Wearable Works of Art

How Tendril and Vitaly Grossmann created a launch film and visuals for an extraordinary timepiece.
By Meleah Maynard

Tendril had not yet worked with Hublot when the Swiss luxury watchmaker got in touch about creating a launch film for its Big Bang Integral Tourbillon Full Sapphire limited series watch. Known for expertly blending elegance and engineering, Hublot had seen Tendril’s work and thought the Toronto, Canada-based studio was the right choice for visualizing the watch, which was 10 years in the making and has a case and bracelet made entirely from sapphire.

Using Cinema 4D, Houdini and Redshift, Tendril and Vitaly Grossmann, who has collaborated with Tendril for years, created a visual celebration that tells the story of the watch’s highly technical development process.

We talked with Tendril Co-Founder Chris Bahry and Grossmann to learn more about how they visualized the many detailed, intricate aspects of the watch-making process.

Chris and Vitaly, how did you two start working together?

Bahry: We were introduced by a mutual friend, the artist Neic Polovsak, years ago. Vitaly was traveling with his wife in Canada, so our friend introduced us to each other. Isn’t that right?

Grossmann: Yes, but I wrote to Chris before we headed to Canada. He didn’t reply so we got to Toronto and I was like, ‘Okay, maybe I overdid it in the letter or something?’ But then Chris replied so beautifully and apologized, explaining they had been closed for Christmas vacation.

Chris Bahry is Tendril’s co-founder and creative director.

Vitaly Grossmann is a designer and creative director.

Bahry: I invited Vitaly over for a beer and a week later we offered him a table in the studio so he could do his job as a freelance, but also be involved in the culture at Tendril. A couple of weeks went by and we asked him to direct a beautiful project that had come in. He did a phenomenal job leading it, and that was the beginning of a great relationship.

Vitaly: It’s definitely been a dream for me to work with such a high-end studio. And I appreciate how Chris gives me a team and says, ‘Do what you do best.’

Was there a particular project that Hublot saw that made them contact you?

The project that caught their eye was a brand film for AutoStore, a company that makes warehouse robotics. Everything moved in a precise and controlled way, and it was very technical while also having a very strong aesthetic sense. I think that’s what appealed to them.

They are very technical, but they are also artists. Hublot is probably the most technologically savvy watchmaker in the world and yet they are completely analog, nothing is digital. They use extremely advanced technical methods, which is what inspired us to tell the story the way we did.

Hublot’s created 30 Big Bang Integral Tourbillon Full Sapphire limited series watches.

Fortunately, they reached out before the pandemic, so we got to travel there and get a behind-the-scenes look at the process. We were very lucky to have had an opportunity to interview several key players over there and got to know them, which was good because this project benefitted from a deep understanding of the brand and the people behind it.

Reference shots from the Hublot Fabrication lab.

Describe the brief you received.

The brief was really nice. They wanted a film that was just about a minute long and there were three main topics to cover: showing the process, including the materials; showing how the sapphire becomes pieces of the watch; and showing the final product.

Bahry: That was a lot to show in just over a minute, and our biggest challenge was trying to figure out how to walk the line between abstraction and really helping people understand how the process works. It wasn’t supposed to be a step-by-step kind of thing, so we kept pushing it toward being more abstract. We knew that we’d have to strike a balance, but a certain level of abstraction aligned well with the visual aesthetic we were going for.

Super macro of aluminum oxide powder being heated and melted into liquid,
simulated in Houdini and rendered in C4D with Redshift proxies.

What were your main tools?

Grossmann: We used Cinema 4D as our main application, Redshift for rendering and Houdini for simulations, like heavy fluids and particles. Once we had all of the Houdini setups done, we exported alembics and Redshift proxies with attributes and brought them back into C4D. We used Redshift proxies so we could work in Cinema and change things without having to go back to Houdini again. Redshift proxies were a big part of the workflow to avoid a heavy, technical back and forth process.

We were using ACES color management with a custom OCIO configuration the whole way through too. That functionality is now native to Redshift as of version 3.0.46. Compositing was done in Nuke, and all of the versioning was done in After Effects.

Bahry: We also created an asset package of social deliverables, including motion clips and ultra-high-resolution stills. Hero shots from the film were reformatted and used for that purpose. It’s something we’ve all grown accustomed to since it’s pretty standard to create deliverables for web and social these days. We jump into After Effects to do that because it’s the best tool for versioning and formatting.

This clearly took a lot of R&D to show the watchmaking process.

It did, and it’s good that the expectation was for us to create something truly exceptional, so we could create a mood while showing the engineering and the vibe that is built up around this beautiful watch.

Tendril produced this selection of style frames and look development during the R&D phase of the project.
The visual language helps keep things looking consistent.

Bahry: This watch is a limited edition, so this was definitely an exclusive piece of promotional material for an exclusive object. It was a huge technical achievement for them to figure out how to make the watch out of sapphire that they grow themselves in a lab. Hublot is driven to make things that are supposed to be impossible. It’s exciting to work with people who are at that level in their craft.

The video starts with particles of aluminum oxide powder that become molten, translucent liquid. We experimented with a few different ways to depict the powder and the crystals. We used a smoke simulation to make the powder fluffy and some vibration to give a hint that it’s soft. There was no footage from the lab to work with, so we had to guess a bit about the steps the powder goes through before liquifying.

The Tendril team experimented with different ways to turn the aluminum oxide powder into a liquid.

Grossmann: Getting the crystals right was the biggest challenge. The liquid solidifies into synthetic sapphire crystal, which is shaped into the various parts of the watch. We went back and forth on that shot a lot. If you use a microscope, every time you zoom in the crystals look different. We had to find the perfect balance so the engineers could say the look was right while still maintaining an abstract approach.

That’s interesting. Talk more about how you handled technical challenges.

Tendril works with great artists all over the world, and it’s easy for things to get lost in translation so we communicate a lot with drawings. We had about six weeks to do this, and it was a 4K finish, which was really challenging because it was a humungous amount of work with a lot of technical challenges.

A completely transparent watch and refractive materials are very difficult to work with for a whole bunch of reasons. You can’t hide anything at all. If we hadn’t had such a great team, it would have been insurmountable. This really pushed us to our limits, but it was an awesome and fun challenge. We really had to pay attention to render settings, like per-shot trace depth because we had some epic render times.

Grossman: The bracelet posed some unique rigging challenges. It is composed of hundreds of individual parts that all fit and move together in a very precise way. In the end we created several rigs. On the most basic level, we simply needed to simulate bending the bracelet into the classic circular form that fits around the wrist.

Rigging the bracelet was one of the many challenging aspects of the Hublot project.

Tendril 3D Artist Flavio Diniz is an excellent rigger, and he created a spline-IK rig to achieve that. We combined the Spline-IK rig with inheritance effectors in a setup of controllers driven by a formula deformer to create a fluid sine wave motion. Finally, in the shots where you see the parts assembling, we used a simple cloner-based setup with fracture objects and a combination of step and random effectors driven by linear fields.

Bahry: As a rule, we wanted the compositions to be very graphic, so all of our lenses leaned toward the long end of the spectrum (170mm +). Something that really helped with realism in the lighting was mapping soft box HDRs to disc-shaped animated area lights linked with Redshift’s light include/excludes in order to catch highlights and reflections exactly where we wanted them. These were additionally paired with a global HDR-mapped dome and infinite light.

For the shot where you see a kind of split-screen effect (below), we placed the watch inside a crystal and then positioned two refractive planes in front. Using the Redshift object tag’s ray-exclusion list gave us control over what object appeared at render time behind each of the two refractive planes. It was a neat trick that we were happy to achieve in-render rather than via two passes and compositing.

For this shot, Tendril put the watch inside a crystal with two refractive plants in front.

How important was the sound design?

Grossmann: We love to work with a sound designer from the very beginning and, for this, we worked with John Black from Cypher Audio. That way, we can connect visuals, concepts and design with audio from the start. We chose a frame rate of 24, to match the tick of a watch hand, so each cut is perfect for each second. John created this impelling, almost metronome feel, that we totally loved. It set up boundaries for the edit creatively and then we thought about how to adjust each shot.

Collaborating from around the world, Tendril’s team had six weeks to complete the Hublot launch film in 4K.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Bahry: We always want our design to be something we can stand behind and believe in, even if it makes the client a little uncomfortable. It’s a delicate dance, but I think we get away with some concepts because clients can feel the passion of our team. They can see that we try to understand and find the perfect result that is aesthetically beautiful and fits their project.

Client: Hublot /Art Director Alex Bertrand/Senior Digital Content Manager Yann Lauener

Production Company: Tendril/Creative Director Chris Bahry/Director Vitaly Grossmann/
Executive Producer Mary Anne Ledesma/Producer Jennifer Vance/ Production Coordinator Jelena Sibalija

Design + Animation: Mariusz Becker/Superdesigners/Joseph Recoskie/Vitaly Grossmann
/ Houdini Simulation Philipp Pavlov/Superdesigners
Model Ben Pilgrim/ Rigging Flavio Diniz

Print Lookdev/Design: Nemanja Ivanovic/Yeseong Kim/
Light + Render Nemanja Ivanovic/Jeff Briant/Joseph Recoskie/Mariusz Becker

Compositing: Chris Bahry/Astrid Cardenas/Corey Larson

Sound Design + Music: Cypher

Meleah Maynard is a writer and editor in Minneapolis, Minnesota.