Saiman Chow's Oggo, one of 15 "Art of Speed" shorts commissioned by Nike
SCHOOL’S OUT — FOREVER? For these new companies, the last five or so years have been an intense period of self-definition and discovery that has allowed for the freedom to re-define not only the world of commercial moving images, but the notion of work itself. And there’s an implicit understanding that doing this kind of work should be, first and foremost, fun. Jonathan Notaro is one of those bosses who sports flip-flops. And yes, the avid surfer decorates the office with surfboards — although “decorates” may be overstating their haphazard placement. Tan and rumpled, he was just 23 when he started Brand New School four years ago; the bicoastal firm now has a regular team of around 30 people, and will soon relocate to a stunning new office at Bergamot Station, designed by hipster architects Shubin + Donaldson and outfitted by Vitra. “This company has always pretty much run itself,” Notaro says, refusing to take credit for its success. “You just keep feeding it; you keep giving people what they want in terms of work, and that keeps everyone happy. The worst is being fed stuff that you’ve done before. So I look at a potential project to judge its worth creatively — that’s ‘running the company.’ And I also determine which jobs we’ll bite it on, the ones where you lose money but you do it because it’s fun.” Notaro, perhaps realizing that he may sound less than savvy, quickly adds, “I know the company needs to stay in business, but it’s not just about money; it’s a much bigger game.” The intercom crackles. “Kelly, you have a call on 102.” “I’m going to stop that,” Notaro says to his colleague, BNS creative director Jens Gehlhaar. “You can’t just tell her to stop,” says Gehlhaar. “Yes, I can,” Notaro replies, picking up the phone and addressing the entire company: “Please stop using the paging thing for a while. Bye.” The sense of fun applies not just to the mindset out of which the work comes, but to the skill set as well. For many years during the 1980s, the game was relatively narrow, limited to companies with expensive computer-processing power strong enough to fling the NBC/CBS/ABC logos around. After the early ’90s, though, with the full-on arrival of desktop computing, powerful new design applications, and an explosion of cable networks looking for new talent and new branding strategies, all of that changed. “Motion graphics as a field was getting tired, dry and stale because it was all about just one set of skills,” says bangbangstudio’s Rick Morris, who studied illustration and then made the transition to motion design in 1994. “The whole thing is getting more and more hybrid; it’s all about having a combination of skills.” That’s a good thing from just about every angle, says Michelle Hammond, who, with her partner Brandon Martinez, runs the design-and-production studio Colourmovie: “What makes this industry so interesting is that people have such a mixture of influences, moving from design to art to fashion, from advertising to cinema. Brandon has a live-action background; I have a fine-art background. It tends to be a real mixture, and that’s a strength.” To be sure, there are similar developments in New York, London, Paris and Tokyo, as well as pockets of creativity in places like Brazil and South Africa. But the hybridism and cross-pollination find added fuel in Los Angeles. “The thing about L.A. and what makes it so central right now is the diversity of industries,” says Martinez. “It’s pretty obvious. But, in addition to having film and television industries here, there are a bunch of new ad agencies, like Crispin Porter + Bogusky, 86 the Onions and 72andSunny. And, as is happening in many industries, there’s a new way of doing things. It’s about integration; it’s about using narrative and graphic design, and not just thinking about one commercial, but creating an overall non-traditional approach.” Like the new generation of motion-design companies, the new breed of ad agencies is similarly driven toward new definitions. Crispin Porter + Bogusky has offices in Miami and Venice, and (with a nod to Warhol?) calls itself a “factory” that makes “advertising and branded creative content.” Perhaps its best-known project is the award-winning IKEA “Lamp” commercial from 2002, directed by Spike Jonze. And just as European auto-design companies are opening shops here because of the confluence of talents and industries, Amsterdam-based 72andSunny now has a second office, in El Segundo, presumably because the waves there rock. The founders, who call themselves sports freaks, surfers, movie lovers and design aficionados, say their goal is to re-define the concept of “ad agency” altogether. All this re-defining going on is quite simply a new generation’s approach, a fact made abundantly clear at the American Institute of Graphic Arts’ “Move: Design in Film and Television” event in New York last May. As a room full of artists milled about juggling Cosmopolitans and chicken skewers, moderator Lee Hunt, founder of the New York firm Lee Hunt Associates, tried to assess the current state of moving-image graphics, but, even after referencing Nabokov, could do no better than “It’s all about smart design.” Moreover, the event’s discussion devolved into a worn-out defensiveness about whether graphics, being linked to advertising, merits aesthetic attention at all. Whatever. For the new generation, the issue is moot. As long as you’re doing great work, getting paid and having fun, who really cares whether it’s Art or Advertising? The goal isn’t to prove that your chosen avocation is truly an art form; it’s to push the boundaries of that form further — and faster — than your competitor. Whatever, indeed.