On The Back Of A Tiger

One effect that I feel many of us can agree on when working in the commercial world is that it can be a bit of a vacuum.

The motion graphics industry tends to attract people of all different backgrounds, but after a while, it’s common to start thinking of every project as a :15, :30 or :60. This can be a tough mold to break.

With the constant flow of information and barrier of entry into the industry diminishing, we are starting to see a lot more unconventional and independent routes being taken.

In my opinion, this is a step in the right direction. It forces people to continue to grow and adapt, creates new opportunities and even changes people’s perspectives. That is what this post is about: two amazingly talented and successful individuals from the old guard breaking the mold and going out on their own to tell a story they feel is worth telling.

Jeremy Stuart and Brad Abrahams are the directors of the upcoming documentary On The Back Of A Tiger. The following is a Q&A about them, their filmmaking process, their Kickstarter campaign and everything in between.

 

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Q&A with Jeremy Stuart and Brad Abrahams

First, can you tell us a bit about yourselves and your traditional roles in the industry?

Jeremy Stuart At the age of 10, I was being used as an “actor” in my older brother’s film school projects. So I became aware of the path pretty early.

At 17, armed with a very amateur knowledge of Photoshop, I snagged an internship in the design department at a post house. I managed to work my way up there while attending film school. I learned a ton from some very talented folks and made some great friends at that job. I stayed on after graduating for a couple years in a motion graphics position before taking my After Effects skills on the road.

Eventually, I found myself as a regular in the Digital Kitchen freelance pool. I met Brad there while doing a stint in Seattle. Then, in 2008, I took a staff position in the Chicago office. I collaborated with some amazing friends and artists while getting to do a some great work. I got my hands in everything. Pitching, design, directing, animation, compositing, grading, CD-ing.

It was often a lot of fun. I still work with those guys on occasion but have been freelance since 2012.

Brad Abrahams Unless you’re extremely wealthy, extremely lucky, or don’t mind being a PA, job prospects as a film school graduate are grim.

Thankfully, I had a knack for 3D and was hired by Helios, a small motion design shop in Toronto. It was a fun, collaborative and non-hierarchical environment, but after a few years, I realized 3D just wasn’t my thing.

Serendipitously, this misfit I started chatting with on an obscure graphics message board (Cody Cobb) landed me a Creative Director position at Digital Kitchen Seattle. I still don’t fully understand how that happened, but I’m grateful that it did. I migrated more and more towards live-action work, learning that documentary-style productions were my favorite projects.

DK gave me incredible experiences and friendships, but as the years went by, so did my enthusiasm for commercial work (and my patience for dealing with unpleasant clients). I yearned to make something more meaningful and impactful.

So I had my mid-life crisis earlier than most. I quit, spent time recuperating in the jungle, and have finally found a (mostly) happy balance of independent and paying work.

What’s the film about you’re working on now?

The film follows a group of pioneering scientists and thinkers as they rewrite the workings of life, challenging science and medicine’s most sacred cows. From breakthrough ideas on water and the workings of the cell, to radical theories of mind and brain. These ideas have already inspired an intrepid group of health-seekers who share their impressive — though unconventional — stories.

Through interviews, experiments, and animations, these ideas form an alternate model of life, one that could have a profound impact on our understanding of disease, aging and consciousness.

The topic seems very close to you both. Can you elaborate on your interest in this subject matter and why you felt this story needed to be told?

BRAD We’ve both been life-long health-seekers, having sensitive constitutions.

The inception of this project was a comment to Jeremy to check out this mysterious genius-scientist’s web site, Dr. Raymond Peat. We became increasingly fascinated by his work and writings, as well as the quirky community that surrounded them.

We started experimenting with our diets and lifestyles, inspired by his theories, and realized that, no matter how unconventional it seemed, there was a great deal of truth to it. As we dove deeper, we realized there was a whole community of scientists with profound theories that had been completely ignored by the establishment.

JEREMY We were finding all these amazing life stories and discoveries that nobody had really paved the road to yet. There was no professional video on any of these subjects or people. You had to really work to find out, unlike most subjects today which are satisfied by a quick look at Wikipedia.

So, presenting this stuff in a relevant way started to look like something that needed doing. It seemed like a place to do some good with my skills and learn a lot more about a fascinating subject.

What was the thought process like when deciding to take time off of work and fund a project like this with your own money?

Jeremy Working in the commercial world can be great. You have a chance to hone powerful skills, maybe make sexy work and probably get decently paid for it. But you don’t really own anything you make. You’re forever a vendor or consultant making and polishing other people’s ideas or products.

At some point, I started to realize that as an “artist” the most powerful thing you can have is your own intellectual property. So focusing my time, energy, and money into meaningful self-directed work looked more like an investment. Also, it sounded like a lot of fun.

BRAD For me, taking time off work happened before the idea for the film. Besides the philosophical and emotional reasons Jeremy mentioned, working full-time as a CD carried a high level of pressure. The stress and long hours were taking a toll on my health, something I think a lot of people in the field can relate to.

To get to the point we are now took us nearly a year of sporadic shoots and all of our savings. We had to take paying work, in between which we would immediately spend on the next shoot. If we didn’t launch this Kickstarter, it’s likely we’d never finish the film.

Can you describe some of the hurdles and insecurities you faced when making this decision?

Brad We were riddled with the usual anxieties when embarking on a radical endeavor: How will we fund it? Is there even an audience for it? How can we translate this story to a general audience. Will we find mainstream acceptance? Will our Kickstarter be a failure?

Jeremy And on top of all that, there’s the intimidation of tackling a feature length project.

Have there been any “ah-ha!” moments?

Jeremy Not exactly, but there have been some slow realizations.

You get used to certain patterns working from a brief and waiting for approval and permission at every step. Breaking out of that is refreshing. Starting this project, much of it was surprisingly straightforward. There was a sort of effortless nature to getting things rolling. We spent more time deciding what lenses to rent than trying to set up some of our interviews.

Brad Seeing our skills and experience come together in a meaningful way has been so rewarding. But coming from the sub two-minute world, working with all this content and shaping it into 90-100 minute story can feel daunting.

We’ve only shot about 30% and have amassed 200 hours of footage. But seeing the overwhelmingly positive response to the little we’ve shared so far gives us motivation to persevere.

Has the scope of the project changed with time or have you been able to keep it within your original expectations?

Brad That’s been one of the biggest challenges. Every day, we think of new people to interview or subjects to tackle. And new studies are constantly being published. The film was originally going to focus on Dr. Peat, but the scope has massively widened.

Jeremy Yeah, none of it is static. it’s been a discovery process throughout. We didn’t start out with very rigid idea about the final piece. I guess that can be a benefit of documentary work.

What has been the hardest part of production?

Not having any funding means doing everything ourselves.

It’s an incredible amount of work for two people, and inevitably means compromising on quality. Even with small, low-budget productions at Digital Kitchen, there was always a crew of people working together and sharing responsibilities. So this has taken some getting used to.

What has surprised you along the way?

Brad Even though we haven’t had mainstream coverage, the hunger for this film is palpable. We’ve received hundreds of emails and messages encouraging us, telling us just how important this project is. Also surprising is just how smoothly we’ve been able to secure our interviewees and shoots. Usually, it’s taken just an email or a phone call.

Jeremy The hungry supportive audience who came out to help fund us so far has been both humbling and surprising.

What roles have you been playing with making this film?

Jeremy Everything besides music. We’ve had no crew. Directing, shooting, producing, researching, and writing has all been shared. On the post side, Brad has been editing and I’ve been grading, doing titles, and some mixing.

John Black of Cypher Audio scored the trailer, and Jesse Solomon Clark scored the teasers and Kickstarter pitch video.

Do you have a producer?

Brad Actively looking! Neither of us are very producerly-minded, so the organizational, logistical, and temporal aspects have been one of the biggest challenges.

How has the experience with Kickstarter been?

Brad We’ve had no issues with the process or experience. We chose them mainly for the credibility and exposure.

A well-run campaign also functions as marketing and a way to build a community early in the process. In hindsight, we should have reached out to blogs and journalists well in advance of launching to secure some more mainstream press.

How do you see the state of the industry and the furthering of independent projects?

Jeremy I see a lot of small budget, non-traditional projects and lines blurring around people’s roles.

Big shops mostly require narrow specialists to run efficiently, and that’s fine, but there aren’t all that many of those jobs. For me, it was freeing to think more broadly about my skills. If you’re making and arranging moving images and text, that’s essentially filmmaking.

It’s probably always good to think of what you could put into the world being totally self-directed, but actually taking that responsibility, possibly forgetting about a paycheck, and making that happen is obviously a huge challenge. I found independent work rarely feasible with a full time job.

Being small, independent, and nimble looks pretty good to me right now.

What would you like people to take away from this film?

Brad The inspiration and confidence to self-educate and experiment when it comes to their own health. To be critical of the establishments. To feel hope when it seems there isn’t any.

Do you have any personal goals for this film?

Jeremy That it could legitimize the work of these scientists and cause real change in their industries.

Brad Perhaps effective treatments will eventually result for diseases like Alzheimer’s or cancer. And more selfishly, that its success could lead to a continuing career as an independent filmmaker.

What’s next for you two personally?

Brad Managing a Kickstarter is more than a full-time job. It’s taken over my life. Balancing this with commercial work has wiped me out. I’m just looking forward to some time away from a computer, preferably in the mountains somewhere. Either that or going on a psychedelic voyage with the God Helmet (invented by our interview subject Dr. Michael Persinger).

Jeremy Between this film, commercial bookings and getting married, the past year has been a whirlwind. I’m hoping to settle into a more sustainable rhythm.

What’s next for you two professionally?

Brad A crushing amount of ideas for other documentaries. Commercially, I’ve signed on with a new production company based out of Seattle, Curator Pictures. We’ve been creating some good work for Bill Gates’ BGC3, a.k.a gatesnotes. I’m looking forward to seeing this prodco grow.

Jeremy Like Brad said, there’s always more film ideas, but I’m not thinking too far ahead of this one yet. I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes me.

I’ll definitely continue to be available for freelance work. Lately, I’m having fun doing remote color grading jobs.

Finally, how can people get involved and help?

If the subject of the film is resonating with you, please check out and share our Kickstarter campaign: http://bit.ly/tigerdoc

We also have a production blog, Facebook page and recently-launched Twitter account.

Jeremy and Brad’s Kickstarter campaign has already reached its funding. If this is a topic that interests you or you just want to support fellow artists I highly recommend checking out the links above, throwing them some money and helping to support a truly independent project. The more money they raise directly results in a higher quality final product. This not only helps spread an important message but also strengthens our community and all future independent projects any one of us decides to take on in the future!

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About the author

Joe Donaldson

/ www.joedonaldson.tv
Joe Donaldson is the editor of Motionographer. In addition to leading the content side of the site, he is also a professor at Ringling College of Art and Design working in the Motion Design department. Before joining Ringling, he worked as a director, designer, and animator in Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles, and has had the honor of directing work for clients such as Apple, Google, Facebook, Instagram, The New York Times and Unicef. In 2018 he started Holdframe.

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