We’ve come to know NYC-based PandaPanther for their playful, character-driven work. Since 2006, Jonathan Garin and Naomi Nishimura have directed casts of colorful creatures on battlefields, dance floors and ethereal dreamscapes. Their latest effort, a game promo for Activision’s Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure (see above), continues their tradition of fashioning fantastical flights of fancy that brim with delightful details.
But instead of going behind the scenes for that production, we wanted to go behind the scenes of their personal lives. Jonathan and Naomi aren’t just business partners, they’re parents. They’ve created a lifestyle that attempts to integrate raising a kid with growing a studio.
Jonathan was kind enough to pull back the curtain, so to speak, and get real about work/life.
How did you and Naomi meet?
We had mutual friends and officially met when we worked together as freelancers back in 2003. We hit it off during the Pictoplasma festival in Berlin in 2004. Been together ever since.
How did the decision to start PandaPanther come about, and how was it when you were just starting out? Can you share a few key moments in those early years?
Initially, we just needed a name or identity we could use when we worked on projects together, as we were starting out with personal projects. We wanted to be able to get totally immersed in an identity bigger than just a literal name or place, so PandaPanther came about because it represented both of us together in a different dimension.
A big moment was leaving freelance and deciding not to take any more bookings. Around that time Naomi and I were at the bank setting up an account for PandaPanther when her phone rang. It was a producer inquiring about her availability, but she turned it down and when asked why, she told them she actually had started a new company and was no longer taking freelance bookings.
Five minutes later my phone rang, and it happened to be the same producer, and I told him the same story. He then called me back shortly after and asked, “You wouldn’t happen to have started a company with Naomi?” And the greatest thing was, they turned out to be PandaPanther’s first client.
Another key moment was being “officially open for business.” It was the first time we had to answer the phone, and I remember hearing “Hello, PandaPanther” out loud. It sounded funny — Naomi and I both looked at each other, and wondered if this was really OK.
Over time we’ve been reassured that the name is cool; sometimes you need to hear it to believe it.
What defines you as a creative duo?
We are defined predominantly by our childhood experiences and dreams, mixing up our favorite things into something fun and exciting for people to chew on. We are always looking for new portals into the many worlds around us — inside bushes, under rocks, in the trees — so that we can tell a stories about it when we get back.
How do you find the balance between working together and functioning as a couple?
Sometimes balance is not possible, because work can drive us to the brinks of insanity. There are plenty of working couples out there that know exactly what it’s like. Having a baby, however, changes things a bit to the point where we’re focusing now on how to function as parents, too.
When we’re not at work, we try to not make a habit of talking about it if it’s not necessary, so we can separate from it a bit. Work has a way of creeping up in almost any situation or conversation. For example, a romantic candlelit dinner could be quickly squandered with a text message about a client posting.
That could mean sometimes having to change plans, or show up at work with our baby on a weekend instead of at the park with friends, but we make the best of it and try not to get stressed out. Our daughter really loves playing at the office anyway, so it’s easy to forget about the stress when she’s enjoying herself so much.
Having a baby has also brought more structure to our life. We have more clear divisions between personal life and work, keeping most of the baby crying and chaos away from the office, and in turn keeping most of the work-related chaos away from home and the baby. That all helps us function better as a couple.
Have your professional goals changed after your daughter was born?
Professional goals are pretty much the same as always — we want to keep doing good work and have our sights set on bigger long-form projects to inject a good amount of fun and magic into the world. In fact we landed a big campaign for ATT the week our daughter was born, so conference calls with clients were happening in hospital hallways. It’s been exciting times.
Many people say having a child radically changes your entire outlook on life. I’m curious if this happened to you both, especially in the creative sense, as so many of us are defined largely by our work in this field.
Well, it does change things radically, and where that starts is with sleep.
We are all creatures of sleep and form habits based on patterns. What a baby does is throw you into a spin cycle, where things become exciting, overwhelming, exhausting and exhilarating all at the same time. It’s kind of like being at a party that never ends. Basically, you just can’t be as lazy as you used to be. It doesn’t mean you have to stop being or doing what defines you, you just need to be smarter about how you spend your time.
It also means that all those toys we’ve been collecting will soon belong to somebody else!
How do you balance parenting with work demands?
A huge part of balancing things was moving our office closer to home to cut our commute time out of the equation. We wanted to be sure we could spend time with our daughter and see her more often, and it’s been working out really well.
We recently finished a huge job. Since Naomi and I have different strengths, there are different times when we are more or less needed to keep the production moving right. In this case, I was more heavily involved up front in the animation phase of the project, and I had to put in some hard efforts at the beginning, whereas Naomi helped to finish the project to every final detail. So in the closing weeks of the job, Naomi would stay at work consecutively late for a few weeks, while I took on other duties at home with our daughter.
At one point, we were working on finalizing an element, which happened to be spit flying off a character’s tongue. Who would think we’d be fine tuning CG spit at 4 am on a Friday night? So on that night, Naomi came home at 3 am to wake me up so that I could go back to PP to work with the team.
I stayed until 7 am, when I decided to go back home and grab our daughter, who likes to get up around that time. I brought her back to the office and let Naomi sleep until 10 am. Then she returned to finish up. I went back home with the baby and let our nanny take over, then caught up on sleep, returning to PP at 3 pm, and the CG spit was looking amazing!
We take turns filling in where one is needed, while the other makes up for it. It’s teamwork at home and the office.
Are you still able to find time for personal projects?
Yes absolutely, although we have to make time rather than find it. It usually has to be exchanged for something important like sleeping or acting like a normal social human being.
Thank you very much for your time!
Client: Activision, Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure
Spots Title: Menace
Airdate: October 2011
SKYLANDERS “MENACE” CREW LIST
Angela Foster (director’s cut)
Jonathan Garin, Naomi Nishimura
Set Building & Art Department:
Han Hu (lead)
Guy Bar’ely (lead)
Chang Pei Wu
3D Effects Animators:
Lighting & Texturing:
Dave White (lead)
Laura Sayan Gabai
Cristina Aponte (intern)
Matt St. Leger (lead)
Gerald Mark Soto
Yingshu Lai (intern)
Production Office Manager:
Systems Rendering TD:
Creative Director(s): Jason Norcross, Bryan Rowles
Group Brand Director: Alex Schneider
Designer: Jake Kahana
Copywriter(s): Tim Wolfe, Mike Van Linda
Brand Manager(s): Ellie Schmidt, Mandy Hein
Agency Producer: Danielle Tarris
Assistant Producer: Becca Purice
Production Co.: Caviar
Director: Jorma Taccone
EP: Michael Sagol
EP: Asher Edwards
Lead Colorist: Mark Gethin
Lead Artist: Ben Davidson