And breeaaathe: the animation supergroup creating meditation TV for Netflix’s Headspace
For the directors behind Headspace Guide to Meditation, it was a challenge unlike any other. So just how have they envisaged inner calm for a streaming audience?
For a creator of visuals, this has got to be one of the strangest briefs you’ll ever receive: “In a best-case scenario, people will close their eyes and not watch your animation.” However, this was (albeit half) of the brief given to the animators behind the new Netflix and Vox series Headspace Guide to Meditation. The series is the most recent chapter in the phenomenal success story of Headspace, the globally popular meditation app created by British mindfulness expert and ordained Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe with his business partner Richard Pierson. Having launched as an events company in 2010, its guided meditation exercises narrated by Andy were first brought to life through animation by Nexus Studios, which created over 150 characters and environments to visualise the app’s teachings. Then Headspace signed a three-series deal with Netflix, and the company had a new challenge: how to make meditation, a practice which at its very core is the antithesis of binge-watching escapism, TV-worthy.
In fact, that baton was handed to a supergroup of animation studios and directors, each tasked with creating 20-minute episodes based on a teaching led by Andy. Four studios and eleven animation directors were involved: Strange Beast with Hannah Jacobs and Lara Lee, Magnus Atom and Yuval Haker; Blink Industries with Alex Grigg, Katy Wang and Gabriel de Bruin; Compost Creative with Colin Thornton and Neil Wilson; and Augenblick Studios’ Aaron Augenblick with Devin Clark; all with a team of animators in tow. They all worked with series art director Drew Takahashi, who explains that the project required a shift in perspective for everyone involved. “Many of us have done our share of commercials where every second is there to stimulate or seduce. In this case the subject seemed to demand a different use of the medium,” Drew tells It’s Nice That. Instead, the team “kept old media habits at bay and sought calm,” he says. “We consciously injected space, air to breathe and often used breathing to pace the shots.”
The result is something that could be a new genre for television. It sits somewhere nearby slow TV, experimental music videos and informational films, but it is also none of those things. Its intention is not to draw your eye or add excitement, but to be passive and secondary; something to visually guide the lesson but not detract from the point of the whole thing, to focus on yourself and not the TV.
Each episode has a theme and promises a grand life lesson – how to deal with anger or stress or pain, how to let go, be kind, get started, fall in love with life, or even “achieve your limitless potential”. Each has an introduction to the theme, in which we hear Andy explaining through anecdotes and scientific evidence around how our body and mind react to certain situations, and how we can use various meditative practices to better understand this and react more healthily. These sections are packed with metaphors, which the animators bring to life through their individual styles (though importantly all with a Headspace vibe). Then there’s the meditation exercise itself, an altogether different and bizarre brief for the animators, which Aaron Augenblick explained at the start of this piece as basically being told their work would ideally not be seen. These stripped-back, abstract visuals are designed to visualise a process going on inside the participant’s mind during meditation. They, therefore, had to be as calm and soothing – and not distracting – as possible. The only stipulation was that they centre on the Headspace orange dot. On being told the idea was for people not to watch their work, Aaron adds “usually our goal is the very opposite!” and brilliantly describes his studio’s solution as creating “a kind of animation lava lamp. Something with a warming presence that you don't necessarily need to look at in order to feel it in the room”.
One of these segments shows a single watercolour line that weaves around a space eventually creating an orange sphere (by Colin and Neil); another shows orbs floating in the air (Hannah and Lara) or abstract shapes orbiting the orange dot “sun” (Katy and Gabriel); while Alex’s, and Magnus and Yuval’s, visually allude to some of the sequences in the more narrative section of the episode, for example, a rippling pond. For most of the animators, the trickiest hurdle was simplifying their work to an unfamiliar degree. “We thought we had delivered some pretty charming options,” Colin recalls, “but the art director gave us a note I remember: ‘the curse of the ego too clever is not right here’.” Harsh, but fair in Colin’s opinion, and so further iterations saw the concept stripped to its barest bones: a simple watercolour line representing a stream of consciousness, “the rise and fall of that line timed to act as a loose breathing indicator,” he adds.
“We were often really having to pull back on certain ideas,” Hannah says of her episode. “It was definitely quite a strange creative process in that respect, as usually, your job is to make something as visually ambitious and entertaining as possible!” This saw the directors take away detail until all that was left was shapes, conveying the exercise “through the animation movement itself – floating orbs, things morphing effortlessly from one to the next in much the same way our thoughts can organically glide from one to another,” she explains. In the same way Andy’s reassuring tones help his listeners, they also aided the creative process. “We found ourselves intuitively responding to Andy’s naturally calm and considered voice and pacing,” Lara adds. For Alex, himself a practised meditator, the process was even more intuitive. “I really just tried to create something that felt the way that I feel when I try to focus on my breathing,” he says.
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Hannah Jacobs and Lara Lee, Strange Beast: Headspace Guide to Meditation (Copyright © Netflix/Vox Media Studios)
With only essential forms on screen, a lot of importance is also placed on colour, with these exercise segments being subdued yet positive, comforting and subtly tied-in with the Headspace brand, for added familiarity. Astutely, Katy and Gabriel have also used it like a dimmer switch to signify the start and end of the exercise, introducing a gradual colour change from light to dark when the viewer is meant to close their eyes, and the reverse when it’s time to return to the room.
As for the first sections of the films, they live in a similar visual universe but with more traditional creative tasks to face. Andy’s stories are peppered with metaphors and scientific case studies that were no doubt helpful for the animators to bring to life, but it was important they were accessible across continents and demographics. Hannah says the use of abstract shapes to represent a cluttered mind came up as a useful visual metaphor, while many of the directors say they looked to nature for inspiration, not just because it is broadly relatable but also because of its innate links with the peaceful state of meditation. “There’s something inherently calming about natural imagery,” Magnus says. “When you pay attention to the cycles of nature – the life, death, and changing patterns – you can find metaphors for almost anything in life, both externally and internally. Perhaps that’s the Eastern philosophy in me talking.”
What stands out about the series is its aesthetic variety, and while it all has a distinctively Headspace-feel, thanks to colour choice and friendly faces, the challenges of this brief have clearly driven the directors to push their medium. Headspace was adamant not to show Andy as a character, or even show too many humans or anything too realistic or literal, and – vitally – no text, so Aaron describes aiming to “represent the words with feeling over meaning... the best images felt evocative: doorways, stairs, nature, eyes, stars, breath”.
Alex, whose episode is about anxiety and stress, describes creating a shape language “that brought a physical form to those kinds of thoughts” and using a point-of-view perspective during personal anecdotes; while Katy and Gabriel considered how anger could be personified through abstract characters and eyes reacting to certain relatable scenarios (such as someone stealing your parking spot), playing with expressive shapes and colours at varying scales to convey changing energy. “We touch back on this size thing throughout the episode,” Katy says, describing how “frantic anger sprites” fill the frame “making us feel small,” and the character grows oversized as its anger intensifies. “It’s something that let us abstract the idea of anger and how uncontrollable it can be, and demonstrate how your perspective literally shifts depending on how angry or calm you are.”
Given the emotional themes of the episodes, the project invited the directors to think laterally in how to communicate feelings, without being too prescriptive in terms of character design or scenario. “I suppose this means you’re trying to capture something far more abstract,” Hannah says, “a general atmosphere or emotion, rather than a literal interpretation of the voiceover.” For their episode about letting go, Hannah and Lara used mostly rounded natural shapes to appear more friendly, then “broke this rule when it came to communicating something angry or upsetting,” using angular shapes. They also employed colour as a communicator, picking vibrant, “jarring” tones of blue, yellow, or red also to represent anger; overall the palette was flat and devoid of detail, so as not to distract from the lesson, and their transitions aim to have a “natural fluidity, with scenes effortlessly gliding from one to the next”.
Aaron explains how his team went for harmonious and gentle colours in their two episodes, and referenced impressionist and surrealist artists such as Miro, Matisse and Magritte to help achieve “dreamlike” imagery, which can also be spotted in Alex’s film. Aaron also describes avoiding strong cuts and instead opting for “a floating stream of cartoons… a very important zen concept,” while Colin and Neil also aimed to convey a narrative that could “flow and evolve along with the narrative, like how a stream of consciousness might weave and evolve in a daydream”. One of their episodes, How to Get Started, uses a mixed media collage aesthetic to encompass “a wide range of feelings and emotions as well as humour and science” tied together with inky watercolours to soften the style and “help carry the more emotional sequences”.
Colin Thornton and Neil Wilson, Compost Creative: Headspace Guide to Meditation (Copyright © Netflix/Vox Media Studios)
Aaron Augenblick and Devin Clark, Augenblick Studios: Headspace Guide to Meditation (Copyright © Netflix/Vox Media Studios)
Yuval describes having originally depicted realistic scenes, for example, a person in the city on their way to work, suffering from back pain, but soon realised the client wanted something more “vague, but visceral, more sensory”. So, the film zooms into his spine, the vertebrae becoming a group of sitting meditators, then follows a “thread of consciousness” as it travels up the spine, the pain symbolised by a radiating red and yellow glow, and later focuses on his head, which physically unravels to signify a loss of tension in his body. Their film also uses transitions to enhance this serenity, designing a feeling of constant movement, “scenes with no beginning or end, images and forms flowing and morphing into each other,’ he says, with the hope of sending the viewer “into a sort of trance”.
Aptly, it seems that for many of the directors, the creative process was interwoven deeply with the subject at hand, in that engaging in Andy’s teachings produced ideas that envisaged a meditative state. “I’m already an avid meditator, even more so since the start of lockdown, but I thought actually sitting down and meditating might be an interesting way to approach the design conceptually and aesthetically,” Magnus describes. “I don’t know if it’s normal, but sometimes if I’ve been meditating for long enough and I finally reach that ‘inner peace’ around the 20-minute mark, I start to see moving colours and lights. Perhaps it’s just the blood flowing through my eyelids,” he laughs, “but I tried really hard to visualise an aesthetic around what I saw there.” This materialised as “fuzzy light patterns and morphing colours” a soft style they later referred to as “airbrushy”.
“As a whole, I honestly cannot compare it to anything else I’ve done during my career,” he concludes – a sentiment echoed by most of the collaborators, with Colin describing it as “very rare” to be able to make something as “conceptual and extremely abstract, and for it to be on Netflix!” And with that, he roundly sums up a highly unexpected and surprisingly revolutionary project for animation and TV as a whole. One that could have started a new genre, that subverts the very nature of TV as a distraction and makes it a tool with which to take care of our own mental health, and strive for emotional calm, during a fitting moment in our societal history.
Hannah Jacobs and Lara Lee, Strange Beast: Headspace Guide to Meditation (Copyright © Netflix/Vox Media Studios)