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Solitary Confinement, Neon Knights and Damian Hirst: Just Three Things in the Mind-Blowing Portfolio of Carl Addy


Carl Addy is not your normal creative and brands are clamouring for his attention, he tells LBB how skateboarding in Durban kicked off his illustrious creative career

Solitary Confinement, Neon Knights and Damian Hirst: Just Three Things in the Mind-Blowing Portfolio of Carl Addy
Groundbreaking visual creative in design, digital media and immersive VR technology, Carl Addy tries not to think of himself as a title and carved out an impressive career spanning multiple disciplines  before ‘hybrid talent’ ever became a buzzword. His craft in storytelling is always layered with playful affection and conceptual eye-bending entertainment. He works in multiple media, combining this with a passion for music and an encyclopedic knowledge of digital trends, emerging technologies and film-making. 

As a multi-award winning talent, Carl has worked with an enviable list of the world’s coolest brands such as EA Sports, Google, Facebook, Spotify and Nike. His skill set means his work isn’t just limited to the commercial space, he has even traversed the high art and music industries, notably collaborating with Damien Hirst to design concert visuals for U2’s Glastonbury headline show.

His personal creative highlights include co-directing a VR film for Guardian’s '6x9: A Virtual Experience of Solitary Confinement’ which debuted at Sundance and Tribeca and was listed as The New York Times top film picks; writing and directing the British Film Institute’s award winning ‘Film is Fragile’ narrative; creative directing The Hololens two player music game: Neon Knights, including writing and producing the game’s synthwave song; and recently helping launch the FIFA 20 game.

In an interview with LBB, Carl tells us how an enviable uncle, skating in Durban and touring with a rock band kicked off an illustrious career that has seen him become a very rare creative talent. 

LBB > Tell us a bit about your background. Are art and creativity something inherent in your family?

Carl Addy > I come from a small town in South Africa, called Durban and I was a skateboarder kid who was really into music. My uncle was an artist and I've always really admired that he managed to carve quite an enviable life for himself as an artist in the country after leaving the ad industry. He was the biggest positive role model for me. And then, growing up as a skateboarder and a musician, you’re kind of around such a tangible, collectible culture of imagery. I adored skate stickers, t-shirt prints and other collectibles. 

At a young age I figured out that this ability to create visuals would be my way to open doors in life. I enjoyed the style side of things and creating ideas so I got a bursary to then go study advertising and then started a content business way back in the day which got me into more of an entrepreneurial way of doing things. And it also got me to not think of myself as a title, to rather understand that it's about being useful and of being of service. 

LBB > So, how did the journey unfold from there?

Carl > Three or four years later we broke away into more of a small boutique of designers which got me into directing commercials because we were doing very strong visual illustrative stuff. As it developed, I learnt how production companies work and this was another big pivot moment for me where rather than continuing to be solo or build a traditional type of business, I understood that the key to them working is collaboration. So for every new job that I'd won was a commercial, I had to learn about other skill sets, other people and bringing everybody on board with your vision. And they were the kind of skills that opened up so many other doors because the best thing you can do is communicate well in a way that other people want to be a part of that idea. 

I was then repped by an American company, which got me then working out in the States. At the same time, I was a musician in a band and our whole band moved to the UK but things didn’t work out but it was fun. In that time I freelanced for a whole bunch of different proposals, everything from production companies, to digital startups to ad agencies. I then worked in an integrated agency for a couple years and then went to The Mill. I headed up the design division, I helped strategically push and be a part of the directing proposition, and I also did some of the early work on emerging tech. 

LBB > So before you were in advertising, you’d already done fashion, music and design, and then came into it with all those skills. You must have grown quite a big network across your career - such as your work with Damien Hirst.

Carl > Part of the rules of engaging with someone like that is that you don't try and force a relationship. I think the moment he figures out that you're not a pretender, you're not trying to take something from him, he's so generous. We’d broken the ice a little at the start when I asked him where the talent in one of the videos was from and his response was, “Yeah, I chopped her up and she’s in the basement” - and I said, “Oh my god, that’s insane tell me more!” instead of trying to get the real answer out of him. He was obviously being controversial on purpose, because that’s what he does, but he’d basically sculpted her, chopped it up and buried it in the ocean to then raise again like an archaeological artefact. 

So, cut to a few weeks later, and I asked him how the project was going and he takes me through these photos of what they’d been doing. For me to be able to have access to somebody who's so great in their craft was amazing. And it was just two excitable people, jamming over the same thing. It’s moments like this that I just find so valuable. The point of talent and fame most importantly is access - access to get to the places where you can be most effective or have moments like that. 

LBB > What would your advice be for working with high profile talent and collaborators?

Carl > Along the way you  meet so many people who've gotten to similar places in different ways. And what you find is the demystifying amazing thing about really talented people is that they have so many common traits. Things like collaboration and not getting in your own way - and what I mean by that is like ego. There’s a category of talented people who are scared someone's going to take their magic beans, like ‘don’t look at my homework’, that kind of thing. Then there’s a category of people who recognise that there's something electric about just opening it all up and being generous with your skills. It catches quickly with other people and it grows. If you want to be prolific, you’ve got to throw it away with creative generosity.  

LBB > You seem to have a running style that brings together all of your capabilities in your work from art and music to aesthetics and digital. 

Carl > You’re always going to be drawn to the same stuff that interests you. The thing I’m now fascinated about is how our current screen based culture feeds off of itself, and spits back out and then feeds again and spits back out again. So you start to get these meta layers of commentary running through stuff. With the Fifa spot I did, we played with glitching and data moshing to create misdirection, punch people in the eyeballs and make them want to watch it again to figure it out. So as the frame is moving in front of you, your brain is always trying to play catch up - like it does with a joke. Jokes work because they are0 illogical but they also make sense. And that makes you laugh. In the same way I think great ideas do the same thing with misdirection. You think  you're watching or understanding one thing but the fact that it made you believe something else, which got you to short circuit your logic system to believe a new reality is powerful.

Most recently, I’ve just undertaken a huge project for Verizon’s massive 2021 CES announcement on the future of 5G connectivity as it fuels new technologies and services that will blend our physical and digital worlds. It’s a mixed reality presentation using virtual production techniques that utilised cutting edge Unreal game engine software alongside AR and linear content.

LBB > Your VR work on the Guardian campaign had some great storytelling - how do you make VR more immersive rather than just a gimmick?

Carl > I think that we're in an age where none of them are singular technologies. I think the learnings that you pick up in VR are things that teach you about user interaction, and how they assimilate information and how they work the space, which leads you to AR. It’s the thing I love about open digital culture, because while everybody's going batshit crazy with face filters, that's actually a huge social experiment that leads to certain behaviours. So there are two races happening, one is the creators are trying to keep up and trying to make new things. But the other thing is that we're learning new ways to work and interact with it. And after that will come new behaviours and new technology. 

As with all these things, functionality always beats style. I approached the VR Guardian work as I would approach a commercial where you think about camera movement and lens in the same way. So if you look up it implies hope, if you look down it’s downcast. There are certain behavioural patterns that if you can get a person’s body to do, they can feel more empathetic to the story you’re telling them. So with new technology I think we have to be interested in what it says about us as much as we are in trying to just create cool shit. Those who manage to look at what people's behaviour is, look at what the technology is, and figure out what's going to happen next based on those trends, are the ones who can take advantage of it. 

LBB > More and more people are talking about the need for hybrid creatives like yourself. When many still work very traditionally, in your opinion what is it that hybrid talent can offer a brand? 

Carl > Client problems are broad problems. They're not just a design problem. They're not just a typography problem. They're not just an ad problem. And that requires us to take off our creator hats and put on our human hats and be inquisitive about them. As a creator you’re only as flexible as the values you’re put in by the structure you’re attached to. So if you’re a free agent that has heaps of collaborators, you have no restrictions. You can be anything you want to be. So I can walk in with so many years of experience and still a lot of passion and interest for the psychology of what we do. I can go to a client without an agenda and I can find a solution for them. There's value in talking to a person you trust who has broad access to solutions, not just one solution. 

LBB > Who have been some of the biggest creative inspirations in your life and career? 

Carl > That’s a tough one. There are standout people that I absolutely admire. On a daily level, because there's so much access now to great things all the time that are shared so often, I'm just constantly inspired by something. I think what’s more important is being able to absorb inspiration rather than it just being an endorphin rush that makes you want to look at more things. 

I think the key to all of that is being able to know yourself. Everything means something. It’s like wine or films, if you have a better understanding of the flavour notes of something, you can understand why you like the taste of something which tells you something about yourself which you can use as inspiration.

That’s what’s so important now with the sheer access of great things around us, is to honour the ritual of processing information to turn it into something good rather than it just being candy - making yourself sick from seeing so many new things. 

For more information, please visit and @ulcerboy on Instagram 

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