D&AD 2015: Case Study

This year D&AD asked The Mill+ to make not just the opening titles for their 2015 Awards but also all of the assets for the print campaign. This included everything from tickets to online deliverables like banners and stills. It was great collaborating with the Mill+’s design team, getting their insight and critiques as well as seeing them develop a typeface from the ground up (good job Alex!).


Mill+ directors Carl Addy and Nils Kloth conceived the idea that the titles should reflect the difficulty in getting awarded; the concept was to show the progression of escalating mountains.

A main challenge was making a total of five mountains that would have to represent different pencils that the D&AD Awards bestow: wood, graphite, marble, classic yellow, and black. Each pencil gets harder and harder to acquire, and the mountains would have to reflect those distinctions.


We started by gathering all sorts of reference material – by the end we had amassed a huge collection of mountains, landscapes, contemporary sculpture, mineral surfaces, graphic stylizations, and type treatments.

One of the driving forces for the design of these mountains was that they shouldn’t feel like ordinary mountains; from up close they should leave the viewer with the impression of watching somewhat natural formations, but from afar they should look more sculpted and trophy-like.

Besides overall form we also had to focus on surfaces as well; how parts of these mountains would look like from close up.

Each mountain had it’s own unique approach for modeling, there was no one-way solution that would work for all.

One would think C4D’s Landscape object would get you close, when in reality it was used sparingly and more for details than anything else.

Here’s a small breakdown of how the form was achieved for the mountains.

The wood mountain’s form was done completely by using C4D’s built-in sculpting tools. It’s pretty surprising to see how this mountain started from a highly subdivided flat mesh (a fancy way of saying a primitive Plane).

The sculpting tool’s layers worked wonders for us to crank up or tone down certain aspects of the mountain – every step of the way, from every top to valley, was it’s own layer which was then further altered via it’s percentage slider.

I’ll get to the detail ridges during the texturing section (although it should be in modeling), since those fine details were originally to be achieved via displacement shading.

The marble mountain was a tricky one to get just right. We knew we wanted to have a small part of the mountain be rocky, and then some parts be chiseled into quarry-like shapes.

The base (un-stepped/quarried) form was a combination of some sculpted and displaced landscape objects. Once that form was pushed and pulled into looking just right, we devised a way to make and extract contours of the mountains as splines (with some help from Python).

Once enough splines had been generated, they were put in a Mograph Cloner to help us either add or reduce splines, but more importantly allowed us the flexibility of the Random Effector to space out the splines in X, Y and Z space.

After a naturally randomized look was achieved, the splines were Extruded and the Marble mountain was created.

One of my favorite features of this mountain is that it’s practically procedural – you can change the amount of steps really easily, and by modifying a few source splines you can change the overall look of it and maintain the marble quarry/stepped look that we wanted.

If there’s one word to describe the bulk of this mountain it’s Instancing.

I built the base form for Graphite, and then Steph Dewhirst made extra graphite pillars and populated a once barren mountain base. There were just a few different pillars, but they were all repeated via the Instance object in C4D. This allowed for us to change the geometry to a more detailed version at a later point.

After a few iterations we were happy with the layout and placement of these pillars/shards; Dan Fitzgerald jumped in the ring and sculpted some really nice detailed pillars based on our original geometry. That way when replaced, the Instances would just refresh as considerably more detailed elements.

The Yellow Pencil is D&AD’s most prestigious award, so this one went through many iterations. Doug Bowden spearheaded this design and came out with many incredible designs before we finally arrived at the final design. The base is comprised of two detailed pieces of geometry, while the middle section is variations of the same trunk with different deformers to give them each a unique yet consistent look.

The top vertical bits are similar to Graphite in the sense that those are also Instances.

And finally we arrive to the last model, the most challenging Black mountain.

The base of this mountain is about 7 different Landscape objects which were sculpted into a shape and form that we were happy with. The monolith amongst the base is basically a deformed rectangle with two Booleans: one for the chip on the top corner, and for the chipped away/subtracted area 3/4 the way up.

To give the mountain a more dangerous and treacherous look, a layering of shaders and bitmap textures were used as displacement sources. It needed to be rough yet have sort of slight crevices/cuts into it which would seem sharp.

To make the monolith more integrated with the base, vertex maps were painted on contact points and reaching up along the edges. The same layered displacement textures were then applied to the painted areas.

With all of this talk about displacement and vertex maps, it’s a good time to review the Texture and Shading aspects of these mountains.

When we modeled the mountains, we were always looking at them from a distance and trying to get the overall look and feel right. We were expecting to hit a few bumps here and there on the close-ups, but didn’t really realize how much of a bumpy ride it was going to be until we started getting really close to the geometry.

Two factors really changed the workflow we had intended: displacement render times and working to a 6K deliverable.

At our 1080 previews for the wide shots, the render times were acceptable. Once we started trying out medium and closeup shots, we noticed that our render times were increasing by seemingly exponential proportions. We tried adding more subdivisions and lessen the amount of processing during render, and it helped considerably.


However at 6K a lot of our textures were starting to fall apart – to my surprise even the procedural textures became a bit soft and lacked in detail at close up and 6K. I guess there is such a thing as asking too much from vector based shaders.

The main victims were the Wood mountain which needed tons of displacement for the ridges, the Yellow mountain to give it a rocky feel, and all of the scratches/jagged peaks/elements of the Black mountain.

This was a massive roadblock and red flag because two major things were happening: the displacement detail from the long shots was getting completely lost, and the colors for shading were getting either blurred or monotone.


This is when we split the project task into two sections: Displacement Baking and Matte Painting.

Luckily for us, The Mill has an amazing team of concept artists and matte painters, who know how to work with 3D elements. Not only were they able to give us insanely high resolution image-based textures, but they also added their own elements that we didn’t think of – which ultimately made the mountains even better.

For Displacement Baking, there was no other way except to bite the bullet and subdivide until kingdom come, load our textures onto a Displacement Deformer, and patiently wait while we generated massive C4D and Alembic files.

Finally after sorting out image quality and regaining back our details, we were able to start adding more elements into our renders.

The closer you are, the more detail you need – which is where Vertex Maps came in incredibly handy.

Making custom painted vertex maps for different parts of the mountain sections became a way to not only add more color and textures, but also give us more fine-tuned control for both Bump and Displacement shading (displacement was back on the menu now that it was only small parts using it).

These maps allowed the Wood mountain to have smoother ridges in the higher peaks, the Marble mountain to have chipped off edges, the Yellow mountain to have smaller pieces of it rising from the jutting out crystals, and sub detail on the Black Mountain.

And then there was lighting.

The two major factors in making the mountains seem believably massive was to use infinite lighting and hard shadows (with some exceptions).

We used the hard shadows not just to convey scale but to also suggest ascending movement – the directional shadows guide your eye from the bottom or middle of the frame up to the top of it.

Hard shadows with Global Illumination, plus subtle soft lights for fill helped give the close up shots a natural and balanced look and feel.

At the end of the title sequence, we were to reveal all five mountains together, posing as trophies.

Putting them on a pedestal isn’t enough, lighting needed to change as well.


It’s at this point that the lighting changed from an infinite source (the sun) to a controlled studio environment (area lights).

Gone are the hard shadows, now the soft and diffuse make the once massive into an object that you can place in a room.

And with that I wrap up this case study on the way that we got to the mountains. For the end of the awards we made a re-edit: the viewer now returns from the upwards journey back to ground level.

If you’re still up for it, here’s a Making Of made by The Mill which features some of the team (including an appearance by myself).

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