[Review] New York in Motion

Editor’s note: The following interview and review are by guest contributor Cheryl Yau, a 2012 MFA candidate in SVA’s Design Criticism program. Catch the next screening tomorrow, June 1st at the SVA Theater.

New York in Motion is an ambitious attempt to facilitate a rich conversation within the industry of motion design. Bringing together the most prominent players in the field, the film explores the power and inspirations behind the medium. The hour-long documentary is a bricolage combining interviews, shorts and stills in a curated series of hand-held footage and time-lapse photography.

I had the chance to speak to the director, Graham Elliott, about his film-making process.

What motivated you to make this film?

I’ve been working in Motion Graphics for many years and am also teaching it at the School of Visual Arts. It struck me that even though it’s all around us, my students did not really know what Motion Graphics actually was. And thinking about it, I realized that I was somewhat hard pressed for a definite answer myself. There have been so many changes and developments in the last 15 years and you can point to things and say, yes, this is part of it and this and this, but where does it all come together? Motion Graphics is definitely the next big thing in the creative arts, and it’s already happening big time, but what really is it?

I was interested to find out what the people who are actually creating the amazing stuff around us have to say and had the idea of making a kind of short film/documentary. I ran the idea by Richard Wilde, dean of the SVA Graphic Design & Advertising department that also heads an ever-growing Motion-Graphics division. Richard and SVA president David Rhodes immediately shared my excitement and through their support we got the film on the way.

How did you start making New York in Motion?

We really wanted to get a broad cross-section of interviewees, so not just people doing computer-generated stuff but people using all kinds of different mediums and processes to show the incredible diversity of what’s out there rather than reinforce a common assumption about computer graphics. I asked my students to look around and give me lists of work and studios they’ve seen and heard of that inspired them. I also asked people in the field for their recommendations.

All in all we ended up with a hit list of 50 people, companies and designers. Matt Lambert from Motionographer was really instrumental in helping us connect with many of the studios. We expected that maybe a third, if we’re lucky a few more, would take the time to get back to us and hoped for enough material to do a 10-20 minute film. Then 47 got back and said “Yes, we’ll do it.” And it was amazing. We interviewed for several months and ended up with more than 100 hours of footage ā€“ really fascinating and inspirational, much more than we had hoped for.

What was the story you were trying to tell with this film?

The ongoing digital revolution has brought with it an era of digital democracy. Accessibility and affordability have put the creatives much more in control, as opposed to ten years ago, when you really had to be part of a large company to have access to tools and distribution. What has changed through this shift?

The other interesting thing in the equation was New York. Why is New York a vortex of this industry? It seems almost contrary to the sign of the times that any one geographical location should be home of such an incredible concentration of the top players and creatives in the field. I wanted to find out what it is about New York that so strongly attracts such a virtually based industry.

What are some things you discovered in the process?

I think we found many epiphanies for the questions we set out to answer, often different from what we expected.

We were just talking about the digital revolution and the empowerment of smaller groups and individuals ā€“ I think in a democracy the definition of a term is very much alive. Instead of being determined from the top down, it’s like a moving consensus about the relationship of a lot of different facets that come together.

There are 2 parts to this :

For one, it was very interesting to discover these facets. At any one point you can take a snapshot and formulate a definition. It’s quite exciting to compare and see the development of a definition over time – it kind of puts the status quo into a bigger picture.

Well, Motion Graphics is an interesting term to follow since it connects with communication and with art and expression. And it’s also very much influenced by technology, which has changed all our lives tremendously over the last decades. So looking at how the term has changed reveals a lot of how we have changed. And with “we” I mean not just the industry, but “we” as a community and a culture on a big scale, and also “we” as individuals on a very intimate scale.

On the other hand, the very fascinating part for us was to witness how the people we interviewed are not just pressed into an uniform mold that defines the industry, but are active and passionate about writing and re-writing this definition today. What they do have in common is their drive and creativity and excitement that is very much contagious and shines throughout the film.

What were some of the challenges you faced?

One of the hardest things with this film was restraint. With so much interesting input, I wanted to have the different voices come through as authentic as possible. Of course in order to bring them all together you have to order and edit them in a way they relate to each other in a storyline. And then there is the energy of New York that we wanted to capture. So for instance for the title sequence and between chapters, we shot time-lapse. It’s the city in camera. I’m not designing it, it’s there, but it’s in a bigger picture kind of way. What fascinated me and my team in the process of making the film was the diversity and personality of the people we met and we did not want to super-impose a look or design or treatment to the film that would take away from that diversity.

New York in Motion gathers the most respected story-tellers in the city, many of which pitch against each other on a regular basis, and creates a dialogue between them about the evolution of motion, their approaches and insights.

The film might seem chaotic and overwhelming at first, but the production corresponds to the content communicated, embodying the melting pot character of this visually rich industry.

Filmed and produced in New York, the documentary constantly uses the cityscape as a backdrop. Interviewees are filmed on the subway, on pedicabs, while driving, walking or even paddling in Central Park. The film is energized with sporadic rhythm and pace. And so is New York. The documentary mimics the grungy, grimy yet exhilarating nature of the gridded urban landscape that lends inspiration to the creatives that inhabit it.

In addition to speaking with experts on the subject by including an assortment of interviews with tourists, street vendors and passers-by, Elliott captures not only the dynamism of motion design in New York, but the city’s spirit itself. The raw quality of the film reveals how difficult it is to represent two vastly diverse and growing structures: the city of New York and the motion design industry, and the abrupt camera work and edits soon become justified.

The film does an excellent job of covering a wide range of topics from various voices, functioning as inspiration to aspiring motion design students and more importantly, elevating awareness to those unfamiliar with the growing industry. What becomes most resonant is realizing how each interviewee draws expertise from their various backgrounds, finding themselves organically with an influential role in the field of motion design.

The film highlights the opportunities in dissemination with the emergence of new technology, and showcases examples of the the best work today. Elliott’s New York in Motion initiates the much needed and overdue discussion of motion design in a movie format. You will leave agreeing that working in motion design in New York right now is an exciting place to be.

If you missed the successful premiere of Graham Elliott’s motion design documentary film in April, you now have a second chance. New York in Motion will be presented on Wednesday, June 1 at 7:30pm, at the SVA Theatre, located at 333 West 23rd Street. This event is free and open to public.


Director Graham Elliott
Producer: Graham Elliott, Roswitha Rodrigues
Executive Producer: Richard Wilde
Running Time: 1:00:33