The City in Motion 

L.A.’s hyperactive graphics scene

Thursday, Feb 24 2005

Page 3 of 4

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.”

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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