Making Tweedy's “Summer Noon” video (or how I went from designing apps to directing a music video)

  • Allison House Allison House
Tweedy

For the past few weeks, I’ve spent every waking minute on a project that's pushed me beyond so many limits—speed, stamina, creativity, technical ability.

It's not a landing page, mobile app, consumer web product, or anything else you may know me for. I independently directed and animated the music video for Tweedy’s first single, "Summer Noon".

Tweedy ft. House! The music video for Tweedy's "Summer Noon".

It’s an incredible tune. I’ve listened to it about a hundred times and STILL love it and sing along. This is the legendary Jeff Tweedy’s new band with his son and drummer, Spencer Tweedy. They're on tour right now and the debut album, Sukierae, is out in September.

For those new to my work, I’m not a director, animator, or video editor. I've actually spent the last five years designing websites and apps (like Dropbox, Codecademy).

I started experimenting with 3D on the side a couple months ago and have been publishing everything I've learned along the way.

'Limbo' by Allison House
Before this project, "Limbo" was the most complex scene I'd built in 3D. It's static and took me about a week.

When Tweedy asked me to make the video for "Summer Noon", I briefly considered my limitations:

  • I'd just started learning 3D
  • I didn't know how to edit video
  • I didn't own any video editing software
  • The longest animation I'd ever made was 2 seconds
  • The deadline was aggressive (~3 weeks)

And yet, none of those things really mattered. This is the kind of project I daydream about; an opportunity to bring heart and narrative into my work. Plus, um, TWEEDY!

I had to do it. I took a deep breath, saddled up, and told 'em heck yes.

Phase 1: Ideating and Prototyping

When Tweedy's management shared the track with me, I was instantly hooked on the vibe. They left it open for me to set the creative direction and kick out concepts, so I put the track on repeat and sketched around 100 concepts in thumbnails.

Thumbnail sketches of concepts for 'Summer Noon'
Generating lots and lots of concepts in thumbnail sketches.

I also collected references and imagery in a big mood board.

Collection of references, inspiration, and imagery for 'Summer Noon'
Spencer gave me Tame Impala's Lonerism cover (top left) as a reference for a deep blue sky color.

Being new to the craft, a lot of the up-front work was in understanding what was achievable. I usually build prototypes to validate my ideas, so I picked a couple concepts and hacked them together in Cinema 4D.

The winning concept was a single balloon weaving through colorful, hazy, faceted landscapes.

Early concept for 'Summer Noon' Early concept for 'Summer Noon'
These were the first concepts for "Summer Noon".

Spencer suggested the landscapes were "lonely" and that really resonated with me. I put together more prototypes with a certain emptiness in mind.

Early concept for 'Summer Noon'Early concept for 'Summer Noon' Early concept for 'Summer Noon'Early concept for 'Summer Noon'
More early concepts for "Summer Noon". I ended up cutting the ground view and bringing a bright, clear sky into the lake scene.

Phase 2: Building and Animating Scenes

The Animator's Survival Kit
There were a couple books that really helped me out: The Animator's Survival Kit and Cinematic Storytelling.

I looped between building scenes, storyboarding, animating, rendering, and editing them to the track as quickly as possible in a week-long sprint. My priority was getting everything done on time, even if imperfect.

On my best day, I built and animated four (!) complete scenes. The final tally was 14 scenes, rendered on two machines over 112 cumulative hours.

Here's a look at how I set up the scenes. There's a lot of neat fakery with distance and perspective. I built each environment, set up the shot, then animated the balloon.

Making of 'Summer Noon'Making of 'Summer Noon' Making of 'Summer Noon'Making of 'Summer Noon' Making of 'Summer Noon'Making of 'Summer Noon'
Overhead views (left) of the scenes alongside the camera views (right). I'm using a modified lighting rig from GSG.

I couldn't really sleep during this phase. I was anxious about wasting time, knowing relentlessness would make or break the project. I'd often wake up in the middle of the night, do a few jumping jacks, and get back to it. That may sound intense, but raw determination was a critical part of the process.

Phase 3: Revisions and Final Cut

I worked quickly enough to fit in a two-day cycle for revisions and detail work at the end. Some scenes received major overhauls, like this one.

Making of 'Summer Noon' Making of 'Summer Noon'
Before and after revising the "going up" scene.

I ended up re-rendering everything in the final hours, then finished editing with my 30-day trial of Adobe Premiere. (Ha!) I'd been cutting footage together the entire time, so the bulk of the work was color correction.

Making of 'Summer Noon'Making of 'Summer Noon' Making of 'Summer Noon'Making of 'Summer Noon'
Before and after color correcting the footage.

That was it! I rendered out the final cut, did a little happy dance, and sent the official music video for "Summer Noon" off to the gang.


Bringing my design process into an unexpected medium really tested the sturdiness of my approach. My biggest takeaway from this experience? Grit is a trait worth cultivating.

Beginners often hear fake it 'til you make it, but scrappiness and transparency count for a heck of a lot. My mantra was whatever it takes. With an iterative approach and non-stop communication, newness wasn't a stumbling block—it was just another creative problem to solve along the way.

Knocking out my to-do list
Line 'em up and knock 'em down.

That's the story of my wild ride with Tweedy! They were fantastic to work with and I'm so grateful to them for supporting my vision. A very special thanks goes out to Spencer and Ben.

You can watch "Summer Noon" and pre-order Tweedy's Sukierae over at wilcoworld.net. If you enjoyed this post, keep up with my work on Twitter and Tumblr.

Why diversity actually matters (examining women and people of color in the Net Awards)

  • Allison House Allison House

This is a response to "Why diversity matters in the web design industry" by Oliver Lindberg, editor of net magazine.

Net Awards Logo

Every year, net magazine produces a popular awards show recognizing the achievements of the best individuals, teams, and projects in web design. It's called the Net Awards and it's the largest, longest-running ceremony of its kind.

Here's a brief history.

  • In 2007, every individual award winner was white and male.
  • In 2008, every individual award winner was white and male.
  • In 2009, every individual award winner was white and male.
  • In 2010, every individual award winner was white and male.
  • In 2011, every individual award winner was white.
  • In 2013, every individual award winner was white.

The nominees for 2014 were just announced, hand-selected from more than 2,000 community nominations. There are 70 people up for individual awards, and here they are.

Meet the nominees

Net Awards Nominees

Hey, that's a good-looking group of people!

All these folks are incredibly talented, and I'm happy to see web designers and developers noticed for doing exceptional stuff. I have quite a few friends in there and I'm rooting for 'em.

But let's take a closer look at—dun dun dun—representation. How are women and people of color, the larger marginalized groups in our industry, represented here?

Women

Net Awards Nominees - Women

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, something like 33% of web developers are women. They only make up 13.6% of the individual award nominees.

Alice Lee isn't a nominee, but last year she designed and illustrated the brand new Dropbox.com. Follow her at @byalicelee.

The only woman in Entrepreneur of the Year is part of a couple, making her a half-nominee. No women were nominated for Young Developer of the Year.

In an interesting twist, a non-individual category called Conference Talk of the Year very reasonably features four women. This sounds good until we consider that the only category where women are really represented is not technical.

Not-so-coincidentally, this lines up with stereotypes about women underperforming in technical roles.

Still, these numbers are an improvement from previous years. Oliver Lindberg, editor of net magazine, published Why diversity matters in the web design industry in response to criticism around diversity in the Net Awards.

Cat Noone isn't a nominee, but last year she founded and designed Liberio, a dead simple way to make and publish eBooks. Follow her at @imcatnoone.

They seem to recognize a problem... with gender. With the exception of an aside at the end, Lindberg discusses gender exclusively.

Thinking of diversity this way is problematic. There are lots of other underrepresented groups in our industry, each with their own obstacles. Erasing them from the conversation ignores their experiences and perpetuates a cycle of exclusion.

For designers in particular, our work is rooted in empathy. We can't afford to think of diversity so narrowly that we dismiss those people.

Let's take a look at how people of color are represented.

People of color

Net Awards Nominees - People of Color

Have mercy! Out of 70 individual award nominees, 67 are white. There are three people of color. I just about started singing Springsteen: "Blinded by the white..."

Lindberg suggests these disparities are just "symptomatic of the industry". Got it. The buck stops... over there.

Except it doesn't. Look at these numbers for designers and web developers in the United States in 2012! Around 20% of designers and 18% of web developers are of color.

Occupation: Designers

  • Women: 51.6%
  • Black: 4%
  • Hispanic: 6.6%
  • Asian: 9.3%

Occupation: Web developers

  • Women: 33.7%
  • Black: 4.1%
  • Hispanic: 5.6%
  • Asian: 8%
Chikezie Ejiasi isn't a nominee, but last year he made the Google+ mobile apps a fun and social place to interact with friends. Follow him at @Chik.

Additionally, Asians are actually way overrepresented in Silicon Valley, making up more than 50% of those working in computer or mathematical occupations.

These statistics don't even include Natives, Pacific Islanders, or mixed race people like me.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Net Awards don't really approach the "representative [...] ratio" they mention.

Long live the meritocracy

"We couldn't just include [marginalized] people whose visible work wasn't as good as the other contenders in a given category."

Statements like this sound obvious, but are predicated on the pernicious, unrelenting myth that our industry operates in a meritocracy.

Rebecca Goldman isn't a nominee, but last year she designed Heyday, a beautiful way to journal and surface memories. Follow her at @RebeccaGoldman.

Meritocracy was discussed heavily last year, and this post offers a great summary of the issues. It's an idea that sweeps bias under the rug, ignoring its influence on power and visibility.

We have to see and acknowledge that before we can address it. Nominations from the public will never represent complete information.

People with the most privilege—like white, straight, cisgender, abled men—have a way easier time being seen. People with the least privilege—like women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and those with disabilities—often get a raw deal.

Lindberg gives us a powerful example of privilege in his description of diversity issues:

"[The topic of diversity in tech] comes around every so often, gets everyone up in arms and then disappears again for a while."

Wow.

Justin Edmund isn't a nominee, but last year he designed stunning maps for Pinterest with Place Pins. Follow him at @jedmund.

People in our community are discussing and living with the consequences of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and other systemic prejudice every single day.

These discussions are largely unnoticed by the mainstream, even among those who otherwise live and breathe technology.

Diversity is more than an obligation

Lindberg repeatedly acknowledges that diversity is important in the context of obligation.

You [...] have a responsibility as an industry publication to foster new talent, put together a roster of contributors with a representative gender ratio and give everyone an equal chance.

That's evident, but what are the actual consequences? Beyond accountability or appeasement, why does diversity matter?

Well, leaving the system unchecked actively harms marginalized people. Inaction does all kinds of damage:

This will continue until we change the narrative. That means educating ourselves, aggressive outreach, forming partnerships, and working with specialists until we are including more than "representative" numbers of marginalized people in our conference panels, recruiting pipelines, marketing material, and industry-wide displays of recognition.

Update: In 2014, every individual award winner was white.


I'm putting them under the microscope, but I know the net magazine folks work really hard on the Net Awards. Better representation on the judging panel is a good start, but we must be clear about the issues and why diversity is critical. Thanks for inviting this discussion.

Further reading