Interview - Studio Aka - Philip Hunt


Philip Hunt - Studio AKA 

 London, UK

Tell us a bit about your company...When did you start? 
STUDIO AKA is an animation studio with a highly creative remit and a developing focus on narrative film creation and character development. 

Over the last 10 years we have created a much respected studio producing animated commercials and short films under the STUDIO AKA banner and we’re known all over the world for our eclectic and idiosyncratic approach. Our method is simple; we try to find bespoke creative solutions for each and every problem we are faced with rather than applying a set of preconceived stylistic looks or techniques, and by continuing to push at expectations (both our own and other peoples) we have gradually built a portfolio that is as diverse as it is distinctive.

Reinvention has been key to our progress and we’ve kept ourselves open to change and new directions in the process. The company has seen many changes in its lifetime and our journey will no doubt continue to reflect our desire to confound expectation. In recent years the industry has had to deal with entirely new production methods, schedules and budget levels and continues to be challenged by these aspects. But like many others in our industry, we adapt, survive and hopefully grow in the process; creatively we’ve never been stronger.
We are lucky that along the way others have liked what we do enough that we have garnered many plaudits and awards on our shelves - including D&AD, Clio, & BTA’s for our ads – not to mention a Cartoon D’Or and a brace of BAFTA’s for our film work.  

What animation software packages do you prefer to use? What would you recommend to a beginner?
This is always a question that is difficult to answer, as we are not really a software driven studio. Honestly, it’s whatever best suits the project, what is to hand and what parameters we have to work in each time.  We always start with imagination & hands ... plus pencils, paper, Photoshop, and we utilize Flash, Autodesk XSI, Adobe After Effects and Avid in the creation of our work. If pushed to advise a beginner, I’d say that animating in Flash or Photoshop is a brilliantly accessible way of learning within a contained and structured digital environment. Many students start out on simpler 3D packages before moving up to XSI & Maya etc. but considering that most of the big studios like Pixar use their own software, then where you jump in is just according to what is available. The best student film I ever saw was a filmed series of flipbooks – due to the fact that the student had no access to any frame by frame technology whatsoever… and yet they still found a way to animate. 
With the market becoming more and more competitive, what do you believe is a must that a Motion Designer has in his portfolio or skills?
The market never ceases to be competitive and whatever level you are at, the requirements stay the same. The ability to listen to a client and understand what they are asking – and even what they are forgetting to ask is the only way we can deliver a solution that truly tailors itself to the problem at hand. It’s fair to say that most of the young talent that enters the studio is conversant with a plethora of digital tools as second nature, and animators will have an expert knowledge of a software package like XSI plus AE & Flash as standard. But all of that can be taught or learned and what separates out the interesting people is a genuine affinity for character, design, narrative and its expression in colour, shape, line and form. Oh, and good ideas.
Lloyds TSB campaign received a lot of attention. Can you give us an insight on the process, the goals of the project and the difficult parts?

STUDIO AKA were originally approached by Agency RKCR/Y&R when they were undertaking a radical overhaul of Lloyds advertising & branding. Their concept was simple, being based around ‘the journey of life’ and the everyday characters encountered along the way. Director Marc Craste conceived & designed both the cast of characters and the world that the adverts take place in and we have completed some 30 + commercials to date, ranging form 60 second epics to 5 & 10 second interstitials. The goals have always been to put a human face on the normally dry and remote face of high street banking and so connect with the banks core customers. The campaign has allowed for the spots to take both a broad view of life and its ups & downs - and also the minutiae of fleeting moments that connect people. The process has evolved over the duration of the campaign and we have grown in our creative reach and abilities as we’ve gone along. It’s a marathon campaign that carries a lot of continuous threads and themes and one of our main focus points is to continually nudge and guide the project so that it remains true to the core concepts. The fact that it is such a long running campaign is testament to both the appeal of the characters and situations – but also the agencies ability to keep providing new permeations of the idea for us to develop time after time.
How do you keep up with all the changes in technology? 
We are a small studio without any formal R&D departmental structure – but this informality also allows for the studios core TD's to really connect and explore news ways of solving problems in a very organic way. Like anyone we read the magazines, go to the forums, watch TV and talk endlessly about our subject among our peers and ourselves. The challenges will always be there as imagination is just limitless in that respect, and there seems to be a restlessness associated with our approach that does not allow for us to become complacent with what we do know, preferring to focus on what we still need to know…

 We spend a huge amount of time on researching, pitching, testing and trying things out and it is a restlessness, which feeds the work and benefits our projects immensely. We work with mostly off the shelf technologies and software, but have used those utilities in unorthodox ways at times. Our hand is led by work that interests and excites us and the technology is only there to serve the idea, not to be played with for its own sake. Occasionally, when we need to be very specific, or bespoke, we can be very tech heavy… but we mostly try to look for methods of working which are not consumed by tech, but use it in creative and engaging ways. We are the sum of our creative thinking, not our technical prowess… you simply have to find a balance that keeps everything working in harmony.
What was the biggest challenge in the Tele2 Campaign? 

We worked with SMFB Norway to create the spots and AKA Director Steve Small had to focus on a way to craft an appealing narrative against the need for a slew of tariff rates and information. Like any script, the challenge was therefore finding the balance of appealing character design and narrative structure within the remits and deliverables requested by the client. The project had to communicate its message and find a way to do so without losing the attention of the viewer. 
Out of all the projects you have done, which one is your favorite and why?

As a studio? Probably either THE BIG WIN for the National Lottery which Marc Craste designed & directed or personally LOST AND FOUND because it was the most personally rewarding and unexpected. THE BIG WIN was one of those commercials which we didn’t see coming and initially it seemed creatively unpromising as the Lottery had no track record in this type of project. However the client & agency were keen to do something memorable and as a result we were allowed to really go all out for something different. The results were not only a great ad, but also a defining project for the reel and one that influenced a lot of work that followed, not so much in design, but more in bringing us further creative character projects.

From a personal point of view -  LOST AND FOUND was one of those serendipitous projects that just happened out of the blue. We knew & loved Oliver’s Jeffer’s work and had met him before, but I’d never considered animating his work until I realised that the adaptation of his picture book into a half hour format could also be a visual reinterpretation as well as a narrative one, and that it did not just have to be about making the existing illustrations move… once I understood that possibility I was hooked. I worked as closely as I could with Oliver  - who is based in New York - as I wanted him to like what we did with his book, and also because I wanted him to contribute as much as was possible in the reinterpretation of his core story. I was lucky that Oliver was amazingly open to our ideas, especially when you consider how much his book must mean to him. He trusted us to adapt the original short story to the longer length in a way that might have made a lesser person scared, but Oliver embraced our method wholeheartedly and also contributed artwork, which appears on screen. The most rewarding aspect for me had to be the discovery that what I loved more than anything was the process of adaptation and reinvention for a children’s audience.
What was the most difficult part in Pontiac-Heart video? Can you give us an insight on the animating process? 

I try not to spend too much time looking backwards, but when I do I’m always astonished at some of the things we have found ourselves doing. In this case the solution arrived in an unforeseen context. The correlation between the beat of a heart and the driving passion of a car was inspired by an installation by the artist Cornelia Parker entitled ‘Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View’ in which a wooden shed object is caught and displayed mid explosion. I loved the idea of doing that to a car and was mildly astonished when the agency agreed with me…
For the ad, I just really wanted to see an explosion in such absolute slow motion, motion so close to stillness that it becomes utterly seductive, and allow the extended and trance like tones of the music lead us deeply into the frame. My immediate worry was how the concept of an explosion might be perceived in terms of selling a car… so it seemed obvious to think of this explosive process in reverse and apply it as a controlled creative force (rather than destructive one) to the idea of the car’s construction. 
In the end more commercial concerns overran the ideal… and I bowed to the necessity to show a driver and bit my lip when our own serene music choice was replaced with the funky broadcast version... but that’s just the nature of commercials – and after all they did have a car to sell. In the end, it’s a strange mixture of adrenaline & calm that imbues this 30-second spot and Pontiac were brave enough to run with it.
Can you offer any advice to those interested in producing their own independent animations?
If you are looking to create an independent and largely solo project then there has never been a better time. There are loads of different animation tools available and choosing a predominantly digital route is a definite plus. The ability to share questions and solutions about the processes among a virtual support community is hugely beneficial and the educative process is served amazingly well from a resources point of view & in terms of finding out how to make things work.
The best advice is always to keep it simple and cut ones cloth accordingly, and the same is still true for small and medium sized studios. You concentrate your resources fully where they will be most effective and try to switch off the desire to follow in the footsteps of others too closely. The most original and interesting work I see comes from those who are working with what they have to hand and a deep understanding of what they are trying to say. However, there is no secret formula to making headway other than remaining interested in what you are doing and flexible enough to be able to change directions, surprise people and be unafraid to try new approaches. There are always limitations to what anyone can do on a project; the trick is to make it look effortless. Creative ability kind of helps too!
You’re an expert on a topic that’s hot in the entertainment world right now – 3D animation. What are the pros and con’s of going 3D, when it comes to animation?
An expert? Who told you that? I doubt that ... (I can hear the laughter from our TD department from here). When it comes to that question I am just another punter in the cinema with my kids wondering why everyone feels the need to make my eyes converge all the time… However, speaking as someone who’s done a lot of stereoscopic photography in my time, I find it very telling that good uses of 3D are defined by the only need or purpose of that choice – and not the gimmick of that effect. The best mainstream 3D release last year was TOY STORY 3, but only because they chose to dial it right back whenever possible and not allow it to interfere with the process of telling a story. The immersion was so subtle it became irrelevant to the overall experience and that is pretty rare. I felt 3D nearly killed the experience of the otherwise marvelous HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON in the cinema when I saw it in all its ‘dimly lit’ 3D.. and yet the same film was a revelation when viewed in 2D.. a different and much more engaging experience in fact. Mind you, my favorite ‘dimensional film’ of recent times is FANTASTIC MR FOX.. Which was quite dimensional enough thank you. 

In addition to all that, something like Werner Herzog’s recent’ Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ is also hugely interesting because of the power that the 3D medium can provide in helping place the viewer within a non-narrative spectacle. In this case the immersion is everything and not a second condition to the motivation of the project. The pros and cons are therefore not just confined to the differences in scene shot construction & editing process from 2D, but also the actual narrative aims of the project. A cursory glance at most of the 3D output that graces our screens will not bear this ideal out and it’s largely a depressing experience of gurning faces & flailing limbs that rob cinema of its expansive luminance in favour of a blinkered & sun shaded squint ‘experience’. Having said that, at least it’s not as bad as the dead eyed reanimates that emerge via the performance capture process… now THAT’S eye torture.
Stuck on a Sunday, Oilatum-Mitzy and The big Win bring a new attitude and design to the world of animated shorts. Do you use references or just imagination?

Everything has references to some degree; we are all influenced by the things we like and all carrying our own torches for ways of expressing stories in whatever form we can. I think the work we do outside of commercials, in our own films, represents a better barometer of where our hearts lie and is generally unencumbered by the needs, prompts and requirements of the commercials work. The commercial process definitely feeds into the personal work as much as it does the other way around, and perhaps that’s why we remain energized and interested. All of us in the studio have different influences and passions, but we share a common love of great illustration, cinema, and music, which somehow gets distilled into what we do. Ultimately one’s imagination is only as free as the space you give it to roam, so we try and feed that input as much as we can all the time. Without it there is only stagnation.

Which effect do you believe was the most difficult to achieve? (How did you do it?) Probably the effect of appearing to agree with a bad client decision on a job that ended up in the ‘drawer of shame’ when it should have ended up at the front of the reel! That effect was real hard to pull off. No really? I’ve no idea; we really don’t judge a project by how cool or successful an effect is, but by the overall result. Some things, like managing to work out an ocean in LOST AND FOUND make us feel good – but mostly because the film would have failed without it…
Do you use the same techniques from one project to another? What changes? What’s your favorite part (modeling, sketching, rendering, effects)?
This is such a general question that it’s too hard to answer…. We choose a technique according to what is most appropriate to the creative problem, what is possible within the schedule and what is affordable within the budget. Then we ignore that and do it the best way we can. Different directors here would have different answers for you but my own favorite part of the process are the bookends; the concept stage and the finishing stage. I am always excited about what’s yet possible, and also what finally results. The animation process is of course core to what we do, it’s the moment a project truly lives and the combination of all the disciplines involved along the way can be a wondrous thing to behold.

Do you also create the storyboards for each project?
The directors generally design and board their own work – but where we can we collaborate – especially on the longer form work. The process of boarding for an ad and a long form project are so entirely different that the process has to reflect that. The ideal is to keep the ideas fresh and continually refined and edited – so the more collaborative a project can be without it losing the single driving voice – the better.
How important is it to have a proper education in this field? 
It depends on what you call a ‘proper education’. Maths helps.. so does English.. it’s a medium about communication and numbers after all. In terms of animation, I generally think it takes about 7 years hands on experience for a character animator to become really good at what they do – but there are numerous exceptions to that. Everyone here considers that they never stop learning. The best animation education is always done in an environment with access to practitioners who have mastered their craft and who are willing and interested to impart that knowledge to those just starting out. The only requirements we need are true core skills in drawing, design and animation, backed up by an intuitive understanding of the potential of the craft. The best schools recognise this and teach this before they encourage expression using those core skills. I always think a lack of true craft ability will always hold a student back.
We have taken on people with no formal training, or from other disciplines such as photography or illustration, but an animation student, technical or otherwise, must display an understanding of their craft, appreciation of their art and a desire to express themselves as elegantly and compellingly as they are able.  You can be self-taught or an MA graduate, but education is largely defined by the curiosity and interest of the person studying and their ability to turn all that input into output.
How important it is to have the right tools? (a good computer/camera)
Good tools help for sure. Good technical support is invaluable. Good ideas are paramount. I mentioned previously that the most arresting student film I ever saw came from someone with no access to frame by frame facilities. They drew flipbooks and filmed them on a crappy VHS camera….the results were brilliant. I’ve also seen students with access to the very latest software and equipment make films that made me want to rake my own eyes out. An artist works with what is to hand and can move you regardless of the hand they are delt. Everything beyond that is down to personal circumstances and common sense. Money does not buy great work, it sure helps a good idea long, but it can’t hide a stinker.
If you had the opportunity to spend a day with anyone from this industry, who would it be? 
Oh dear… how to answer that one. Its always nice to think of getting some time with people you admire etc. & my own heroes are an eclectic range from The Brothers Quay to Pete Docter & Michael Dudok de Wit to name a few… but I’d only get under their feet. A better answer might be to say that I’d love to spend a day with Miyazaki – but I’m scared he’d tell me off. I’d also love to spend more time with composers, maybe Thomas Newman or Rachel Portman, who score films so beautifully.. as odds on I’d get to sit in on a full orchestra recording, which is always magical, but again they’d just despair at my lack of musical ability. If I can bend the rules of ‘anyone from this industry’ I think I’d opt for a day with writer Dave Eggers who is just about the definition of ‘possibilities’ in my book. More pragmatically, I’d like to spend a day with a room full of programmers, distributors and financiers so that I could get them all fighting over funding our next project… However, right now I’d like editor Roderick Jayne to pop in as not only is ‘he’ someone who understands Final cut (I’ve forgotten all my short cuts) but he’s also the alias of Ethan and Joel Coen, who might be able to tell me where I’m going wrong...
What do you have up your sleeve for future projects? 
My elbows. Judging by the amount of work required for what we want to do next, I’m going to need all of them. But right now we are really pleased to announce completion of a new short from Director GRANT ORCHARD.

Based loosely on a real life event recounted in Paul Auster’s brilliant book ‘True Tales of American Life‘;  ‘A MORNING STROLL’ tells the story of one New Yorker’s early morning encounter with a chicken, an event that plays out over 100 years. Grant was looking to do a quick project as a break from a large, ever more complicated script he was working on, and has always loved this one paragraph account of a city dweller’s casual encounter with a chicken. Sweetly humorous & intriguing - but also brilliantly slight - this ‘small, quick project’ ended up taking 2 years to make during studio downtime and will premiere at ANNECY 2011 and at festivals thereafter throughout the year.
See the TRAILER at StudioAKA: