Behind the scenes of an NPR Android app commercial


NPR’s News app for Android has been out for a while, but it’s constantly evolving — did you know that you can submit ideas for new features by tweeting at @NPRandroid? Well, you can.

Wanna know how we made the video? (I know I always do, when I see ones I like.) Read on.

This was actually the third concept I developed for this video. The first two were app demos/feature walkthrus, similar to the previous spot I made for NPR’s iPhone app. But the Android app is pretty spartan, and besides, Android users are savvy enough to be able to figure out the features on their own. Plus, NPR wanted to appeal to geeks and developers in addition to new users, so we decided that a better tack for the video would be one that touted the Android platform’s openness and friendliness to collaborative projects like the NPR app itself.

I also wanted to make something that visually rhymed with Google’s own promotional style: DIY-ish, colorful, quirky — based on practical effects and physical props rather than flawless graphics.

And what better way to visualize all that than by showing the Android phone itself as a literal “blank slate” that creative NPR fans could just jump in and start doodling on?

The first thing we needed was a whiteboard in the exact proportions of an oversized cell phone. I drew up the plans in Google Docs using the surprisingly powerful “Draw” function:

From there, Fran Laks, a friend and former co-worker from my days at NOVA ScienceNOW (and veteran of wrangling bizarre custom props on punishing schedules) managed to fabricate the whiteboard in 48 hours (!), courtesy of an artist friend who happened to have a laser cutter in his apartment (!!). She also handmade the oversized magnets that depict the features of the “finished” app (NPR logo, “Top Stories,” “Search,” etc.)

Then of course I needed artists to do the drawing. Through friends of friends I gathered a great group including cartoonists, letterers, graphic designers, an architect, and even a professional whiteboard doodler–all of whom agreed to donate their time and considerable talents for free because they’re fans of NPR. Nate Bear and Heather Willems played the main “hand roles”. Victor Gonzalez, GB Tran, Debra Ziss, Alex Eben, Kyle Page, Jannese Rojas, and Duane Bruton all pitched in for the scene where a swarm of hands spiffs up the “sketched” version of the app.

We had a separate whiteboard for the artists to practice on. Note the caricature of the director in the lower right corner...

With our talent and materials in-hand, we set up to shoot at Ten Ton Studio in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Cinematographer AJ Wilhelm (whom I worked with on NPR’s iPad spots) set up a Canon 5D Mark II with a 50mm lens about 6 feet above the whiteboard, pointed straight down.

setting up the camera

(We needed the height in order to give the artists enough room around the table to actually draw, and we couldn’t use a wide-angle lens to fit the whiteboard in frame because the rectangular lines would have been distorted.) AJ tethered the 5D to a Macbook Pro at ground level so that I could see a live frame while directing the action.

I wanted a “pixilated” effect for the action onscreen, as if the actors were puppets being animated in jerky stop-motion. Creating that effect for real on the set would have taken about a billion years (although it does look cool), so I faked it in Final Cut by speeding up the footage and then applying a strobe filter. Here’s a test I did a few months ago:

To help sell the effect, we made sure to shoot with a fast shutter speed to reduce motion blur in the frames and make it look more like a sequence of individual stills. It worked really well.

After editing it together, the icing on the cake was, of course, Sabrepulse‘s kickass chiptune track “The 8-Bit Kid (When I Grow Up)”. I committed the cardinal editing sin of using copyrighted music as a temp track and then falling in love with it… but I sent him a hail mary tweet and he was cool enough to respond and let NPR use the track.

Awesome video, awesome team. Thanks, everyone!


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