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The Shins ‘The Great Divide’ Takes a Reverse Zoom Journey Through the Big Bang

Producer Jen Alvares and her Hunters House team deliver a stunning, complex CG music video for the Grammy-nominated indie rock band’s latest single.

Last month, The Shins released “The Great Divide,” their first new song of 2020 and first new music since last November’s “Waimanalo” and “Trapped by the Sea.” Co-written by frontman James Mercer, drummer Jon Sortland and bassist Yuuki Matthews, the song’s release was accompanied by a visually stunning, uniquely designed Paul Trillo-directed music video, produced by Jen Alvares, a partner and executive producer at the women-owned Los Angeles-based entertainment company, Hunters House Entertainment Group.

According to Mercer, the song is “an epic about longing and love in a broken world. I guess we wanted to try to provide a bit of warmth and sentiment in hard times.” For Alvares, the music video was an ambitious project that the band wasn’t even sure was possible. She tells AWN, “The fun fact is that the director and the band didn’t even know if it would be possible until they reached out to us. I love a good challenge and have produced quite a few projects that were deemed impossible, but this one was definitely on a whole other level.”

“It all started on Instagram,” she continues. “The band found the director, Paul Trillo, through IG, and they approached him with a rather unexpected offer. At the moment, they were looking to license previously created video fragments with an idea to integrate them in their upcoming music video.”

“While licensing can be an easy and quick fix, it is not necessarily the best solution and it doesn’t always work as a comprehensive one,” she states. “’The Great Divide’ is a complex and ambitious song, so the director felt very strongly about creating something original and something that would make a bigger impact on the viewer. Once the band got on board with the new approach, Paul reached out to us looking for a production partner.”

Alvares and her team were able to design and produce the elaborate film with a final design that stayed close to the original creative direction they were provided. “Everybody was pretty settled on the infinite reverse-zoom journey that takes us through the big bang, into the creation of life, then to a distant future, all in one continuous camera move,” she says. “What we liked most about the concept is that it could potentially be interpreted in many different ways, and the meaning of it could change over time. Each scene has enough room for imagination, and it is fascinating to find out where it can bring each of us. When we first discussed it at Hunters House internally, we were excited to hear so many different interpretations of the concept, and it certainly struck as something timeless yet timely.”

A short, tight schedule meant the project had little time for what we’d consider a proper development and pre-production process. “We had to work with whatever the director could put together in a very short amount of time to make the creative as explicit as possible,” Alvares notes. “We were given a treatment, a shot list, quite a few video references, and image references for each scene that were turned into an animatic and helped us better understand the timing of the video. 

Once all source materials were provided, Hunters House quickly began work on the films’ design. “The director was in touch with us practically 24/7 and made sure to guide us through every single question we had,” the producer shares, though “obviously, because of the complexity of the video, we had a lot of them.”

Alvares’ team drew inspiration from a number of sources, including more than 50 different video references that covered pretty much every single aspect of the planned video: overall look and feel, render quality, and specific element designs such as sculptures, falling arrows, jellyfish types, and fluid animations. “If I’d name some of the most important visual inspirations, I’d say it’s the original Cosmos series from the 80s meeting HBO’s Westworld opening title sequence,” she reveals. “Both are iconic and were constantly present in our conversations. It helped us settle on stylized photorealism as the look and feel of the video and inspired us to mix different animation methods such as real-time animation, slow motion, and freeze time. We felt it would make the video more interesting and would allow us to showcase the visual changes of times.”

Given only two months to complete the video, as the deadline was tied to the song’s release date, Alvares separated the production into 23 small projects, noting, “That’s the number of scenes in the video, and we worked on them simultaneously to avoid any possible delays that can be caused by late feedbacks and approvals.” “Once individual scenes were completed and all transitions between them were approved, we patched them all together in one continuous camera move,” she adds.

The 13-person team’s tools differed based on scene complexity, but the majority of work was done in Cinema 4D, Nuke and After Effects. They also used as a reviewing tool.

The project’s first big challenge was the same one affecting us all – the pandemic. According to Alvares, “The pandemic impacted our business’ direction in general before we even got involved in this project. We quickly realized that live-action shoots might not happen for a while, so we double-downed on our post-production studio division and revised most of our clients’ projects based on that. This allowed us to keep the business going, keep the clients happy, and get a chance to do something different. With The Shins project, planning a live-action shoot was still not an option, and creating the video in a 100% computer-generated environment turned out to be exactly what the song needed.”

“I think ambitions and expectations are every project’s biggest challenges,” she continues, sharing that “When you are flooded with multimillion-dollar visual references and all you have is two months and a non-commercial budget allowance, there is no room for error. We had to move quickly, and every move could either keep us on track or throw us back on the timeline with no available resources to make up for it.”

Despite the challenges, Alvares maintained focus on the studio’s number one priority: always delivering the highest production value possible. “The quality of work we deliver represents our brand, and our goal as an organization is to be a partner that is devoted to the client’s success first,” she says. “We put our performance above everything, and we trust that it shows.”

Reflecting on the fast and furious production for a music video she knew would get tremendous worldwide attention, Alvares concludes, “I would honestly say that the coolest aspect of the project was hearing the feedback from the band. They said they were ‘moved’ when watching the final video. When you work on anything creative, and you put your work out into the universe, you want it to evoke some sense of emotion with the viewer, especially the client. Our goal is for all our partners to feel a sense of happiness, relief, joy, etc. when working with us — it’s the cherry on top that makes putting in such an incredible amount of effort worth it.”

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.