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My Biggest Lesson: Jens Mebes

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NERD Productions director and designer on supporting and empowering your team as a creative leader

My Biggest Lesson: Jens Mebes

NERD Productions' Jens Mebes creates a truly unique aesthetic that is driven by his experience working at the intersection of branding, design, and technology. His stunning films push the boundaries of high-end CGI and live action storytelling. 

From his slick and energetic car films for Audi or Toyota to the mesmerising Dolby & LG series, his work has his audiences captivated through unexpected twists. Jens enjoys bringing to life moving images for commercials, VR experiences, experiential design-driven projects, or broadcast identity systems.

Jens has an incredible ability to translate product features and brand messaging into enthralling stories, which has led him to craft award-winning films for brands such as Apple, Google, Starbucks, Heineken, Motorola, Dolby, Under Armour, Audi, Nintendo, Hyundai, Ford, Jim Beam, Nike, Samsung and many more. 


There are probably a few experiences throughout my career that have stuck with me and profoundly influenced my trajectory and shaped who I have become as a director and designer.

There is one experience in particular that has stuck with me so vividly, like it happened yesterday. Perhaps, I remember it so well because it was my first real world experience after just having graduated from college.

You know, there is just nothing that can really prepare you for that first real world plunge, no matter how much you think you may have prepared for it.

When graduating from Art Center College of Design in late 2000, all I wanted to do was design title sequences for movies. I know – quite the romanticised notion of the working world. I had focused up to this point diligently on what was 'motion graphics' in its early stages. Things were just a bit rougher around the edges at the time and solutions tended to be more 2D based while anything 3D was just reserved for higher budgets and a lot harder to pull off.

I followed initially a classic education in art history and communication design but decided quite early on to focus more specifically on how to make things move. My heroes were Dziga Vertov, classic title designer Saul Bass and Kyle Cooper, who was best known at the time for his iconic title sequence for Seven.

I was excited to get out in the world after having spent the last two years of my studies building an extensive portfolio consisting of broadcast show packages, commercials, and spec title sequences that I had based on books or films with an intriguing narrative but no major title sequence to speak of.

A job fair organised by my college presented me with the initial opportunity to connect with a wide range of studios. Some were routed in early tech and telecommunication looking for new designers to rethink their product UIs. (Mind you this was all all-Pre-Smart phone and the UIs were rather rudimentary.) Some places were strictly engaged in broadcast branding while other places focused on a broader spectrum and were also tabbing into the more specific work that I wanted to engage in.

I was proud and relieved when I learned later that I was invited to a few places for a follow up interview.

One studio stood out. The work was diverse, exciting, and included an extensive amount of exceptional title work for rather renowned films that the studio had created throughout the years. The company owner and main creative director called me in the evening after the fair concluded and invited me to a one-on-one interview in which he enticed me with some good advice: “You are only as good as your latest work. Some people graduate and have only their schoolwork to show for after a few years of working. Choose wisely.”

It felt like good advice and a bit like he was looking out for me. I was convinced so I signed up for my first job and eagerly looked forward to my first day at work.

The design studio was located on the 2nd floor of a nondescript building that was housed, however, on a studio lot in the middle of Hollywood with large sound stages all around.

When entering the studio for the first time, I noticed the rather unique layout of the space. The creative director’s office was glass walled all around and positioned right at the center of the studio.

I was directed to take a seat at the “scanning station” that was located right to the left as you entered the studio. The “station” consisted of an old computer that really was only good for scanning.

Once I settled in, I was being handed my first assignment to design and develop a treatment for the opening title sequence of a new tv show starring Frank Langella and directed by Mimi Leder who was best known for having directed blockbusters such as Deep Impact and the Peacemaker.

I was elated yet I didn’t know much about the process of creating comprehensive real-world treatments or how to develop extensive board sets that would give a client a sense of what the final product might look like.

Back then, it just wasn’t something that was being taught. The industry was fairly new, and students focused mainly on concepts and how to turn ideas into tangible pieces by shooting things with low-fi DV Cams or building things out in 2D animation.

I was left to my own devices for a few days attacking the project with the methods that I knew best. I sketched out ideas, collected and reviewed footage of historically relevant moments that were meant to be used as the visual backbone for the piece. However, I was missing the experience and knowledge to bring this all together cohesively. It just wasn’t something that I had done before.

One morning, the creative director summoned me into his office to share his concern that he didn’t “see enough on my screen” and added that I was “a very junior, junior designer”. So much for going from a high to the ultimate low.

I ensured him to do better yet here I was left with no guidance or support and just the first week on the job. I felt defeated yet finally found the courage to ask an art director that I befriended over lunch to provide me with the much-needed guidance.

His feedback and help were invaluable, and I managed to work myself out of this hole. However, other moments ensued in the months that followed and in which I or other, new team members were being berated rather than being encouraged and guided. A pattern became evident.

The glassy cubicle that had exuded an initial sense of openness and transparency became an object of control. Everybody working at the studio always knew when someone was being summoned for a pep talk on the sofa. It was demeaning and didn’t do much good for the overall moral of the team.

I recall one designer that had flown halfway across the world from England because he wanted to follow his dream and work at the place. He was more senior than me and entered the studio with immense talent, positivity and prosperity yet he stayed only for a few months as he lost all confidence that initially propelled him to do the artistic work for which he was hired.

I lasted for just a few more months until the onset of summer, always enticed by more exciting and prestigious projects to stick it out for just a bit longer until I listened one day to my inner voice and left.

You must enjoy where and who you work with, otherwise the work will never be as good as it could be.

The biggest lesson learned out of this though is to be good to your people, to support and empower your team as a creative leader and to create an atmosphere where people feel excited about the projects that they work on.

The experience taught me that being a better director and creative depends more than anything on developing the sensitivity and people skills that equip you with the understanding of what people’s needs are so that you can empower and encourage them to give their very best.

 

By Jens Mebes

As a bonus: Another lesson learned from this is to always observe the atmosphere of a workspace. Look around and see how people relate to one another or how the space is setup. It might tell you a lot more about the place that you might consider working with.

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NERD Productions, Wed, 18 Aug 2021 08:21:00 GMT