If you asked most of us what we thought of Gelata, we might eventually nod suspiciously and say, “Sure, I love Italian ice cream.” Who doesn’t? Unfortunately though, that’s not quite what we had in mind.
Gelata, far from anything you’d like served in a cone, are in fact some of the most curiously fascinating creatures bobbing around our oceans. You would recognise them commonly as jellyfish and, as long as you aren’t about to breaststroke into one, admire them as strangely beautiful. This marine biology lesson is necessary as this is the core theme and purpose of our latest featured website, Aquatilis Expedition.
This richly immersive URL, available at aquatilis.tv, presents the results of a three-year scientific quest pitched by Russian marine photographer Alexander Semenov. His incredible work, which is available to view at clione.ru, underpins this unique visual experience while simultaneously chronicling his time at Moscow University’s White Sea Biological Station. “It sounded rather surreal to us at first, like all good opportunities do,” laugh the site’s designers. “It was a unique idea, with a unique goal and a great cause. We believe in magic, and this was clearly a great chance to work on something magical.”
Agency House of van Schneider would provide the ‘we’, clearly inspired and perplexed in equal measure from the start. The studio umbrella for the German-born, New York-based designer Tobias van Schneider ‘and friends’, was handpicked by Semenov to bring his vision to fruition. A strong sense of collaboration and an enthusiasm not to be confined by big brands and big budgets all helped to put HovS in the ‘diving seat’, as it were. “Although House of van Schneider is very selective with the projects we work on, we’re by no means exclusive to big brands and budgets. We believe that if the message is bold and the goal is sound, then it’s the project for us.”
That said, with a portfolio boasting commissions from the likes of Red Bull, BMW, Google, Wacom, Sony, Toyota and Ralph Lauren, this is still a team confident in delivering high-profile product. Applying those kinds of production values to a project celebrating the art of nature would prove a departure figuratively and literally: “Aquatilis Expedition incorporates some amazing technology: satellite broadcasting from distant corners of the world, a custom-made remotely operated underwater robot with a built-in 4K camera, handsome hard-working scientists and, best of all, plenty of fresh, exciting and new knowledge for everyone. We believe it’s time for a new Underwater Odyssey fit for the 21st century, an expedition that uses the full scope of possibilities that modern technologies and media have to offer.”
Audacious stuff maybe, but how does an unlikely partnership like this get started? Where an agency like House of van Schneider might normally pitch for a project, this one seemingly came very purposefully to them out of the blue. “Right from the get-go, Aquatilis Expedition appealed to us as a very interesting and exciting opportunity. As we already mentioned, House of van Schneider is usually very selective with projects we work on since we believe that we can only do great work on projects or initiatives we really believe in. In late 2013 Alexander Semenov, one of the best underwater marine photographers from Moscow in Russia got in touch with us via email pitching the main idea of the Expedition. It sounded crazy, combined with his slightly broken Russian/English writing it sounded even more unreal and bizarre yet, at the same time, bursting with potential.”
Semenov, of course, already had a big name to identify with, enjoying plenty of acclaim and exposure for his breathtaking photography in several major publications. After doing some research, House of van Schneider immediately fell in love with his imagery and the beauty of his underwater world. Alexander knew very much what he wanted, which always helps in a client, focusing first discussions on agreeing the vision and exactly how they could realise it: “Our first goal was to create the Aquatilis Expedition brand identity from scratch in collaboration with Alexander Semenov – we also wanted to tell a story and share the adventure with everyone else out there. We had no problems on boarding talent, with Tim Holman, an interactive developer from New York and friend of House of van Schneider jumping aboard, and the brilliant Anna Bogdanova from London who joined as our amazing copywriter, crafting beautiful words for Aquatilis.”
After the initial briefing from Alexander and the Aquatilis Team, a debriefing document was produced. The goal here was to put everything into perspective while defining the deadline and deliverables at the same time. Feeding this back to Aquatilis would be vital in ensuring that both parties were on the same page regarding an understanding for moving forward with the project.
“Establishing a culture of trust from the very beginning is key to the success of our projects and, in the case of Aquatilis, the trust we received from Alexander Semenov and his team was just amazing. By maintaining a level of trust throughout the project we eliminate unnecessary rounds of feedback as well as back and forth on small decisions that are very time-consuming, especially considering that we worked in three different time zones – New York, London and Moscow. But we always kept a high level of interaction and communication throughout the project. We usually use Basecamp as a tool for basic project management. Here we monitor our deadlines, To-Do lists, share assets and gather feedback from the team if needed. We usually split the project into different phases that each have assigned deadlines and schedule check-in meetings when one of the phases ends in order to gather feedback and then move into the next phase.”
A first phase was concept and storytelling, with the team firm believers that “nailing the story, brand and concept” is key. Working with Alexander and Anna specifically, they settled on the outlook that ‘Aquatilis is where art meets science’. The view was to present science with beauty, accessibility and power: “The initial phase included sketching different ideas and writing down what we wanted to communicate with the visual brand identity for Aquatilis. Working with Alexander’s strong imagery was beautiful and challenging at the same time. We aimed to create something elegant, fashionable and beautiful by respecting the imagery of those magical creatures who look as though they’re just floating through space with stars in the background. At the same time, Aquatilis was about a group of brave people, a big ship, wild oceans and three years of travelling around the world. By making smart decisions on the visual identity and typography choices, we tried to create a look that is both elegant and adventurous.
“When we moved onto the website we wanted to create something simple yet magical. With parallax scrolling techniques, we aimed to tell a consistent story, diving deeper and deeper until you reach the bottom of the sea. It was important for us to create a sense of depth and wonder and make it easy for the user to navigate on the website. We aim to use technology not for the sake of just using it, but for telling the story in a more engaging way.”
After a visual brand identity was established, the designers worked on simple wireframes to illustrate user flow and test the storytelling ability of the website. The decision was to go for a single-page structure, providing pathways to branch off without harming reading flow. A system of side panels would be introduced, giving quicker access to nuggets of content, making the site feel more like an interactive magazine: “After we finished the base visual design of the website we took every chapter and iterated on it, did separate experiments to add possible transitions, animations or interactions to optimise the reading experience. Sometimes we even removed effects again because we felt it was too much.”
This iterative approach extended into development, with individual components separated out and prototyped up to three, maybe four times. Balancing performance with cutting-edge technology also became a big challenge to overcome here and it soon became obvious that demanding both richness and speed would be a tough act to balance: “For example, in the background of the site, we have an intricate canvas animation where we simulate about 400 small plankton swimming around and interacting with each other,” the team explains. “To speed up the experience we had to slow their frame rate right down to 20 frames per second and then make the movements seem more erratic to counterbalance this. We then overlaid a small layer of stars so it seems as though there were more than are actually moving. We can honestly say that we altered these planktons every single day of the project, tweaking and tuning until they were just right, and everyone was happy!”
Needless to say, this level of visual detail isn’t always conducive for transferring across every device. Alexander gave his blessing to have the experience degrade gracefully across mobile, iPad and versions for older browsers. Animations would be switched off so as not to diminish the overall experience, an example being the small CSS3 animations and filters dotted throughout. “The quotes, for example, are rotating over different hues to give them a near glowing, lifelike look about them, but also that is subtle enough to catch people by surprise if they see it. These technologies are still gaining support over different browsers, but can happily degrade to still imagery and colours.”
Seeing the final design it’s clear that the team were setting the bar high in terms of achievement. An attempt to educate and amaze the audience has culminated in a website that presents the world quite literally through a new lens. As part of wider work to promote the Aquatilis Expedition mission, House of van Schneider was also asked to create concepts for book cover designs, t-shirts, hoodies and calendars – very much supporting an on-going project.
“We also launched the website to help raise financial support not only through crowd funding but also from bigger sponsors who want to help making the Aquatilis Expedition happen. While those are just the short-term goals, we believe that this is just the start of something very big. We believe that we’re living in a golden age of education right now, where the landscape is constantly changing due to the great possibilities brought on by new technology. We measure the success of Aquatilis by how many people we inspire, not only about the Expedition, but also about how we approach sharing such extensive information with the whole world. We would love to see more projects like Aquatilis.” Having seen the site, who could argue with that?