Charlotte Arnold arrived in New York from the sunny climes of the London-Kent border with little money, nowhere to live and an internship at McCann Erickson London under her belt. After her “sliding doors” moment, which involved a summer monsoon and uncomfortable shoes, Charlotte landed a job at legendary editorial company MacKenzie Cutler as an assistant editor. The assistant editor role involved a fair amount of booking and prepping and served as a suitable precursor to her next role as a producer at The Mill in New York.
Nowadays, though, Charlotte is a founding partner of Blacksmith, the VFX company she founded with fellow The Mill alumni Iwan Zwarts and Tom Bussell in 2015. The trio were keen to continue working to the highest levels possible at The Mill but with a more boutique, personal feel. And they’ve achieved what they aimed to do - Blacksmith consistently collaborates with directors such as Martin de Thurah, Ringan Ledwidge, Kim Gehrig and other top directors on high profile work.
LBB’s Addison Capper chatted with Charlotte about learning the ropes running a business, being inspired by ‘90s Levi’s ads, and wanting to open the most British of pubs in upstate New York.
LBB> Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?
Charlotte> I grew up in a suburb of south-east London called Bromley. 20 minutes from the centre of London or 20 minutes in the other direction to some beautiful Kent countryside and amazing pubs. There really is no better place than a country pub garden in the summer in England. I went to school in Chislehurst, then onto art school. I did my foundation at Camberwell and then went to Goldsmiths for a degree in Art & Design. It was an incredibly interesting time as people moved from pencil and paper to beginning to dabble with digital art.
My mother is American and my dad is half Danish, half English. She was born in Philly, left the US when she was 22 to explore the world, met my dad in London, and didn’t get any further! They had a flat off the Kings Road and my dad used to be a DJ. They have a lot of fun stories of London during the ‘70s and carried that side of them through their child-rearing days which made for a fun childhood. My dad was the DJ at some of my parties when I was a child, although it wasn’t quite the same as the house parties they threw on the Kings Road, obviously.
My father is a talented painter and while he never pursued art professionally, it absolutely inspired my artistic endeavours. And then there is my mother - a big personality and quite a talker. She will talk to anyone - I’ve inherited so much of this from her and the combo of the two of them is seen in how I approach running Blacksmith.
LBB> How did you wind up in post production? Was it somewhat of a plan or more a happy accident?
Charlotte> It was a bit of both. In my final year at Goldsmiths, I started to become more intrigued with advertising - I’d grown up at a time in London when ads had a cultural effect. I remember a lot of the old Levi’s spots and the fact that whichever song they chose in the ad ended up being #1 on the Top 40 chart a week later. I also worked at French Connection during my time at art school through the infamous FCUK campaign. Everyone had a favourite commercial in those days, they were part of the conversation. I did an internship at McCann Erickson in London with the creative team one summer and this is where I was introduced to the post production process.
Then I decided to move to New York. I was in the mood for an adventure. I had very little money and no place to live when I got here, so I needed to find work pretty fast and was content to try my hand in any creative industry.
Then came my ‘sliding doors’ moment one hot and humid summer afternoon. I was visiting an employment agency in midtown, and on my way out of the interview I had to wait in the lobby for a few minutes as there was a summer monsoon. Whilst waiting, I noticed in the lobby directory that there was another employment agency in the building and thought I should really go and visit them as well. I toyed with the idea for a good five minutes in my head (I should go up and meet them as I need a job, but I’m really tired and my feet hurt in my Dior heels and I really want to go and sit in the park and have some lunch). In the end, I did go upstairs which led me to my first job at MacKenzie Cutler and the rest is history!
LBB> You worked there as an assistant editor earlier in your career - what are your fondest memories of that time?
Charlotte> MacKenzie Cutler was my first job in NYC and my first in the industry. They were my NY family for many years. I learnt so much there, not just about editing and the industry. There was a work mentality that I took with me when starting Blacksmith.
I started at Mackcut in 2003 and they were doing some of the best comedy work in the industry, working with amazing talent and having such fun doing it. They made it about the work and the people. Their parties are also some of my fondest memories, and while fun also symbolic of a culture I wanted to create when I started Blacksmith years later.
A lot of the people I know now in the industry are also from my time at Mackcut, so it’s been nice to grow up together with those people and see them all become so successful.
LBB> You gradually moved into more of a producer's role and now work as an EP - what spurred that shift in direction? And what lessons from your editing days serve you well as a producer?
Charlotte> As an assistant editor at Mackcut, you did a lot of the day-to-day production on the job. As an assistant I booked sessions, prepped, attended and made sure each piece of the process had what they needed. You learned the tech side inside out, so when transitioning to The Mill as a producer I had a solid understanding of the 2D process which helped when managing artists and client expectations.
LBB> You launched Blacksmith with Iwan Zwarts and Tom Bussell in 2015 - what was the inspiration behind launching your own business together? What makes the three of you click as a team?
Charlotte> Iwan and I met at The Mill New York around 2008 and quickly began working on a lot of high profile work together. We had that magical ‘work chemistry’ and had a lot of success with a similar style of work we both enjoyed doing.
It was during one particular shoot in Italy, maybe 10 years ago now, that Iwan and I started discussing creating our own company. I think at the time I said ‘no’ as I wasn’t sure I wanted to own a business. But as time went on, he managed to persuade me and it went from bar chat to more serious conversations.
Then, a director we both worked with a lot connected us with Tom Bussell, who at that time was the head of CG at The Mill London. He also had ambitions to start his own company, and although all three of us worked for The Mill, I only knew London-based Tom by way of his reputation as a great artist.
We all clicked right away on not just a personal level - we had a similar work ethic and vision. We all wanted to start a boutique shop that continued to do the high-level work we were accustomed to doing, but in a more personal environment.
LBB> Can you expand on your main aims and ambitions when launching? What did you want to achieve?
Charlotte> What we had in mind was a global boutique with a small footprint. The idea of being able to scale up to take on the big and meaningful projects that had a cultural impact in the same way I remember Levi’s spots from my childhood. And we wanted to do this without needing to be a company of 100+ people. We knew it was possible to create a process and environment where we could scale up and down with the ebbs and flows of the industry while still being selective about the work.
We built Blacksmith utilising cloud-based technology available at the time so we only needed the core creative team in the office, but had global reach to flex our muscles when needed. The idea of scaling up and down was the mission, and with each project we took on, we learnt what worked well and what didn’t. We launched quite humbly, starting small and focusing on only a few projects at a time.
It’s a constantly evolving process, updating and improving our pipeline so we can stay the size we are and not grow in terms of space, but be able to maintain the bigger project needs. This way of thinking and implementing the use of such technology, unknowingly at the time, put us in a great position throughout the pandemic as we were used to doing a certain amount of remote work.
Nothing will ever replace being in the office together though. I have a hunch that most creative people are probably not enjoying sitting in a room alone all day on Zoom.
LBB> It's been a steady stream of big, high profile work since launching - but what lessons have you learned since running your own company that perhaps you didn't expect you'd need to learn?
Charlotte> None of us had ever run a business. We’ve all managed some of the most challenging projects before, but actually running a business was a new thing.
Learning where that tipping point is, or that sweet spot - between the right amount of work and too much that it starts to feel unmanaged, which ultimately affects the creativity of the piece. Managing people and the emotions that come with that, not just on a project but as a leader has been one of the biggest learning curves. We are a size where we feel like a family so when one of us isn’t happy, you feel it.
We are all pretty humbled and grateful for the success of Blacksmith. Now we are learning how to maintain that, but in a way that allows us to have a bit more time. We all have creative personal ambitions too, ideas we would like to make beyond commercials, so it’s important to keep room for those ideas to marinate and develop.
LBB> Which pieces of work from the Blacksmith back catalogue are you most proud of and why?
Charlotte> Microsoft Halo will always be something special to us. It was our first project before anybody really knew we existed. We had just started the company and were building out some space, so the pre-viz started in Iwan’s apartment.
I love Under Armour’s ‘Rule Yourself’ with Michael Phelps. It’s a great spot but it was also one of the most enjoyable processes I’ve seen from script to final film. The director, Martin de Thurah, really took the heart of the script and made it quite different to the original agency board. The agency creatives Toby [Treyer-Evans] and Laurie [Howell] were also such a pleasure to work with. It was the best kind of project - fun work with good people and great results.
was another one I love, also a Martin job. It was beautifully shot and we were able to do some beautiful VFX. We recently finished a spot called ‘Moon’ for Allstate with Ringan Ledwidge and Droga. A big VFX piece done during the constraints of Covid which is beautiful. We are all very proud of that one.
LBB> Outside of work, what are you into? What keeps you going and what has kept you busy during the last year?
Charlotte> Well I have a six and a three-year-old so I was kept VERY busy trying to navigate home-schooling, childcare and running a business. I have a house in upstate New York, in a town called Livingston Manor, which helped me get through - along with my 5pm gin and tonics (sometimes 4pm).
But as hard as it was, I still got to sit down and eat meals with my kids more than ever before, and I saw them grow up and adapt in a way that might not have been the case in previous years. At work, my team saw each other’s struggles and lives up close and personal and they all rose to the occasion and started to work together in a more empathetic way - so coming out of this I think a lot of things will be stronger and I’m not sure we would have gotten there without this time.
I also am hanging on to all the drinking and chatting and DJing from my childhood and have dreams of opening up a British pub right in the middle of my small upstate town - to bring a little bit of Kent to the Catskills.