law & Order SUV. The same thought and creative process is applied to a single image. Click on each images below to view. Sometimes the process can be very challenging, especially when you're juggling multiple titles at one time and working with many different creative personalities and point of views. Every project has its own story. If everyone involved from head executive to distribution vendor team member is working from a place of loving the creative process and not ego, fear or personal gain, I've found the process to go very smooth.

Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed this blog. Feel free to comment below or contact me directly if you have any questions or additions.

Click on images to see full slide show of case study

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