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1917: The Year of the Revolution

The Russian Revolution, led by Vladimir Lenin, started in 1917 with the overthrow of the Czar. It lasted until 1923 with the establishment of the Soviet Union. The American YMCA helped to save the lives of influential resistance leaders whose ideas were preserved until the 1980s, when they came to play a role in the downfall of the USSR.

When I first started at Mixed Bag Media I had just spent over 15 years in the world of animation and motion graphics (“Broadcast Design,” as it was known in the 90s and early 2000s). The world of documentary-style promo production was new to me, and while it was exciting to learn about a new world of creating with lights, cameras and action, I did sometimes pine for that old world of graphic blandishments, of lines, shapes, colors and motion.

It was a little over a year into my MBM tenure that we were put in touch with book publicist Mimi Schroeder and provided the opportunity to create a book trailer (also known as a promotional video) for a book called Revolution From Within, on a rather obscure subject: the role of the American YMCA in the Russian Revolution! It’s not something one hears about every day, and as I began reading over the material I was fascinated by this forgotten chapter in the history of politics and ideas, and wanted to learn more.

After talking with the author, Katherine Baird, my immediate thought was to somehow incorporate the style of the art movement known as Russian Constructivism. It was, after all, the actual graphic style of the Revolution. I’d always really liked the look of those paintings and posters, and thought it would be a visually interesting and cost effective way to create the book trailer. It was also an opportunity to dip back into graphics and animation, making the project a great combination of my past and present.

Mixed Bag Media / Stay Curious: The Case of the Russian Book Trailer

By taking elements of historical photos of Lenin and crowds at Bolshevik rallies and combining them with our take on the Constructivist style, we aimed to show that he was a leader who wielded great influence. However, with that influence, and in spite of the promises of Bread, Land and Peace, came much distress.

Over a few weeks I worked on the script while also gathering appropriate images and figuring out how to deploy them to tell the story. Using online image libraries like Pond 5, GettyImages, Internet Archive, and the Library of Congress for the source images, I worked with our editor and graphic designer David Robinson to combine existing elements with newly created ones to produce new and unique compositions, to which we added simple animated features and sound effects.

There Was Much Resistance to the Bolsheviks

There was always resistance to the Bolsheviks and their successor, the totalitarian Soviet state. A single image from a Constructivist poster was multiplied and layered in order to go from jarring to aggressive. Paired with the bold and block “Kremlin” font, it achieved that goal.

Rather than interview the author, we decided to use a voiceover to describe the story to potential book buyers. As I continued to work on the script, I kept hearing the voiceover as a “character.” After considering several options I went with my gut and did my best imitation of a breathless BBC wartime reporter. That character fit the story as well as the vibe of the video and had the added benefit of being free. And while this was our first time doing something exactly like this, because of our grounding in graphics and animation we always had confidence that it would work, and could not have been happier with the results.

We’ve been talking about, pitching and producing a lot of new material from repurposed content lately. This project was a few years ago, but is a great example of how to not just reference an older visual style, but actually use older visual assets and put a new spin on them. It was great fun to make still images “come to life” by adding motion and sound.

Because of new public health standards put in place to ward off potential spread of the coronavirus, many people are now working from home. But that doesn’t mean things need to grind to a halt. Business must continue on. And that means people still need to communicate. We can help with that. Now more than ever, the internet offers options for moving forward while we all shelter in place. We strategize with clients on what to make and why. We love to get in the weeds and work through ideas to make sure we’re working on the right ideas for you. Write or call so we can talk about the YMCA and the Russian Revolution, or some other project you may need help with.

-Jim Threlkeld