Staying small: Process and industry insight from STATE Design’s Marcel Ziul

STATE Design opened its doors just a little more than a year ago in Santa Monica, and they’ve been rocking ever since. Their motto: stay small.

STATE Design is a boutique design and animation studio founded on the premise that direct access to and communication with your creative and production teams will always yield the best results. We believe in strategically staying small to maintain a personal connection with our clients while dreaming big creatively.

The mastermind behind this enterprise? Marcel Ziul, the studio’s founder and creative director, whose 14-year career speaks for itself: freelancer at Belief Design, Prologue Films, Stardust Studios and others, Emmy Award nominee and Promax BDA finalist.

Recently, STATE celebrated Veterans Day with a juicy spot for Syfy (see above). We had a quick chat with Marcel about the project, the company and his views on the industry.

Still from "Veterans Day"

Still from “Veterans Day”

Q&A with STATE founder Marcel Ziul

What made you decide to open shop and what have been the challenges on the process? Also, tell us a bit more about this concept of staying small. 

It’s funny to think about this question, but to be honest, I had always wanted to open my own studio. I guess seeing my dad owning a business triggered it all.

My idea was to open a studio where I would want to work as a freelancer. A place where artists have a voice, are looking to do amazing work and have fun doing it. Where the goal isn’t about making quick cash, you know?

When I think about STATE, It feels like a group of friends working together with a well-defined strategy. Where being tight-knit and making amazing work together is a bigger priority than installing a new Flame bay or something.

What are some of the benefits of being small?

There’s no small project when the studio is small. Every project is an opportunity for us to express ourselves.

Being a smaller shop requires us to have people who are very engaged and proactive. We have the opportunity to get more involved with each project and create a unique relationship with our clients. We are all willing to wear multiple hats.

Still from Fox Sports "Women's World Cup" promo

Stills from Fox Sports “Women’s World Cup” promo

And some of the drawbacks?

Of course, there are so many challenges like: finding talent, staying profitable, finding clients, pitching against the big guys, finding our own style — but for the most part, it’s exciting to be in this position.

I am always pushing and challenging the artists at the studio. The concept of “done is good enough” can be a death sentence for a small studio like us.

I’ve been asked to take in partners along my journey, but by staying a solo owner I’ve been able to stay focused on my strategy, trusting my guts in the glass case of emotion we call ‘small business ownership.’

How did the Syfy project come about and what was the process like? 

The folks at Syfy had seen some of our recent work and thought that we could help them on a Veteran’s Day spot.

When we first spoke to them, they had a relatively simple and elegant concept. It was more about textures and tasteful patriotic scenes. The project was creatively open-ended, so we kind of thought, “Let’s make this spot extra special for them.”

We love 2D and cel animation, and we had been wanting to do more of it for a while now. So we started by creating some really nice illustrative boards. The client loved the boards. It always helps when your client loves the boards!

Still from "Veterans Day"

Still from “Veterans Day”

From there it was a pretty smooth process. We brought in some very talented young animators who just shined on the project. They took ownership of the process — and I think that it shows in the final product.

And it also helped that we had super supportive clients in Syfy who basically left us to our own devices in elevating their initial concept.

Going from freelancer to owner, what changed in the way you see the business of motion design? 

As a freelancer, you eventually hit a ceiling, and it’s inevitable that you’ll at some point get burned out. Opening a studio made me feel fresh again after 14 years working in the industry. It’s become an exciting, daily challenge.

It feels like going from a macro lens to a fisheye.

When I was a freelancer, I used to focus on the technical and creative side of projects. As a business owner, I have to focus on both business and creative — find that sweet spot that is not necessarily right in the middle on every project.

It allows me to see the business as a whole and really understand the importance of every person at the studio from executive producers to interns. It feels like going from a macro lens to a fisheye.

How do you see the future of the industry? 

Oh, yeah! Everyone is trying to find an answer for that. There are so many things still changing in our business, but if you look closely, there are so many opportunities rising as well. Broadcast is changing. Cable is trying to survive and agencies are trying to figure out how to stay in business. Our task is to be flexible enough to design for multiple/different platforms or create our own content.

One thing is certain: There will always be the need for design and animation in every market. And if you put in time, passion and really focus on your business strategy, you’ll likely succeed.

The industry itself is changing a lot. Studios that are stuck to a “formula” will eventually fade away. We will have to reinvent ourselves over and over. The more we challenge ourselves, the more we will evolve as a studio.


STATE Design:
Creative Director: Marcel Ziul
Head of Production: Alex dos Santos
Animators: Shawn Lee, Marcel Ziul, Dennis Moran, Danni Fisher-Shin, Luis Suarez
Designer: Bruna Imai, Marcel Ziul
Coordinator: Natalia Baldochi

Syfy NBC:
Art Director: Ariel Frost
Project Manager: Niabi Caldwell
Director of Production: William Smythe IV
Production Coordinator: Michelle Isern