Brand New School’s Devin Brook speaks to LBB’s Addison Capper about the production trends that he and his team have observed during the pandemic
Covid-19 rocked the world of production. Almost overnight, getting out into the world or onto a set was rendered near-on impossible. One option for brands, agencies and production companies (if they had the capabilities) was to shift live action plans to animation - which is something that US design studio Brand New School began seeing some time back in May. But the company's animation endeavors over the past few months progressed further than adapting live action scripts to the medium (which is no small feat in itself). They are finding themselves involved in the process earlier than ever before and are doing a lot of client education and problem solving. There are a lot of people who have never done animation who are doing it now, so familiarising them with their options and discussing how to translate their various creative considerations into animation space.
Because they are also a production company with a roster of live action directors, they have been able to draw from that dual experience to be 'translators' in this conversation. LBB's Addison Capper chatted with Brand New School managing partner Devin Brook to find out more.
LBB> One thing I keep hearing about production is that shoots are transitioning to animation instead of live-action, but I'm not sure I've seen any real influx of animation yet. What are your thoughts on that? What trends are you seeing at BNS with regards to animation?
Devin> Animation has always been an impactful medium for communicating, which continues even during Covid. As the pandemic fully sank in around mid-March, the floodgate opened up on conversation pertaining to translating live action scripts into animation. On paper that sounds great, but there is a skill to writing a script that’s well suited for animation. As a creative partner, part of our process was helping properly translate those ideas. BNS’s directors float seamlessly between both mediums so it was a good use of our skills. Now, as we’re deeper into the pandemic, we’re seeing scripts drafted with the intent of being animated from the outset.
Initially, the trend was speed. How quickly could we get an animated spot out into the world? One week? Four days? A weekend? Everyone I spoke to prefaced the conversation by telling me how tight their schedule was...I’d seen worse. Those rapid fire responses have slowed (to a ‘normal’, ad industry pace), allowing us to return our focus to emphasising craft to our clients.
LBB> One thing you've experienced is being brought into the creative process earlier. Can you tell us more about that? How is that working and why do you think it is happening?
Devin> At our core, we’re a design studio. Intrinsic to our design process are different forms of research, strategy and the visualisation of animation and live action concepts. Read: we make stuff and we make it early on in the process. We’ve done this for two decades, working with smart clients who know how valuable those visualisation tools can be, whether it’s a design frame, a character render, or a pre-vis. They bring us in early for that and our thinking. This has been especially true when working with brands. They know it can take an army to create great work so they look outside their walls for ideas, not solely execution.
Our familiarity with being involved early in the process is in no small part due to the well-rounded skillsets of our creative director / directors. They can have one foot firmly planted in creative development while the other is in production/direction. Being involved in all stages of production also creates a deep connection with the work, which I’d like to think our clients see both during the process and in the finished product.
An unfortunate side effect of the pandemic has been layoffs and furloughs. Agencies may be shorthanded and need the external thinking. The optimistic part of me hopes that it’s actually just a shift towards deeper collaboration.
LBB> You're also acting almost like an animation consultant, educating clients, etc.! How did that avenue of work come about?
Devin> If you work in marketing/advertising, the odds are much higher that you’ve been part of a live action shoot than an animation production. For those who haven’t dipped a toe into animation, it’s a complex process. That leaves people knowing that animation can be a solution but not necessarily knowing how to leverage it. This also isn’t a new, Covid-related, scenario but it’s happening more frequently since shooting is still not near pre-pandemic levels.
Collaboration leads to the best and most successful work, so it always behooves us to educate our clients so they can be actively engaged in the process.
LBB> How is that process working? Can you give us some details on what you're actually up to here and how you're executing the education?
Devin> Process documents that explain storyboards, pre-vis, modeling, lighting and compositing only get us so far. Those theory-based docs need to be put into practice. That leaves most of the education to happen ‘on the job’. As simple as it sounds, this distills down to communication. Without having clients in our studios to view things together in real time, the onus is on us to ensure that clients still feel connected to the process.
Right now, we’re working on a seven-minute piece that, before Covid hit, was going to be a highly choreographed live action sequence with talent walking through a stage and interacting with sets. Now, it's a seven-minute piece of character animation and 3D sets. Throughout production, we meticulously explain how to review the work, what to ignore, and what to expect next. If an agency/brand creative needs to present work to their client, they want and need to know what they’re selling – it’s part of the overall success of the project.
LBB> What other trends are you seeing with regard to the type of work that you're being tasked to do?
Devin> We’ve always prided ourselves on having a diverse portfolio. It allows our teams to see an equally diverse diet of creative opportunities, even recently, which keeps thinking fresh. It’s also fun. With that, we’ve continued discussing and producing projects that span the gamut from typographic spots, to 3D character animation, to UGC, to photoreal CG, and remote live action shoots. As I noted above, the initial trend was quick-turn animated type and spots comprised of UGC. Now that we’re well settled into working from home and with return dates to offices up in the air (NY cases bottoming out while LA’s surge), the depth of the projects we’re seeing has expanded. Clients know that they can confidently push creative and that complex productions can be executed from home by teams spread out across the world. As time goes, and clients become even more comfortable with their creative partners working from home, creative will continue to be pushed.
LBB> Can you give any examples of recent pieces of work and how they fit within these new trends of work?
Devin> We recently worked on a project that launched Google Duo for all operating systems. The playful nature of the animation serves as a container for the UGC we commissioned, all tied together with a catchy song written by our team.
LBB> How have you found the challenge of producing jobs remotely?
Devin> We’re incredibly fortunate to be able to continue working remotely, retaining our staff and employing freelance artists. It’s painfully clear that other businesses and industries aren’t in the same position, and my heart goes out to them. So, the challenges we face are welcomed during this time and we’re glad to be encountering them. I can’t complain about the challenges.
As for observations… as a studio, we love impromptu communication. It keeps energy flowing in our studio and positively influences our work. The convenience of a Sorkin-esque walk and talk about a project’s needs doesn’t exist. Recreating interactions necessarily means more meetings, but then video chat fatigue sets in and everyone needs uninterrupted blocks of time to create. We’re constantly trying to find that balance. It’s also important for us to set boundaries that delineate a work day, avoiding the pernicious ‘always on’ culture.
LBB> Do you think the way that you're producing work now could change how you work once things hopefully go back to 'normal'?
Devin> For years, we’ve been able to produce animation work without ever actually meeting a client in-person. I’ve worked with people for over a decade but never met them face-to-face. Albeit digitally, now we have exponentially more live interactions. During a difficult time in history, these interactions also allow people to slow down and engage in ways that weren’t as common just a few months ago. I am really enjoying that part of the process and hope it sticks.
LBB> Thinking more generally about the production industry, what are you hearing from your peers in the US at the moment?
Devin> Live action is still being produced at a fraction of pre-Covid levels. As states began to open that was changing. It will be interesting to see the true impact of being ‘able’ to shoot without restriction and how agencies and brands respond. Will creatives be more inclined to write live action concepts because they’ve been starved from doing so, or will a general reluctance to travel to a shoot still exist? If the latter, that may inform the type of work being done in the industry. Time will tell.
LBB> Any parting thoughts?
Devin> The impact of the pandemic has hit far and wide. It is easy for me to get caught up in that negativity, because a great deal of it exists.
But, the time we have had at home, alone with our thoughts in a slower-paced world, shined a light on some things that are broken. The change that can be sparked is powerful, and a positive outcome worth also thinking about.