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The City in Motion 

L.A.’s hyperactive graphics scene

Thursday, Feb 24 2005
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“I want to do motion.” Skinny and sweaty, the 20-year-old snapped the clasps open on a shiny silver portfolio case and hauled out sample letterhead and brochures, careful not to smudge the surface or dent the edges of the expensive paper. “You fold this right here,” he said, nimbly tucking two corners into slits in the card stock. Within seconds he’d erected a mini–promotional display, with standing business cards and stylish letterhead, all of it sporting a sharp graphic style that hinted at years spent hunched over notebooks sketching logos during recess. “But all of your work here is in print — why do you want to do motion graphics?” His eyebrows arched, and he leaned forward on the tip of his chair: “Because motion is cool.” The next student said the same thing. And the next. And the next. Participants in the American Institute of Graphic Arts’ annual portfolio review, these budding graphic designers wanted to make their static, inert graphics jump and dance and fly. Who cares if they’d never before made a single pixel move or not? Motion, they said, is where it’s at. And not just for recent MFAs: Does the following sound familiar? A swirl of colored brush strokes swims around a dancing figure, with sinuous washes of green, blue, gray, yellow and magenta highlighting a bouncing ball. The body’s outline spins, melting and morphing in a glamorous mix of dance moves, basketball and sexy music. Only at the very end, when a white swoosh stamps the images, do you know that this is a Nike ad.

(from top): Geoff McFetridge's Burton snowboards ad, and (bottom) Jeremy Blake's The Winchester Trilogy

The work of the Venice directing collective and production house Motion Theory, Nike Presto Hip-Hop is one among dozens of recent moving-image artworks that converge at the intersection of art, design and commerce. The ad marks not only the evolution of a new form of TV commercial but also significant shifts in the previously distinct and well-established worlds of advertising, broadcast design and graphics. A handful of Los Angeles companies similar to Motion Theory, with a super-relaxed style, founders in their 20s, and a cheerful disregard for age-old advertising wisdom, are not only inspiring an emerging generation of artists, but reinventing moving-image design as we know it. Or maybe as we don’t know it. Generally referred to as “motion graphics” or “broadcast design,” the moving images that introduce TV networks or dress up live-action commercials with animation and moving typography often remain essentially invisible to many of us, just more visual detritus in an already cluttered media landscape. And yet the motion-graphics field has certainly had its breakthrough moments of high visibility. Starting in the 1950s, Saul Bass made film-title design an art form, mixing graphics and motion for the breathtaking sequences that grace The Man With the Golden Arm, the original Cape Fear, Vertigo and many, many others. Pablo Ferro, another design icon, was responsible for the main titles of Dr. Strangelove in 1964, and went on to do the remarkable titles for A Clockwork Orange and Jesus Christ Superstar. Bass and Ferro didn’t simply make typography move; they made the entire screen come alive with a graphic sensibility that embodied the nascent art form’s creative optimism and sophisticated edge. In the 1980s, computers helped catapult broadcast design into new dimensions, with the spinning logos for each TV network becoming ever more spectacular — giant, whirling dervishes of type in glistening steel, then neon, then glass, with the camera drawing viewers inside logos (and inside the screen). In the 1990s, designer David Carson’s grungy look and irreverent disdain for text — it doesn’t always have to be readable, he argued — rocked the graphics world when it appeared, first in the magazine Beach Culture and then in Raygun. A little while later, the jagged, frenetic titles by Kyle Cooper for Se7en raised the bar again, rivaling the film itself with dark, haunting shards of images and words. An older generation of design firms, such as R/GA and Pittard Sullivan, had already reinvented moving-image design in the late 1980s and ’90s. And Imaginary Forces, while a mere 9 years old, is a potent trendsetter, with offices in New York and Hollywood, and an array of award-winning film title sequences to its credit, including those for Spider-Man and The Cat in the Hat. Each of these companies helped rethink the potential of moving-image design while conjuring inventive approaches to marketing and branding. But as creative as these companies are, they now represent the grand old school next to a spate of youthful and impertinent newcomers. A few of these newer designers operate individually, guys like Mike Mills and Geoff McFetridge, whose hand-drawn illustration styles belie the digital foundation that makes their images move so smoothly. Mills has made short films, music videos and commercials; he’s designed logos; he’s drawn album covers; he’s a featured artist in the new “Beautiful Losers” exhibition at the Orange County Museum of Art; and he just recently completed his debut feature film, Thumbsucker, which premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival. Working with Roman Coppola, Mills also co-founded The Directors Bureau, a Hollywood company that represents directors with similarly eclectic backgrounds and do-it-all career goals. McFetridge’s best-known work may be the hand-drawn titles for Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, which uncannily evoke a high schooler’s labored Pee-Chee folder scrawls, but his strong graphic style has added an edge to companies like Burton Snowboards. Mills and McFetridge are new-millennium stars, even if this is the first time you’ve heard their names. But motion-graphics artists tend to work collaboratively, in small, relatively new shops such as Stardust, Colourmovie, Logan, Brand New School, Tomorrow’s Brightest Minds, Blind, Traktor, twothousandstrong, Fuel, Belief, bangbangstudio and the aforementioned Motion Theory. The shops share certain traits: Most are located in Santa Monica or Venice; in addition to banks of computers, the offices tend to feature an array of boards — surf, snow and skate — or games of one sort or another, from Brand New School’s pingpong table to Blind’s professional-looking foosball setup to Motion Theory’s basketball court. Often a hound or two lopes around the office, attire consists mainly of faded T-shirts, and the boss, who isn’t ever all that bossy, is probably wearing Reefs.

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.

Blending the real and the fake: Motion Theory's new commerical for Hewlett-Packard

“Graphics and design aren’t a topical accessory to a film title or commercial anymore,” notes Hammond. “Now it’s much more integrated into the conceptual process and has a bigger presence in the projects as a whole.” Her partner Martinez offers an example: Colourmovie’s spots for MTV’s rock-documentary series Making the Band 2. “In doing the graphics package, we knew that we couldn’t simply create a title sequence. MTV wanted us to convey that the band is on tour, [the members] live a frenetic lifestyle, and their egos are taking over. But the key point is that MTV wanted us to convey the emotion in order to indicate how this show is different from the rest. So what we created really sets up the season. It doesn’t say ‘starring’ and ‘co-starring’; it just gives you the feeling.” Martinez is right — Colourmovie’s Making the Band opener functions through suggestion and connotation. The short piece depicts a vibrant cityscape with the artists splayed across the sides of buildings like kinetic murals in a visual style somewhere between photography, illustration and animation. Although we see the show’s cast members, the emphasis is on a sensibility. Branding used to be all about creating “one clear message,” adds Brand New School’s Notaro, shaking his head. “But that one clear message is boring. So we’ve always tried branding a different way. We say, let’s try branding by attitude rather than visuals.” MTV again provides the example, this time a spate of interstitials Brand New School created for the network’s “Sunday Stew” lineup of reality shows. “They’re called ‘quickies,’ ” explains Gehlhaar. “Basically they’re art breaks without any context; they’re 10-second pieces that might appear at the end of a commercial break, or sometimes even in the middle of the show. So you’ll be watching, and suddenly you see this thing, but you don’t know what it is at all.”

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Branding by Attitude: four screen shots from Motion Theory's Nike "Presto campaign

MTV asked for eight of the brief pieces. “Some of them are designer’s little studies, like a painter’s study but with video or illustration,” says Notaro. Although the spots didn’t pay well, Brand New School wound up doing 15 because they enjoyed the process so much, not to mention the goal — to associate MTV with that elusive thing called coolness. Motion Theory’s work for Nike has similarly functioned more through attitude than an overt message. The company’s celebrated Nike “Presto” campaign used music — hip-hop, electronica and beatboxing — as its foundation, and associated a slightly different aesthetic and palette with each. More recently, Motion Theory collaborated with DJ Uppercut and graffiti artists Skwerm, Sasuke and Frek on another Presto campaign, crafting a commercial that mixes live action and animation, taking viewers into a dynamic cityscape through which moving paint flows effortlessly. To make the piece, the artists were shot in live action as they painted, sometimes on Plexiglas. The paintings were also videotaped, and all of the footage was taken into computers and animated, and then the animated footage was layered with live-action footage of the city, with fly-throughs between tall buildings and along busy streets. The result is an exuberant celebration of urban textures and energy. NEW, AS IN NEWER As you enter the Motion Theory office, located in the Gas Building next to the Rose Café in Venice, one of the first things you see is a vivid, 12-foot graffiti painting. It leans behind the desk of Caroline Gomez, the company’s director of marketing. Another one stands in the general hangout area, where a few of the company’s team members, along with a long-legged dog named Raul, gather next to the pool table. Javier Jimenez, the soft-spoken 35-year-old who co-founded the company in 2000 with his pal Mathew Cullen, says that he and his cohorts are always looking for ways to expand the vocabulary of contemporary image-making. “That’s where we draw our strength — bringing something new to the industry.” “We always want to find new ground, and we always want to move beyond just appealing to consumers,” adds Grady Hall, co–creative director, leaning forward and exuding intensity. “We try to create an experience, or to use humor, or to reinforce some value that goes beyond the usual commercial approach.” That, of course, requires advertisers willing to re-imagine the TV commercial — advertisers such as Bombay Sapphire, which funded a piece titled Step Into Blue by the Santa Monica graphics shop Stardust. In it, flat images of beautiful women seem to come apart, with disconnected arms and legs floating off into space or multiplying in patterns. No one swills any gin; no gin bottles appear. Instead, you see the moving collage, and — assuming you’ve managed to set aside feminist angst over the sundering of the female form — just when you think, “Wow, that’s kind of cool,” the Sapphire logo appears. Nike continues to commission experimental pieces as well. For its “Art of Speed” campaign in 2004, the company invited 15 design collectives and artists to create shorts that reflected the idea of speed. The pieces were then showcased during parties at the company’s Venice beach house. One of the most visually enticing was Saiman Chow’s animated Oggo, in which roving bands of cute, tubby white figures compete in a road race, careening through a surreal animated landscape in all kinds of souped-up vehicles. “Nike contacted me about the piece,” says the artist, a Hong Kong native who graduated from Art Center in 2000, “and I put a team together and worked with a co-director. We had a meeting and decided we wanted to do something that would be simple and that would attract people of all ages. We wanted to not take it all too seriously; we just wanted to do something fun.” There’s that word again. As influences, Chow cops to a ’60s illustration style and video games in general, and Yellow Submarine in particular: “My background is also influenced by Japanese cartoons and animation.” Ironically, the piece, with its bright colors and psychedelic leanings — there are hints of Milton Glaser and Peter Max, too — reflects a nostalgia for design styles of the past. This nostalgia is not unusual, as young artists pore over old books, surf the Net and raid the archives. And that’s another thing about this work — it’s all a process of borrowing, dismantling, re-fashioning and rethinking as ideas, techniques, tools and software appear and, soon after, re-appear, in different form. This ever-evolving graphic vernacular moves at an accelerated speed, keeping pace with the Internet’s promise of instantaneity. Some of the best commercials and music videos appear online first, and are passed around, admired, dissected, stolen and forgotten in a matter of days. Weeks later, maybe they’ll show up on TV. “All these kids are watching each other’s work immediately online,” confirms Chris Do, the founder and owner of Blind Inc. in Santa Monica. “Somebody will try something new in Kansas, and instantly someone else somewhere else will copy it, or do it better. The cycles move incredibly quickly now.” Do, who teaches at Art Center and Otis and whose own work, especially an animated spec commercial for the Mini Cooper, is striking, confides that he sees many of the latest trends just by looking at the creative output of his students. But Do has a keen eye himself. Animated drips were the big thing for a while, but right now, he says, it’s all about “stepping into paintings or photographs and presenting two-dimensional images in a 3-D space. This is done using a simple, but sometimes labor-intensive, technique of cutting out the subject matter and painting back the backgrounds so that the camera can fly through or move past them. Illustration seems to be the new design, as many designers are showing that they understand how to draw and render images aside from handling purely graphic forms.”

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BEYOND MY MTV The re-definition of advertising, while at the creative and financial core of the new firms, isn’t the whole game. They’re also taking music videos in new directions, melding graphics, animation, text and live-action imagery. These are not akin to most of what you’ll find on American MTV: Some of the videos may at times reflect the graphics-based cinema of the 1920s and 1930s, when artists as varied as Hans Richter and Oskar Fischinger sought ways to embody music with moving images; sometimes they’re more akin to the psychedelic abstractions of filmmakers such as Jordan Belson and the Whitney brothers from the 1950s and ’60s. The Silver Lake company Tomorrow’s Brightest Minds, for example, recently made a music video for Chromeo’s “Needy Girl” that, in addition to its all-white set and costumes, features a glittering dance sequence that pays tribute to the Busby Berkeley spectacles of the 1930s. The corps of dancers multiplies, and the screen splinters into a kaleidoscope of gold and white. All ’80s glam, the giddy video is emblematic of a neo-baroque style that revels in visual excess, or what cultural critic Scott Bukatman has referred to poetically as a “topsyturvydom,” an energized sense of somatic freedom enabled by digital imagery. If abstraction and kaleidoscopic imagery are two music-video trends, the blending of “real” and “fake” spaces is a third, which can be traced back to a now-ancient, 3-year-old video from the Venice design firm Logan, founded by Alexie Tylevich and Ben Conrad. Titled “Information Contraband” for a track by Money Mark, the video follows a hapless taxi driver as he moves seamlessly between the “real” city and the mayhem depicted in a series of Thai action-movie posters. The garish, bombastic graphics intersect with reality, and the flat world of the poster magically becomes 3-D in a stunning fusion. Radical when it was made, the video’s blending of disparate worlds is now de rigueur. More recently, Logan’s video for the Felix Da Housecat track “Rocket Ride” shows another trend, namely narratives that explode into visual mayhem. In this piece, there’s a hint of a story — about a woman, a fish, some dwarfs, and a subway train careening out of control — but everything quickly ramps up to an exuberant explosion with cheerful references to Dorothy’s trippy adventures in The Wizard of Oz. The visual techniques seen in many of these more experimental videos grow out of new tools — various software effects, for example — but the cutting-edge firms go beyond the easy options offered by filters and presets, adapting the technology to make it keep up with their creative demands. VIDEO FOR VIDEO’S SAKE Without logos and bands, some of the abstract moving-image artwork feels right at home in museums and galleries. Indeed, MOCA’s new show “Visual Music” (see second feature) is based, in part, on this work’s historical precursors. And video installation and projection pieces are more prominent now than they have been in a long time. Los Angeles artist Jeremy Blake, for example, makes what he calls “moving paintings,” which are large-scale projections of animated washes of color, collaged iconography and abstract images. For his current show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Blake is premiering his newly completed three-part piece The Winchester Trilogy, based on the story of gun heiress Sarah Winchester, who used her fortune to build an elaborate “mystery house” designed to shelter the lost souls of those killed by Winchester rifles and to stymie the evil spirits who might be out to get her. “There are hallways that are miles long, stairways that lead nowhere and doors that open out into nothing,” says Blake, sitting in his humble and decidedly low-tech studio in Santa Monica. “There are also parts that were damaged by the 1906 earthquake that she left alone because she thought she was being punished by the spirits. So she built around them. For me that was a great example of how we deal with trauma; there’s evidence of trauma, and then it’s built around or hidden.” Blake’s trilogy of projections offers an elliptical — and visually stunning — tour through themes of cowboys, guns, violence, Victorian spiritualism, psychedelia, and the portrait of a woman’s psyche as it was made physical in her elaborate house. While the themes are intriguing, the piece is all about losing yourself in the luscious waves of sound and color, with intermittent snatches of graphics, photography and live-action footage. “I like to go in and re-create these abstractions that come and go like mirages,” says Blake. “They’re ideologically fluid instead of being ideologically fixed. And I think that’s a big difference between my generation and the previous generation in terms of approach. But it’s also about a migration of painting away from the canvas.” Like many of the artists mentioned here, Blake easily moves from the art world to other realms; he created animated sequences for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, the cover for Beck’s Sea Change album as well as imagery used on tour by the musician and, working with collaborator Jayson Whitmore, a music video for the album’s track “Round the Bend.” While Blake situates his work within a history of painting — and, indeed, he was trained as a painter at CalArts — his work, and much of the other work mentioned as well, may also be linked to the history of graphics-based animation and visual music that reaches back to the origins of cinema (see accompanying review of “Visual Music”). The earliest visual-music experiments occurred in many countries, but the form has particular roots in Los Angeles. Oskar Fischinger arrived in L.A. from Germany in 1936, bringing with him his stunning abstract animations timed to music. And in the 1950s and 1960s, L.A. filmmakers the Whitney brothers (see sidebar to “Visual Music”) were inventing their own computers with the hope of crafting a form of visual music. John Whitney founded a company called Motion Graphics Incorporated, and IBM hired him as its first artist in residence. His goal? To investigate ways of melding computers, graphics, typography and music. Not long after the Whitney brothers made their films, then-L.A.-based scholar Gene Youngblood explored an era’s desire for emotional connection in his seminal book Expanded Cinema. He was an advocate of an immersive “synaesthetic cinema,” one that would in part use graphics to create a new kind of vision, which in turn would create a new kind of consciousness. Youngblood’s theories are some of the inspirations for the current work of artist Jennifer Steinkamp, who creates immersive environments composed of multiple projections of abstract animations (and whose work is also featured in “Visual Music”). Where Blake transforms the medium of painting with moving imagery, Steinkamp’s work rethinks architecture, dematerializing walls, floors and ceilings with moving projections. While few of the new breed of graphics companies would espouse Youngblood’s utopian desire, their projects, especially when exhibited on the large screen, are often entirely immersive and create experiences of boundarilessness and expansive fluidity that hark back to Youngblood’s ideas. The philosophical subtext of the new work, however, is tied to an entirely different culture. In short, there’s a lineage, especially in Los Angeles, that should be traced, a history noted, and comparisons made. But it’s a digital world now, and this work, in all its diversity, is first and foremost about a digital, image-based culture. ARE WE THERE YET? The work produced by these young designers and companies is cool, it’s new, and it’s pushing various artistic forms. But is it culturally significant, too? Sure: The branded content of the Nike and Bombay Sapphire films suggests the totally blurred boundary dividing art and commerce, while the quick pace of innovation and influence, of appropriation and recycling, points to a culture of DIYers, those who don’t merely accept what’s foisted on them but reuse it, fashioning something else altogether. Further, the kaleidoscopic imagery and incredible movements of bodies that appear in so much of the work mirror the unnerving sense of disorientation wrought by a world moving way too fast. And the synthesis of real and unreal worlds underscores our nascent anxieties about the increasingly mediated existences in which we spend a good amount of our lives online in a space that’s at once entirely real and yet completely ephemeral. Other worlds are mingled, too: The fluid, organic abstractions in many music videos and design shorts downplay a high-tech digital aesthetic and embody a desire for the real, the organic, for artwork touched by a human hand. As Blake notes, echoing many of his colleagues, “With my stuff there is my background in painting, which is very firm, and there is also my use of Super-8 film, which is very nostalgic, and a lot of hand-drawing and a lot of other things that are pretty much low-tech. But what comes out, I think, is a cool mix of the new and the old.” And where will it all go? Will its impact last, or will it fade, subsumed and domesticated by mainstream corporations and lesser talents? Or will it be undone by repetition and self-referentiality? For Brand New School’s Gehlhaar, it’s more a matter of specifics. “I wonder if in five years it will still be interesting to have whimsical illustrations or character animation,” he muses. “Will things be more dense? Will it become more Asian, with metaphors and abstract spatial relationships, or will things become more European, where it’s all about a cool little joke or weird little incident, so the style carries the theme but isn’t the focus?” Looking down, he struggles to answer his own question. “It’s hard to tell where it will go. An animator friend of mine told me recently that he thinks we are at the forefront of something that will change the entire industry.” Gehlhaar looks up. “I think it’s still totally undefined,” he says with a knowing smile. In other words: Whatever.

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