The Agency Post recently interviewed Framestore’s president of integrated advertising, Jon Collins, and head of integrated production, Jonathan Shipman, on the company’s visual work for commercials, films and digital projects.
Tell us more about Framestore and the type of work you do.
Framestore began in London in the mid-'80s with a small group of people who wanted to utilize new technology to produce groundbreaking imagery for TV. Framestore has evolved into a company capable of providing award-winning visual effects for feature films and TV commercials and producing installations, apps, games, etc. That being said, the company still does what it has always done: combine creativity and technology to deliver world-class visual experiences.
Framestore recently did a study on the way visual effects affect the brain. Why did you begin this study?
Collins: We have always been passionate about the visual image and instinctively feel that the quality of an image can have a profound effect on the viewer. We were excited to learn of advances in neuro-scientific research and wanted to see whether we could prove our theory. We now want to take this to another level to see whether we can more accurately gauge the effectiveness of the messages that we help to deliver.
Can you tell us about some of your findings and what this means for production and post-production houses?
Collins: I am pleased to say that the research bore out our instincts. The better the quality of imagery, the more likely it is that the viewer will suspend their disbelief and engage with the world that you create. If you can achieve peak visual stimulation, the viewer is likely to understand your message and retain recall for as long as possible. If you under-stimulate them visually or jar them ‘out of this world,’ then the message is less effective. Interestingly, if you over-stimulate people visually, it has a traumatic effect and the brain will block out the message as a survival trigger.
What have been some of your favorite projects to work on? Can you tell us about the initial concept and challenges or successes?
Collins: One of my favorite pieces this year was the Polar Bowl for Coca-Cola/W&K. Not only because we had developed the technique of real-time digital puppeteering — a technique we were excited about and were looking for someone to partner with — but also because it meant that one of the world’s biggest brands and one of the most creative agencies understood the value of what we were offering. Further, they were ready to use this on one of the world’s largest advertising platforms: the Super Bowl. They wanted to bring the iconic polar bears back for this campaign and were looking for a social media platform to drive people to their website, Facebook page and Twitter account. This was the ideal solution for them. For over four hours, the polar bears responded in real time to the Super Bowl action, the halftime show and even the commercials in the ad breaks.
The rewarding part was receiving an email from the client, which included the finding that more than 9 million people engaged with the Polar Bowl second screen event for an average of 28 minutes. Even they were ‘bowled over’ by that!
Shipman: To that I would add the Nestle water fountain project, as it was a challenging project that went through a difficult gestation period. But at the end of the day it was like nothing we had done before, and it called on all of Framestore's strengths — especially in terms of design and technical know-how. At its core, it was an experiential project where we designed and built a water fountain that would answer your questions. The answer was written with words that were spelled out in the flowing water of the fountain. I believe it was our first project to move design off-screen into the physical world.
While working for McCann Erickson, you (Shipman) developed the integrated production department. How has the rise of cross-platform marketing changed the role of production in an ad agency?
Shipman: My point of view is that this development has not changed the role of production within the agency, but rather has solidified its role. The role of a strong production department is to execute projects but also to be a powerful creative resource. With the expansive nature of what a campaign is or could be, production has the responsibility to figure out how to execute the concept but then help pivot the execution beyond the traditional model.
Our goal when I was at McCann was to turn the production department into a kind of genius bar filled with a diverse group of talent that would partner with the creative team to push the boundaries and break down the walls of what is possible. While there has been an increase in creative opportunities for agency producers, the demands on them are growing and can start to become overwhelming. This is where Framestore's structure can be used to the best advantage. We understand the agency process and what is at stake.
Why should agencies consider outsourcing the production or post-production campaign work? What skills and expertise can a shop like Framestore provide to a project (versus developing an in-house production team)?
Collins: One of the buzzwords of 2012 has been ‘collaboration.’ I would say ‘relevance’ is also an important concept for these times. The truth is that the traditional model of advertising has been put under severe pressure for some time due to falling budgets, foreshortening of deadlines and even lead times. The best way to deal with this and ensure that the client receives maximum value is to collaborate.
Unfortunately, there are often competing agendas that block that value reaching the client. I believe that many companies are trying to either form collaborations or develop skill sets in-house in order to offer a larger part of the creative solution. Not only does this reduce the conflicting agendas, it aids communication and helps to increase efficiency and effectiveness. However, as I say, relevance is the key word here. This only works if your skill sets are genuinely of the required standard. The client is unlikely to get value from companies who over-promise and under-deliver.
We at Framestore pride ourselves on having a track record of delivering world-class quality across all disciplines — even in areas that have no precedent like an actual (i.e. real-life, not CG) talking waterfall in a shopping mall in Los Angeles!
With more than 600 staff members, some located across the globe, how do you work to create a company culture that goes beyond the physical workspace? What types of events and activities do you plan for your London, New York or LA offices?
Collins: One of the most exciting aspects of opening the office in LA recently is the way in which Framestore has changed from having two strong offices in London and New York to being a truly global company. We have worked hard to restructure, starting with senior management, to allow for more global responsibility. We have also been very conscious of sending members of our team from one office to another in order to develop a better understanding of local differences whilst developing improved global pipelines and workflows. Since the start of the year, there have always been at least two people away from their ‘home’ office.
We do not consider that we have three satellite offices — we are one Framestore, and we will have local offices wherever we feel it is necessary to have a local presence. The ‘global’ aspect of Framestore is a mindset. But don’t underestimate the communication and infrastructure required to make it work.
Framestore has led the creation of the Geico Gecko, E-Trade baby and other famous animated characters seen in today’s advertising campaigns. What does your relationship with your agency partners look like? At what point does the Framestore team become involved in a project?
Shipman: The truth is we can never be brought in too early. The traditional model meant that the agency would get us involved at the point of execution. Since our reputation is solid, the question was usually about schedule and cost and then maybe some technical methodology. We have been trying to evolve the model by getting our clients — agencies, production companies and brands — to think about us as a creative resource and as powerful collaborators. We believe that is the way to get the most out of the relationship. We think of ourselves as problem-solvers with a broad base of both technical and creative skills that can help make the impossible possible. Collins talked about the Coke project earlier — I think that is a perfect example of how the model has evolved and what the benefits can be.
What types of roles comprise a typical team for a commercial production? How do these individuals collaborate to create the best possible end product?
Shipman: Well the scope and nature of the projects that come through our doors these days is getting ever more diverse, so describing full teams would take more room than we have here. But at the core of every project there is always a producer who is attached to the job along with at least one creative lead/creative director, and then we build the rest of the team around the project’s needs. Many times projects require multiple teams, and in that case, each team would have its own lead. The most important skills here beyond the talent of our artists — which happen to be some of the best in the industry — is about communication: the ability to listen and explain.
Framestore has also worked with major motion picture studios, providing VFX for the Harry Potter series, “Sherlock Holmes” and “Avatar.” What is the biggest challenge you face when working on a film?
Collins: The obvious answer is delivering word-class quality for the budgets and deadlines, but that’s a universal truism in our industry and many others. It is a testament to our skilled managers and producers that we overcome these challenges as often as we do.
I would say the other major challenge for much of the film work that we are engaged to do is, “how can we actually create this work?”
A lot of the best work is so technically and creatively challenging that we have no idea at the outset how we are going to do it. The value of a company such as Framestore is that we have built a team of people who feed off of this sort of challenge.
What is the future of the intersection of production and advertising? How do you think technology and web viewing will change the way individuals interact with TV commercials and branded web content?
Collins: We are now in an industry that has clients who want to engage with their customers or potential customers in certain ways and a whole load of companies that want to provide creative solutions for them. Because the silo model no longer exists in exclusivity, people are trying to find ways to navigate a path from one to the other. This is further complicated by the fact that the technological advances are happening so quickly that clients are unaware of what is available, and often they are affected by the risk of trying something that has no proven metrics to show an ROI.
Over the next few years, I expect things to change considerably as confidence in non-traditional solutions increases. I think the industry is moving away from trying to persuade customers and moving toward recommendation — often from people who have used their product. Brands are more interested in solving real problems and improving the quality of their customers’ lives. Maybe this is as ‘simple’ as creating an experience for them that puts a smile on their face for a moment in their day. How this manifests itself is going to be one of the exciting aspects of the next few years. Certainly less reliance on traditional TV, and therefore you can expect TV commercial budgets to shrink further. But TV isn’t going away, it’s just changing. It already has. The millennial generation isn’t watching TV in the way previous generations did. They watch content when they want to on screens that are the best for them at that time. But it isn’t just about TV — it’s about bringing experiences to people in whichever way is most appropriate.
One reason you love what you do:
Collins: I have always loved creating and experiencing a moment of magic. Not something that you admire or appreciate but that jaw-dropping moment of wonderment.
I’m lucky enough to work with some of the most brilliant people who create these moments on a daily basis. Moreover, we are in an industry that is currently exploding with opportunities to create these moments in a million different ways.
Collins: It’s a great question, as it reminds me of how fortunate I have been to be surrounded by so many wonderful people — too many to mention here.
It also reminds me that I am still learning how to learn from them.
Shipman: I have had major mentors through various stages in my life. As a child, it was my grandfather, Max, from whom I learned joy and the value of hard work. In college it was my film professor, Adolfas Mekas, who taught me more then I could ever put into words. In my early career it was executive producer Shelly Platte, who taught me almost everything I know about being a producer. Lastly, Peter Friedman, who saw something in me that no one else had before and gave me the trust and space to become the manager I am today.
Must read book:
Collins: “Life” by Keith Richards. It is life-affirming and death-defying.
“Damned to Fame – The Life of Samuel Beckett” by James Knowlton. Poignant and profound, but maybe not as life-affirming as Keef.
Shipman: “The Swerve” by Stephen Greenblatt about how the discovery of a single lost work changed the course of history — a poem no less.
Connect with Framestore on Twitter @Framestore.