Chatting with The Action Cats


“The Experiment” by The Action Cats

Storyboards for “The Experiment”

Animatic for “The Experiment”

Stop-motion experiments and source footage

Back in April, when Adobe and Cut&Paste announced the winners of the See What’s Possible Challenge, one entry really stood out to me. “The Experiment” was created by a mysterious group called The Action Cats, who I later learned were actually an in-house group of designers and animators at ad agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners.

That piqued my curiosity. An agency made this?! So I called them up and we chatted for almost an hour. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation. On the phone were:

Lisa Mishima – Designer
Chris Kelly – Animator
Mike Landry – Animator + Compositor
Colin Trenter – 3D + Animator
Randy Stowell – Creative Director
PJ Koll – Producer + Director of Motion Arts Department

Justin: On Motionographer, we focus mostly on the studio side of things. It’s often a mystery how agencies, studios and clients actually work together. Maybe you guys could explain the process in more detail from your perspective?

Mike: As an agency, we have to sell a concept. If something’s really heavy in motion, and maybe it hasn’t really been figured out yet, that’s where we come in. We start experimenting, we start trying different things that might work.

So if you have the Jay Z “Hands” video for HP, it’s hard to explain that to HP without actually showing them. So we start doing tests and trying to figure it out so that we can sell the idea and then give it to Motion Theory. A lot of the stuff we do is conceptual motion graphics.

Justin: For the HP Hands campaign, what kind of stuff did you guys do before the project showed up on Motion Theory’s doorstep?

Randy: Typically, what happens is the creative teams come up with the concept. And sometimes they will not really know what they want to do with it. They just know that there’s something they want to try and execute. So they’ll come to someone in our group. And then we function much like any other studio would. We take the idea and try to work it out. The difference is there’s transparency between the creative department and the motion group. We kinda work on the idea together.

In the case of Jay Z, what happened is one of the guys here, Pete Connolly, had this concept of using hands for something—it was actually something he presented as his résumé to the agency when he was trying to get hired. And we sort of stole it and hired him, and he worked with our group to develop the first look-and-feel for the Hands spots.

We created a prototype that was—what was it, it wasn’t Jay Z—

Mike: It was Craig from Craigslist.

Randy: Yeah, it was Craig. I think it was done in like 48 hours with working al night. It was crazy. That was presented to HP, and then after that, it flew.

We got Motion Theory involved, just like we have in many cases. I started here six years ago, and I came in as a motion designer. I actually designed and produced the first HP Plus spots a few years ago. It was too much for one person to handle, so Motion Theory got involved and that launched them and started the relationship with Goodby.

We really have functioned the same way ever since. We will experiment with ideas with the creative groups, and then we’ll either produce it or we’ll send it off to be produced by somebody else.

Justin: How do you decide what to send out to be produced by someone else? Is it strictly about workload and available resources?

Randy: It purely depends. Sometimes it’s about resources, sometimes it’s our own interests, sometimes some people have an expertise that will do it better. It just depends on the project.

When we were pitching Sprint, the motion group was heavily involved in the early stages of the Sprint pitch. All the look-and-feel was generated by us, so we ended up producing a lot of things in-house because of that—certainly to launch the campaign. And then there was too much work to be done, so we ended up farming out a lot of work.

Justin: I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that most agencies don’t have an in-house motion department. Is that true, in your experience? How did the decision to have an in-house motion department come about?

Randy: You’re right, most agencies do not have an in-house motion department. There are a few exceptions. And there are certain agencies that have spun off pieces that act as a studio. Everyone now has contact with motion graphics, since it’s exploded within the last 5 to 8 years.

But part of that story with us is what I’ve already told you. I came here as a designer and Rich Silverstein got so dependent on having somebody who thought about ideas in motion that he kept coming to me for ideas. Ultimately, he worked me to the point where we just had to hire people to help out on those projects, and it just kind of grew. It wasn’t a decision to have a department; it just grew into more work and more work.

I started hiring animators. And my interest was in finding people who were not traditional art directors, people who thought of things from a design standpoint and came from a multi-disciplinary background, people who might have been illustrators or worked in print—people who definitely didn’t come from ad school. I didn’t come from ad school, and all the people that I’ve hired have not come from ad school, with maybe the exception of one person.

It’s a collective, a raw collective. We’re not that different from a lot of the people you feature on your site. We work similarly. It’s just that because we’re inside the agency, we work directly with the creative teams and often times function as creatives ourselves in coming up with ideas.

Justin: Do you find that there are people who don’t really “get it”? My mom still doesn’t really know what I do. How do you explain what your team does to the rest of the company?

Randy: Well, the first thing is, I would never tell my mom, Justin.

[laughter]

Randy: No way. She wouldn’t understand anything. That’s the first mistake you made.

Mike: Well, sometimes you have a print campaign and they want to turn it into motion. And someone might be a really good designer for a still image, but they don’t really understand that dimension of time or how things should move—that there are eases in animation, that you can manipulate things in space, and I think that’s a process of looking at things in 2D and in 3D and fourth-dimensionally with time.

I think there are some misconceptions too where people think we’re like editors or something like that. It’s usually not too often, because Goodby in general is a pretty young company, and people are exposed to a lot of ads on TV that are doing all these crazy motion graphics stunts.

Randy: I’ve tried to avoid calling ourselves the “motion graphics” team, because for me it’s not just about graphics, it’s about a way of thinking, a way of approaching ideas from a motion standpoint. It’s not always graphics; it might be some other media, or it might be an idea or a concept that’s in motion.

I don’t think we’re ever going to compete directly with some of these motion graphics houses out there that do just motion graphics, and we don’t try to. We’re more about experimenting with early ideas, some of which might end up as motion graphics, but some of which might end up in some other form or media.

Justin: I’d like to quickly go around the group and have you tell me what one of your favorite projects has been at GS+P and why.

Mike: We did this wall installation for Adobe CS3. It was finished by Brand New School, but we had to sell the concept. We had only a day to do the whole thing from concept to finishing and delivering it, so really what happened was everybody just went off on their own and thought about the craziest thing they could think of and then animated it. And then at the end of the day, we just put it all together. It was fun to see how that came out in such a quick period of time.

Colin: My favorite project that I’ve worked on here is the See What’s Possible challenge that we just did. From start to finish it was something that really kept on building on top of itself until it became this awesome thing. It grew into something that we were all really proud of, and I think it turned out really good.

Justin: So is that also your favorite project Lisa and Chris?

Lisa: Yes, but I can talk about a different project. I actually really liked the HP Home Server project. It was a series of animated short films that featured this product called the Home Server where you can back up all your files. I think the reason why I enjoyed it so much was because I got a chance to work directly with the copywriter and the art director. It wasn’t just things being handed down to me—we were actually working together. And after designing the boards, I worked directly with the animators and with the sound people. The whole process was very fluid and all in once place, and I don’t know, it just all came together really nicely.

Chris: I guess my favorite project would probably be See What’s Possible, but another we had a lot of hands in was the development of the Sprint campaign with all the light drawing that PikaPika sorta started. At school, I studied mostly drawing and illustration and things like that, so it was nice to blend those techniques with motion graphics and animation.

Randy: One thing we’re trying to do in the last three months is to shift from doing entirely work for advertising and start to develop our own content. The See What’s Possible challenge was really the first project, once we made a significant shift, that is an example of where that’s gonna go.

That’s really this concept of The Action Cats. That was something that these guys just started calling themselves based on these really odd drawings that Chris made.

Justin: Yeah, I saw those!

Randy: You saw those!? They’re amazing. (laughter) That’s something we’re going to develop into something bigger. And that is where the real energy of the group is heading right now.

Justin: How do you sell the idea of The Action Cats to the higher-ups within the company?

Randy: We don’t tell anyone about it yet. So far we’re very secret. Don’t tell anyone.

(laughter)

Randy: No, I literally went to Rich Silverstein and Derek [Robson]. who’s our president, and said I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’m more interested in creating content as opposed to working with clients, and they said, “Well, guess what? Us, too.” So they said why don’t you try to go in that direction and still maintain the group and our clients.

What we’re expecting from here on is… to work on commercial ventures that we are generating from start.

Justin: Can you tell me about anything yet that you guys have lined up?

Randy: Um…. well…. not exactly. We have one major project we probably can’t say too much about. I think the best way to describe them is web content and potentially things like TV series. So there’s a few little projects—very early stages, though. We won’t have anything really that will see the light until potentially the end of the year.

I think the best way to describe what we’re doing is as a hybrid of a traditional motion studio—if you can even use the word “traditional”—and a creative production group and, of course, the traditional agency. We straddle all of those, and I think that’s what’s unique about what we’re doing here.

I think if we can find young talent coming out of school, it would be a huge benefit for these people to spend two years in an agency. Because not only are they getting the other side before they go out and do their motion work, but they’re finding what it’s like to have to make decisions, come up with concepts, think about things from strictly an idea standpoint as opposed to just making beautiful things.

I think that’s one of the problems with a lot of the studios. They make really gorgeous things, but it’s not always telling a story, and that’s what we’re trying to approach ideas from on this side.

Justin: Could we talk for a second more about the See What’s Possible project? I’d like to get a sense of the production process. How long you guys worked on it, how you made it, that sort of stuff.

Colin: We kinda intermittently worked on it together for about three weeks—

Lisa: —and at times we would get pulled away to do other projects within the entire three weeks.

Colin: It was a lot of late nights after we were working on stuff for other clients.

As far as the process goes, it really changed as we worked on it. Initially, we were going to do it all digital. We showed Randy the boards that Lisa had put together, and he had a great idea of shooting some of it practically with stop-motion, so we incorporated that into what we did.

As far as the technical way we did it: We set up a light table down in the photo studio. We had a camera set up, and we went out for a couple days and just looked for—

Lisa: —the weirdest things in Chinatown.

Colin: Right. Strange stuff, stuff we thought was interesting.

Lisa: Often smelly.

Colin: And so we’d shoot this stuff. Really just kind of playing, not really knowing what we were going for, just exploring what we could do with it.

Lisa: And then looking over all the footage and realizing that, “Oh yeah, that’s cool.” So we’d go back, and re-shoot some of the stuff so we could actually use it.

Colin: Based on the initial boards that Lisa did, Mike made this early animatic.

Mike: You know, it was me and Colin and Chris all animating, and each of us had take a different section. Chris took the beginning, I took the middle and Collin took the end. Then there came a point where we had to join it all together. It was like this huge jigsaw puzzle. It was a really fun part. Individually, we were trying to rock out our animations as good as possible, but then integrating them was a total challenge, but also really fun.

We were gonna use some 3D, but we opted not to. It was just better to have everything inside of a comp in After Effects—

Randy: Lazy! They were lazy! Let’s just be clear about it.

(laughter)

Lisa: At one point there was a 3D elephant trunk at the end, but we pulled it out.

(more laughter)

Justin: Thank you guys so much for taking the time to share your perspective with us and tell us about The Action Cats. I look forward to seeing more work from you soon.

Thanks to John Fiorelli for making this interview happen.