Directorial partners and partners in life, Kylie Matulick and Todd Mueller, helped co-found animation powerhouse Psyop – and they’re LBB’s Addison Capper’s new #LifeGoals
Todd Mueller and Kylie Matulick were once told that they'd ruined advertising by one of the industry's most brilliant and respected figures. You see, this man had spent his entire career telling his clients that they couldn’t feature their products through the entirety of an ad and it still be compelling and entertaining.
But then Kylie and Todd proved him wrong.
In 2007, Coca-Cola launched Happiness Factory, a 90-second ad that featured a Coke bottle all the way. It was compelling and entertaining, big time. And so successful that Todd and Kylie, who direct on their own and as a duo and are two of five co-founders of Psyop, have now done eight iterations of the campaign.
I begin my conversation with Todd and Kylie by asking how they initially. They giggle and tell me that they met at a party, and it’s at this point that Psyop’s Los Angeles managing director, Neysa Horsburgh, chimes in. “Addison, in case you didn’t know, Todd and Kylie are directorial partners and also partners of life.” (I did know, I did a lot of internet stalking.)
“The hours that we work, the idea of a relationship was kind of impossible,” Todd laughs. “I came to realise that my only hope of having a relationship was with someone in the same industry!”
Building a successful business life is tough. Building a healthy relationship is equally tough. How do they manage to make both sides of their relationship work? Kylie tells me that their workflow as directors is very harmonious. Sometimes skills overlap and other situations call for one partner to let the other run with something.
“When we first started working together I think our creative differences were a lot more tricky to navigate,” says Kylie. “But having worked together so long and produced work that we’re really proud of through that collaboration, you realise just how much we both bring to the table. And we both really respect and cherish how much we do bring.”
Now they have an 11-year-old son (who unsurprisingly has strong opinions towards any animation he consumes, and already has a penchant for creating 30-minute animated fight scenes), Todd and Kylie realise the need to balance their passion and enthusiasm for the work they do with family. “But at the beginning there would be times out at restaurants and we would be drawing on paper tablecloths consumed and excited about the work all the time,” Todd says.
Psyop was founded back in 2000 alongside Marco Spier, Marie Hyon, Eben Mears. They were motivated by a longing for creative ownership over the work they were doin. At that point Kylie and Todd were doing work for the likes of MTV, Sci-Fi Channel and Nickelodeon but with animation software like After Effects and Flame becoming increasingly accessible, they realised they had options (“No more did you need a million dollar, refrigerator-sized computer”). The company now has two studios in Los Angeles and one in New York, but its first home was in an old bar that they used to hang in, on 11th Streets between Avenues A and B. This area, dubbed Alphabet City, was one of lower Manhattan’s final hoods to be properly gentrified, and you can find articles as recent as 2018 claiming that it’s still maintained “some of its edginess”.
The relevance here is that, in 2000, there were some colourful characters around. Locals would come in thinking they were an Internet cafe and people tried to sell them unmarked handguns more than once. The bins outside hosted a healthy population of rats. “It was a very rowdy, fun street that we were on,” Todd laughs.
Todd and Kylie, as well as the rest of their fellow Psyop creators and artists, have been knocking out lovable, entertaining commercials since then (including this year’s Coca-Cola Super Bowl ad). And as tempting as it is to quiz the pair on all of them, the scope of size of their back catalogue is so vast that it’s an impossible task. I do pick their brains on a couple of personal favourites though.
Travel Oregon’s ‘Only Slightly Exaggerated’ evokes ‘Spirited Away’, ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ or any other celebrated Studio Ghibli title with its mythical characters and seemingly limitless imagination. It was also universally loved in the LBB office last year. For Todd and Kylie it proved an stimulating challenge, but one they were beyond excited to sink their teeth into. “This was really playing to our strengths. We love the challenge of creating new worlds,” says Kylie. “But that piece specifically was an interesting challenge. We had to take places that exist and heighten the experience of those places just a little bit. We couldn’t go into a full fantasy world, it had to be grounded in reality to a certain extent. There was a challenge of injecting it with just enough fantasy that it became a little bit more magical.”
Only Slightly Exaggerated
Each scene was set in real places that Travel Oregon and Wieden+Kennedy Portland wanted to portray. Then it was about building on top of that adding in the elements and characters, like the little mushroom characters chilling by the beach and the whales in the clouds, that make the film what it is.
‘Kevin the Carrot’ for British supermarket Aldi is another gem from the hands of Todd and Kylie. That brave little carrot has evolved into a bit of a UK Christmas institution since he first appeared in 2016. That is no small feat considering the crowded market of British festive advertising. A big challenge they faced with a retail brand like Aldi was the need to actively display an array of products whike keeping the story entertaining. Todd and Kylie are particularly proud of the balance they struck with Kevin and his adventures.
“When we were first getting into the storyboard, we realised that this had high potential to be a really sweet Christmas story, but in the middle of it is a huge commercial for a grocery store,” says Todd. “The more we came to realise how much food we needed to showcase and how appealing it all needed to look, despite there being no people there, it was definitely a bit concerning. But that’s the greatest success that I take out of it - that we were able to combine this very retail driven grocery store commercial and put a story into it so much that people cared.”
Kevin the Carrot
“Kevin (the carrot) was such a vulnerable little character with a really big heart,” adds Kylie. "You just felt for him. When he looked out the window and saw Santa, the look of excitement on his face says it all - it was fun to play with that vulnerability and innocence. He goes through the ringer that little carrot.”
But did they ever expect Kevin to be as popular as he’s proved to be? “No,” is the answer I get, at which point Neysa, who has been with Psyop since 2007, jumps in and says: “I think this is something that Todd and Kylie have been really good at throughout their whole career - making entertainment. Yes we’re in advertising but I think what’s different about a lot of the work that they do is that it’s actually entertaining, and you want to watch it.
“For campaigns to become a franchise is really weird in advertising, it doesn’t happen so often. But we’ve done eight iterations of Happiness Factory and three of Kevin the Carrot.”
And it’s Happiness Factory, which was another Super Bowl spot from 2007, that comes up when I ask Todd and Kylie if there’s a certain project from their career that they are most proud of or perhaps feels the most important. The agency had been trying to sell the work to the client for over a year before they were able to bring it to life. “The script we got was ‘coin goes into vending machine, crazy stuff happens, bottle comes out’,” says Todd. We thought, if anything can happen, why don’t we let anything happen? It opened up our creative so much and we had a blast creating this fantasy world and filling it with completely unexpected characters and making this crazy adventure. And then to have it blow up as it did was exciting.”
“It was one of those projects that really pushed that theme into a whole other level,” adds Kylie. “We’d never done anything that refined and detailed from a CG perspective. It was the first time we’d done something that was truly cinematic. It ended up being shown in 20,000 theatres across the US and it was a perfect thing for that format.”
What’s more, they’re still working with the creatives from Happiness Project and have a project underway with them as we speak.
Given the variety of their work - animation, live action, a blend of the two - they both reject the idea of having a ‘look’. “What we strive for is to have a feeling,” says Todd. “I would like to believe that our work is very emotionally powerful. Even though we’re not necessarily making people cry, we try to touch people emotionally with our stories.”
“I think from day one it’s been more interesting for us to explore different styles and techniques,” adds Kylie. “I can’t remember how many times we’ve designed frames and presented them to our animation teams and they’re like, ‘we have no idea how to make this’. So there’s an interesting exploration from a directorial and animation perspective into how we can achieve that emotion and make it powerful and beautiful.
“In terms of story, we definitely gravitate more towards telling stories and making sure people connect to the story, but visually it’s always been fun to explore all the different realms. And that’s the blessing of working in commercials, you have that flexibility.”
Towards the end of our chat, I discover that, on top of having an 11-year-old son and being a director, Kylie is also in the process of attempting to break a world record. She’s a keen velodrome cyclist and is in training to attempt the Hour Record, which involves cycling the longest distance possible in one hour from a stationary start. Cyclist Sir Bradley Wiggins, who has four Olympic gold medals and won the Tour de France in 2012, labelled the challenge “torture”.
But the velodrome offers a calming repetitive space – an escape from the topsy-turvy, erratic world of the advertising industry where there can be so many decisions beyond one’s control.
“Being active in a sport and trying to achieve certain lofty goals really depends on the effort you put into it. There is a certain element of talent but that will only get you so far. I enjoy that aspect of it, the pure grit and hard work required to see improvement,” says Kylie. “And certainly with velodrome cycling, it’s a very reduced and nuanced experience. In it's simplest form, you’re basically riding a perfectly straight line, going around in circles. It’s a mental challenge that requires intense focus and to go really fast you have to dig really deep. You learn about yourself when you do things like that, you learn what your limits and boundaries are and how to get beyond them.
“And I feel like this has definitely steered my creative life as well. We all set limits for ourselves that we are often unaware of but when you challenge yourself to go beyond those boundaries creatively, it’s amazing what you actually can achieve.
"You get a lot more out of yourself when you stop boxing yourself in and simply rise to the challenge."
And it’s that mental clarity that keeps them going. They’re just shy of their 20th year of Psyop and we hear that an equally exciting project could be bubbling in the works for launch soon. Todd and Kylie’s creative output shows no signs of slowing down. And that’s why they’re my new #LifeGoals.