Framestore Labs: transforming digital signage with data
If you’ve enjoyed any movie featuring visual effects over the last three decades, there’s a very good chance that Framestore was the company behind some of its most jaw-dropping scenes.
Founded in 1986, this British success story is one of the UK’s most admired effects studios, having worked on movies from War Horse to the Oscar-winning Gravity. But you probably wouldn’t associate them with digital signage; something Jonny Dixon and Robin Carlisle—founders of Framestore Labs—are hoping to change.
“When we started out, Robin and I moved over from MPC Digital, and we wanted to move away from web-based projects, and look at what could be done using big screens, with bespoke computer systems running software that we’d written ourselves,” explains Jonny Dixon, Global Head of Production at Framestore Labs. “So we started in 2011, and quickly found our feet, as we started leveraging the internal experience that we have here at Framestore.”
Framestore Labs’ mission
Framestore Labs has a clear mission within the world of digital signage, which is to ‘build high performance systems’ that run cinematic visuals, and ‘make the world a more interesting place to walk around’. And the work that best showcases this vision is the Times Square visualisation that Framestore Labs created for Morgan Stanley. (And for tips on big screens, don’t miss our digital signage outdoor tips!)
“Their previous set-up had been in place for over 20 years, and although the amber ticker was well-known, the technology didn’t allow them to deliver contemporary and compelling content,” says Dixon. “In Times Square especially, there is a need to stay fresh and relevant.”
For the Morgan Stanley project the team built a custom hardware and software system, that enabled marketers and the company’s creative agency to present data via a set of Framestore-created templates and graphics. With a custom CMS enabling real-time data to be pushed directly in to Times Square.
“What we’ve always tried to do is add a really high-quality, cinematic, and graphical approach to presenting people’s data,” Dixon explains. “And we try and simplify a lot of the things, with the whole system being fashioned in such a way that the client can use it, which means we build everything all the way from the client-interface, through to applications and modules that deal with processing their data and visualising it. So there’s a whole integrated system that goes right from the design, up to which hardware we might need, where we’ll work with the likes of Nvidia and ASUS to get the best results.”
And despite winning plaudits and new clients off the back of the work Framestore Labs produced for Morgan Stanley, the studio is constantly looking for fresh and innovative approaches to the world of digital signage.
“Interactivity is one thing, but you want to make it relevant to the people watching it,” says Robin Carlisle, Global Head of Creative at Framestore Labs. “With a project like Morgan Stanley, it’s relevant to the people walking past as a whole, but it’s not directly relevant. But with the technology that’s coming in (such as beacon data) there are potentially ways to create something that—maybe without their knowledge—is specifically for them. I’m not talking about targeted advertising, along the lines of Google cookies, but presenting data that’s relevant to you, such as what’s happening in the world, or what the traffic might be like on your commute home.”
To enable the level of support required for real-time, data-driven signage campaigns, the Labs team works closely with Framestore’s existing engineering departments, out of its offices in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and London.
“We explain all of our set-ups to the Framestore engineering team, which we also document as well as we can, and I won’t say that we haven’t thought about third parties, but for where we are at the moment it makes sense to use Framestore’s existing infrastructure to support our work,” says Dixon.
Drifting into digital signage
Having the support of a pre-existing infrastructure has certainly helped Framestore Labs develop its client offering, but its unique approach to digital signage—an area that is often viewed with a lack of excitement—was a happy accident.
“We kind of drifted into it because we were offering something different,” Carlisle tells us. “We were never doing signage before, so weren’t using existing AV equipment, existing signage players; we weren’t using that stuff, because, to be honest, we didn’t even know about it. We were writing graphical applications, which we’d always done in the past, it’s just that the screens were bigger.”
And according to Framestore Labs, digital signage is currently moving into a much more dynamic and interesting place, which may require the industry to rethink how it views the world of digital signage.
“It’s not just videos and text scrolling across the screen, it’s proper, dynamic visuals,” says Carlisle. “And data is certainly part of that progression, because you can make very interesting visuals if you know what to do with the data. And when you say digital signage, your CMOs and your executives understand that that means the sign on the outside of their building, but I think eventually that term will be dead—which is fine with us.”
Because of some of the more traditional associations with digital signage, such as the fixation with it being out-of-home media, Framestore Labs doesn’t tend to work with ad agencies, but liaises directly with its clients.
“They’re stuck in the world of out of home, the same way that AV companies and CMOs are stuck with the term ‘digital signage’,” says Carlisle. “It’s all out-of-home advertising to them, and the reality is that things are a little more freeform than that.”
“They’ve had their heads in the traditional advertising market for a long time, and I think it’ll take more than five years for them to get there, but they will,” Dixon adds.
And with ad agencies and many of the people currently working in digital signage operating on a different wavelength to Framestore Labs, Dixon claims that it’s architects who have been the first to truly understand where digital signage needs to go.
“A lot of the new buildings going up, are being built with architects thinking about where the fiber lines are going, they’re thinking about whether the wayfinding is built into the walls,” Dixon enthuses. “They’re not afterthoughts. The screen is becoming part of the architecture. And it’s not just signage or graphics, it’s the lighting, the electronics that run smart buildings, and various new techniques to do with air flow, wayfinding, security; it’s all being thought about at a much earlier point.”
Name: Robin Carlisle
Position: Global Head of Creative
Working alongside Jonny Dixon, Robin builds high performance systems to run beautiful, cinematic realtime visuals. Robin graduated from the University of Bournemouth with a degree in Computer Animation and Visualisation, and initially entered the industry in R&D. He shifted into a more creative role, leading teams on work for clients including Sony, Bacardi, Coca Cola and Nokia.
Name: Jonny Dixon
Position: Global Head of Production
Jonny Dixon heads up a pioneering team of directors, technologists and developers who build high performance systems to run cinematic data visualisations. Jonny started his career at Telecine Cell, and learnt his craft under the tutelage of Barry Day, of BBC fame. In 2006 Jonny moved to MPC, where he ran the machine room and established the Digital department before joining Framestore Labs in 2011.