How Bemo added emotion to sci-fi with visual effects

'Earth to Echo' makes us believe a robot can feel. VFX studio Bemo explains how it went about it.

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What's expected to be one of the biggest kids' movies of 2014 was created with the help of one of LA's smallest agencies.

Bemo, a boutique motion graphics and visual effects agency, cut its teeth on commercials for big brands like Pepsi and the NFL, and music videos for artists including Eminem and Rhianna. Now it's made its first move into motion pictures, playing a pivotal role in forthcoming family sci-fi Earth to Echo.

Here we speak to founder Brandon Hirzel about the unusual journey he's taken from graphic design student to movie maker…

2D to 3D

Hirzel takes us back to the beginning. "I was getting out of high school and entering college, and I started getting interested in graphic design," he explains. But he soon began to look outside of the limitations of the static, 2D world.

"I became interested in what it would be like to see some of my artwork in motion," he says. "So I started getting into motion graphics and visual effects. And I soon realised that was really what I wanted to do with my art.

"I've always had a strong interest in the idea of storytelling, whether it just be a still image or a design. And I discovered that when it moves, it's like 'Wow, you can really communicate a lot more to the viewer'."

Founding Bemo

Bemo worked on the music video for Katy Perry's Unconditionally

Having graduated with a BA in motion graphics, Hirzel freelanced around LA for a while, but he soon became disillusioned. "I realised I wanted to have my own place, so I could call in artists that I respected and liked to work with," he explains. So he founded his own shop, Bemo.

Hirzel had been getting a lot of direct-to-client work, so he could have made a career of working from home as a remote freelancer. "But it's not fun to me to work by myself," he says. "The way I see it, a lot of the magic that comes out of this kind of work is through collaboration."

Early on Bemo teamed up with director Dugan O'Neal on a '70s retro-style pulp TV series called Two Renegade Cops. "We travelled to Indonesia and produced the whole thing, shot the whole thing, did all the visual effects," Hirzel smiles. "It was a lot of fun."

Boutique by design

Hirzel took creative director duties on the video for David Guetta's She-Wolf

After that, Bemo started doing music videos for big names such as Katie Perry and TV on the Radio. One that particularly sticks out in his mind is She-Wolf, a video for David Getta, he says. "Hiro Murai directed it and we both went out to Iceland to film it, then came back to LA for the post production," he recalls. "It's a story of passion and distress, and we blended both old and new techniques to tell it. The whole experience was incredible."

Bemo also quickly developed a reputation for high-quality commercial work, a shining example being the network rebrand they helped created for Star Sport last year. "Capacity contacted us to direct and produce the live action of these channel IDs," he explains. "We were honoured to collaborate with them through this process, as well as creatively execute the animation and VFX integrated within the live action footage." You can see a breakdown of their work in this video:

But while Bemo continues to attract big clients, the agency itself remains stubbornly small. "We take a lot of pride in being a small boutique studio," Hirzel stresses. "We like to pick and choose our projects and have a really personal relationship with the client. We also like to think of ourselves as very forward thinking and visionary, in terms of the scope of how to accomplish shots and tell stories in a more dynamic way."

And they've put both of these principles into practice with their work on Earth to Echo.

First movie

Touted in the press at "the Millenial generation's ET", Earth to Echo is a family friendly sci-movie with heart - a welcome break from some of the more CG-dominated blockbuster fare. And this focus was as much down to circumstance as design, Hirzel reveals.

"The director Dave Green contacted me and he said: 'I'm working on this film - it was with Disney at the time," he recalls. "And he wanted the alien robot, Echo, to have a bigger presence in the film, but they were limited in their budget, in their resources. Which meant they couldn't do all these CG shots of him.

"So Dave had this idea of: 'If we were looking through Echo's POV then it would bring him into the movie more and we wouldn't have to show him with these blockbuster CG shots, and it becomes a win-win situation.' Then he said: 'But I don't know exactly what that looks like.'"

Inventing Echovision

Hirzel needed to come up with a way to visualize what the robot was feeling

Green asked Hirzel to find a way of visualising that the viewer is looking through the eyes of an alien robot. "I had to think: 'If I was from somewhere out in the stars and I was communicating with these kids, what would I be seeing?'," he explains.

And there was one more thing. "Dave wanted to convey that even though it's a robot, it has emotion," Hirzel adds. "Some people would look at a robot and thinks "Well, he's just programmed". But Dave wanted a lot more depth."

So Bemo created what they ended up calling Echovision - a system for conveying visually whether Echo was healthy, sick, happy or sad. "To accomplish that sort of visual language with a POV shot, that was pretty challenging," says Hirzel. "But I think we figured it out."

Emotional journey

It would risk spoiling the movie to give more away, but suffice to say that the director loved what he came up with, and Echovision became a central plank to the film, which Hirzel describes as "part Goonies, part Flight of the Navigator".

"The initial scope was for around 60 shots," he says. "But it ended up being over 100. Once we started getting into it, it was such a successful way to show the robot's emotions."

And the result is a film that takes a left turn from the norm. "Lately, a lot of Hollywood films have given aliens a bad rap," Herzel points out. "They're always destroying something or they're a threat to humans. But with Earth to Echo there's a positive outlook to what could be out there in the universe. And we're bringing that to the kids."

It's this atmosphere of creative collaboration and imaginative solutions that's at the heart of what Bemo is about, adds Herzel. "For me as an artist when I have more control, when the director's open to hearing my vision as well, and when we can move things and shape things accordingly, it just feeds me so much more as a creative than a director who's just dictating."

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