In 2014, Stink Studios made a website where users could upload a selfie to be mapped in 3D, in real-time, into a music video of a singing kitten — appropriately called Sing It Kitty. Using our learnings from the process, we developed our own video compositing platform for future projects, in order to be able to seamlessly generate dynamic videos in real-time, or, in other words, to Render In The Air. This is how Stink Studios’ proprietary technology RITA was born.
Fast-forward to summer 2018 in our Los Angeles office, where we had yet to use RITA ourselves — Stink Studios New York and London had developed and refined the technology and its workflow, having produced all RITA projects to-date. So we set out to wrap our heads around it, too, to determine what was possible, how to structure our After Effects files, and how to set up a back-end environment that could scale efficiently.
At the same time, we pushed ourselves to think outside the box of typical applications of dynamic video and find new design-driven use-cases for the technology. Essentially, we have an array of scene templates that get populated with a user’s dynamic data in order to produce the final custom video. While year-end reports, friendiversaries, and iterative music videos are ready-made opportunities to create these kind of highly-personalized assets from user datasets, they only scratch the surface of what could be possible.
Our first instinct was to create a RITA-powered type specimen — the digital broadside announcing a new typeface and detailing its character sets and features — where typically there is some form of type tester that allows the user to input text and see it displayed in the typeface. Typically, the type tester generates text statically, as letters on the page. But if the goal of the type tester is to, well, test the type, we want to see how it behaves applied in the real world. What if you could see the typeface applied, in motion, in scenes that accentuate its character? RITA could do that. All we needed was a typeface. That’s when we met Dinamo.
Like most of the design world, Stink Studios has had their eye on Swiss type foundry Dinamo for some time now. Founders Fabian Harb and Johannes Breyer have made waves in recent years for their keen typographic sensibilities and prolific experimentation, resulting in new forms of typographic software, variable type research, and bespoke commissions for some of the leading designers and institutions worldwide.
We were first introduced to Fabian and Johannes after we created amessagefrom.earth, a site designed and built for WeTransfer as an artistic commemoration of the 1977 Golden Record. A few weeks after the site launched, we were dropped a line from Fabian commending our use of the Dinamo typeface Favorit Extended on the site, and we replied asking if they wanted to collaborate with us on a project using our RITA technology. The reply was immediately yes. And they had a new typeface in development for us to use: Estragon, a revitalization of a few wacky characters found in an 1890 specimen book in the Letterform Archive in San Francisco.
Fabian and Johannes are just those kind of collaborators — and the kind of people you can’t wait to work with — who keenly and eagerly listen, are genuinely curious, contribute incredible ideas, and just want to get from “Think” to “Do” as fast as possible. With this mindset, we created, developed, and refined an idea that would leverage RITA’s ability to generate many videos in parallel to create a type-testing world distinct to Estragon, with open source GIFs and videos culled from archival internet- and pop culture that users can set type directly into, download, and share. It’s a meme machine — one that puts Estragon on a Tamagotchi screen, emblazons it on a skull, makes it into a 1–800 number, a psychic reading, and more, all in the blink (or two) of an eye. Dinamo describes Estragon as, “a combination of Wildstyle and Kurt Schwitters” — that is, somewhere between a post-modern German artwork and graffiti — and we chose scenes that accentuate the eccentricity of that typographic character.
The site design was developed iteratively and collaboratively, balancing typographic tradition with experimentation by dividing itself into multiple panels where rendered scenes exist side by side with a Estragon character sets and features, showcasing the letterforms in several separate but complementary contexts on a site that serves as a sandbox for both type design and video technology.
Along the journey of site development, the project became one of the first to feature the new v2 build of RITA, which features many performance updates under the hood. V1 had a C++ backend and required all of the scene assets to be compressed and loaded into memory in order to render quickly. This method was effective but extremely expensive (in terms of RAM and dollars) at scale. The v2 core, on the other hand, is rewritten in Rust and is therefore substantially more memory-safe and -efficient. It can also output a fully static binary file, eliminating the dependency wrangling issues that plagued v1.
Finally, the most exciting feature of v2 is its ability to package a project file and split it into bite-size chunks. Combined with the static binary, this enables us to deploy RITA across a series of serverless functions rather than an auto-scaling server cluster. Overall, this setup is much more flexible and dynamic, and the lower overhead opens up the possibility of using RITA for projects that might’ve been too expensive in the past.
The creation of this site was a journey of product development and creative collaboration years in the making. Along the way, we’ve tuned up not only the RITA technology, but our understanding of the creative needs it can serve for clients who seek highly refined, personalized connections with their audience members. We’ve come a long way since Sing It Kitty, and we know there’s still a whole lot more that RITA can do.
See for yourself, in Estragon Vision, at abcdestragon.xyz.