Keeping the Faith

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Belief is a distinctly unusual name for a broadcast design studio, but it suits founder/creative director Mike Goedecke to a T. In fact, he got the name off a tee; a concert tee for Nitzer Ebb, which had an album some years ago titled Belief. "That's all the shirt said, just the one word," he recalls. "People would say, `What the hell is that?' I liked it because it was very evocative and it meant different things to different people - it spawned conversation. For some it's a religious thing, but to me it represents a belief system, like what's holding this country together right now - our belief in a free society, which sets up the structure through which we view the world. Belief systems, whether religion- or science-based or whatever, help us understand the world. We're trying to be a kind of belief system for our clients, which is why we get so much repeat business. It's not just about pretty graphics, it's about working in a structure that will produce the best product you can get."

It may not be just about pretty graphics, but Santa Monica-based Belief boasts plenty of high-calorie eye candy. The reel includes very accomplished work for Animal Planet, Tech TV, MTV and Columbia-Tristar's international AXN Network, among others - but Goedecke, 33, stresses a business model that's all-inclusive at the same time that it's lean, mean and pared down for the future. "The last few months we've really been redesigning ourselves," he reflects. "We needed to come up with a cohesive, theoretical case for what we're trying to do. So many people talk about brands this and brands that, and it's ultimately just a bunch of talk. Like you're doing cool graphics, that's what a brand is. But great brands are cultures, like Disney."

He knows, he used to work there. He also designed for the Criterion Collection back in the laserdisc days and his live action director/DP experience includes shows like David Blaine: Street Magic and When Cars Attack. But art never really took a back seat to commerce in Goedecke's career. He studied fine art and sociology at UC/Irvine, and went on to the MFA film/TV program at USC, where he made a 15-minute video piece called Rhythm, about his search for his musical identity, which featured early digital animation as well as a guest appearance by Tim Leary. "I think I can honestly say it was way ahead of its time," Goedecke ventures. "I was using a beta copy of AfterEffects, it wasn't even called AfterEffects at that time." It won a bunch of festival awards, a Kodak award, it was up for a Student Academy Award and Goedecke finally leveraged it into an Annenberg Foundation grant.

With that money, he started Belief in 1994, and from the get-go the company was a strictly desktop-oriented outfit. "When we started working on desktop machines, it was like this weird thing, no one was doing it," he recalls. "But as I would explain, the reason why we've chosen this is to make you, the client, happier with the results you get. I've been in post facilities, I've been in a room where you feel like your money's just being burned up. You're standing behind an operator and you're going, `Shit, this room is costing me $900 an hour and I'm not getting what I want.' We set up our shop as a boutique, never wanting to be a big company like a Razorfish, just wanting to do great work. We had to convince clients that this was the way of the future, that this would allow them to get the most bang for their buck. In this environment we can have people who are auteurs, in the sense that designers here can not only do creative concepting; they do the boards and they execute those boards - they actually do the animation. So there's one continuous vision throughout the process."

Seven years down the road, Goedecke, whose staff is a mere nine strong, believes his vision has been vindicated. "We've been totally proven right about the desktop setup," he declares. "Pittard Sullivan, in its last days, was trying to rethink how they were working. People started doing designs that can only be created on the desktop. There was work out there that could never be done on the Henry. It's not an open architecture where people can develop plugins and other applications. You can do things in AfterEffects that you just can't do in any other compositing application. There's stuff in AfterEffects you just can't do in a Flame."

Goedecke points to his extensive work for the aforementioned AXN, an international "action" network, as a prime example of a business-based belief system. "We launched AXN in something like seven different languages in 30 different countries. What was amazing was we created project files in AfterEffects and delivered the entire project on hard drives. We set up stations at every one of their affiliates - each country is an affiliate - we set them up so they're literally just clicking on and off layers, choosing their language by clicking on a text field, typing in a name and the animation would be executed in that language. That's unprecedented in terms of an approach to doing a network redesign. They're not going into Chyron bays and recreating everything based on some style guide. We're giving them the style guide as an animation that can be changed. It's a whole way of looking at the world."

If this sounds a bit grandiose for a motion graphics shop, Belief is not the typical motion graphics shop. It's got an experimental division, Belief EXP, headed by Eric Saks, a grant-gobbling film/video avant-gardist with a museum pedigree. And EXP walks the walk as well as it talks the talk. It's produced two substantial motion graphics-based, industry-wide collaborative video projects, Untitled: Darkness and Untitled: Infinity, that dazzle with design and typography worthy of, well, a museum pedigree. "I don't know how many people in the commercials world know about us, but once people look at Untitled, they're blown away. We're artists, not engineers," Goedecke says of his own staff and many others in the industry. "In another era, these people would have been painters, sculptors, cinematographers. In the digital era, they've chosen motion graphics to express themselves. We need an outlet to create art for art's sake. That's why Untitled was created - to inspire not only our own designers but designers at other studios to collectively show the world that this is an art form."

Speaking of art for art's sake, among other EXP projects is the recent Goedecke/Saks collaboration called Dust: 28 minutes of scanner-stolen analog cell phone conversations, artfully edited, with video that consists entirely of macro closeups of dust particles from a vacuum bag, animated via a custom algorithm in AfterEffects, so the ever-changing, blue-white snowy stuff pulsates like a bizarre volume meter in sync with the audio. It can be seen on VHS, but it's intended to a be video installation, projected on the ceiling while the audience sits in custom-made beanbag chairs with speakers built into them. The phone conversations are alternately funny, sexy and just plain weird, and the video is nothing short of mesmerizing. Appropriately enough, the piece is up for consideration at the Whitney Biennial.

"All the things you want great art to be can be done using motion graphics as the core of your storytelling; as your canvas, if you will," Goedecke believes. "When you have a month or more to work on something, you start to develop techniques you'd never find if you only worked on projects that are due in three days."

On a more practical business level, Goedecke is very optimistic about the future and an expanding marketplace. Belief, for instance, just did its first film-resolution titles, for a TBS original called Dead in a Heartbeat; while the company hasn't landed any high-profile work on the level of ABC's "Yellow" campaign, Goedecke believes they can and they will. "ABC is being handled now by five people from Pittard," he notes. "We can do that kind of thing easily. Anyone who survives to the next summer is going to be in a great place," he insists. Besides the proliferation of cable channels, "when broadband applications really start getting implemented, those channels are going to need graphics and looks. The possibilities are endless."

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