How NOMINT made smoke without fire
In a third hard-hitting film for environmental charity WWF, NOMINT infuses stop-motion animation with smoke to highlight the imminent perils of fossil fuel consumption. shots caught up with director Yannis Konstantinidis to find out how they pulled off this latest fumy feat.
Following on from two previous collaborations with WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature), London-based production company NOMINT has once again partnered with the international environmental NGO to launch another technically challenging and heart-rending PSA with a new burning issue.
This time to the tune of Billie Eillish's & Finneas's When the party's over reinterpreted by Margate-based Social Singing Choir, Up In Smoke tells an apocalyptic story of a young girl whose world becomes polluted by a dark cloud of smoke.
No matter how far she runs, she can’t escape a toxic, shadowy plume that ravages every sign of the life she once knew. Infusing characterful stop-motion animation with real smoke, director Yannis Konstantinidis and his team weave a dark and unsettling narrative about a very real, and very dark, future that lies ahead if we don’t take action now.
The film ends with an unignorable message emphasising the importance of switching to 100% renewable energy and urges world leaders take notice.
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What was the brief from the WWF like for this project? How much creative freedom did you have?
WWF always comes to us with a very specific communication need about the year's upcoming COP, which is possibly the most important climate event of the calendar and a two-week period that can change the course of all life on the planet. Global leaders come together and negotiate how to solve the climate crisis. It's a difficult and sometimes disparaging process but one that can work and make a significant difference for the future.
You cannot stop ice from melting if it gets too hot, you can't control fire once it starts spreading, and you can't order pollution (smoke) around just because you will it.
Every year, WWF's need is the same: How do we take an issue that is complex, challenging, and hard to explain and simplify it to make it universally true so that every WWF office around the world can use it to inform and drive behavioral change. Animation is, of course, an incredible tool to help with this exact problem.
We spend a lot of time working with WWF to understand the issue, the stakes, the frictions of the argument, and hone in on the exact message and emotion we need to convey. Once we are all clear about why, what, and how we should talk about the issue, we have almost complete creative freedom.
This is your third animation for WWF - with your previous two using ice and fire - how did this project compare to the others?
Our conceptual approach with all the WWF projects - unlike all other commercial projects we do - is that we need to always operate at the brink of failure.
The very idea of this series is that we work with elements that are by their nature extremely hard to control. You cannot stop ice from melting if it gets too hot, you can't control fire once it starts spreading, and you can't order pollution (smoke) around just because you will it.
It's the ultimate case of the craft reflecting the message.
Did working with ice and fire previously prepare you at all for shooting with smoke?
It prepared us only in the way that we have now some experience of the frustration of thinking that the project will never see the light of day. Every year we try to make things more difficult, the production bigger, and the story longer while retaining the purity and simplicity of the message that the previous films had.
It feels Sisyphean when it's 3 o'clock in the morning and there is no obvious way to get a puff of smoke to do what you want it to do.
The biggest difference with the previous films was that very early in the process, Finneas, Billie Eilish's brother who wrote When the Party's Over, gave us a soft yes on the sync rights of the song. This made the possibility of failure even more difficult than in the previous films.
Smoke, in comparison to your stop motion models, seems like a very uncontrollable and intangible medium to work with - how did you manipulate it to ensure you got the shots you wanted?
We tried everything! Different kinds of smoke, different viscosities, different pumping speeds, using transparent blocks to control the direction of the smoke, and shooting the set upside down.
The struggles and improvised solutions that take place during the shoot are sensed by the viewer and add to the charm of the WWF films
I can't lie, it feels Sisyphean when it's 3 o'clock in the morning and there is no obvious way to get a puff of smoke to do what you want it to do. You try again and again for hours just to get a single frame. Couple this with the pinpoint accuracy that stop-motion needs and the general fatigue of a month-long shoot, and you have the perfect test of the strongest stoic resolve.
That said, we couldn't love it more! At no point does it escape us what a ridiculous privilege it is to add value to such a cause, work with such a supportive client, and our only problem at 3 in the morning being that the puff of smoke should be two centimetres higher. It is hard to complain about that!
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Did you already have an idea of how the smoke would work when you planned the shoot? Did you have to change plans or techniques at any point?
We experimented for months to get a sense of how smoke would behave on set, so we had a general idea of the options we had for each shot. That said, we didn't want to lock down any technique. I could be wrong, but I have this feeling that the struggles and improvised solutions that take place during the shoot are sensed by the viewer and add to the charm of the WWF films. Animation and improvisation are not great bed pals, but in this case, I think it adds to the experience.
Problems do become harder when the production takes weeks, the nights are long, and you have to control a freaking puff of smoke!
What were the best and hardest parts of the project?
The best parts were eventually overcoming the hardest parts! Creative work and production in particular is just a series of problems that need solving. But problems do become harder when the production takes weeks, the nights are long, and you have to control a freaking puff of smoke!
Which element will you be tackling next?
Right now it feels absolutely absurd that we would do another one! But that's exactly what I said both of the previous times and two months later we were talking about how we can make the production more challenging, more unique and more emotional.
If this film helps - even in a very small way - speed up the phase-out of all fossil fuels, that would make it the most worthwhile campaign we will have ever done.
So maybe, oh I don't know, animate the summer breeze?! You heard it here first!
How do you hope the film will be received, and what kind of impact do you hope it will have?
The previous films did very very well for WWF and the environmental cause, bringing tens of millions of eyes on the issues and pushing the conversation towards the right direction. If this film helps - even in a very small way - speed up the phase-out of all fossil fuels, that would make it the most worthwhile campaign we will have ever done.
That said, as a team we try to only focus on trusting the creative process and doing the absolute best that we can. We have stopped worrying about results, views, new business, or awards. We do the best we can and the results more often than not follow.