Creative Connections: Insights for the new normal
to keep our creative community connected, inspired and supported.
Times are uncertain and with feelings of separation high, we want to know how you are staying plugged in, what is keeping you creative and what might be getting in the way?
Four members from the Coat of Arms team answered:
Clara Lehmann: Owner | Creative Producer | Writer
Jonathan Lacocque: Owner | Creative Director
Ryan Butterworth: Design Director
Grace Lawson: Associate Producer | Director of Social Media
Please give a brief introduction to yourself and/or studio.
Clara: Coat of Arms is a creative studio that makes films, commercials, and shorts. While we can carry a project from conception, through production, and into post, our fancy pants (or perhaps more fitting for the times, ‘our stretchy pants’) really shine with our post-production services like editing, motion graphics, illustration, design, and more.
Our team includes four full-time artists and hundreds of freelance artists. We have an office in Helvetia, WV and home-offices in Wilmette, IL & Thomas, WV. We started Coat of Arms in 2010.
How are you?
How is work and the pace of your projects? Busier, same, slower?
Clara: Work was a lot slower from March through May. We had about ten project inquiries at the beginning of March. All of those went away. Two projects that started before the pandemic carried us through, thankfully. And now June through August are turning into a feast of exciting and beautiful projects.
We’re in high spirits and enjoyed the slower pace a few weeks ago. It gave us time to reflect, spend time with our families, tidy up our file systems, design templates, archives, and other things we’ve neglected. These times continue to teach us a lot. We’re carrying some things with us as the pace propels forward. The best thing we’ve gleaned from all of this is that we must regularly reevaluate ourselves. Like the age-old rule of thumb, ‘change your underwear daily,’ we’re opening ourselves up to review our choices and views on the daily. Hopefully, some nuggets of wisdom rise to the top.
How is remote work going?
Clara: We’ve always worked remotely, but sheltering in place, homeschooling, and reduced social activities have really knocked the work-from-home game into high gear. We’re very fortunate to work from home and never take it for granted. We feel sick for those who lost jobs or are furloughed. Two weeks into the virus panic, I helped my mom temporarily close down our fifty year old family business, a restaurant. It was, and is, frightening, hard, and infuriating; but we’re hopeful these efforts will help in our long-game fight against the virus.
In our efforts to fill many roles at once, we’re constantly failing, and working from home is sloppier but wonderful in a lot of ways. At first we tried to structure home-school strictly. But by week two, we immediately adjusted our mindset to permit for more fragility and to encourage day-to-day or even hour-to-hour reboots. This was something we’ve even had to implement for ourselves and our colleagues, not just the kids. I can’t say it loud enough or often enough (even for myself)…slowing down is okay. For homeschooling, we’re letting the kids lead by their interest, and we’re taking a lot of fun breaks by foraging for food in the woods (literally), building forts, jumping in mud puddles, and climbing trees.
Are you keeping traditional office hours? Is your team all in the same time zone?
Clara: Yes, we’re keeping traditional hours (9am-5pm). However, Jonathan and I are married and share the homeschooling and household duties. When the kids were in school, we could both work together for the majority of the day. Now that the kids are home, we take turns every one to two days. That typically translates to a few odd hours (e.g. 6pm-9pm) for the parent that spent the day homeschooling, house cleaning, food prepping & child-rearing. We use those odd hours to catch up on emails and check simple things off our work list so that neither of us falls too far behind.
Grace and Ryan keep us steady. They are even and constant allies in this chaos. Among the four of us, we’re still creating. We really couldn’t do it without them and the wonderful group of freelancers that we get the opportunity to work alongside.
Jonathan, Clara, and Grace are located in EST. Ryan is in CST.
What apps are keeping you connected to your team?
Dropbox, Dropbox Paper, Google Calendar, Docs, Hangouts, Meet, Sheets, and Slides, Frame.io, and we use a lot of iMessage & FaceTime for our outside-of-office hangs.
How many video calls do you average per day right now?
Jonathan: I’d say 2 to 3. We try to limit our meetings so we have maker time. Things can easily get away from us if we’re on long video calls all day. It also takes a lot to look presentable and to be ‘on’ all the time. But we may be a little more introverted. Honestly, Clara’s spirit animal is Ron Swanson from Parks & Rec:
What is the most hilarious thing you’ve seen that distracted you from work?
Jonathan: Clara and I are definitely seeking out more comedy these days. We’ve revisited some Chappelle’s Show and Key & Peele. This one had us rolling on the floor laughing:
Can you recommend three general habits to improve workflow? Or list insightful do’s and don’ts.
1) Try to keep business/maker hours routine. Especially during the maker hours, don’t interrupt with too many video calls. You should reserve blocks of your day, if possible, for video calls vs. maker time.
2) Consider a separate work area that can stay put even when you finish for the day. We have worked at a chair in our home, the dining room table, and on the couch. While all those locations have to work sometimes, they don’t work all the time. We have a separate office space that includes our desks, proper desk chairs, a printing station, and the holy grail of coffee and snacks. The separate space is really great for your mind and for your body. In the past, we’ve set up ‘shop’ in a laundry room, in a closet, and in a small storage room that another business wasn’t using. Yes, it’s laughable, but it worked! No shame.
3) Take breaks. Go for a walk. Get some exercise. Meditate. Jump on the trampoline (Butterworth has one). Do something with your hands like a puzzle, embroidery (Lawson has mad skills), or plant some seeds. Distract your mind and body from the routine of ‘work.’
4) Drink lots of water.
5) Bring nature into your space with plants, pinecones, rocks, etc.
6) Use projects that are at varying degrees of complexity and completeness to pivot your mind when you reach a creative lull. Sometimes we will do the more mindless tasks on emotionally rough days to ease the pressure for creativity.
7) Listen to some tunes. Grace, put together a lovely playlist of some of our favorites (see details later).
When viewing a project, what do you notice first? Any pet-peeves? What things do you love?
Jonathan: One of the first things I notice about a project is style and tone. I love when a project is unique in the way the story is told or in the visual execution.
I’d go further to say that I really enjoy personal projects. They tend to have the most freedom for artists to explore and often give you insight into their personalities. There are many personal projects I’ve seen recently that really blew me away. It’s inspiring and humbling to see so much incredible work from around the world.
I also really like well-executed design, editorial, music, and sound design. Most clients have very specific brand requirements and aren’t comfortable pushing creative limits. So I really appreciate high quality work, even if it’s not groundbreaking in a creative way.
One pet-peeve is that our work, as an industry, can begin to look similar or tired. We, at Coat of Arms, are definitely guilty of this too. A lot of times a client wants something we’ve already done or that they’ve seen elsewhere. This combined with brand/corporate expectations makes it hard to do something unexpected, not to mention, we’re all so connected that it’s easy to influence each other. We try to find inspiration outside of the industry any chance we get.
Perhaps more than anything, I love hearing about studios that take care of their talent and clients that take care of their studios or agencies, especially when they uphold diversity and inclusion in the makeup of their teams and in the stories they tell.
We’ve taken great consideration of and have immense respect for the Black Lives Matter movement. In order to lift black voices, we’ve been encouraged to help black designers study and share their experience through their art. So far, Sam Bass and Valencia Spates shared art the past two weeks. We hope you’ll hear their story and fold it into your reflections. ‘Live the change you want to see’ was never more important than it is now.
View this post on Instagram
In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been through a lot of emotions. I’ve been pissed, enraged, upset, and heavy-hearted to name a few. To watch a Black man’s life be snuffed out by a White police officer over the course of minutes in broad daylight while people from the community watched helplessly was devastating. One of the things that have been the hardest to deal with throughout this is the world’s reaction to George Floyd’s murder. I think the response has been great and is bringing a lot of attention to the black community, police brutality, and racial injustice in this country, but these problems aren’t new. This has been happening for centuries. The only way you didn’t know about this is because you’ve chosen to ignore it or you are so privileged that you have little to no interaction with the Black community throughout your daily life. With all these thoughts and feelings, I didn’t know what to do or how to deal with it. Last week my friends @coatofarmspost reached out to me, asking if I would create an illustration about everything that’s been happening. It couldn’t have come at a better time and I am honored and so grateful for it. I’m not an activist, I’m not in a position of power to make real change, I’m worried about protesting in large gatherings because of Covid19 and how it’s disproportionally affecting the Black community on top of the ongoing police brutality. What I can do is create. I can share my perspective. This is my way of protesting. In this image, a defenseless Black man kneels with his hands high in the air. Trying everything in his power to show that he poses no threat. A pair of White hands grip his neck from behind, suffocating him. All while the world watches him burn. Every day, new photos and videos of police brutality are being captured from around the country. The world watches and yet no one is held accountable. No one with the power has done anything to stop this. It frustrates and terrifies me that with all of this evidence, people are still just watching. At times I feel helpless. Other times I’m hopeful. I don’t know when this is going to end, but until then I’m going to keep creating.
How do you quiet your inner critic?
Jonathan: I’m not sure we really do. I think we have a very healthy amount of self-doubt and fear of failure (and fear of success at times). We’re walking the tightrope of insecurity and confidence every day. The best thing that has helped us is time and experience. We still have impostor syndrome and feelings of inadequacy (especially when on social media), but we’ve been creating work since 2004. And all of our failures have helped harden us a bit, while also proving that we can get through just about anything. Even a pandemic.
From another perspective, and perhaps this isn’t a very popular stance to take, but I think we try to listen to, and nurture, our inner critic. Or at least allow ourselves to be honest and authentic, which means allowing some of the difficult realities or uncertain parts of ourselves to exist. This isn’t to say that Clara and I are too demanding on ourselves, or others, but we do both have critical eyes and specific desires creatively. This has helped us know what is working and what isn’t working when building something.
Criticism can become negative rather than constructive, and I personally work really hard to be mindful of this and balanced in my approach to giving feedback both to myself and to others. However, I do think that criticism is important. There can be love in criticism. We want to be better, and we want better for those we care for and work with. Not everyone takes feedback well, so we need to have empathy and to find the right language to deliver critiques.
This makes me think of that great commentary by Ira Glass about “the gap,” where it just takes time to bridge your taste with your ability. This is one video (of many!):
I was also remembering this video directed by Claudio Salas, all about the wisdom of pessimism:
When you feel stuck, or need inspiration, what are your go-to’s?
Clara: I don’t have an easy answer to this. But Jonathan got me a few books for my birthday a few years ago that I love to look at for inspiration periodically. Here they are: Creative Pep Talk, Picturing & Poeting, A Designer’s Art, The Art of Looking Sideways. And spending time in nature is huge for me.
Jonathan: I try and do a lot of reading, which is really just 20 minutes a day before bed. I find it helps get me out of very visual forms of inspiration, and into my “mind’s eye” for storytelling. A few recent good books are The Power by Naomi Alderman, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, and I’m currently half-way through The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
I read a lot of comics too, which act as a huge inspiration, and we are often looking through “art of” books with our kids. Some recent comics are Black Science, Death or Glory, Descender, Low, Middlewest, Paper Girls, Saga, and Seven to Eternity. Apparently I’m an Image comics fan. And some great “art of” books we’re looking at now: Designing the Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse: The Art of the Movie, The Art of How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, and The Art of Tangled.
Ryan recently created a few Instagram stories about this. He shows a bit of what he does when stuck, including a review of some art folders he created on his computer. Watch the stories and you’ll see the pain of an introvert recording themselves for social media! There’s also a short glitch effect tutorial in there.
What Studio, Designer, Artist (dead or alive) would you want to have a Zoom meeting with?
Jonathan: I’d love to talk to the owners/creators at Cartoon Saloon. I think they do incredible work and have built a company that puts out thoughtful and meaningful work. We all really love Puffin Rock, Secret of Kells, and Song of the Sea.
What inspired you to get into this business? Was there a particular movie, commercial, animation, artist, music video, book, etc.?
Clara: My path to film-making and writing wasn’t direct. But I remember the first time I heard a copy-writing jingle from my junior high English Literature teacher. During one class, she sang, “I am stuck on Band-Aid brand ’cause Band-Aid’s stuck on me.” She explained that it was someone’s job to create the jingle and pair it with visuals. I was intrigued.
Also, my mom always encouraged us to watch a lot of old movies, including Hitchcock films. The joy of trying to predict the outcome of his mysteries and finding the Hitchcock cameos made me respect the challenges of good storytelling and the joy and play you can find in film-making.
What are you streaming / watching / reading / or podcasting?
Grace: “Hey all you cool cats and kittens!” Kidding… but I did binge watch Tiger King and I’m keeping my opinions to myself. My favorite show is Letterkenny on Hulu. The writing is brilliant, Jared Keeso’s mind is so good. Trout Fishing In America is my latest read. I have a few pages left and highly recommend this stream of consciousness masterpiece by Richard Brautigan.
Ryan: I run on a treadmill every day, which requires a massive amount of material. I tend to go through films in groups. This past week, I watched concert films, which was AMAZING to run to. Gimme Shelter, Nirvana: Live at the Paramount, Stop Making Sense, and finished it off with The Last Waltz. Before that, I watched Hustlers, Boiler Room and The Big Short which share a common thread. I’m now into Al Pacino movies with Insomnia and Heat (sooo good).
Is your house messier or cleaner while working from home?
Ryan: My house is about the same. My wife and I try to keep a clean house but it’s more difficult with the kids home ALL THE TIME. We usually have different times of day when we’re in the mood to clean. Amy, like most normal people, cleans during the day and I tend to clean after work and into the night, and more so when I’m stuck and need to accomplish SOMETHING!
What have you eaten too much of during Quarantine?
Clara: We haven’t eaten too much of any one thing YET (dun dun dun), but we’ve enjoyed a LOT of ramps (a wild onion that grows in Appalachia) and some morels (an elusive wild mushroom). Jonathan cooks a mean sweet potato, ramps, and egg dish that we’ve been ‘leftovering’ a lot recently. Ramps grow wild all over the place locally. And we found our first secret patch of morels and cooked about 10 of those. They were magnificent. Finally, West Virginia’s spring gobbler (turkey) season opened on Monday, April 15, and my brother got one. He shared the most scrumptious turkey breast with us. I guess you could say we’re eating well off the land this spring. Thank you, Mother Earth.
What is your “go-to” song? And give us some backstory if inclined.
We’re actually releasing a playlist every other week, check out our socials for more. The first one is called COA Mix/ Work From Home. We’re having a blast building them. Have a listen!
Any newly adapted online experience you are enjoying?
Jonathan: We’ve been using a great deal of online resources for homeschooling. BrainPop Jr, Drawing livestreams like this one from Michael Woodside, Duolingo, Khan Academy, Monterey Bay Live Cams, Mystery Science, ReadingIQ, San Diego Zoo Live Cams, Scholastic, Twinkl for printouts, and Tynker Coding. We’ve tried some museum and art experiences like MOMA & the Guggenheim, but our kids aren’t quite at the age to appreciate them yet.
Would you rather give up bathing for a month or give up the internet for a month?
Clara: Definitely giving up the internet for a month. I’ve denied myself a cell phone for a full year. So, getting rid of the internet would be mostly a piece of cake. I think I could make snail mail and pencil to paper my jam pretty easily. Giving up bathing, on the other, ain’t gonna happen. I live for a good soak.
Grace: Could I give up both and stay in the woods for a month? Only sort of joking. I’d have to give up the internet for a month. The best ideas happen in the water, y’all.
Jonathan: I’d have to give up the internet, things would just get too ripe after a month, let alone a week.
Ryan: They say the body cleans itself after a certain amount of time and… you can probably guess where I’m going with this. Once you’re dirty, you’re dirty but there’s always something new on the internet!
Best live experience (Concert, play, festival, etc.)?
Grace:The most surreal live experience I’ve had was New Years 2020. My partner and I travelled to Nashville to see John Prine play at The Grand Ole Opry. He was playing Blaze Foley’s song, Clay Pigeons, when the clock struck midnight. John Prine is a staple in our home. His songs are a central focus when we get together to play music with our friends and there isn’t a day that goes by without one of us hearing his voice over the speakers. What a gift he was.
Any personal project files, images, tutorials, exquisite corpse, online scavenger hunts you can share with Motionographer to keep creatives learning?
Clara: Yes, we just finished a quasi-exquisite corpse video. It’s a personal project we created in our free time called, “Rough Cut.” It celebrates the creative process and specifically the challenges of great storytelling.
Voiced by the artists (twenty-three of us), each collaborator added to the composition in a sequence with only the voice-over and a general visual script as their guide. The ninety second video includes design and animation work by talent from all over the world. We call them friends. You should definitely check out their work and hire them for your next project!
The really lovely thing about this video’s launch is that we’re pairing it with the release of some project files. All the artists are excited to share with the motion graphic and design community and feel this is a great educational opportunity. The project files, along with the short film, will be released on our website at the end of June. Sign up for our newsletter or follow us on social, and we’ll be sure to send you a link when it’s live.
How can creatives plug into their communities?
Jonathan: I think the simplest way is to bite the bullet and reach out to people you admire or want to work with. An email, phone call, or an in-person meeting (when we get back to near normal), is a great way to get to know someone and to find common interests and goals. A lot of our work has come from relationships.
Anything else? Want to share your latest project, event, or news?
Grace: Our feature documentary film, “Born in a Ballroom” is available on a few different platforms. You can purchase a blu-ray (all proceeds going to the Hütte, our local restaurant) from borninaballroom.com or watch on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, or Google Play. We had the privilege of showing the film at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, all over West Virginia, and in Pittsburgh, before the world needed to slow down. The film is about a strong, whimsical, badass woman who worked to keep her Swiss heritage alive and thriving in a small Appalachian community. It’s a captivating story that finds you where you are and inspires you to further embrace your heritage, family, and community.
Thanks for reading!!