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Back to the Future – an interview with Max Naff

Not long ago, it felt like Explainly was just at the beginning. We were just two people, in one office, working with an abundance of talented creators, in an industry lacking the service that its products deserved.

In just under a year and a half, our team has grown to support Explainly in becoming an award-winning animation studio that has worked with global brands like Visa and Citizens Bank, world-renowned university programs at Johns Hopkins and Stanford, and most recently, NBCUniversal for a Back to the Future 35th Anniversary promo which was featured in Adweek and will make its broadcast debut on Wednesday, October 21st on the SyFy Channel.

Marty McFly and Doc Brown, iconic characters in their own rights.

Named the 12th greatest movie character of all time by Empire Magazine, Marty is a California native who truly embodies Explainly’s project managers and innovative business perspective. He believes in Doc Brown and is ready to help him through journeys that others would call impossible. He quickly masters new technologies like the hoverboard, leans into his creative side playing guitar and plays a patient and supportive role in somehow managing the controlled chaos of Doc Brown.

Emmett Lathrop Brown, PhD, commonly known as Doc Brown, is the perfect partner and leader for Marty. Referring to himself as “a student of all sciences”, Doc is the inventor of the first time machine that he built out of a Delorean sports car. While Marty represents the business side of Explainly, Doc embodies the bold genius of Explainly’s creatives. Our creative team continues to innovate video, using new technologies and workflows to create sleek, jaw-dropping visuals.

At Explainly, our Marty McFlys are typically the ones you interact with; the project managers working with you and our creatives to develop and produce a successful video. However, our project managers and producers can only be as successful as their Doc Brown creatives are talented. So who is our Doc Brown, developing and creating behind the scenes?


Meet Max Naff,

the creative lead for the Back to the Future 35th Anniversary promo video and Explainly’s Art Director

What part did you play in developing and creating the Back to the Future video?

With the help of our team, I developed our initial pitch ideas, sketched our storyboards, modeled every element from scratch (with the exception of the Delorean model), set up our lighting, animated our scenes, rendered out separate render passes, composited and color corrected in AE, and edited the final sequence together.

What’s the very first step for you in tackling a project like this?

The first step is always establishing the mood and the elements that will come into play to get that feeling across to the viewer. In this case, that meant finding our textures that would sell the effect and finding a way to create dramatic lighting in a low light scenario, while still giving our render engine enough light to work with to render out frames that still look good. I then screenshotted various scenes from the movie to create a mood board for targeting the overall feel as well as references for buildings and lighting.

Where’d the inspiration for the “Cardboard Cute-Out” concept come from?

This project was a great example of inspiration coming from constraints. It was very easy to tell which scenes other people were going to be pitching from the film, since it has such iconic scenes that we all remember, so we decided to avoid those. On top of that, we needed to find a way to tell an exciting story from the film while removing its two main characters due to time and project restrictions.

My goal was to find a way to look at these scenes through a different lens or find a way to tell a slightly different story from within the film’s universe, while still keeping it recognizable to a casual fan. Upon re-watching the film, the scene of Doc showing Marty the plan via cardboard model really stood out to me and it felt like it was really overlooked in the grand scheme of things. Doc’s face when the car goes flying off of the table into a pile of oily rags still cracks me up and I feel a real connection to this scene.

Which part of the video are you most proud of?

I am really happy with the zoomy car shots. It was tricky to find a way to kinda tie everything together, and I used the neon lights outside of the stores to create a common color scheme throughout the piece that would feel at home with the later lightning strike shots. The motion blur in combination with the neon lights really came together in a cool way and I love those shots.

Were there any major obstacles that you found as you worked on the project?

Tons! This project introduced me to a set of problems I don’t usually run into, since I usually work with well lit scenes using HDRI lighting. The challenge of creating a night scene really came into play when getting the final renders, since they required super long render times to come out clean due to the low lighting. I used a hefty amount of Octane Render’s AI denoiser to lower render times and get the scenes where they needed to be, saving us loads of render time. Also I spent the most time in post I ever have on a video, using the stack of render layers I output from Octane to paint with light and color until each frame felt consistent and well lit despite being a night shot.

What software tools/programs did you use to create this?

I did previsualization in Photoshop, laying out the game plan via storyboards and putting together moodboards. I then moved over to Cinema4d and started modeling elements from the lab scene and eventually animating each shot. In addition to standard C4D I used a bit of X-Particles from Insyndium to create particle effects for the explosion, the lightning strike, and the volumetric fire trail at the end. Then it all gets rendered using Octane Render for C4D. Octane is a really fast render engine that using GPU accelerated rendering, making it ideal for our turnaround. Finally I composite all of the render passes I get from Octane in Aftereffects. This allows me to make super fine adjustments to the lightning in the scene using a linear workflow so everything comes out looking realistic.

Are you a Back to the Future fan?

Huge fan. I love Steven Spieldberg and he and George Lucas led to me wanting to be a filmmaker all of my childhood. I eventually became a Graphic Designer, which led me to 3D Motion graphics, which has brought me full circle to working on an animation for BTTF. It has been a pretty surreal and awesome experience.

What inspired you or made you want to get into animation?

As I mentioned, I always wanted to be a filmmaker but other artistic pursuits took over later in life. As a graphic designer struggling to get a foothold in the industry, I was constantly looking for tools or workflows that could elevate my style and help me stand out from the thousands of unemployed designers looking for work. I was seeing 3D everywhere and it was blowing my mind.

After 2 years of telling myself there is no way I could figure that stuff out, I just started teaching myself C4D from YouTube tutorials pretty much sticking to still images. I remember seeing the particle effects in Fantastic Beasts and being so blown away that it immediately decided to get serious about animation. It has been a non stop learning process, but 3D is the most exciting thing on the planet to me because it really allows you to create anything you can conceptualize.

And how long have you been working in video production?

On and off since mid high school. I used to make short films in high school, then helped out with tons of student films while I was attending school for Graphic Design at a predominantly film related school. After that I worked at an agency that worked on videos for the Motocross industry for a while, but eventually got locked into Graphic Design gigs in the entertainment industry for a while. Finally my skills caught up with my passion for animation, and I have been doing that ever since.

Last question, do you have any advice for young, aspiring animators?

Hustle every day. It is very easy to get into a rut just applying for internships / any available work. If you are not constantly working on personal work or passion projects to continue honing your skills, you will quickly stagnate and get lapped by the industry. The world is super flush with creative talent, and you have to want it more than the rest of them and work every day to get it. Create the work that you want to see in the world and the jobs will eventually come to you for your vision.

Interested in working together on a video? Contact us today to schedule a free consultation with one of our project managers and figure out what video style is best for you!


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