New Zealand-based Assembly is an intriguing shop. Headquartered on a tiny (but beautiful) island nation, their portfolio ranges across character work, high-end vfx and interactive experiences. Their structure is equally hard to pin down. One part collective, one part production company, they ooze the ethos of an artist collective but their output suggests the rigor of a well-run ship.
The team was kind enough to tell us a little about their shop and give us the inside scoop on a few of their projects.
Background and Basics
How would you guys describe the general structure of Assembly? A production company? A director collective? Something else?
Those all work! To be honest, we have tried to avoid putting a ‘service’ description on the company. We like to keep our options open in the hope that we get a look in on a whole range of creative endeavours. We love to shoot, animate, code, build, design, illustrate, fabricate — all at the service of a good brief.
Who were the founding members of Assembly? How did they arrive at the decision to start a new shop?
Damon Duncan, Jonny Kofoed, Matt Trott and Rhys Dippie are the four owners of Assembly. We all worked together at a bigger shop and realised we wanted to try running things our own way by getting closer to the idea — making it less about the hardware and more about being a creative partner with our clients. Don’t get us wrong… we still have all the gear… but it is not something that needs to come up in the creative conversation anymore.
Being four partners with a good cross section of skills also meant we could take on complete jobs without having to hire too many people as we were starting up. Which essentially meant we could secure a couple of jobs and pay for gear and rent without having to visit Mr Bankman. So all our money went into setting up the company the way we wanted to.
How do you get work done while surrounded by the staggering beauty of New Zealand?
We work in a brick bunker with no windows. It’s the only way to avoid distraction.
What’s the creative scene like in Auckland? Are there like-minded folks you can “talk shop” with?
New Zealand is renowned for punching above its weight when it comes to creative endeavours and this is a warm, primordial creative soup that we live in.
New Zealand is just another place with another timezone to do work in and really any boundary is based on ideas rather than geography. Being small geographically ensures that we are exposed to a myriad of ideas and opinions, arts and sciences, philosophies and political stances. Politically, New Zealand is one of the only countries in the world where our last Prime Minister was also the Minister for the Arts, overseeing and progressing a portfolio that encompassed the film industry as well as all of the creative arts.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that New Zealand is a small market, in terms of advertising dollars. Is most of your work for Australia? Other markets?
It is not a huge market but the agencies are strong in New Zealand and consistently rank highly on the international award circuit. We’ve always worked internationally and in fact have just signed with Falcon in the USA (a Stardust company) which is hugely exciting for us. We are longtime friends with Dex Deboree and are looking forward to working with him and his team.
The Sudafed spot (posted at the top of this article) is just so well crafted. How “complete” was the script when you guys received it? What did you bring to it?
The original thought from the agency was that it would be predominantly 2D with few 3D elements to highlight the X Ray workings — but we were pretty keen to steer it down the full 3D path.
We also wanted it to feel ‘hand touched’ — so the character design was kept simple, like you could actually make them out of plasticine. This also drove the idea of animating the commercial on 2’s. To make his head grow and get heavier also just seemed to make more sense being made out of a solid material.
The character animation is spot on. Was there a particularly challenging sequence?
Fortunately, we made a well-developed 2D animatic early on in the production, which researched well — so we had a strong base to work from when going into 3D. This helped to drive expectation and led to very smooth sign off and delivery process.
This commercial is a great example of leaving ourselves nowhere to hide by providing internally imposed limitations to the brief. By locking off to a single camera angle for the entire commercial, the character animation was left to carry the story and direction of the piece. We believe that this helped people connect and relate to the characters by giving them space and time to emote and deliver nuanced performances, something often missing from hyperactive, camera driven work.
It appears as though your artists each have their own showreels. Is that so? If so, that’s a new one for me — and very impressive.
We have worked very hard to keep a Senior Artist base, essentially allowing for a head of department in each of their specific fields or area of expertise. This enables us to add freelancers when the job requires and still have a small, core senior team to ensure consistency of quality and most importantly creative.
Each of these artists has had a long and varied career in their own rights, and we felt it would be crazy to not let the world see how awesome they are!
How did this project come about?
We have a great creative relationship with Colenso BBDO here in Auckland, and we had started talking to them about a job that involved glass cows. We got very excited by the concept, and we really wanted to test out the visual execution of this idea.
There was some nervousness around these cows not retaining a level of engagement or looking a little creepy, so a test to prove the concept really helped everyone get on the same page with the look and potential of the piece. They had talked to us very early on in the creative process, as this was a huge product for their client and had been in development for a few years. This enabled a good amount of R&D time, and allowed us to test some theories.
Was developing the look of the cow challenging?
There were many challenges involved with developing the final look of the cow. We spent a lot of time working with different looks around the eyes and face, ensuring there was engagement without the cow looking like it had dead eyes. It is often the subtle things that make the biggest difference.
We also realized early on that the amount of liquid we had sloshing around inside a very fast moving cow would become like shaking a cocktail shaker full of milk, a messy, indefinable mass within the cow that wouldn’t read properly. Also, the physics of that amount of moving liquid would essentially bowl the cow over.
We removed all of the directional animation from the cow when simulating the liquids, so that the actions, timing and motion of the liquid felt correct without it having to calculate the translational forces exerted on the milk.
The cow breakdown video has been very well received. Did you guys consciously set out to rethink the way breakdowns are usually presented?
Yeah, we definitely looked into the way that breakdowns are presented. They are often leaning towards very technical or they are very surface, just touching on topics or providing frustratingly simplified versions of very complex issues. There is a lot of information that is very interesting to present to our clients that you wouldn’t necessarily present to industry.
We are very big on educating our clients so that they can become involved with the process rather than feeling like they are on the outside of it, empowering them so that the money that they are spending is ending up on the screen rather than working through things they don’t have the knowledge or experience to truly understand.
This style of breakdown came from a desire to make this type of information accessible and understandable for both technically minded people as well as our clients and people outside the industry… ie, our mums!
So is there a longterm goal for Assembly? World domination or stay small and nimble?
Assembly was set up with a desire to get our artists closer to the idea, to be as involved with the creative process as intimately as possible, following trends and technologies so that the idea is at the core of all our decision making, not whether we had the biggest computers or not.
This will always be the driving factor as to the scale and size of our business. In such a changeable and constantly evolving industry, it feels like a mistake to put a stake in the ground and say this is who we are and this is what we do. We are in service to the creative and willing to use art and science to solve any problem.
Digital: You guys did a bang-up job on The V Motion Project and you have an FWA award on your shelf. Any aims on doing more digital work?
Definitely! We have always been involved in interesting digital projects and have recently bolstered the digital roster with our Lead Developer Jeff Nusz joining the team.
It’s exciting jumping onto jobs like the V Motion Project, where the outcome is something new and we get to play with code and a more generative design process — then handing over control to a live human performance — which was a somewhat unnerving experience for guys who are used to crafting a finished piece of work. The idea of setting up an environment for other people to experience or play in is a whole new design challenge and jobs like the V Motion Project have exposed us to some great new opportunities.
We’ve actually got few FWA’s for various project we’ve been involved in — The New Zealand Tourism job on our site involved building a 12 metre tower with a motion controlled camera in some of our county’s most beautiful locations. We then shot timelapse as the camera tracked from top to bottom. This sequence was then attached to the scroll bar on the website so when you scroll up and down you essentially control the camera moving through four iconic locations.
So even though the end product was a website it still required high end tech, production, and visual craft to pull off — thats the kind of digital work we love being involved in.