EP Banter: Talent, Trends & Technique

What is an Executive Producer? This role may go unnoticed by many of us, but the success of a company is often defined by this individual. They shape the culture of the production company they lead. In addition to their sales and strategic roles, they must define and reinforce the creative ethos of the company. This begins with bringing in the right talent and nurturing them to their full potential.

The ways in which this takes place varies from EP to EP. What follows is how some of the good ones do it, including Michael Adamo (EP at Passion Pictures, London), Nick Hussey (EP at Rokkit, London), Chris O’Reilly (EP at Nexus, London), Adina Sales (EP at Blacklist, New York) and James Bretton (EP at Blinkink).

Matt Lambert, Motionographer:
As Executive Producers of production companies that are often defined by the strong visual styles of their directors/talent, how do you react to the constantly changing visual trends in commercial work?

The Beatles: Rock Band opening cinematic directed by Pete Candeland (Passion Pictures)

Michael Adamo, Passion:
Creating new visual trends in animated commercials is driven both by the desire of our directors to continuously try out new ideas as well as requests from our clients to create work that will stand out and look fresh. Our directors are the creative powerhouse at Passion Pictures, and we look to them to meet these creative challenges. They do this by creating characters and styleframes at the pitch stage, often in collaboration with others in the studio and sometimes with the help of outside designers.

So they are at the forefront of creating new visual trends. As visual artists, our directors are immersed in popular visual culture, whether they are watching films, music videos, reading graphic novels, visiting art galleries, etc.—which are all a source of inspiration. In fact, just living and working out of London can be hugely inspiring to them.

Nick Hussey, Rokkit:
We’re an intuitive company. We feel things through with personal taste. Luke and I find, look for and get sent stuff, and if we’re really excited (and I mean REALLY excited, there’s way too many talented people out there to sign), we send it to everyone at Rokkit and see what they think. Then hook up with them, see if they’re nice, grounded people (very important) and THEN think about whether they’d work on our roster or in our market. Often we have no idea, so we just go on gut. Hopefully, that’s working for us. And it’s a lot more fun too—if a little arrogant!

Also on that point, most of our directors are leading visual trends anyway, that’s why we signed them. And they love to keep working on personal projects, which is our life-blood, giving us opportunities to show new ideas and keeping us fresh. We’ve expanded to music videos this year with that in mind. Not to make money—we know that won’t happen, just as a creative outlet for our directors, and consequently Rokkit, who are us. Choose the best people, let them lead you. If I was that good creatively, I’d be out there with them directing, so I’ll let them lead me.

Chris O’Reilly, Nexus:
I think things have changed in this respect recently. We’ve made headway in getting clients to understand that a director is not the same as an animator, illustrator or designer. Advertising and music videos eat new styles voraciously. And everyone naturally wants something fresh and new. The talent we work with is capable of a breadth of styles, often working with a team to create an unexpected look to their work. It’s this that gives us the breadth to deal with ‘trends’ and still have long term relationships with directing talent. The focus should be on the strength of their storytelling. That’s pretty much trend-proof.

Adina Sales, Blacklist:
Our company has been really guided by finding directing talent who have a unique voice. We are trying to promote people whose visual styles are not derivative or trend-based. Because of the authenticity in the work, if a client loves what our director does relative to their RFP (brief), there’s a better chance that we are going to be a good fit on the job. We try to educate our directors about the kind of projects that are available if their work isn’t on trend, and help identify opportunities for them to make an entree into a less obvious fit if it is an area of interest. In general we haven’t made massive shifts to chase visual style trends, more so we keep an eye out for work that inspires us and the next talent we’d like to sign.

Sony Ericsson “Gandalf” directed by Kristofer Strom (Blinkink)

James Bretton, Blinkink:
I think it’s really important to give our directors the freedom to approach us at Blinkink/Blinkart with new ideas and techniques that they’re interested in. If it’s a concept that grabs us, we’ll work it up with them as a personal project.

While it’s really exciting to receive a script that demands a visually innovative approach, I’d like to think that it can come from us too. We’ve often been approached by agencies interested in using a visual style that we’ve developed in personal projects. It’s that to and fro-ing that keeps it all worthwhile. Commercial work allows us to invest and develop our talent which then, in turn, can theoretically add to the big visual mixing pot in the sky.

In order for your talent to evolve—and in turn elevate the quality and breadth of the boards you see—what do you do to push forward both your internal creative culture and external perception? Naturally, the economy has been a big hindrance to innovation in commercial work. However, do you feel this lull has allowed you reassess and develop talent/skills/reels or caused it become stagnant?

MA, Passion:
The first half of this question is really covered by the above answer. Happily, and despite the economic conditions, 2009 has been a good year creatively for Passion Pictures. The Beatles: Rock Band directed by Pete Candeland was a special highlight of course. Securing the Beatles’ involvement in the game was a massive coup for Harmonix and MTV, and the high profile of the project meant we were able to access the financial resources needed to create an animation extravaganza for the cinematic intro and outro.

While the budget is all important for ambitious CG epics, we’ve found that smaller budgets don’t always have to compromise creativity. This is especially true when the agency’s ideas encourage a low-tech animation approach, such as the commercial “aao” made recently for King of Shaves (agency: Hooper Galton). Also, a number of our directors continue to make creatively interesting music videos with great enthusiasm, despite the micro budgets we have to work with these days.

NH, Rokkit:
Has the economy been a hindrance? I beg to differ; in many ways, it’s pushed us into a bigger league. Our directors are more often than not self-contained masters of the whole process, so they can work with smaller budgets and turn out amazing work.

“Atelic” directed by Duckeye (Rokkit)

The old model of chucking hundreds of thousands at Rate Card, at a full-service post house is dead. I fear for those guys (well, maybe not fear). Also, many agencies recognize that many “young,” “new” directors are keener and understand their needs far better than old school dinosaurs who need £10k a day to bitch and moan and then hand it off as soon as the 35mm stock runs out. This is all really playing into our hands.

The greatest economic problem is nervousness, and thus high chance of jobs you’ve been bidding your ass off for for weeks to get killed off. THAT is the worst, especially if you end up as recommend and spent a fair bit of time and money pitching.

So it’s difficult to kick off directors into the “big league,” as those guys are lowering their expectations anyway, and agencies and clients are more fearful. But agencies and clients have hacked down their budgets, and that’s where we shine. Not cheap work, but getting quality and innovation out of nothing. There’s a difference! The middle-ground is a hell-hole for the high-spend production company. Those guys will disappear, they have no idea how to react. It also has the handy side effect of keeping us busy. And agencies like to use busy production companies, which means it snowballs and we’re just getting bigger and bigger. It means our new, no bullshit, pared down model is winning through, and putting us into that big league. I have to be careful not to be smug.

Oh, I just was.

CO, Nexus:
I think there is a natural culture at Nexus to push ideas, techniques and creative ambition. I think we’ve evolved that culture over years because of the talent we work with and the studio and production people behind the projects. I don’t think it’s anything specific Nexus does, so much as the individuals involved and their extreme dedication. It’s really easy for that to sound trite, but it genuinely amazes me the hard work everyone puts in on every project to push it. I think what we can do is provide an environment for this to flourish. blacklist
Fuse TV “Therapy” directed by Cisma (Blacklist)
One important thing, for example, is that we support our talents’ projects beyond commercial work and that Nexus explores animation and digital film making in a breadth of other areas. This is something that we’ve done historically but want to grow and nurture further.

AS, Blacklist:
Internally, we take on selected PSA’s, short films, and other art based projects to allow our directors space to be creatively free without the rigor of a layered client process. We have also started other creative initiatives reaching out to artists beyond the commercial realm to start an Art Event Series. Early shows have included new screen printed work, experimental film art, and a photography show. These art shows have initiated a more external creative culture to our brand and have allowed folks from varied backgrounds to engage in dialogue.

True, it’s been a tough year in advertising. But we’ve had a few directors experience great successes in other areas of creative interest and some have had decent years in their respective markets outside of the US. We’re definitely looking at how we do things and who we are, but as we are four years old, we aim to evolve regardless.

JB, Blinkink:
Yes, I think the slump that happened in the early part of the year forced us to really evaluate all that. We spent the quiet months developing our younger talent (like David Wilson and Tomas Mankovsky) and produced some really nice work out of our own pocket. The video we did for Moray McLaren even ended up winning Best Budget Promo at the MVAs. All of that really boosts our public profile which, hopefully, eventually pays off in commercial work.

Due to these projects being self-funded they, by necessity, force the director and production to be very hands-on and inventive with what they can achieve. A technique needs to be visually and conceptually arresting for it to become something that people want to watch and pass around, so working with a very low budget really concretes that necessity for a project to 100% solid in idea, innovation and execution.

If those personal projects allow us to develop in-camera techniques that are achievable for a smaller budget then I’d imagine a client strapped for cash in the current climate would find those techniques attractive when commissioning new commercial work.

The web has really catalyzed that too, blogs especially—Motionographer is a great example. Non-traditional music videos and short films have been given new weight and renewed importance and we’re able to get so much more exposure now. Previously, it was very hard to get our smaller projects seen by anyone but with blogs being constantly critical online curators then people have a new destination for that type of content and the creative bar is driven ever higher.

Where do you feel trends (both in medium, narrative tone and visual-style) are headed in 2010?

MA, Passion:
Not sure about this one… We’ve had the age of CG spectaculars like Honda “Grrr,” Coke “Happiness Factory,” Gorillaz “El Manana,” The Beatles: Rock Band, etc. and then a revival of stop frame animation. I’m kind of hoping for a revival of 2D/traditional animation… perhaps with a contemporary twist.

NH, Rokkit:
More comedy in London (sad lack of it for years). More YouTubesque stuff (obviously). Lots more abstract work, more animation (cheaper and seen as innovative, which of course it is) of all kinds. And lots more shooting in London on a shoestring, if that is a creative trend….

“Google Maps” directed by Smith & Foulkes (Nexus)

CO, Nexus:
I think we’re going to see a real mix of techniques in 2010. I’m not trying to hedge my bets here! I think we’ll see some stunning full CG work, but also a continued resurgence in strong traditional styles, such as 2D and stop frame used with new creative energy. I think the animation market has matured beyond the point where any one technique will be overly dominant. Our audiences tastes are eclectic enough to demand a healthy varied diet!

AS, Blacklist:
Hard to anticipate what comes next. I’m going to say that we’ll see the resurgence of brand and image efforts. And there will be a move towards optimism, fantasy, humanity and play. We want to feel good about how our work affects people and hopeful about the future.

JB, Blinkink:
I’ve definitely noticed a renewed appreciation in in-camera technique and innovative craft. Maybe it’s something to do with the current financial mood but I think seeing that someone has invested huge amounts of time in honing and crafting something warms the cockles nowadays…