Recently, I had a phone conversation with nailgun* co-founders Michael Waldron (Creative Director) and Erik van der Wilden (Director of Editorial and Animation). We chatted about their backgrounds, looked at the process behind their work and discussed sundry topics related to motion graphics and broadcast design. The result is a candid look inside the brains of a studio that has created a strong body of high-profile work for both broadcast and commercial venues.
What were you guys doing before nailgun*?
Michael Waldron: Erik and I worked together at a company for four years prior to nailgun*. That place merged with another place, and Erik and I decided that we would take off and try to do something on our own.
When you started nailgun*, were you trying to do something different than where you were before? Or was it more about having a little more control?
MW: I think definitely more control, but there were also specific types of work that we really enjoyed doing, like show packages. We also wanted to get more involved with Erik’s background in editorial. We wanted to direct a little bit more live action. We wanted to do more projects where we could handle both the concepting and the production side—everything from the ground up.
Erik van der Wilden: After four years at one place, it was also about the kind of atmosphere we wanted to work in. I think that’s what gives birth to a lot of new companies, too. You have a lot of talented people in a place, yet you look at each and think, "We could much more if we had a different structure to how we work."
One of the nice things here that we’ve established at nailgun* is a very open, collaborative atmosphere. A lot of sharing. There actually is no opportunity to just do what you want and go off on a tangent and say "Screw it, this is what I want to do." Everything still does come back to—you know, Michael and I are very hands-on. And I think that’s what keeps nailgun*’s work looking the way it does.
MW: We work anywhere from 40 hours a week to 60 hours a week, 70 hours a week. In this business, the hours are kinda crazy. So Erik and I just felt that when we started the company, one of the things that was of the utmost importance was to create a place that fostered relationships not only with clients but within the facility itself. You need to be around people that you enjoy being around.
Let’s shift gears and talk a little bit about some of your projects. I want to talk first about the Academy Awards pitch. First of all, I think it’s really cool that you guys put up pitch boards, even though you didn’t get the job. I wish more companies would do that.
How did the whole opportunity come about?
MW: We’d done a lot of stuff with ABC News. When we first started working with Brett Ashy—one of the companies he does a lot of work with is ABC. So we met with those guys and they asked us if we’d be interested in pitching for the Academy Awards. And we we’re like, "Okay, sure!" I mean, who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to work for the Academy Awards.
So we got super stoked about it and started doing some research. We put together a bunch of ideas of what people would expect but also some that we felt new and different and exciting.
It was kind of a weird process. We got this sheet of paper explaining how the process goes. They were like, "It’s got to be this certain size, this certain place, this certain date. You’re not going to talk to us. Ship it via FedEx. You’ll never get it back. And don’t call us before July, because we’re deciding." It was very hard-core, very rigid.
So we did it and showed it to ABC, and they said, "This looks great. Put it in the mail." We sent it off and waited to hear something. They gave us a call and said they’d selected something else.
So the decision about the package, was it up to ABC or was it up to the Academy?
MW: It was up to the Academy. I think ABC also had to put their stamp on it.
EW: The Academy always has the final approval.
Well I think they’re beautiful boards. I especially like the type treatments in each of them. Why do you think they didn’t go for them?
MW: Well, you know, anytime you lose a project, the first thing you do is you say, "You know what? That sucks."
But I’d say nine times out of ten, when I see the finished product, I don’t feel that the work was better or worse. It’s more like they obviously hit something the client was looking for. I will say that whoever did it this year, they did a really nice job.
Did you guys all work on the boards together or did you have a special Academy Awards team you had assembled?
MW: It’s interesting you should ask that, because our process here is a little different than most companies. We’re a small company with about 10 people full-time, 15 when you add in freelancers. When a project comes in, we never assign just one person to a project. It’s always multiple people. But anybody who wants to get involved in a project can definitely work on that project.
With almost every project, we start in the kitchen area, and we bring everybody in from the receptionist to Erik and I to the interns to whoever. And we just start throwing ideas on paper. We take pride in our work, but there are no divas.
EW: There’s no room for divas. (laughter) There’s a construction site going on behind us. It’s very easy to get rid of the bodies.
EW: What’s great is we have a lot of artists here who are very talented with a pencil and paper. So there’s a lot of sketchwork that goes on. Michael’s always encouraging them not to jump to Photoshop or Illustrator first.
Let’s talk about another project that definitely caught my eye when I first saw it: the Ben Franklin Men of Action spot you guys did for Spike TV. How did that one come about?
We had done a couple projects at our previous company with Comedy Central a long time ago. I also teach at Parsons, and I take my class over to Comedy Central to show them how things work on the other side, on the network side. So randomly, out of the blue, we get this call from a producer at Spike who invited us to pitch with like four other companies. We came up with a handful of ideas, did the pitch and got the gig.
Did you see the other pitches?
EW: No, no. It’s very rare that you ever get to.
MW: It’s funny. New York’s a little different than LA. I think it’s a little less competitive in nature than LA. Here we all know each other, a lot of us went to college together, and we all stay in touch.
EW: You see each other at functions, and it’s not like, "Oh god, those are the guys that won the pitch."
MW: You know, we share freelancers. We get together all the time and ask, "What do you know about this client?"
That’s really cool.
MW: Yeah, it’s very cool. Sometimes after a project has gone through, we’ll throw boards at each other and say, "Here’s what we did. What’d you do?" And just talk about it. It’s pretty open.
In my experience, what you said about New York and LA seems to be true. Do you think that’s a geographic thing? Because New York is so dense, maybe it lends itself to a more communal vibe than LA?
EW: Yeah, you’re a stone’s throw from everything. It’s not like in LA, where you could be in Santa Monica or Culver City or out in Pasadena.
MW: I went to the dentist the other day, and walking down the street I ran into Hoon from Freestyle. Then on the way back I ran into Ada from Beehive. It’s a small, small world.
Let’s move on to some of the ABC work you’ve done. I can’t remember the order of the projects…
MW: I don’t know if I can either. (laughter)
All three of those are pretty big, pretty high-profile. I know you guys have done a lot of show packages, so I’m sure the general idea of the work wasn’t all that scary, but was it nerve-wracking to get those high-profile jobs?
MW: Well, it was little weird for me, because I came from a news background. I started off with a CBS affiliate in Richmond, Virginia. When I came to New York, my reel was all news, and that sort of scared people. But I’ve been working so far away from that ever since, and Primetime was the first opportunity in like six years to do a news package. It was odd.
What was the process like for Primetime?
MW: Originally, they wanted the package done at like the end of the next week. Thankfully, they realized the craziness of trying to do that, so we started feeding them things as we were going along.
The camera concept was nailed down, and then we rented a Digibeta camera and started modeling it. The next day we spent texturing it. The next day we spent lighting it. The next day was animating it. Actually, the animation and lighting were kind of at the same time, because we had multiple people working on it.
EW: We actually rented two Digitbetas. To explore all the ideas of how cameramen use the camera, we shot me working with one of them against a green screen. We had our senior compositor/animator on it, and he was mocking up ideas about how we might move around the camera.
And then the other Digibeta camera we gave to the 3D crew, who immediately started modeling. One of the things they really wanted was to have the Primetime logo and tagline actually on the camera. A lot of people asked us, "Why didn’t you just shoot it?" Well, the simple answer was that if they wanted something changed, it would have been really complicated, involving motion tracking and all those problems.
The best compliment is that many people say to us, "Wow, so you shot that, huh?"
EW: Kudos to the 3D guys for doing a great job modeling and texturing it.
MW: That was the hard thing. We really wanted it to look worn. I remember when I worked at the TV stations, the cameras were always banged up and gnarly. So we wanted to have that feel to it.
What about the Nightline package?
EW: That was a very evolutionary stage for nailgun*. That was the first job where we started to explore the synergy that could exist between Maya and After Effects. We really had a chance to explore how we work with the camera in Maya and then give it back to After Effects for compositing, because you wouldn’t want to composite forever in 3D. We’re not an Inferno shop; After Effects is our tool of choice.
The success of that is what led to us landed the big Mercury job, and that was a total synergy, that’s where it all came together. And now, honestly, it’s kinda hard to imagine a job that isn’t going to have whatever’s necessary from whatever venue.
MW: Yeah, I think last time we spoke to you (at the 2006 Promax/BDA conference), we had one true 3D person here. Now we have four.
It seems like you guys have been doing more commercial work these days. Am I imagining that or is that true?
MW: We knew when we first started the company that the broadcast budgets seem to get smaller every year, but that’s what we love to do. By also finding ways to do commercial work, where the budgets are a little more robust, it sorta helps balance the whole synergy of the company out. So we do both. I’d say it’s probably 50/50.
EW: A number of the companies that have tried to be just broadcast design, haven’t succeeded. Unless you land the huge network redesigns, it’s pretty hard to subsist.
What do you do to keep from getting burned out? Is it really just about working on the right projects? Or do you guys find that as a studio you have to take time out? Do you work on alternative projects?
MW: The one thing we try to do is twice a year have projects that are not really paid projects with client-drive demands. We worked on the Psst! Pass it On project, the first one, and that was really fun. And about six months before that, we did this little piece for Zoo Room out of Canada, and that was really fun. And right now we’re doing this thing for Standard Films. It’s tough, though, because when the pay jobs are in here, you gotta do ’em.
What advice can you give to students and young designers? Or what deficiencies do you see in those groups that they can focus on?
MW: My first thing that I always tell my students is that, if you can get an internship somewhere, get an internship where you’re going to be doing something. A lot of internships are about, "Okay, grab my coffee. Or go surf the internet all day and do research." We try to give our interns specific assignments throughout the semester of things that they have to develop on their own.
Make yourself useful to the point that, as an intern, somebody is always in need of you. If you’re scheduled four to six, don’t leave at six. Stay until seven and get involved with a project. The majority of the amazing stuff goes down at like nine o’clock at night. And if you’re there involved with it, setting up lights or roughing out some animation—we’ve had a couple people here where we weren’t looking to hire anyone, but when the internship was up, we realized how useful that person was.
EW: I also think another bit of advice is to be curious. Learn how things work. When I was coming up, the New York After Effects User Group was huge, and one of the things Brian Maffit would tell the inexperienced people was, "Pick a commercial. Try and do what you just saw. Figure it out. How’d they do it?"
Thanks so much guys, I really appreciate your time, and I wish you continued success.