Catching up with Erin Sarofsky

It’s conference season and the amazing events and festivities are drawing nearer with each day. Case in point: the upcoming FITC Ideas in Motion conference in Toronto this year. FITC has been known to host amazing events jam-packed with presentations, talks, and parties, no less. This year is no exception with amazing guests such as Mike Alderson of Man vs. Machine, Nick Campbell of Greyscale Gorilla, and Anna Criado of Prologue, to name a few.

We wanted to find out more about the event so we sat down with Erin Sarofsky, founder of the aptly named Sarofsky, to find out more about her work, Chicago, and her upcoming talk at the FITC Ideas in Motion conference.

Be sure to check out the link at the bottom of the page for a Motionographer exclusive on tickets!


Q&A with Erin Sarofsky


Can you tell us a bit about Sarofsky and the type of projects you are taking on these days?

The days of the thirty-second commercial and sixty-second main title are over… so it’s not surprising that the work we are doing is evolving to keep up with the quickly changing content delivery platforms. Not only that, but what used to be print work, is now motion; billboards, retail displays, artwork and even simple kiosks. Then you add in AR applications, VR and real-time render engines.

The one thing that remains consistent is, no matter what the deliverable, clients need beautiful looking work that can catch your eye in less than two seconds and still tell a story.

That’s why people need Sarofsky’s skillset more than ever. We never forget to tell a story. After we get the deliverable list, the format needs, the logo elements, the casting specs and all the must-haves, we take a step back and ask the important questions: What are we saying? Who are we saying it to? What is going to make this relevant to those people? What is our narrative?

At the end of the day, the directors that ask those questions, and the studios that place value on that, are the ones that are going to last.

The only thing that is concerning is that more is being asked of us with less time and money to compensate for it. It’s my hope that companies similar to mine draw realistic boundaries and take a pass on the work that doesn’t pay an appropriate wage. No matter what the deliverable, we are still using high waged, talented staff, doing their work on expensive software and hardware who go home to an increase in overall cost of living.

The power of no is very strong, but it’s only strong if we all do it.

Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how and why you went about creating Sarofsky?

I was asked a funny thing yesterday. Something I haven’t thought about in 10 plus years. They asked how I got on Motionographer’s cream-of-the-crop list all those years ago. I laughed, having totally forgot about that. I was just a 20-something kid. I made a website as an archive of all the boards I was doing at DK. I didn’t blog about it. I didn’t send it out. I wasn’t looking for a job… so it’s not like I was emailing people like crazy. I just wanted a place I could shuffle though all my work. Out of nowhere, having never met or heard of Justin, my name appeared on that list.

I thought it was cool… and then I never gave it a second thought.

I had no idea what that list represented. I only cared about the next board or project I was going to put on that website.
Likewise, Sarofsky, the company, came about both out of talent and naivety. I had the talent and some connections, so I thought, very naively, I’ll start a company.

The things I knew for certain were that I wanted to do great work for people, I wanted to do it in Chicago, I had the talent, I had some connections to be able to land a few jobs (no matter how small and plain) and I was willing to lay my personal finances on the line.

I didn’t know anything about insurance, payroll, HR or really anything. All I knew was I could make great work for people. So completely naively, with the call from a friend that they had a job for me, I ran down to the courthouse and started a company, with no time to even think of a name. That’s how it became self-titled. Now I know everything about insurance; health, production, property… all the insurances. I know that HR is my least favorite thing, but it’s vital to take care of people and it helps keep a person out trouble. I know paying a payroll company is money well spent, but that we still have to keep track and enter all the correct information, which sucks but is obviously, super important! Don’t get me started on 401ks, FSAs and ALL those sorts of things.

How’s that for deep honesty? Maybe my FITC talk should be about things you should think about before you open a company. AH, no – that’s no fun.

The Chicago scene is quite unique. How has being located there shaped your company and values?

There are many reasons Chicago is special and a great place to grow a studio. Brace yourself; it’s going to be a long response….

To start, it’s interesting that you used the word values in your question. Chicago is a family-oriented city, people like to go home at night and be with their partners, kids and friends. We’ve been able to really embrace the 9-6 lifestyle… and only stay late when there is a real need. Working in other cities, artists roll in pretty late and that sets the whole day askew. In those same cities, feedback from clients rolls in late as well and they need revisions by the morning. It’s a cyclical issue… and hard to put your finger on how to address it. But, if you do want to have a better work-life balance, in my experience, Chicago is the closest major city to achieve that.

Growing a studio in Chicago has also probably been a lot easier. In all fairness, I’ve never built a company anywhere else, so if I misspeak or someone else has a different experience, I will gladly hear their thoughts. But Chicago is much more affordable than NYC or LA. After a few great years growing the company and having a modest space, I was able to buy a building and renovate it.

But even still, rents are much more affordable. Talent is our biggest expense and for me, that’s where the money should go … not for the cool address and fancy couches, but for the people making the work.

The studio landscape of Chicago has changed over the 10 years I’ve been in business (I know, insane, ten years). I’ve seen my alma-matter DK turn from a competitor and production/design powerhouse into a digital agency and totally not relevant in our arena. Old school, but iconic and filled with talent companies, like Filmworkers Club, struggled to keep up with the shift in technology and one-stop-shop-process, but build and reshape what they are to accommodate. Then you have editorial companies like Cutters and The Whitehouse, who have been and continue to be staffed impeccably, and have also grown design capabilities to accommodate growing demands. And of course, we have studios like The Mill and Framestore opening up to capitalize on a strong advertising community.

It surprising when people think I may be concerned about those companies coming into town. I’m not concerned at all. Overall, it’s a good thing. First, it attracts more talent to the city and second, I think it legitimatizes why companies like mine started here in the first place. Our clients know that when you look at the Sarofsky reel, when they award work to us, they are getting the talent that created the reel. The Mill or Framestore’s reel could be compiled from work created by any of their offices and be touched by hundreds of different people. At Sarofsky, our core team is our team, even our freelancers are consistent fixtures.

You should talk with artists that have shuffled around from shop to shop. What I hear is the big difference between all of us in Chicago is company culture. In that regard, I think Chicago is exactly the same as every other city. No matter where you live, you need to find a company that you connect with both creatively and has similar values to your own. That goes for both the crew and the clients.

In recent years, you’ve been taking on increasingly bigger jobs, from the Marvel work to Apple iMac film, to name a few. Have there been any growing pains with this boom or has it come smoothly?

Aside from adding costly technology, and having to bulk up a bit on staffing, it has been a very smooth transition. Having a modest-sized studio means that while we have larger jobs going on, we can always pass on work. It’s never my favorite thing to do, but because our overhead is comparatively low, we have that as an option. The worst thing a studio can do is book a job and then under deliver. As a creative owner I understand the ramifications of understaffing a job. It is, quite frankly, unethical.

On a related note, there is a lot of agency and broadcast work in Chicago, but traditionally not so much Hollywood work. What was it like breaking into this scene and how does it compare with the other work you’ve been doing?

I break work up into buckets a bit differently: Advertising, which is anything that has an agency client; Direct to client, which is anything where you are dealing with the decision maker; Entertainment, anything where there is studio approval or some second layer that gets a say in the final product.

For me, Chicago has been a home, but it has never defined the work I do. Ironically, we’ve finally started to break through in the Chicago market. I don’t even think the advertising community knew we were here for the first six years of my company’s existence. And actually, that’s another point of difference between Sarofsky and the other local shops. We are not dependent on local work for survival. And, as a result, our staff gets to work on a wider variety of work, which for creative is quite a treat.

Though the work that I have produced with my fellow Chicagoans has been very rewarding. There have been quite a few projects with Ogilvy and one large series with DDB for Jeep that I am specifically proud of. The Jeep job, at the time featured by Free the Bid, was a 4 spot package for their Renegade.

I just focus on taking care of the relationships I have and growing new relationships with people I connect with. If that means I am on a plane to NYC, LA Vancouver or wherever… then that’s what I do. Showing up is key. Work won’t come to you, you have to go to it. The upside is that I’m well on my way to the million-mile club ☺.

With success typically comes the age-old question of whether or not to expand and go to the coasts. Has that been a conversation or are you hoping to keep things focused in Chicago?

People ask this all the time. I used to say yes, of course. Then I shifted and said, unequivocally no. But the answer is, I don’t know. The marketplace is evolving so fast. Certainly before I jump into anything like that I will have given it a lot of thought; considering what it will do to the company culture, if I have the talent to staff those offices, if I have the capital to comfortably handle it, and I have to ask the question, why am I doing this? What is the motivation?

As a creative owner, the main goal has been to do work that stands out. That makes our clients stand out. That pushes the bar. After that, it’s been making sure that our culture is strong and that we are making our clients know they are our reason for being. With that comes money – earning a good wage for the work we create, so we can be comfortable and have the tools we need to do that work.

If I ever evolve it by selling it, partnering with other companies or expanding, it will only be because I know for certain that I will be able to continue to do those core things… and it will add something additional to my, my staffs’ and my clients’ lives.

Right now, I am perfectly happy to have built a great boutique empire… I always joke that it’s my own little matriarchy.

Shifting gears a bit, you’ve spoken at many conferences. What excites you about the upcoming FITC Ideas in Motion event?

There are some speakers I am looking forward to seeing that I’ve never heard before. Some of whom are competitors. So – not going to lie – it’s always nice to hear how they approach things.

Also there are a lot of people that will be speaking and attending that I am a good friends with… some of whom I haven’t seen in person for many years. It will be fun to catch up on normal life stuff. Share family photos, relive stories from the old days and also to compare notes on running a business and all the drama involved with that.

Plus, FITC gets a great audience… they ask questions and are really into it. It’s nice to walk around, because people will stop you and not only be complimentary, they will actually ask deeper questions. I feel like the people that attend really get a lot out of it. Not just cool swag, but information and inspiration.

I also love Toronto. It’s a great city.

Can we get a sneak peek or tease of what you’ll be speaking about on stage?

Yes, of course.

I’ll cover some of the pieces in my book that I have talked about in the past, but I haven’t talked yet about my Apple iMac pro piece, nor have I discussed my super new main title for Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. The work I did with Samantha and her team was particularly interesting and important, not only from a designer’s vantage point but also in the political landscape. The things I had to consider had very weighty implications. A simple joke isn’t a simple joke. It’s thought through and dissected. This isn’t just Erin and her team doing some funny things; this is Samantha Bee’s opinion and voice.

When you consider that our current president could tweet about your work, you want to make sure it’s fair and truly speaks your beliefs (or Sam’s). It’s so crazy to think that every aspect of your visuals will be taken both literally and seen through a lens… and with all of that in mind, to proceed forward both boldly and unapologetically.

From what is in there you can only imagine the concepts that didn’t make it in!

Lastly, what’s next for Sarofsky?

This is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately. Personally, I’ve achieved a lot of the goals I’ve set. Doing a handful of feature main titles for Marvel is a career highlight, and something most of us only dream of. I’ve done some super iconic TV main titles, like Shameless, and I love Community because it was so memorable and fun. A lot of our work is even spoofed… Just Google Brooklyn 99 main title remakes, someone even made a version out of Legos!

Also, recently I just produced a piece for Apple that was all about how I/We could make a piece of art on their new iMac Pro. It was a dream job. I got to make art. I was given a sweet machine to do it on. They documented the process, in a piece directed by Pete Sillen.The work created was so lovely and my name was used to advertise the iMac Pro… all for a brand that I personally love (pinch me).

Then there is my absolute most recent piece that I just wrote about, our main title for Samantha Bee. Sometimes you are hired to make something and sometimes you are hired to create something. This is the pinnacle of creating something. Being entrusted to put Samantha out there in such a bold way is not to be taken for granted.

So what’s next?
More creating.
More taking care of my clients.
More interesting opportunities and platforms.
More speaking gigs, traveling and meeting interesting people.
More opportunities to make some killer memories and have some big laughs. What’s more important then that?!

For more information about FITC Ideas in Motion follow the link here.

For a limited time, receive 20% off the ticket price when using the promo code “motionographer”.

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About the author

Joe Donaldson

Joe Donaldson is a director, designer, and animator who worked on Motionograpgher from 2014-2020. Previously, he was an art director at Buck. Over the past decade, he's lived and worked in Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles and has directed work for clients such as Apple, Google, Instagram, The New York Times, Unicef, Etsy, and The New Yorker. In addition to his creative work, in 2018 he started Holdframe. He's now working as a professor at Ringling College of Art and Design and when not teaching he can be found spending time with his family or out running.