Full disclosure: I’m a big Joe Ball fan. Joe and I got our start together back at Digital Kitchen in Chicago. We were both young, hungry, and ready to go!
In the years that followed, we’ve played a bit of a cat and mouse game across the country. Joe moved to NYC. Three months or so went by and so did I. I moved out to LA, and yep, you guessed it, Joe soon did the same. We’ve worked together in the country’s three largest cities and shared our fair share of good jobs and bad. We were even neighbors for a brief stint!
All that aside, I can honestly say that Joe Ball is one of the hardest working and deserving people I’ve ever met.
You can imagine my delight when I saw that he is now directing for Psyop!
The following is a Q&A with Joe Ball about his experiences, perspective, and what it’s like directing jobs for one of the best companies in our industry.
Congrats on the new Psyop piece for Citigold! Can you tell us a bit about the production?
Thanks, Joe D! Publicis NY came to us to create a short animated film showing off Citibank’s new wealth management solution, Citigold. They wanted to appeal to “affluent urbanites” – aka New Yorkers – by showing a day in the life story through bold, minimal styling, using a striking play of positive and negative space in Citi’s brand color’s. So we pitched on it and won. Woo!
The idea was to create this very minimal, limited palette design to explain the story of our hero character “Adele.” We wanted to create something less “motion graphics” heavy, not only in how we treated the animation and transitioning, but also how compositionally we wanted it to take more cues from a live-action, cinematic piece; using many different compositions, but focusing on wider, light-driven shots with a nice balance of positive and negative space.
It was interesting because while all the design and creative was done in-house at Psyop LA, the animation was done completely remote – which made for some interesting situations.
Joe, I remember when you lived in LA, you were lucky to have the shortest commute ever – however, I have the unfortunate first world problem of having to commute from Silver Lake to Venice everyday. Chris Anderson was working on the east coast and would send updated animation WIPs via GIF over Google Chat every morning around the same time as my morning commute. As excited and happy as I was to get the animation updates, I want to publicly apologize to the city of Los Angeles to how bad a driver I was during January and February. I was constantly checking my phone in the car, getting super excited by the new animations I was seeing, but ultimately almost coming close a couple times to doing something stupid. To make matters worse, California made checking your phone illegal in a car during the production – so I could have gotten a hefty ticket if I had gotten caught. Moral of the story, don’t gif and drive!
I know you’ve been steadily gaining traction at Psyop. How did being cut loose on this job come about?
I think it was about a year and a half ago, I was working on one of those NDA jobs where you have to make a thing that we all have in our pockets look pretty in a locked room for 2 months. Word got out that I ended up “leading” the job and one of Psyop’s EPs, Amanda Miller, sat me down and asked if I wanted to do more work like that on another project. Over the year, I started leading more and more, until I was given a chance to CD on some pitches. Citi eventually came in, and I was given the chance to pitch on it, and luckily, we won.
What size team were you working with and how much time did you all have?
For production, there were 3 guys working on the spot. Two Designer/Animators (including myself) and a cel animator.
Design was 5 people on and off and I did some frames as well. Our total production schedule was about 8 weeks.
Once we locked design, myself, Chris Anderson, and Matt Everton went to animating and comping this thing in AE, Flash and a couple of scenes in Cinema 4D. I remember bidding out the job with Amanda (Psyop EP) and sent her an email with three different levels of crewing for the project. I had an Ideal crew, base crew, and barebones crew. As is often the case, we had to go with the barebones crew…
I love the style, it can be really hard to achieve sophistication in 2D. Can you tell us how the look came about and what your inspirations were?
Thanks, man. But agreed about sophistication. It was a constant balancing act making sure the compositions weren’t too busy or too minimal. And because of how simple they were, we really had to scrutinize everything because if one thing was off in the frame, it kinda made the whole thing stink.
As for the look, the client initially was looking for a very clean, minimal style based on their brand colors that used a lot of silhouetted graphics. When I saw these references, it immediately made me think of illustrators Malika Favre and Tom Haugomat, so those were huge inspirations for us in creating this piece. We presented a reference deck to the client before pitching, and we all saw eye to eye from the get go on the look.
Wearing the hat with the capital “D” on it can be mentally draining! What was it like being in the hot seat for the first time, at Psyop no less?
It was fun :) Exhausting and a lot of work, but what isn’t in our industry? To be honest, I got lucky this being my first directing gig. We had a good working relationship with the clients and were mostly in agreement where the project should go the whole time. Plus, the team was great, and for the most part, everything went smoothly.
I tried to enjoy every day of the project because projects this smooth don’t come up very often.
With directing you really have to juggle a lot. What was the hardest part for you and were there times when you just wanted to get back on the box and have the luxury of being less decisive?
The hardest part for me was the very beginning of the production, just getting the wheels rolling, where we were just getting into designing production boards. We had just won the pitch, and it was the “now what” moment. You start briefing designers, articulating how you see the look of the spot, and they don’t always nail it on the first try- and that’s stressful. It’s really easy to say to yourself “f— it, I’ll do it” and design the boards yourself, but I feel like that doesn’t make for a very good lead. I think through persistence, everything will work out eventually. And it did.
So to answer your question, yes. Sometimes the thought of having direct orders on what to do, putting on some really loud headphones, and going crazy in Photoshop for 8 hours sounds really comforting – but nothing good nor exciting really comes from being in your comfort zone. Plus, there is something equally as fulfilling for me on the director’s end, whether it being the writing or dealing with clients. It’s a fun part of the game that I enjoy just as much as being on the box.
In that same vein, two minutes is a lot of animation!
Were there times when you kind of wished you got your first go round directing on a :15 or something smaller? (haha)
Haha – that would be a yes.
But, in hindsight, I’m so thankful that I got to work on something this long. One, it’s not often you get to work on a two-minute piece, and two, I feel it was like swinging a bat with a donut on. Everything is going to feel lighter and easier after.
But, just in terms of pacing as well, I would have loved to have done a 30 or 60 so we could have had more fun with editorial; playing with some faster and slower moments to mix everything up. With two minutes, I feel like it’s harder to achieve that.
What was your favorite aspect of this new role?
Having my voice heard.
I love being a designer because it’s a fun challenge interpreting a director’s ideas into a distinct style. Psyop has some great directors, and working with them is not only fun, but it has made me better as a creative. However, the satisfaction from articulating your own ideas as a director, and having it translated, morphed and executed into animation brings on another level of satisfaction that’s intoxicating.
What was the biggest thing you learned with this experience and is there any advice you’d give others who are new to leading teams?
I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is that having the right people for a job is far more important than throwing a bunch of artists who aren’t perfect for a project. We animated this spot with 3 people – and I have to give credit, the team was totally on their A – game, and the production was a great experience. We got lucky that we had the right people for the spot. But it could have totally gone downhill quick if we hadn’t created the right team.
As for advice, this will sound stereotypical, but it’s true. Lead by example. Work your ass off the same you would if you were an intern and get your hands dirty. Your artists will do the same…
At the end of the day, an ideal scenario is to simply enjoy the work you’re making and not get tied up in titles, bureaucracy, and climbing the ladder.
With each studio having their own practices with titles, they can be a bit bogus at times. That being said, they can also carry a great deal of weight.
What does getting the director credit at a shop like Psyop mean to you?
I’m with you, I think titles are bogus. I wish titles didn’t matter as much as they did in our industry. But, for me, as long I can keep making cool work that I lead, I don’t care what my title is (honestly though, I don’t really know what my title is at the moment, I’m in a funny title purgatory I guess).
However, I do generally like how Psyop does titles. You’re either a designer, art director or you’re a director. Pretty standard, but I think it takes a lot of the BS out of the equation because when you become a director, you’re a director. And in essence, it strengthens the title. People were crazy enough trusted you enough to helm a project, so it’s quite flattering, at least from my experience, to have people comfortable giving you that title.
What do you think art school Joe Ball would think of LA big shot Joe Ball? (haha)
Haha. I wish I could ask you what Sarasota BMX kid Joe D would think of you now…
As for art school Joe, he would probably laugh at me, tell me good job for not blowing it, then yell at me for cutting off all of my hair.
Lastly, now that you have this piece successfully under your belt, what’s next for you?
Keeping busy! Denny Khurnianwan and I just wrapped up a spot we directed for Martin Agency and this organization called Tie The Knot on transgender rights. That should be coming out in May. Otherwise, just gonna keep on workin’ hard.
Client: Citi Gold
Director: Joe Ball
Managing Director: Neysa Horsburgh
Executive Producer: Amanda Miller
Head of Production: Drew Bourneuf
Producer: Amy Martz
Designers: Claire Kang, Eunice Kim, Morgan Schweitzer, Angie Son, Yuki Yamada
2D Animators: Chris Anderson, Matthew Everton
Writer: Amanda Goebel