Friday, December 3, 2010

You had to Be There

On Tuesday I tweeted my presence at the Ad Age ME Conference. I received a swift message back asking “Why are you there?” I looked around me and realized that, unlike most conferences that I attend, I didn’t know everyone there. The conference was packed with enthusiastic attendees but why weren’t my comrades in post, vfx and animation in attendance? And I didn’t spot a whole load of agencies or production companies there either, aside from one or two familiar faces.

My first reaction was that I must be at the wrong conference; swiftly followed by a feeling of excitement. I have spent many hundreds of dollars on conferences at which I see a familiar group speakers telling me how difficult it is to survive in the industry. I don’t want to spend any more money listening to this message. What I want to do is find out what our clients want and find ways in which we can be relevant to their needs.

And here I was.

With an agenda stuffed full of people who are responsible for the strategies and marketing of their brands, people who are making choices about where their brand is going to place their messages and how they were going to use existing and emerging technologies to do this. And where were these people from? GE, ESPN, Kraft, NY Times, Coca-Cola. Nick Brien, Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, McCann Worldgroup, was there to tell us how his agency needs to evolve to meet these needs.

I was thrilled to find myself exactly at the place I want to be and astonished that my competitors were not there as well.

I have been talking – and blogging – for a long time about how we are trying to evolve, how the traditional model has changed and how we need to collaborate. All of these messages kept coming back to me through the speakers; they were telling me how they had evolved their media strategy and where they were headed in the future. Of course, as George Bodenheimer, President of ESPN repeatedly said, they “don’t know” what the future holds. But none of them appeared to be afraid about the fact or about making mistakes in order to progress.

I’m not going to detail all of the talks, but you can find the highlights that were tweeted and retweeted by me and many others while we listened to the talks. One of the most popular was written by my friend and fellow blogger, Charles Day, who tweeted:

New York Times online audience 50 million. Physical circulation 900,000. Understands it’s purpose is news. Not paper.

That is a very astute summary of a company understanding what their business is and how that determines how they develop their business in the future. It was a point re-iterated by George Bodenheimer who claims that ESPN’s strategy is led by one thing: their mission to serve sports fans.

(Actually, Charles’ tweet had been copied and tweeted by someone else– and not credited to him – raising the issue of ownership of ideas and protocol of using new technolgies!)

What has become clear to me time and again is that there is no clarity. There is no longer a linear flow from client to agency to prod co, to post. The roles of agencies, production companies and post-production studios are shifting and workloads are being redistributed. VFX and animation studios are moving from vendor to collaborator and, as a result, we can no longer sit out of the conversation about the evolution of media. The brands that we want to work with, and who we can now work directly with instead of going through an agency, are becoming content creators. If we want to work with these content creating brands we need to become part of the media discussion.

The lines are everywhere and, as confusing as that could be, it also means that there are so many more opportunities for us to get involved and produce some exciting content.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Collaboration: The New Black

I must apologise to those who have been sat there waiting for my latest blog. One minute it was January and the next it's November. And not a blog to show for it. Unacceptable, I know. I will not let that happen again.
Anyway, what a week it's been! First the Titans of the Industry Blog - Rolfe, Solomon, Day - unleashed their words of innovation and inspiration on us. And then Fast Company proclaim the Future of Advertising. All that AND a Royal Engagement...

I have just celebrated 25 years in the industry and looking back I was reminded of being interviewed by Sharon Reed, then Managing Director of Framestore. The main thing that I remember was that the focus and energy of the company appeared to be dedicated to getting the best imagery onto the screen. Not about salaries or perks or bonuses or whatever else. Just the work. I remember leaving the interview feeling both very impressed but also a little sceptical that anyone can have the integrity to set the company up in a way which will treat every project with the same respect and strive to uphold Framestore's standards. But in my 15 years of working at Framestore the company’s commitment to it's core value has never waivered and I believe that that commitment has been the key to the success of our business model.

I tell you this story not as a way for us to publically pat ourselves on the back, but because with all the recent talk about collaboration in our industry, I think it is best to remind ourselves that collaboration only works when partners share the same goals and core values.

Personally, I am thrilled that collaboration is the next big thing. VFX studios have always needed to collaborate. But as a vendor. Which can be a precarious position to collaborate from. By which I mean that it often ends in a one way collaboration.
Actually, VFX studios have been trying to explain for many years that it's to everyone's ultimate benefit that we are included as a creative production partner as early as possible. It's only in the last ten to fifteen years that we have been allowed on sets. And only in the last five that we've been allowed to speak. And on the occasions on which anyone is listening literally hundreds of thousands of dollars could potentially be saved.

Of course, the irony is that in many cases - and precisely because there was 'no money' - people weren't overly concerned about 'saving' money in VFX because increasingly they weren't paying for the VFX. Just contributing towards them.

Clearly, this was not a sustainable model. And so here we are.

There is no doubt that we have reached this challenging point in our industry in part because of our previous distaste for collaboration and our previous love for claiming production dollars and staking portions of the pipeline territory. There was a time, not more than four years ago, where a lot of energy was spent guarding our relationships and hoarding our trade secrets. And, out of a fear of offending the hand that fed us, we made sure that we kept our skill set and the variety of our output small. We knew that we could direct VFX-heavy spots, but we didn’t want to offend our directors by offering those services to agencies or marketers. We knew that character-driven animation was being underutilized in branding, but we didn’t want to offend the agencies. But, as the size of the pie that we are sharing shrank, Framestore and all of our competitors in the VFX and animation space became a little more bold about saying to clients “we can do that for you,” even when it didn’t fall within the narrowly defined role we have previously agreed to play in the production world. We had been talking about the need for evolution and here was a chance to create change and increase our relevance to our clients.

Everybody has been forced to examine their own business model and to take a look at their resources in order to find other ways to bring in revenue and cut costs. This has caused us all to become more flexible and versatile about what we do and what we think is acceptable for our partners to be doing. Agencies with edit suites and finishing bays. Production Companies with in-house VFX. Editors doing their own Sound Design and finishing...and VFX. Maybe labeling ourselves collaborators really just means we are now all in the same boat.

And while I am excited by this new call to collaborate, I don’t want to collaborate with just anybody. I do not want to collaborate with people offering a lesser level of creative output than we are. Collaboration cannot take the place of creative expertise. And I do not want to collaborate with anybody who lacks the integrity to be honest enough to say to a client, “I cannot do this job with the budget you are offering me and still maintain our high creative standards.” The term collaboration should not be shorthand for cheap.

After years of trying to work with (and not 'for') people what I have learnt is that:

  • You can achieve more from less by collaborating.
  • This is not a 'relationship', this is all about the output. Do not partner with any partner for any reason other than that it will improve the quality of your work. If you are not partnering with like-minded businesses who also value creative output and integrity in their ways of working, a collaboration will do nothing more than degrade the quality of your creative output and chip away at your hard won respect in the industry.·
  • Do the right thing for your project, not for your individual businesses.·
  • Creative collaboration is a good thing. We cannot all be experts in everything. But we can learn. And you can learn from us.
  • Collaboration will only work if we examine why we are a good partner for the project and how we can best be utilized.
  • Collaboration will only be an improvement if we use it to add more value or improve our creative output. Or both.

The traditional linearity of Client>Agency>Prodco>Editors>VFX/Sound Design/Music is now only one line in a whole series of lines connecting us in all sorts of different ways. Yes, it's difficult to make sense of it but some clarity will come from understanding your own relevance and valuing your creative collaborators.

If you haven't already ready the aforementioned blogs from David Rolfe, Jerry Solomon and Charles Day and the Fast Company article, I would highly recommend that you do:

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Building the Dream

I was fortunate to spend the Holiday period visiting relatives in Dubai and since I have returned the questions that people ask me once they hear of my holiday destination are either about the Burj Dubai (or, should I say, the Burj Khalifa?) or the economic collapse. There has certainly been enough press on these two topics in recent months to make even the most uninformed person know a little bit about this relatively mysterious country. And of course people are interested in the story because none of us want to suffer through this economic downturn by ourselves, it probably comforts us to know that even the mighty wallet of Dubai is feeling the pinch.

And the press likes to draw a line between the flashy mega-skyscraper and the decline in the Dubai economy. Plenty has been written about the correlation between countries building such edifices and their imminent financial nosedives. Maybe it is inevitable that such a manifestation of financial aggrandizement would presage it’s own end…?

But, despite all of the reports, Dubai didn’t look to me like a place that was on hold. True, construction may have slowed down, but at the speed that Dubai builds it is still in the middle of a burst of expansion. The city has only really existed for thirty years or so and the Dubai of even ten years ago would be unrecognizable to most current visitors. In fact, most places I visited I was either told “five years ago this was all sand…” or “three years ago this was all water…”. This rate of progress is unimaginable. To most of us, at least.

However, one man did imagine this.

Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al-Maktoum had a vision for Dubai and set about creating the conditions that would allow this city to flourish.

My friend, Charles Day posted a blog yesterday about finally being convinced that anything is achievable:

(On a side note, it’s funny that the dealbreaker for Charles was a video of beautifully shot objects that, in fact, weren’t ‘shot’ at all. The whole piece was an exquisitely produced CG of inanimate objects. I say, funny because we have done a plethora of hyper-real CG objects that wouldn’t even be recognized as such…it’s only the talking creatures, etc, that get noticed. Although to be fair, if anyone had asked us to quote on how to achieve this piece we would have certainly told them to shoot it in camera! Anyway, I digress…)

Charles’ blog was a positive note on which to start the year and it made me think about Dubai. Frankly, to me Dubai lacks a certain romance, maybe because everything is so new and it lacks the sense of history, and there are many aspects of unsavoury working practices for the immigrant workforce that are hard to stomach. But the achievement is undeniably impressive. For someone to set out with a vision and then create a plan to bring the vision to life is impressive enough. But to witness the dream coming to life is absolutely inspiring. The Burj Khalifa may be seen as a statement of extravagant arrogance or it may be seen as a sign of mankind pushing the boundaries, of challenging what we know and daring to go further. Sheikh Rashid died in 1990 and the torch was handed to his son, Sheikh Mohammed, to complete the challenge of creating a global city. Of course the path for them to finish their dream was made a lot easier by the money that arrived with the discovery of oil in the late 60’s, but what is not easy is having a dream, a goal, an ambition, finding a plan that you think will get you there and then following that plan to fruition.

Construction may have slowed in Dubai but when I saw the news footage of the fireworks at the opening ceremony a few days after my return I couldn’t help feeling that the Burj Khalifa is another reminder that anything is possible.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

You have to hand it to the French...

I’ve been listening – as usual – to my football podcast this morning as I walked across Brooklyn Bridge to work. The business of the day was an in-depth debate about the blatant handball (or was it a ‘juggle’) that effectively led to the Republic of Ireland being knocked out of the World Cup and guaranteed France their place. What I didn’t expect was to see the issue discussed on Huffington Post once I arrived at the office:
A large part of what I have heard and read centers on whether or not Thierry Henry – a gifted player with a similar talent for keeping his PR stock high – should have done the sportsmanlike thing: should he have owned up? After all, he must have known that the whole sports world would soon be analyzing that particular bit of video. Moreover, he must have suspected that most people who saw it the first time round didn’t need to analyze the video. It was so obvious. Except to the referee.
The problem with this is that it assumes that football is a sport and played for the enjoyment of taking part; when, in fact, it crossed over from sport to business somewhere between twenty and thirty years ago. Henry has since admitted that he handled the ball – he could hardly deny it - but that France are already through and winning is the most important thing. If you can win in an entertaining fashion that is certainly a bonus – after all, football is in the entertainment business. (Or is it in the Sports Merchandising business?). Players are under more televised scrutiny than ever but are still diving, spitting, stamping and tugging shirts. Few players are given time to develop – particularly at the bigger clubs – and need to make an immediate impact – fairly or otherwise. If they don’t they are out. To be replaced by another big signing. And if you don’t have the money to buy these players then you make it known that you may be interested in hearing from any wealthy Arab businessmen and/or royalty who may want a new plaything. The common wisdom used to claim that you couldn’t buy the Premiership. Blackburn tested the theory (with Jack Walker’s cash) and Chelsea have smashed it into tiny pieces (having looked farther afield to Russia). Manchester City are now the richest club in the world, owned as they are by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan whose family fortune is estimated at around $1 trillion. Having already invested around $500 million you would suspect that he will want a return on that investment. The minimum required will be a Champions League place and that requires them to finish in the top four. They will not achieve that by just playing fair and entertaining football.
It would be nice to think that on the International level there may exist some of the finer points of the game where Nation meets Nation to pit their wits against each other and transcend the commercial imperatives. But the players of any top footballing nation are mostly those who are battling it out in a kind of Super League of six to eight teams in the EPL, La Liga, Serie A or the Bundesliege. The National Manager is not necessarily of that country’s descent. Even stranger is the fact that very often the players themselves only have a tenuous link with the team whose shirt they are wearing. I think you could possibly qualify for selection if a distant relation took a vacation in a particular country for longer than two weeks. I suspect that top players are paid so much by their clubs and are asked to play so many games that the thought of playing for their country loses some of its appeal. You only have to look at how many players announce their international retirement these days – almost unheard of ten years ago.
And, of course, there is always the commercial consideration even with international games. The winning country will sell more shirts and other merchandise and will see an increase in attendances, etc.

We may want to see the spirit of fair play and a well-contested game – particularly as an antidote to all of the other things that are going on in the world. I suspect that more often we want to come out on the winning side and there’s nothing wrong with that. But without some sense of fair play what does that leave us with?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

No news.... is good news?

I love music as much as the next man. Maybe more. I love playing it, I love listening to it. I love the moment when I discover something that ‘blows my mind’. This seems to be happening less with ‘new’ music (by which I mean contemporary popular music).But I do discover great old stuff now and then. I sometimes think that I would be perfectly content to listen for the rest of my life only to the music that has already been recorded (which is quite something when you bear in mind that I am really talking about the last sixty or seventy years’ worth or recorded music).

After all, if I could track down recordings of all the music that I think I would like to listen to (notwithstanding that music that I think I wouldn’t like but may actually find that I love) I could probably listen to each piece of music only time only and still run out of my remaining lifetime before I ran out of music. And bear in mind that I was a huge fan of Punk and New Wave which, for me, blew away all of the safe and bland music out of the water. But if I am being truthful, I am probably listening to more of that safe and bland stuff than I am any experimental or ‘new’ music. (Rumours, anyone?)

I’m not really sure why this is…a certain nostalgic familiarity maybe? Maybe it reminds me of a high school girlfriend, a great club I went to in our 20s, a great road trip. As we get older we cling onto things from our youth. Or maybe this love of the music from our past is due to the fact that there aren’t that many new things to say and, for the most part, not that many new ways of saying them. Or to put it another way, I have not only heard it before…but I’ve heard it better before.

Take a contemporary artist that I really DO like: Jack White. Jack White is an enormous talent and I love watching this guy play – especially live. But even in this instance I don’t know how much of his music I will ever get through. A lot of his music is influenced by Led Zeppelin and, as familiar as I am with Led Zeppelin and as much as I like their work, I have not cracked their entire back catalogue. So am I really going to start working through Jack White’s as well as Led Zeppelin’s? And if I did get around to all of that shouldn’t really get started on Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, etc. It is an addictive pastime, trying to listen to all this music.

But maybe I have it all wrong. Maybe the whole point is that every generation has its own way of telling stories and while there only be a few recurring stories in the world they are all valid to be retold as long as each connects to their audience.

I was recently sent a link to Robert Crumb’s Book of Genesis:
A classic example of re-telling one of the oldest stories in existence. Okay, maybe the medium is not the most cutting edge – but given that R. Crumb is responsible, this is a pretty new re-working of an ancient story. I was pleased to see this project. It gave me hope about the endless possibilities of art and it confirmed what is a core belief of mine: that people will always want to hear or see stories. Sometimes people will delve back in time and sometimes they will want it presented in a slightly modernized way.

That's a nice thought.

We are an industry of storytellers of one kind or another and we all know that there are new stories to be told. We also know that sometimes older stories need re-working in order to engage a young audience who is waiting, eager to consume them. We need to be able to connect. Does the message resonate better when it’s delivered by Robert Johnson on a dusty old ‘30s recording than by a synthed-up Lady GaGa? Or when it comes courtesy of Ray Harryhausen’s King Kong as opposed to Peter Jackson’s? Of course not. Different people will have a different response to receiving the same message. Moreover, one person may respond differently depending on what stage of his life he/she is at and what experiences they can draw on. The crucial thing is that we deliver the message in a way which will achieve the results we require.

As storytellers we should be able to do this using our skills with the tools at our disposal. If we’re not then maybe we are no longer relevant. A great example of adapting modern methods of communication to get across historical ideas was recently emailed to me:

Yes, Orchestra Hero…! We’ve had Guitar Hero and DJ Hero is just about to be released…so why not Orchestra Hero? Yes, it is a little incongruous, but at the very least it will serve as a way to expose a group of young people to classic music in a medium that will not make them immediately reject it. This could lead to a greater appreciation of orchestral works. The article suggests that during the time of their original composition, the works of Beethoven, Mahler and Bach, the orchestra was the place where influential statements were made:

statements that impacted the cultural and political dialogues of the West. Unfortunately this is a claim the orchestral world can no longer make. Competing now with movies, television, the Internet and popular music, the orchestra no longer has the platform for cultural dialogue that it once held.

Interesting that a computer game may provide a road for the player to embark on a journey of discovery.

Maybe that is also the point of ‘new music’; while there’s nothing necessarily new about most of it, it can speak to those who are receptive to it but also can provide a bridge to other influences and help to open up a whole new world of discovery.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Guest Blogger Framestore Digital/Design EP Simon Whalley was always game. Now he's Gamer!

Come gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.

Now, I can be fairly sure that Dylan wasn't singing about the convergence of the Games and the Film & TV industry (unless he was even more of a visionary than he let on....), but this was the song that was bubbling through my conscious thought as I attended a lecture at BAFTA last Wednesday, gven by Peter Molyneux, Creative Director of Microsoft Games Europe.
Peter's lecture was very much focused on the exciting times we are now in, and the innovation that is happening in the Games industry. He challenged people to throw away their old foundations and pre-conceptions for gaming and embrace a wider audience.
In 1989, Peter created a game called 'Populous'. This was a hugely successful game, and sold 4 million copies. In 2008, Peter was part of the team that created 'Fable II'. This was a hugely successful game, and sold 4 million copies. Now this was interesting - given the huge advancement of technology and connectivity, the gaming market appears to have remained the same! So, here we have a huge opportunity. Think of all those other people who could be connected, playing games. We just need to tap into the thing that makes them want to play. And that includes things like a physical controller, if you're Microsoft. Using Natal, what Microsoft dub a "controller-free gaming and entertainment experience" they appear to be actively taking those important steps into attracting a wider audience. And Sony have been exploring this to an extent with Eye Toy and the recently released Eye Pet.
The key to all of this is emotion. An emotional connection is the thing that will draw people in. And we in the linear narrative business of Film and Television have been doing this for many decades, but the gaming industry by comparison is still a child. That's not to say that games don't have emotion, but it's a different way of crafting and generating emotion with storytelling that I'm talking about here. And conversely we need to understand the needs of a gamer so we can construct an exciting, interesting but relevant story and emotive reaction to the medium.
Peter took a show of hands in the auditorium to ask how many people were from the Games industry and how many were from Film & TV. Over a third were from Film & TV, with the rest being Games people. Now I'm aware than an event at BAFTA would probably attract more Film & TV people by it's very nature, but this was still a remarkable statistic. This really does show how our industries are mutually interested in collaborating and crossing over. So how can we get involved? Well, initially one of the ways to get involved is to be part of making the linear storytelling devices, such as the cinematic intros of the cut scenes of the game. This is certainly not anything new, and Film / TV people have been doing this for Games companies for a while, but the difference here is that the games themselves have changed. We recently completed work on the Cinematic Intro Film for DJ Hero (the dance music version of Guitar Hero - comes out worldwide on Tuesday 28th October). This is a social, interactive game where the music is key, essentially that IS the story. Our film would be the first thing people would see when they put the game into their console. So when tasked with generating the intro movie, our brief was to tap into an emotion. Freestyle Games wanted us to create something that was exciting, dynamic, and got the player so darn frothed up from the get go, that they would explode with pure adrenalin at the thought of playing the game! So, we used all of our years and experience to tell a story and make it look fantastic - to make a film and elicit an emotive response. I genuinely believe that by collaborating with us in this manner, Activision and Freestyle got a different product form if they had done it themselves. In fact, they said so themselves. And ultimately, the combination of our storytelling, animation and VFX talent combined with their amazing game development skills and ideas, has created a unique product.
This is just the beginning. And as the demarcation lines become ever more blurred, and the collaboration of like minded companies cross-industries becomes more common place, then innovation will be ever more abundant. And that makes me want to explode with pure adrenalin at the thought! The times they are a-changin' indeed.....

Simon Whalley (EP Framestore Digital/Design)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Looking forward to the Past

I have just been exploring the Manahatta Project
I find it very interesting to see how technology can help us picture things as they were hundreds of years ago. I’m sure that I had some exposure to this natural history during my school days and I probably read about the many types of natural life that existed several hundred years previously. Maybe there was even some nicely rendered black and white illustration of a particular detail of that time.

But there was nothing like this.

The Manahatta Project reminded me that although I have been in the VFX industry just short of my silver jubilee and I have done my fair share of producing dancing toothbrushes and singing vegetables, there is an aspect of what we do that has even greater value.
For instance, when we took on Walking With Dinosaurs at the end of the 90’s I assumed that the Production team at the BBC would find which dinosaurs they wanted in the series and source the relevant reference pictures. What I wasn’t expecting was that our team of CGi artists, headed by the remarkable Mike Milne, became part of a process that involved a team of paleontologists ‘downloading’ their knowledge so that we could build – and bring to life - a CGi model of a particular species. The technology allowed the scientists to see the results of their findings in a way that would have been impossible only a few years earlier. In some cases, the CGi representation altered their idea of how that particular dinosaur moved or changed the common perception of how long their limbs were.

The thought occurred to me again recently as my partner, Sarah Dowland, finished producing the new Planetarium show 'Journey To The Stars' at the American Museum of Natural History:
Throughout the course of a year Sarah had been working with a team of extremely bright scientists at the Museum but also with a team of CGi/VFX artists (one of whom, Jon Parker, had worked frequently as a freelancer in our team here). If you go and see the show, which I hope you do, I am sure that you will marvel at the visually rich spectacle. But what may not be apparent to you is that several moments of the film have never been visualized this way before. As Sarah has explained it, to produce the complicated representations they had waded through pages and pages of data and ‘somewhere within that data there was a picture’. They took those pictures and used them as the basis of one of the most amazing explorations of the natural world that has ever been created. When I spoke with one of the curators recently he was overjoyed that their research could be shown in this way. He was also full of admiration for Jon and his colleagues who could take those numbers on a page and create something that not only looks incredible but also aids our understanding of the universe. And this is praise indeed from the first guy to discover a brown dwarf!

Just another example of how the fine balance of technology, creativity and talent can provide a clearer understanding of a world that existed thousands of years ago on the island of Manhattan, or solar systems that we cannot actually see…or how a toothbrush would dance if it had legs.