Whenever I describe the MIT Media Lab to someone who’s unfamiliar with the facility, I liken it to a not-so-distant cousin of Tony Stark’s secret laboratory. Around every corner of the glossy MIT building you’ll find cutting edge projects soon to be shaping the way we move, think and act in the future. Exoskeleton suits. Cameras that can see through walls. Next-gen augmented reality. The list goes on.
I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email from the Tangible Media folks at the lab asking if I’d be interested in directing a video for them. Combining fashion, science and dance, the video would showcase one of the most unique projects to come out of the lab in a long time: a garment that uses living cells to transform itself in response to the sweat and heat of the human body. This is Biologic.
Unlike many research videos, this project presented a unique opportunity to integrate other creative fields into the mix. With fashion design by Oksana Anilionyte and a dance sequence performed and choreographed by Caralin and Patrick of the Boston Ballet, a video was devised that was not only informative and scientific, but also intrinsically artistic.
After a quick introduction of the male dancer, we switch gears to show the underlying technology and how it was produced using various machines and research methods. We then return to the male dancer and introduce his female counterpart. The two reach a climax of energy and movement that results in the ultimate display of this transforming garment. At the conclusion of the dance, we break the fourth wall to show how this technology might be applied in the real world.
With a limited prepoduction schedule and even more limited budget, we managed to capture most of what I hoped to film in a short amount of time. The shoot consisted of four 10-hour days. The first two days were spent on MIT’s campus shooting pretty standard b-roll and interviews—most of which was used in the supplementary video (which you can see below).
When it came to crew, I was the new guy in the bunch. I was lucky that cinematographer Erik Angra was able to wrangle together a small local crew that had all worked together in the past. The instant chemistry among this group led us to do an unbelievable amount of setups and interviews in a number of locations during these first two days. This time working together also allowed us to warm up to the pace of shooting I wanted to achieve while shooting the dance on the third day at a local cyc wall studio.
Considering Erik and I have never shot any sort of dance work previously, the third day’s shoot was a bit trial by fire. The day was split up into the two dancers dancing by themselves and then finally both together. When the dancers were together they had a 30-sec choreographed piece we broke up and repeated at will, but when they were separate they impressively improvised most of their dance on the spot. Any specific dance moves that looked good on camera were noted and repeated in other angles.
For each section of the day, the setups were pretty straight-forward and consistent. Wide, medium, closeups, altering the lighting within each to accommodate a number of different “looks”. It was important that the energy and momentum remained high throughout this. We took it slower on the fourth and final day by shooting some cinema verité-style work at the coffee shop with Caralin, the dancer.
The editing process on this video reminded me of two important things. One: how incredibly important music is for pacing. Two: nothing is as bad as your first cut. The Media Lab has a certain brand of abstractness that flows through every aspect of the “Media Lab” brand—including music.
However, this strange, experimental sound heard in many previous Media Lab videos is not very conducive to a high-energy dance sequence. And so, working with what I had, the first cut was edited to a style of music that admittedly made the dance painfully slow.
Once the music was switched up to something that was faster and had an actual beat, it became much easier to edit something exciting and energetic. The 4k resolution of the footage was utilized to digitally pan, tilt and spin shots in order to add in extra motion where there was none.
Lastly, since most of the dance footage was shot at 50fps (thanks to the recommendation from the lovely Lisa Paclet), certain dance moves were sped up or slowed down to hit specific points. Feel free to check out the evolution of this sequence below. Watch with your sound on to hear the difference in music between versions.
The limited lighting gear available and infinitely tiny time in the schedule to test our lighting setups on the day of, meant a lot of ground had to be made up in coloring to achieve this very bright, high-contrast look we were striving for in the dance sequence. I’m by no means a professional colorist and there were an endless supply of lessons learned while color grading in DaVinci Resolve. The final grading is not incredibly artistic, but it doesn't melt your eyes when you look at it. For all intents and purposes, it does the job.
The typical coloring process starts with your primary corrections adjusting overall exposure, contrast and saturation. At this point, our white background is still a dull grey and needs to be selected, blown-out and desaturated. From there, the side lighting—which was sometimes a bit too purple or green—was selected and brought back to match the rest of the garment and skin. Last, the skin and the garment were individually selected and color balanced using the color wheels to match the final graded look.
The Second Video
In addition to the flashy main video, the Tangible Media Group wanted a second video that explained the technology and process more in-depth while also highlighting the individuals involved in the project.
The challenge was to make this video—which was packed to the brim with people and some highly technical jargon—just as engaging as the main video. With a number of interesting backdrops and applying a similar philosophy of momentum to the editing, I believe we did just that.
Directing this Biologic video was quite the journey. Luckily, the small crew brought their A game every single day. They kept spirits high—even at the end of some crazy busy days. The collaboration with each of them was more than enjoyable and I hope there’ll be more in the future.
And the Tangible Media team! The energy bursting from this group of insanely smart and talented people helped elevate this video to something beyond what I think anyone expected. I don’t think I’m alone in saying this is one of the best videos to come out of the Media Lab yet!
WIRED: This Living Clothing Morphs When You Sweat
HYPEBEAST: New Smart Material Transforms When Activated by Heat or Sweat
DEZEEN: MIT Media Lab's BioLogic Material Opens and Closes in Response to Humidity
GIZMODO: MIT Is Growing Living Bacteria Into a Second Skin That Reacts To Your Sweat
NERDIST: Living Clothing Shape-shifts When You Sweat
SMITHSONIAN: When You Sweat, Vents in These Clothes Automatically Open
Project Credit List
CLIENT: MIT Media Lab - Tangible Media Group
DIRECTOR: Zach Both
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Erik Angra
DANCE LIGHTING DESIGNER: Matthew Guminski
KEY GRIP: Walter Stone
SOUND RECORDIST: Mike Wilson
PRODUCTION ASSISTANT: Richard Arms
TIMELAPSE DIVA: Rob Chron
SET PHOTOGRAPHER: Hannah Cohen
COMPOSER: Fabio Fonda
COMPOSER: Trevor Gureckis
MEDIA LAB LEAD: Lining Yao
RCA LEAD: Helene Steiner
FASHION DESIGNER: Oksana Anilionyte
BALLET DANCER: Patrick Yocum
BALLET DANCER: Caralin Curcio
SPECIAL THANKS: Rule Boston Camera, High Output and Tatte Bakery
A CAM: Sony FS7
B CAMS: Panasonic GH4, Canon 5d Mark II
MAIN LENSES: Canon 70-200mm f/2.8, Canon 16-35mm f/2.8, Zeiss 100mm Makro f/2.0
SUPPORT: Manfrotto 546B
DOLLY: Dana Dolly