Serjan Burlak is one of those creatives who are obsessed about their craft. That very obsession crystalizes into qualities we recognize as measures of success or signs of prolificacy. Studious, driven, knowledgeable and meticulosity are all hallmarks of those at the top of their game or pioneers in their field. And whilst Serjan possesses all of these you get the impression that Serjan will never rest no matter how much amazing work he leaves in his wake.
Working remotely from his home office, Serjan provided the title sequence for the (recently BAFTA-nominated!) game Observation and we sat down with him to discuss his experience on the project.
** WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD **
How did this project come about?
My obsession with design, AI and math of nature paid off in a way I could not have anticipated. I got an email from Jon McKellan (BAFTA winner, director of NoCode Studio). Jon wanted to do a similar aesthetic for neural networks I did for Ash Thorp's EDIFICE. When Jon sent me the creative brief and told me that the sound designer would be legendary Robin Finck (Guns n Roses, Nine Inch Nails), I was excited as fuck.
You have taken a few Learn Squared courses and your work from them is gorgeous. Did any of the courses influence your work on observation?
Absolutely! Working on Observation was a true serendipity - when I took Ash Thorp's UI and Data Design for Film in 2015, it inspired me to craft a personal passion project "HEX: Leonardo Da Vinci of Saturn", and Observation's storyline is revolved around Saturn :) Ash Thorp's Main Title Design course was a true professional upgrade, it's FULL of incredible, concrete examples of what makes a great title sequence, Ash goes shot by shot in each example he breaks down and teaches you how to think like an art director, how to think through different design styles.
Another course that had a profound impact on me was Design for Production - especially videos of watching Ash working on his homework for Mike Rigley. I bet most artist would think it's the most boring thing to watch someone work for 5 or 6 hours. I found it to be the best upgrade ever, because I could see how Ash was thinking, what he was paying attention to, what he redesigned, what he tried and how he iterated to make a compelling styleframe. Another course I absolutely love and recommend to absolutely everyone interested in Houdini is Adam Swaab's Houdini Particles course, - a true high density packed masterclass!!!
What was your biggest takeaway or experience from this project?
Patience... patience and more patience - it took way more time and resources than I anticipated. I was truly in love with the project, I worked intense hours as I had to combine workload with another project. Working on Observation was stressful but at the same time I really loved it because it engaged all my engines, I was after a masterpiece, I wanted to art direct mutation and construction of neural networks and geometry in a way that hasn't yet been shown before.
Has working on Observation changed yourself or your workflow in any way?
YES! Thank you for this amazing question, I never thought about it this way before! Observation made me realize how physiologically difficult it is for me to settle for less than what I have in my imagination and I can't do projects that are rushed and derivative. I am fanatical when it comes to care, intentionality, and design. If before I still doubted and second guessed myself, working on Observation helped me crystallize and own my identity as a designer who truly gives a fuck about crafting good, meaningful, honest, poetic, intelligent and attention-worthy work. Every single shot in the title sequence is meticulously encoded with clues about the game narrative! Easter eggs!!!
What were some challenges this project presented?
Technical and rendering challenges... Around 65% of the budget I was given for my work had to go into rendering... Yes, I could have saved that money that I need desperately, but then the animation would have turned out differently.
Unfortunately the amount of geometry I tried to push through the rendering engine I couldn't do on GPU. Amazing people who develop Arnold render engine offered help and provided beta for Arnold GPU to test on this project, but due to lack of GPU render farms for Arnold back then I had to go with CPU for sequences and GPU for stills.
I had to do a lot of tests, R&D. One shot took me a month to figure out... If you see the final 3-4 shots of the monochromatic version of the animation, you will see how super dense that structure is. Our vision was to make the geometry go supernova and a black hole at the same time. Some shots took a week or so to take it to that nature of the result. Will anyone notice or care? Probably not. But I know I did it right, as I envisioned, and the director was very happy with the result. The technical challenge was to create grid systems, code and animation rigs for connecting, mutating and morphing of the geometry to art direct it right. There were tears... Truth be told, any project I do - I have no idea at first how to pull it off technically, I rarely use off the shelf tools. It stressful and exciting, I love to figure things out.
Walk us through your initial thought process when you first saw the brief.
I was excited, I was happy, I cried. There was so much alignment in creative understanding between me and Jon. I started working on it weeks before we signed any contract. I knew that even if I didn't get hired to do it, I would still make something I am proud of. This intense fanatical care, despite being stressful, is also healing for me, because I love feeling how the blood in my veins gets deliciously viscous and charged with electricity when I do work I am truly proud of.
As I mentioned before, this project was such a serendipity - if you look back in 2015, when I took Ash Thorp’s class, there are videos of the class where I really struggled with design and tried to create original art direction for Saturnian geometries - I couldn't do it exactly as envisioned, I lacked technical skills and storytelling sensibility back then, I was impatient too, but by the time the invitation for Observation arrived last year, I was technically equipped with some Houdini wisdom to make geometries of neural networks behave as I envisioned.
What is the next stop on your creative journey?
I have been engrossed in understanding the geometry and grid systems of crystals, ancient and modern languages, runes, hieroglyphics, both from scientific and artistic perspectives to craft next level UI elements. I will share it soon!
There you have it, some insightful and inspirational stuff from Serjan. Special thanks to Serjan for lending us his time for this interview. You check out his complete break down of his work on Observation on his website. And while you're there take a look at the rest of his work too. Trust us, it is well worth your time.