About four years ago, "Everything looked like it took a lot of computers to create," notes Psyop co-founder Todd Mueller. "Back in the days of Attik and early Imaginary Forces, there was a whole wave of 'look what we can do' type graphics, where it was very heavily effected and produced. It felt very glossy, and now we've moved beyond that." Like many movements in the industry, this was spawned in no small part by technology, or the lack thereof. When Jonathan Notaro and his colleagues opened Brand New School four years ago, "The work Imaginary Forces and Three Ring Circus were putting out was beautiful and had the highest production values, but we couldn't afford that just because we didn't have those kinds of resources," the creative director recalls. "We were in a 1,500-square-foot studio going, 'Fuck what are we going to do?' So we had to let a lot of our ideas play out with our own photography, an appropriation of a bunch of stuff, being kind of witty and hoping that the graphic design was strong enough to carry interest. It was a funny time, but I think we still think that way. We've never really strayed from a lo-fi approach."
Now that the tech has become economically accessible to more players, "I'd like to think more conceptual work is being done by designers now," notes Psyop's Kylie Matulick. "It's not just about creating eye candy, which I think was really the trend four years ago, when motion graphics was so new, exciting and flashy." Colleague Mueller continues, "One of the techniques of effective communication is simplicity. I think motion graphics, illustration and animation excel in helping to simplify messages. In a way, they can represent the essence of the reality that needs to be communicated. Also, you definitely have a greater ability to extend your branding message throughout your spot, moreso than pure live action unless you're putting your logo and product placement everywhere, which is just really painful."
Thanks to the diversity of creative minds and technical muscle at these shops, however, the range of work is vast. It can be as understated and elegant as Psyop's recent animated minifilm for Bombay Sapphire; it can also be completely out-there, as in the wildly fun animation/film hybrids Motion Theory has crafted for Nike Presto and W+K Asia, or the recent Fox Sports NCL campaign, on which they tag teamed with Brand New School to paint cartoon commentary onto pigskin players. The clips world as well is welcoming these shops warmly. Motion Theory has brought its sensibilities to videos for Less than Jake and Michael Stipe, Brand New School to Dashboard Confessional and Polyphonic Spree, and Logan to No Doubt and Jurassic Five.
As the work coming out of any one of these companies spans a broad spectrum, it's much easier to categorize them by their approach, rather than their output. Motion Theory has produced/directed everything from strictly live-action comedy for DirecTV to stunning graphics-based work for HP, for which they've created an array of visuals that include the gracefully flowing plus signs in "Anthem" and the colorful end sequence of "Il Postino. " There's also the entirely animated "Revolution" spot for the ESPN "Without Sports" campaign from W+K/New York. "In the beginning, we never saw ourselves as a broadcast design or motion design company," explains Motion Theory co-founder Matthew Cullen. "I think there's definitely a little bit of people not knowing quite how to define companies like ours. Early on, we called ourselves a design and production company because we also had so many live-action projects. It's basically just about approaching a project with a strong visual sensibility, just figuring out how you're gong to make that happen. We didn't really think of it as a design thing; we just thought of it as coming up with a good concept and figuring out what people do you bring together to make it happen." Co-creative director Grady Hall adds that it's more about a seamless approach to the execution. "Really, the bottom line is about not having your imagination be limited. I love being in a brainstorm session with our guys. You know whatever you come up with is within the realm of possibility, and then you work out what aspects of it will be live action, and, if it's not all live action, what aspects are going to integrate some design and animation."
In the case of L.A.-based Logan, the team of Alexei Tylevich and Ben Conrad, the company acts as an independent design entity, but also brings its multidisciplinary vision as a directing team under Anonymous Content. "This particular type of filmmaking is finally becoming a well-defined genre in the world of directing," notes Tylevich. "Just like there are hundreds of comedy or tabletop directors out there, now there's a good number of experimental directors who can hardly be accurately classified." Other multitasking helmers include Tim Hope of Passion Pictures and Notorious Pictures, and graphic designer Geoff McFetridge, both of whom have contributed to the HP campaign; Acme Filmworks' Miles Flanagan, who brought the charming, well-integrated chalkboard animations to Microsoft; and even Partizan's Antoine Bardou-Jacquet, director of Honda's "Cog," whose roots are in graphic design.
Although the flexibility of these creative shops and directors seems to be a key way to avoid getting pigeonholed, any time they put out a fresh idea there's no doubt they will inspire copycats, or even be asked to clone their own past work. "We do get requests to execute some ideas that are similar to videos we've done, but that's fine with us," says Tylevich of Logan, who further developed a quirky environment-shifting technique they created for Jurassic Five's "What's Golden"on a recent Target spot. "Music videos have served that purpose for commercials directors for some time," he notes. "With commercials, you have an opportunity to fine tune a certain technique you experimented with in a music video."
Unless they're careful, however, repeating themselves could be the quickest way to become the next washed-out fad. "Of course, a big part of this is about trends, whether it's the blue-green transfer look of four years ago, or today's graffiti-grunge," Mueller notes. "There will always be cycles, but one of the things we try to do is not have a house look, not have a single bag of tricks. We'll repeat ourselves now and then, but we definitely are very conscious of whether or not a client is asking for something we've done before, and we try to push them in a direction we haven't gone before. "
"We're aware that everything seems to go in cycles," agrees Logan's Tylevich. "Our focus is to continually develop and take on challenging work to further build our vocabulary as directors and designers. We're trying to diversify our output, moving into live action and storytelling while keeping our interest in stylistic and formal experiments." And as more companies emerge on to the scene, they'll help to keep the groundbreakers on their toes. "In terms of this type of work being a trend, I think that I would actually say it's the opposite," says Motion Theory's Hall. "We're quite impressed by so many companies out there, from whom we just continue to see very original work and subject matter and innovative techniques in combining live action and animation. It continues to challenge the way we think about our process."
"The way we're preparing for what's next is by not preparing," says Brand New School's Notaro. "We do the same thing we did three years ago - we solve problems with design. You can look at design and say, 'Yeah it's in a certain style,' but the moment you say, 'I'm going to make something in this style,' you should quit. Usually, your design should be different for each idea. The way something looks should be completely informed by the idea. Trends and fads are very style driven. We're not style driven at all, and I don't think Motion Theory is either. I don't think Imaginary Forces is, as much of a bad rap as they might have had. They invented a lot of styles and I think for a while people were going to them for style, saying, ' We want it to look like Seven.' But if you're going to one of the best companies, you shouldn't be asking for a style. You should be asking them to do their thing saying, 'We really enjoy the way you think. Think about our project and we'd love to see how it should look.'
"Every time I cut our reel I get insight into the graphic landscape of the company, what we've been doing for the last year," Notaro continues. "The reason some spots are still on it is because they were based not on fads, but on an interesting thought executed in a unique way. They're not going to get old and people are going to continue referencing them. That's why people continue to reference Seven - it was based on an interesting thought at the time. That's the life and death of design - if something's based on a great idea, it will stay around. If it's an interesting form that's based on something that was once an interesting idea, it's going to die pretty soon."