Astra Q&A

How did this project come about? What was your initial brief from the client?
Astra, based in Luxembourg, is Europe’s largest satellite operator. They asked us to create a series of films explaining everything about the launch and operation of satellites. These films are to be used for both education and marketing.

It took 3 years to design and build the Astra’s new 3B satellite. Comparably, producing the materials to help market this was presumably a large task in and of itself – from research and ideation to development of the brochure and final production of the documentaries. Can you reflect upon the timeline for producing the deliverables in full?
This project spanned three years from initial brief to delivery of finished films.

There are 7 films in all, how long did they take to produce?
After some initial teething problems, finalizing the script and testing some different aesthetic styles, all 7 Films took around 3 months to produce.

How much freedom was there in the structure of the narrative? Can you expand upon the development process?
We actually spent a great deal of time reading up, interviewing Astra people and becoming satellite nerds! We wrote the whole thing and created the structure of the narrative. It seemed appropriate to break everything down into seven different films. This makes all the technical information less overwhelming and it allows the marketing people to use just the subjects relevant to their particular meeting or presentation.

Who are these films intended for? They seem a lot like science films you might see in school, but with a bit more humor and obviously a bit of a marketing message as well…
We wanted to make films that we wished we had been shown in school. Essentially what Astra do is amazing—they oversee the manufacture of satellites, launch them into space to a precise position 36,000 km above the Earth’s surface and then fly them from the ground. We felt it was important for us to explain an otherwise extremely complicated process in a very simple, accessible way. It’s fair to say we learned quite a bit in making them.

The super-graphic and diagrammatic style of the illustration and animation really makes the story of each film very clear, how was that direction arrived at? Were there other styles that were explored?
The Swiss graphic designer and art director, Erik Nitsche was a big influence on us. He is best known for his relationship with the engineering company General Dynamics, producing a series of breathtaking posters and corporate brochures throughout the 1960’s. His work made a potentially mundane and corporate subject extremely interesting. In a similar way we wanted these films to be colorful and evocative—making a dry technical subject more interesting.

We did some research and really embraced the data you might find within the pages of a boring technical manual. Out of context, some of these diagrams can be works of art in their own right.

These really are the films we wished we had been shown in physics lessons at school. Our starting point was what would interest us and hold our attention? At script stage we considered other executional approaches but animation was certainly the most practical, given the diagrammatic content and the fact that much of the narrative takes place 36,000 km above the Earth!

Great copy is as essential as the visuals in telling a successful story. Since these films hinge largely on the script, how important was it to you to recruit someone as notable as Johnny Ball for the VO?
Johnny Ball brings a lot to these films in terms of tone-of-voice. We let him ad-lib parts of the voice-over to make it seem more natural. We chose him because he used to present a great science TV show for kids in the UK. And of course because he has a great, enthusiastic, engaging voice.

Steve Bisenius (Sr. Mgr., Technical Svcs. at ASTRA) states that some of the key selling points of this new satellite are its efficiency and scalability. Accordingly, I feel that the films reflect these aspects beautifully – they are presented in a stylistically transcendent, simplified modernity, while dually causal in their benefits of marketing and educational purposes. Is it accurate to make the association that the chosen direction for the films represents the characteristics of the actual satellite in kind?
Yes. This graphic style is part of a larger project that we are working on with Astra. Flexible elements of this will soon be applied across all their materials. Everything from website to advertising.

How much of a collaborative process this project was, if at all, with those on the team, such as Sam Renwick, illustration and Chris Perry, animation?
Like all This is Real Art projects, everyone was fully involved at all stages.

Paul, you’re known for taking an active role in the development of a project rather than acting solely as a sideline director. Did you get your hands dirty in this project as well?
Yes. This project turned into a real labor of love for everyone involved. We had daily project meetings for many months.

As an aside, I’m always interested in narratives of people’s lives, and yours is an exceptionally brilliant one: You received a PhD in Biochemistry before becoming an incredibly successful designer/director. An exceptional example of balanced cerebral hemispheres if I’ve ever heard of one. What made you decide to take the leap into advertising?
Honestly, there’s not too much difference between working as a research scientist and working as a creative person in an ad agency. In both instances, most of your time involves reading a load of stuff, talking to people, then sitting in a room, having ideas about it and making mental leaps. The other thing I always say is make your career in something that interests you. So work doesn’t seem like work. I’ve always been into science as well as art and design.

Do you feel that your dedication, drive and commitment to detail on a scholarly level has aided in your achievements in these more creative contexts? Was it hard for you to adjust from empirical study to more subjective themes?
See above. The empirical stuff in science comes after the mental leaps. Just like the crafting of ideas in art and design comes after the mental leaps.

Are you working on other motion-related pieces, or anything new coming up that you’re excited about? What’s on the horizon for This is Real Art?
Yes, we’re currently working on another marketing film for Astra (in a similar style).

This is Real Art works on a vast array of projects. Everything from film to branding to websites to magazine design, to advertising. Current motion-related projects are more films for Astra.

Thanks, Paul, for taking the time to talk with us!

Creative Director: Paul Belford
Directors: Sam Renwick, Chris Perry, Paul Belford
Concept, design, animation and music: This is Real Art
Illustration: Sam Renwick
Animation: Chris Perry
Voice-over: Johnny Ball
Writer: Gideon Todes
Client: Astra