The most successful executions of feature film and broadcast series’ titles create a unique bond between the viewer and the content, driving the main story arc with a story of their own. Our team is pretty much obsessed with title work and the storytelling it enables, so developing one of our own for exploration purposes was an easy decision. Researching the famous Winchester mansion and Sarah Winchester's life, we developed a concept that is dark, moody and mysterious.
The Winchester Mansion is an eccentric, opulent labyrinth designed by a grieving woman, riddled with guilt and trapped in her struggle with personal demons and those perceived to surround her. The motifs of the building and transformation, as well as guilt and paranoia are contrasted in a story arc that reflects the true history while being a bit disorienting, much like the house itself.
While title sequences serve many purposes preceding the film, our main focus was using the story of Sarah Winchester to set the tone. In this respect, it was important for us to stay true to the history of the person and the house, while developing a dark and mysterious mood for the viewer. Our initial concepts quickly gravitated towards core themes of construction, disorder, paranoia and most importantly guilt. To best accomplish this, we developed mood boards focused on three key aspects of the piece: Architecture, Lighting and Typography.
While the architecture of the Winchester Mansion is basically Victorian in style, the actual construction is unparalleled, so it was important for us to reflect actual details in our story. Knowing we would be creating each scene in 3D, dramatic use of lighting was fundamental in developing a dark and mysterious tone. Being a title sequence, the use of typography is essential to convey information. Our goal was to develop a look that fit with the spirit of the piece and also felt authentic to the historical period.
Extensive research and rounds of creative meetings provided a wealth of potential shots from which to build the story arc. Since the Winchester rifle itself was the causation for the grief and continual building of the mansion, we wanted to open with shots of the firearm. The idea here was to frame the rifle in a manner where initially it would be a bit difficult to decipher, and then reveal more as the shots progressed. From here, our general story progression was to move into a series of shots focusing on architectural oddities of the mansion, including hints towards aspects of the occult in Sarah’s life. To depict the furious pace of construction of the mansion it was decided to conclude the sequences with series of “time-lapse” cuts. These would serve to increase the pacing visually as well as allow the construction to eventually overtake Sarah Winchester and her grief.
We wanted to bring in true to life details as much as possible including macabre statues found on the grounds, safes that contained only obscure personal trinkets and infamous details like the “Door to Nowhere”. James Givens illustrated storyboards based on our initial shot list and allowed us to see the story visually for the first time. Continuing to refine the story, we cut and added shots as necessary, moving parts around to develop a timeline that best portrayed our themes of guilt and paranoia.
With the story arc and shots “locked”, we started the long process of modeling and texturing all the scenes in Cinema 4D and Octane. Taking these conceptual shots and fleshing them out was a huge exploratory step towards our final aesthetic. During this process we developed shaders and lighting effects based off historical references.
Experimenting with color correction in After Effects and Davinci Resolve allowed our team to see how the composites could be altered to best achieve the emotional feeling that was conveyed. Stained glass windows appear throughout the Winchester Mansion and this provided the perfect delivery device to add a touch of the grotesque without being too over the top. Custom illustrations were created and used as textures in Octane to further enhance these moments.
During the animation process, we took a slightly different approach than that of our day-to-day projects. As shots progressed and the compositing process began, it was critical to always take a big picture view and ask if the story arc was working. This led to adding or extending shots, moving edits around in the timeline and of course removing anything that was not working. Utilizing Octane as our render engine out of Cinema 4D significantly increased our workflow speed. The integrated Live Viewer allowed us to adjust lighting and texturing on the fly. Rendering with over forty GPUs on our network also meant that we could load multiple jobs at the end of the day and be ready to composite and review the next morning.
As our workflow for the project developed, we also integrated Houdini for smoke simulations and Davinci Resolve to add film grain and overall color correction to our base composites. Over time, we kept the process ever evolving, developing better textures, lighting and color correction on each round until we achieved our aesthetic goals.