By now you’ve probably seen "Happiness Factory," Psyop’s masterpiece for Coke and agency Wieden+Kennedy, several times. If you’re anything like me, you’ve scrubbed through it forwards and backwards, marveling at all its details and admiring how each character contributes to the narrative arc. I had the great fortune of speaking with the spot’s two directors, Todd Mueller and Kylie Matulich of Psyop. What follows is a lightly edited version of that hour-long conversation.
Let’s start off with some introductions. Who are you and what you do, generally speaking?
Kylie: I’m Kyle Matulick, and I was one of the directors on the Coke spot. I’m a creative director and co-founder at Psyop.
Todd: And I’m Todd Mueller, also one of the directors on the Coke spot. I’m a creative director here at Psyop and also one of the co-founders.
Great, thanks. So, I’d like to talk first about the "Happiness Factory" spot. It’s funny, actually, last night I went to see The Da Vinci Code, and I saw the spot on the big screen there.
Kylie: That’s really cool.
Did you know that it was going to be shown on big screens like that?
Kylie: Yes. I think it’s in like 87% of the cinemas in the States.
So how did the whole thing come about? How did you get this gig? What were the brief and the pitch like?
Kylie: Well, we were actually in the process of producing the Coke Bottle Film spots that we did, the doggy and the cloud. I think that you covered those on your site. So we already had an established relationship with Wieden+Kennedy. They had this one script called "Happiness Factory" that Coke was really into, and I think they’d sort of been looking around for different ways to make it happen. They’d down the live action route and talked to a couple different directors, and then they came to us with this idea where a bottle makes its way through a vending machine factory and comes out the other end made. Through this process you would see it being filled with the liquid and being capped and imbued with a huge amount of love. Obviously, then, how that was executed was up to us.
Todd: Totally up in the air, yeah.
Kylie: And also how the thing is filled and how the thing is capped and loved and imbued with that sense of love was really a huge problem that needed to be solved. They came to us with the basic premise, which was really cool, and then we spent a couple days kind of thinking about it, doing some style frames, and—
Todd: We generally have two types of pitches that we go through. Ones that are very belabored, and we really spend a lot of time analyzing—
Kylie: Going back and forth with the agency—
Todd: —exactly, and really fine-tuning the thing. And then there’s the other type of pitch, which is really straight from the hip, as it were. Usually that’s the result of time constraints. When we got the script and were asked to pitch on it, we were given essentially—
Kylie: Three days.
Todd: Over a weekend.
Kylie: In many ways, it was actually refreshing. They came to us with this idea. We pitched on it. We wrote our interpretation and our treatment, and sent out some style frames that gave a very general idea of how we saw the factory environment and possible characters. And then three days later, we were on a plane to Amsterdam, talking about this job. It was cool. It happened very quickly.
It sounds like it. So was there some stiff competition? Were you competing against similar studios or was it more live action-based studios?
Todd: It was mostly live action. I think they had involved—we don’t really know,exactly—but we know several of the live action directors that were bid. I think it’s safe to say that there were many, many people involved in the pitch.
I can imagine. With the campaign in general as large as it is, and obviously with Coke being the client—
Todd: Exactly. They did their due diligence to really scour the earth to find people that could bring something to it.
Kylie: I think when they first pitched this idea, or even started working with us—I don’t think the agency or even the client knew that this would be a really big campaign for them. It’s something that evolved into an exciting vision for Coke. And I think, as a result, it has become a much larger branding thing. I think, walking into it, no one had any idea that it would blow up.
Todd: Yeah, there’s some great people all around on it. And everyone’s taken the time to really care about it, and give it the attention that it’s due, and allow the schedule to stretch in order to make it as good as it can be.
You said the script was about a factory, which brings to mind mechanical kind of factory imagery, things I used to watch on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. But that’s not at all the tack you guys took. I mean, there are some mechanical elements, but they’re kind of cute, in a way. Did you guys come up with that approach or did the script explicitly call for that?
Todd: That was a major part of our initial pitch. And for a little while, there was a lean towards something that pushed it even more mechanical, but then in the end it came back to this sort of more natural—
Kylie: Yeah, I think our initial idea was basically a natural, sort of epic, fantasy-scape, with hints of factory pieces sort of revealing themselves. Essentially, it was a machine, but it was this beautiful—
Todd: Yeah, this sort of ancient machine that’s so sacred, geological formations have grown around it.
Kylie: And as Todd was saying, as we started developing it with the agency, we started bringing more of a factory into it, but Coke actually loved the original direction of nature being the emphasis. So we sort of jumped on that.
Todd: Our issue with the happiness factory itself when we first started working on it and was that it was slightly oxy moronic. Factories aren’t happy. That was our instinctual response. It was like, "Okay, let’s just make it ridiculously happy." And that became our creative mantra, our creative beacon for the spot.
Kylie: It was more about being bitter sweet—
Todd: Absurdly happy, just keep cranking up the happiness to a point where it’s like fully Scientology-approved elatedness.
It comes across fantastically. I think by cranking it up to that level, it becomes a joke in a way, but not in a way that’s derogatory. It’s fun.
Kylie and Todd: Right.
There’s a great moment when the Coke bottle is actually filled, and the mechanical arm comes out of the sky. It’s a great inversion: instead of a deus ex machina, you’ve got a machina ex deus. The machine is there behind the scenes, but really it’s more about this crazy environment that you guys have created.
Todd: I think that was the main thing that won us the job: our take on the environment. A story between putting a coin in a slot in a vending machine and the bottle coming out—there’s so little territory of what can actually happen. And I think our winning ticket was this magical environment, this inspirational art, this ridiculously happy place.
So did you work, then, a lot with Wieden+Kennedy and did you work with Coke directly at all?
Todd: We worked with some great people on both the Wieden+Kennedy and on the Coke side.
Kylie: At the very beginning, when we first landed the project, we worked closely with Rick Condos and Hunter Hindman at Wieden+Kennedy. We basically locked ourselves in a room, all four of us, and brainstormed for two to three weeks. A lot of that brainstorming was about what happened to the bottle in these environments. What are the scenarios? We knew we had to cap it. We knew we had to fill it. But how could we fill it in the most ridiculous way? How could we cap it in the most ridiculous way? It was a lot of, "How about this? How about that?" Obviously, piles and piles of ideas were left on the table.
You said you spent a couple weeks doing that? Did I hear that correctly?
Todd: Yeah, there were about two weeks of concepting. It was originally slated to be one week or a week and a half, but as we kept coming up with ideas, like we said, they were either slightly too mechanical or slightly too comical or slightly too slapstick or not businessy or happy enough.
Kylie: We had to find that really fine balance between something served a purpose but had an edge to it. That was our gauge, when we could say, "That filled me with a nice feeling, but there’s a price to pay, almost."
That seems like an awfully long time for concepting. I mean, it’s great, but that’s not typical for you guys, right?
Kylie: Well that’s what was so nice about working with those guys. The bottom line is coming up with the best idea and developing everything from that place.
Todd: You know, it’s funny, I think when there are concepts and narratives involved, that’s usually a very collaborative process for us. But then when it’s about the visualization, I think it becomes a little more singular. Something we’ve found is that the agency and the client often times really know what they’re doing and really know what they want—or maybe not what they want, but they know what will work. So, in the best situations, we all work together in a relatively egoless way to arrive at what the sweet spots are in terms of the narrative. And then we get to go off and make the characters and figure out what it looks like.
You know, there was a really interesting response to this spot, on Motionographer, at least. Some people said, "This doesn’t look like a Psyop spot." I thought, "Well, it does to me." I think people were focusing on some aspects of the spot that maybe were new or didn’t look like other things, but the characters to me were signature Psyop characters. They’re strange but friendly, in a way. And I was wondering if you guys have anything to say at all about this idea that there is a "Psyop look" or a "Psyop character." Do you see that at all? Do you think that’s imagined?
Todd: I think one of things that we try to do is maintain a sense of flow. That’s one of the things we like to spend time choreographing: the sense of pacing, the flow of the spot, to create a thread from beginning to end that is overt, that helps you digest what you’re seeing. I know that’s something Kylie and I and the animation team really thought a lot about it. The syncopation of movement, going from fast things to slow things, and making sure that had a play to it. That’s something we like to think is a signature element. And then in terms of the visualization of that—something we’re trying more and more to do is to really break out of any specific stylistic identification.
But as for the characters, we have a wonderful team of designers. We sat around and drew for weeks. For just as many ideas about what happens to the bottle, there’s probably twice as many character designs. Once we locked down to the specifics of what the bottle did, we had to figure out what the characters were that did all the stuff. In fact, there was one phone call at some point where, in a brain-fart way, I forget whether it was Kylie or I, were like, "What if it was like a pig Chinook helicopter thing carrying the bottle with nipple rings?" I remember trying to be provocative with that, just seeing how far the agency would go. Then Rick was like, "That’s great! Chinoinks!" That just locked us into how irreverent the characters should ideally be. That was one of the harder things to do, was to really—
Kylie: To develop characters that had an edge to them, that had a—
Todd: A cuteness but then had an irreverence to them. One thing we actually did in this spot is that you might notice—none of the characters have eyes. That’s one little thing that keeps them from feeling too Pixary or something.
Yeah, I remember something that Chris Ware said once—he was quoting somebody else—about the level of detail in characters. He said that the less detail characters have, to a point, the easier it is for people to identify with them emotionally.
Todd: Yeah, that’s from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.
Kylie: Right, you can project yourself onto them, in a way. You can project emotion onto them.
Todd: Instead of looking at the character, you’re imagining yourself as the character—which is a curious thing.
Kylie: It’s that whole idea of amplification through simplification. I mean, the characters are quite simple, but there is still a lot of detail in each character. They all seem to have their own personality.
Yeah, I love this family portrait image you guys created. What was this image created for?
Todd: We were going for a sort of Italian, bacchanalian mural.
Kylie: We love the image as well. We see these characters as having a purpose and a lot fun. And so it was fun way to bring them all together in this dramatic, Renaissance painting.
Todd: We were thinking of Caravaggio. He always would create these really dramatic lighting scenarios. It was for the Church, but there was always something sort of screwed up going on.
How many people worked on this spot? And how many were you directly involved with?
Todd: We were directly involved with everyone. Some were freelancers, but they were all working here.
Kylie: About fifteen.
Todd: Yeah, I don’t know if I can count them all up, but through the course of the project, there were like five animators, three TD’s [technical directors], a texture/lighting specialist, two Flame artists, two After Effects artists, and a matte painter. And like two or three modelers.
That sounds like a fairly large crew. I’m not sure how that compares to your other projects.
Todd: It’s definitely a pretty significant add for us. This is one of the largest ads that Kylie and I have been involved with. There were a lot of scenes, a lot of characters, a lot of visual effect levels.
Kylie: It was a very technical piece as well.
I don’t know if any of your other work has been on the big screen, but was that a technical challenge, knowing that it’s going to have to be that large?
Todd: Yeah, we had to upgrade our systems. Specifically, the hair and the simulations in there were pretty heavy. So we ended up having to essentially double our render farm size.
So for the technical readers out there, just generally, what were some of the software packages that you used and maybe some of the hardware that it ran on?
Todd: Primarily it was Maya, After Effects, Flame and Photoshop.
Todd: And XSI a little bit. I think we baked out XSI for some stuff. In terms of exactly what capacity XSI was used, maybe a little previz at one point.
You guys used to use XSI a lot, right?
Todd: Yeah, we used to be nearly a total XSI shop. But Maya is definitely around.
Kylie: A lot students are learning Maya, and there’s a bigger talent pool in Maya.
That’s interesting to hear you say that, that you’re sensitive to the talent pool that’s out there. Usually people talk about it the other way around, you know, "We’re a school and we’re trying to figure out what the industry is using."
Todd: We’ve always found that XSI is always our favorite 3D motion graphics tool because you can wrangle the render engine, and there are some really powerful procedural modeling tools. Typically, we do a lot of our motion graphics stuff in XSI and our photoreal stuff in Maya. I don’t know if that’s backwards, but…
The way we like to approach our work is to allow people who are really good at animating stuff, people who are really good at technically working stuff out, or people who are really good at designing to do what they’re really good at and to not necessarily focus on the stuff that’s really hard for them to do. Although we have several designers who know XSI, who know Maya, they’re definitely not as strong as some of our TDs, who don’t know design. Personally, I’ve always found it freeing when you don’t think about how you have to do it. When I’m just designing something or thinking up some wild, mad idea—
Kylie: You know it’s going to be possible. You just don’t know how difficult it’s going to be.
Todd: And then, in turn, we have technical people who appreciate the challenge of bringing a sense of invention. You know, a lot of times Kylie and I don’t actually have it figured out, how something should move, so we try to collaborate.
One more question about the spot, and then just a few wrapping up questions about Psyop in general: How long did the whole thing take you, including preproduction?
Todd: We started in the beginning of February. And then we delivered the 60-second spot like two months ago, so that would be May. So about four months in total.
Have you guys kicked around the idea of doing a short film? Or even a feature-length film?
Todd: We have some projects in development that we’re working on. Definitely. We’re developing a number of longer form pieces. Some more personal short films, a couple of other things that are serious productions.
Kylie: But I think long form is definitely something that’s interesting to us. Developing a longer narrative and being able to explore that story—
Todd: We just want to do make sure we do it right and we do it well, rather than rush into it. So we’ve just been very cautious.
Kylie: We’re going to probably start experimenting doing short film and hopefully move onto something longer form than that at some point.
What about the plan for Psyop? Are you guys trying to get bigger? Do you like where you are now?
Todd: We just launched a division called Blacklist. That’s a way we can give back to the culture a bit. We’re working with up-and-coming artists and finding people that relate in some way to our sensibility or add to it. We’re trying to take companies that are where we were around six or seven years ago and help them find projects. If they need any technical backbone assistance, we try to help them consider their pipeline, and stuff like that.
In terms of growing, we definitely like being a boutique, and I think we intend to stay as much as possible as a boutique. That’s the most important thing, that we create an environment where everyone enjoys what they do.
Kylie: We all started in a small storefront in the East Village, and we grew together and added to the team as we grew. Personal relationships with one another were a really important part of it. A sense of collaboration and team effort. That’s a really important part of the culture here that we want to maintain. When you grow too large, it’s really easy to lose that sense of the individual within the team.
Todd: A lot of us come from working at large corporations and at facilities. When I used to be at MTV and the Sci-Fi Channel and we’d always be finishing work at a facility, where you had an army of people working.
Kylie: And there was no ongoing relationship after the project.
Todd: It was always a bit disheartening to see your project boiled down to an hourly rated thing. So I think we can stand to grow possibly a little bit, but what we can’t stand to do is become a facility with a facility-like attitude. We just had a partner meeting today where we reiterated how important it is that everyone really enjoys what they do here. What’s great is that the company’s owned by creatives and all the directors and producers involved enjoy what we do and want to continue doing fun stuff.
I have one last question. I’m a student now—I was working as an interactive designer, but I’m a graduate student now, and I know a lot of our readers are students or people who are just getting started in motion graphics or a related industry. Do you have any advice for those people, just in general? Anything that you learned along the way that’s hard to learn in school?
Todd: We see a lessening of people who really know how to design and think versus people who know how to push buttons. People should know that when they’re making those decisions, that that’s the direction their career will probably go. It’s a slower startup when you learn how to design first and creative problem solve and then, after that, learn how to press the buttons—that’s definitely the longer way around the maze, but from our experience, those are usually the people we end up working with.
Kylie: If someone wants to break out and start directing, it’s important to have that background in design and conceptual thinking. We find a lot students coming out with great motion reels, but they haven’t really spent the time developing their design or conceptual skills. You can focus on one or the other, and it will dictate your path, in many ways. So it’s a good thing to be conscious of.
I come from a pure design background. I don’t really need to know how to animate. I mean, it’s good to have a sensibility for it, and it’s good to be able to explain your idea, and you need to be able to communicate and work with a team of people. If you want to focus on directing, you need to be able to sell an idea, you need to be able to to develop a concept, pitch a board, and you can always find a team of people that are really skilled technically.
Todd: Something I remember Kylie doing when she was first playing around in After Effects was animating some dots to some music. And with that alone you can end up showing your design sensibility and motion sensibility. Sometimes I see on reels, specifically when they do a spec spot for something, there’s a lot of work focused on the concept and the idea and not so much work focused on the sense of motion or design. It’s probably a good idea to figure out what you enjoy more: coming up with the concepts or doing the production and the design. And then it’s just about thinking about that and making the call to yourself and focusing on one of those.
The other thing we find is that it’s good to team up with someone. Something we’ve been doing a lot internally is taking a really great designer and teaming them up with a really great motion person or 3D person. And that’s something I think would be an interesting exercise for schools. Take the design classes and team them up with the 3D classes.
Kylie: Another thing that I personally look for from a designer is a good folio. I don’t think it’s so important that a student graduate with a really good motion reel. What’s more important is that they can show their thinking in a storyboard, because that’s how we actually win our projects. When we pitch, it’s pure design and illustration. We send out ideas, we send written treatments, and very, very occasionally we might do a motion sketch. But as soon as you go into motion it becomes more technical and time-consuming; usually we have to pump out a pitch within two to five days. You really don’t have that time to spend on R&D and animation. That’s just a good thing for people to know. They’re not expected to show their animation prowess as soon as they come out of school. More importantly, they need to have a design aesthetic and show that they can make interesting conceptual decisions.
I might sound a little cynical, but… it’s cool that schools have the facilities to teach students the technical stuff, but it’s sort of an easy way out to have the students focus on that. I think it is a lot more difficult to challenge students on an intellectual, conceptual level. You need to be much more involved and engaged with the students and encourage dialogue. That is a lot more difficult as a lecturer.
That’s all the questions I have for you. Is there anything that I left out or anything that you’d like to say?
Kylie: I wanted to say that they’re making life-sized Coke toys out of the characters.
Todd: The only other thing that I wanted to add is that the team we had on this spot was outstanding. Everyone really gave it everything they had, and it all just came together. It was one of those rarities where we had a really cool project and a really great team.
Kylie: A lot of heart and soul went into it.
And you can tell. Every frame speaks that truth. Thank you both very much for taking the time to chat with Motionographer, and I wish you and Psyop the best.
Special thanks to Tamara Walker at double E communications. Thanks also to Maria Diaz for helping format the images.