Design TED Conferences

How the TED Machine was built

When illustrator/storyteller Oliver Jeffers and animator/woodworker Mac Premo get together, sketchbooks travel 60,000 miles, suitcases wander the streets of Brooklyn and sandwiches are skewered with bows and arrows.

Jeffers and Premo created the opening video for TED2013 — and its star,  the TED Machine. The TED Machine works like a schedule board in an old train station — with panels that reveal, with each new flip, the names of the 72 speakers and performers at TED2013 in squiggly handwriting. In the video above, the machine comes to life in stop-motion animation, revealing a magical world filled with ukelele strumming and changing backdrops. At TED2013, the video — which has a homespun charm a bit different from TED’s regular polished punch — elicited the kind of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ normally reserved for fireworks displays.

On Monday, New York creative types crowded the workshop space of Manhattan’s 14th Street Apple Store for an evening with Jeffers, Premo, and TED’s  Design Director Mike Femia, for a conversation about building the machine and where to find the best trash in the city. During the event, Jeffers and Premo revealed how they met (at summer camp); what they do when they’re not making art (they make hot dogs text); and how they pitched their idea for the TED machine.

Being asked to create the TED2013 opening sequence was nerve-wracking, Premo told the crowd, but he and Jeffers knew it would be a great opportunity to stretch their creative muscles. “TED is the most intellectually-stimulating blitzkrieg in the world,” he said. “And we had to make a film that encapsulates it.”

So they set out to build the TED Machine by doing what they do best: Premo taking on the woodwork and Jeffers creating a collage — something they had to physically attach to the 72 rotating “name bumpers” on the machine, because as Premo said, “We needed the things to turn.”

In the end, filming took five days (note: this is a 72-second long video!) and even included a trip to Coney Island in 7 degree weather.

Femia explained what drew the design team at TED to Premo and Jeffers in the first place — they were impressed by the hand-painted wooden map that the two had created for TED Prize winner JR to track his Inside Out project. The piece eventually became a landmark of the design for the 14-city TED Worldwide Talent Search.

“The moment before talks start at a TED conference is very dramatic,” Femia explained. “People are settling into their chairs; the lights are getting dim. We asked ourselves, ‘How could we make it special?’”

Femia said he knew Premo and Jeffers were right for the job because of their ability to tell a story with their art. “What I like about their work,” Femia said, “is that it’s explanatory — it celebrates the process, the messiness, the dirtiness.”