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Video

Salted Stone Produces 16-Bit Style Retro Animated Video for Med School Tutors

Phil Dupertuis

This particular video project came about as a result of the website we initially created for Med School Tutors (MST)—a place for medical students to get customized 1:1 online tutoring for the USMLE, COMLEX, admissions and residency advisement.

 

As the web design started to crystalize for our client, it became clear that we would need to have something that could help give people a quick run down of the brand as a whole.

In collaborating, both sides knew how important it would be to take a unique approach to the video because the web design is so different from anything out there in the tutoring space. The website takes you through this linear progression of what MST offers and the folks at MST wanted to complement the web design with a video element that could provide that big picture overview of what the company is all about and the value it offers medical students.

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Mitch McKenzie, Salted Stone’s Creative Director, says, “The goal of the video was to capture the most important stuff you need to know about MST and the process of getting started in a short, fun video. We also wanted it to be something that could act as pillar, or stake in the ground for the overall brand voice and style.”

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Maggie Norby-Adams, MST’s Designer & Content Editor, was the person who initially visualized the video. Then, our two teams talked through a “choose-your-own-adventure book” theme because MST’s customers are starting out in medical school and taking their first steps on a journey and that’s the story we wanted to tell.

DuPertuis says, “The MST team has a lot of heart and they’re fun to work with, and maybe best of all is that they don’t take themselves too seriously. They bring that balance in that they are very proud of what they offer. As we discovered the similarities between our teams and the fact that David is a total nerd just like we are—he’s into video games and comics too!—it just made sense to brainstorm around that kind of video game and comic book character aesthetic.”

THE PLANNING STAGES

In thinking through the video strategy, we also knew it was important to place the student in the role of the hero and assign MST the role of the mentor or the sage or the sherpa. However, the initial struggle in the project came about because the MST team had a very specific idea of what they wanted it to look like.

DuPertuis says:

“They were wanting an 8-bit, Super Mario and Zelda aesthetic, but we knew there would be limitations with that because you can’t show a lot of detail at that resolution. We had concerns that if we went that route we wouldn't be able to accomplish a strong emotional connection by the end of the video, which is ultimately what they were looking to do.”

To try and help the MST team visualize our animation concerns, McKenzie provided them an A/B test with one character designed in the style they were looking for, and another character in an updated style that was better able to emote and smile. In the version they initially wanted, the character’s smile just didn’t come off in the right way.

DuPertuis continues, “Once they saw the animation test it unlocked all the doors for them and they realized that if we updated their vision just a bit, we would be able to animate the characters in a way that would transmit all we wanted to say.”

THE ANIMATION

McKenzie says, “Once we finally settled on the character designs, we jumped into building out various elements and backgrounds. Research involved playing and watching clips from various SNES and Sega Genesis games – which was obviously pretty fun.”

He continues, “The pixel art style was a pretty painstaking process to animate. Basically every element had to be done frame by frame. I was happy to have Steve Gomez’s (a Salted Stone Designer) assistance in building a lot little pieces and character movements.

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DuPertuis offers, “This project is the coolest project I’ve been a part of. Their team was never afraid to say to us when we showed comps, ‘Hey this isn’t really landing for us. Can we try again?’ And with Mitch (McKenzie), there was no ego. He would hear their feedback and then ideate around how we could do things better. Both sides had the goal of producing the best possible video, not ‘the video I want.’ And ultimately, that’s why it worked so well.”

THE SOUND

Beyond the animation, our team also tackled the massive job of creating original audio for the video. Often with explainer videos, the audio tracks are sort of an afterthought. It’s usually a stock jingle behind a voiceover and maybe a few swooshing sounds. To create a more immersive world and heighten the emotional impact and humor, McKenzie felt it was important to go beyond what is typical or expected.

McKenzie wrote and recorded original music for the video in his home studio, and his team spent a lot of time and effort finding the perfect voice talent.

McKenzie explains, “We knew the tone of our voiceover had to be friendly, youthful and inviting, while maintaining a sense of professionalism and trustworthiness – basically a reflection of the MST brand. I was really excited when we finally found our voice talent, Victoria Swilley.”

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Our team recorded the voiceover during the course of two phone sessions and made the (unusual) decision of having the client (MST) present on the call during the recording.

According to McKenzie, “Because we were all so in sync with the direction we wanted to go in, it actually worked to have both parties present. Victoria responded really well to all our notes and I think we ended up with the perfect vocal track to guide our little journey.”

BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER

Even though a lot of the planning was done upfront with the script and storyboard—big shout out to MST’s Creative Consultant and Staff Writer, Andrea Gellert, who wrote the original script—there was still a lot of room for improvising and adding detail during the process of animating.

Says McKenzie, “I think a lot of really fun bits came in because of those little ah-ha moments while stitching everything together, usually toward the end of a 12-hour working session. One of the last things I did, actually on the same morning the final video was delivered, was record the over the top video game voice heard in the background through the video (“PAJAMAS!”) – I lost my voice by the end of it but I knew David and crew at MST would get a kick out of it so it was well worth it.”

David A. Schulman, Chief Creative Officer at Med School Tutors, says, “Few businesses I’ve worked with understand that secret pact made between artists, where egos are left outside of the sandbox—and at the end of the day, if you create something that truly engages and tells your story, chances are you won’t even know who came up with what in the process. It becomes that cohesive.”

McKenzie says, “I love working on projects like this where we have the opportunity to build a little world from the ground up and I get the opportunity to let my obsessive nature take over with all the little details. I’m really proud of how cohesive everything turned out. I think we nailed the tone.”

Faith Meyer Yeung, COO at Med School Tutors, says, “The video still blows my mind every time I watch it.”

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If you have any questions about how we produced the video, or if you’d like to talk through your own animated video ideas, please don’t hesitate to reach out. We love talking to people about this stuff :)
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