As Artificial Intelligence Became a Major Topic of Conversation, the Creative Direction was Driven by a Question for All Creative People, “How Are You Feeling About This Moment?”
The 27th Annual Webby Awards honored 2023’s biggest Internet visionaries and activists, surrounding them with a colorful AI-generated look and feel designed by SpecialGuest. SpecialGuest worked with the Webbys to create the theme, brand design, stage design, and intro film for this year’s star-studded ceremony, which took place on May 15 at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City.
As the official creative partner of the 2023 Webby Awards, the agency began thinking about this project at the end of 2022, not long after ChatGPT, Midjourney, and other Artificial Intelligence (AI) platforms had first started taking off in popularity. The team anticipated that AI would be a major subject of conversation, and their work was inspired by the uncertainty in the air about AI generative tools, which dredge up very specific questions and feelings in the creative community.
“For an event all about creativity on the Internet, we knew AI was going to be a big topic,” said co-founder, Aaron Duffy. “But especially for creative people, it is a fraught subject. On the one hand, it’s exciting for all of the creative opportunities, but it’s also scary because auto-generative capabilities can seem to conflict with human-generative capabilities. So, with the Webbys team we decided on a theme for the Webbys this year. We called it, “That Feeling” and had the Webbys join in on the conversation being had by all creative people right now by asking them, ‘How are you feeling about this moment?’.”
Using simple AI interpolation tools, SpecialGuest began by creating “auras” that mixed the different emotional color states that today’s creatives are feeling into ambient blotches, producing a visual experience across a range of hues that is both excited and subdued. Those “auras” then became the basis for The Webby Award’s 2023 brand identity, reflected in all of the nomination and Webby website content and social assets as well as the event environment itself including the signage, step-and-repeat, and stage design.
This theme was then explored in greater detail in the event’s opening video, which leans into the question of how creatives are feeling right now using the visual metaphor of a “what-is-it box’” that you might find at a science museum. The voiceover begins by instructing participants, “Don’t look in the box, step up and just put your hands in and tell us what you feel.” It then uses moments of AI auto-generative video to illustrate people’s answers, communicating the many different industry perspectives as we are all collectively feeling our way forward and trying to understand what this moment means for our future. The intro film was concepted by SpecialGuest.co and was co-directed by Lake Buckley and Aaron Duffy and produced by1stAveMachine, whose team was fortunate enough to get access to the beta of Runway’s Gen-1 tool before it was fully released. Gen-1 is a way of creating new stylistic video outputs by inputting source material, text prompts, and a range or parameters. The results are very unpredictable and often dreamlike – capturing the excitement and uncertainty of people’s words in a mesmerizing style that makes it difficult to look away.
For example, when different creatives say, “It just started to turn into sand, and now I can make things with that sand. It’s slipping through your hands and it’s happening so quickly,” the AI interpretation of those words turns the scene into a Dali-esque sandy landscape. In another instance, when a creative shares that, “Sometimes it feels friendly, and sometimes it feels a little bit ominous,” the film illustrates hands reaching into the box to touch a teddy bear suddenly turning skeletal.
“We intentionally leaned into AI auto-generative tools to create the content so that the design itself could be a direct reflection of the industry’s ongoing discussions. The moments throughout the video which utilized AI-generated imagery to punctuate the voices of a creative community that does not seem to be quite sure how it feels right now seemed especially fitting for the occasion,” Duffy added. “SpecialGuest loved collaborating with the Webbys team and we were honored to be a part of the event this year.”
SpecialGuest has been playing with AI on a range of creative projects for several years, beginning in with a VIP dinner hosted by AI for Rag & Bone’s big New York Fashion Week moment in 2019. In 2022, the company started its own R&D and tech development agency, SpecialGuestX (SGX), to focus on tools that will soon be changing the way we think about making content. The SGX team recently created a project for Carvana that used AI to auto generate 1.3 million personalized videos (one for every customer), and is currently working on the first text-to-VR platform, a groundbreaking research project which allows a designer to use a text prompt to generate an animation of a 3D avatar in Unreal Engine.
Directors: Lake Buckley & Aaron Duffy
Director of Photography/Camera: Adam Carboni
EP: Andrew Geller
Producer: Lauren Moroz
Head of Accounts: Tazri Afrin Harris
Account + Project Manager: Sasha Pierre
Creative Development/Designer: Pimm Buddhari
Supervising Producer/Post Producer: Courtney Gnash
Line Producer: Mary Elizabeth Monda
Editor: Bryant Rutledge
Key Grip: Julio Yurnet
Gaffer: Christopher Yurnet
Grip: Michael Dongo
Graphics / Finishing: John Harrison
Grade: Joseph Bicknell / Company 3
Music Composer: Tomas Becu / Bamba
Sound Design + Mix: Pablo Gutierrez / Bamba
Post Production Partner: Studio PPS
Post Production Partner: 1stAveMachine
Hand Model: Lola Lorber, Annie Georgia Greenberg, Reuschal Jackson, Lake Buckley, Jordana Jarrett, Sasha Pierre, Elle Duffy, Nancy Duffy, Lake Buckley, Aaron Duffy, Elle Duffy
Voice Over: Nancy Duffy, Aaron Duffy, Pimm Buddhari, Lauren Moroz, Sarah Sherman, Sasha Pierre, Karim Zariffa, Rozzi Crane, David Ebert, Juan Santacruz, Nolan Hicks, Lake Buckley, Miguel Burelli
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