Interview: Freestyle Collective


Stills from the MTVK launch series

From the opener for Fly, a DVD magazine

Still from the BETJ relaunch

Still from “Hatch” a South Park promo for Comedy Central

Stills from the Foster’s promos

From an experimetnal short, “Zoo Room”

About a month ago, long-time Cream O’ the Croppers Freestyle Collective proposed that we have a little discussion about the role trends play in the motion graphics industry. Given Freestyle’s massive collective experience and large body of work, I figured it’d be a cool topic for discussion. They gathered four people on their end:

Elizabeth Kiehner, Executive Producer
Victor Newman, Creative Director
Hoon Chong, Creative Director
Ken Tanabe, Senior Designer/Animator

On my end, I lassoed Motionographer contributor Daniel Oeffinger. We all chatted for about an hour, weighing in on the good, the bad and the ugly sides of trends. What follows is a lightly edited form of that conversation. Motionographer is in red, Freestyle Collective is in black.

Justin: Give us a little background on Freestyle Collective. When did you guys get started? And why?

Victor: Freestyle Collective was started in 2001 by myself and Hoon Chong. Hoon and I had previously worked together. We worked really well together and felt that it was time for us to strike out on our own, and take control of our destinies.

Hoon: We worked at a very large company, and we both wanted to open up a smaller shop that was more personable and more accommodating to clients.

Victor: Client relationships were very important to us, along with being able to do good design.

Hoon: Everybody here has a fine arts background, and we wanted to exploit that more in our commercial work as well. Freestyle Collective consists of photographers, painters, illustrators, and motion designers.

Justin: So how many full-time employees do you have now?

Elizabeth: I think we’re up to twelve. We have two new hires, but we’re waiting to hear back on their visas. We’re hanging out in the limbo of immigration.

Justin: That’s cool that you’re bringing in international talent. That’s probably a good thing for you guys creatively. I imagine that’ll mix things up a little.

Victor: That’s one thing that’s great about Freestyle Collective. Many of our designers are from different countries. We want to draw from as many different backgrounds as possible to add a little edge to our work, to help us be a little different.

Justin: You guys have a ton of work online, and you work across all media. You seem to be open to any kind of design. Do you guys think of yourselves as a broadcast house, or do you try to keep it more general than that?

Elizabeth: We think of ourselves as a concept and design studio. The company started out specializing in broadcast branding and promotion, but we’ve since expanded that into print, main title design, interactive design, and we’re also interested in doing other things, like toy design, book publications and things like that.

Justin: Cool. So, when we first started setting up this interview, you guys proposed that we talk about trends, which I think is a great topic for a lot of reasons. For one, trends are something all designers have to deal with. But in talking about trends, we can also get a glimpse into how Freestyle works.

Since you guys produce a large body of work, I’m wondering if you have to look for shortcuts sometimes and if so, are there shortcuts that are okay, that don’t negatively impact the creative process?

Victor: We try not to. I mean, we try to give each project, no matter what the turnaround is, as much thought as possible. We assign teams to each project, and from there, it’s the teams’ job to approach each project differently, to find another way to visualize the solution, instead of trying to rehash something that we have already done.

Ken: I think often times the best ideas are the simplest ideas. If you’re dealing with a short turnaround, just focus on a concept that’s strong but simple, and that you know can be executed within the timeframe available.

Justin: I see. It’s about being smart about your creative decisions early on, so you don’t have to think in terms of shortcuts.

I’m curious how you define a trend? I think we all know what we mean when we say “trend,” but how do you personally define what a trend is?

Hoon: Anything that’s in a McDonald’s commercial.

(laughter)

Ken: A trend is a lot of people doing the same thing, to the extent that it’s detectable, easily identifiable.

Hoon: Or when you see Home Depot doing graffiti, you know?

(laughter)

Justin: Well, they do sell spray paint.

Hoon: We were involved with the Comedy Central re-launch. The creative director wanted to go in a very street art, very graffiti direction. At that time, it was early on that all the spray-painting kinda stuff [in motion graphics] was happening. We were involved in getting that idea across with the higher-ups at Comedy Central.

Justin: That’s a good example, bringing up Comedy Central. Originally, that was a pretty innovative approach, it was a new style, and I think it made sense for the market they were going for. But now, two or three years later, however long they’ve been using it, it seems to me that it’s turned into a trend itself, and it’s lost some of its initial power. Do you guys disagree with that?

Hoon: No, I totally agree with that. I’ve seen it on many networks. And they’re doing it because it looks cool, it looks trendy. It’s eye candy, but there’s no real backing to it, no foundation for it. While the creative director at Comedy Central had a clear vision of why he was doing it and why he needed this transformation to happen—

Victor: One thing that Comedy Central did to make their underground approach feel legit was to bring in real graffiti artists. They worked with artists who understood the genre. So it wasn’t people trying to imitate the style; these were the artists who originated the art form. That added a lot to their credibility. They were working with The Barnstormers and Tristan and many others. It really made the final product very authentic.

Elizabeth: I think with Comedy Central, there was a reason behind this approach, so the design was motivated by something. There was a strategic underpinning as to why they wanted to go with the street-art look. It wasn’t simply for style.

Ken: You could put that in the descriptor of “trend:” people using a particular style with no thought as to why they’re using it.

Justin:  So if I’m hearing you right, something isn’t necessarily a trend until it starts to get used improperly. Is that right?

Hoon: Yeah, I think this was a reaction to what was happening like ten years ago, when techno graphics were very prominent. You know, WDDG kind of stuff, vector graphics in 3D space, technical layouts. I think that what Comedy Central was doing was a reaction to that. They wanted to be more grounded with a more hand-made feel.

Daniel: An analog feel as opposed to the digital.

Hoon: Exactly.

Justin: There’s a tension between analog and digital that’s still going on now.

Let’s talk about something you guys did recently, the MTVK stuff. See, to me, this is a tricky one. MTV is, at least in my mind, all about the propagation of trends. I don’t mean that in a negative way. Trends become a kind of language for their audience. If you’re not with the trends, then you’re not cool. It’s the way that MTV codes messages, and it’s an important part of MTV’s position in our culture, to take trends and propagate them in ways that make sense to young viewers.

So when MTVK approached you, did they have canned trends or canned ideas that they wanted you guys to run with? How did that all work out? Because I don’t think the work you guys did is over-the-top trendy—they’re aren’t any deer heads or dripping paint—but there is a trendiness to it.

Hoon: Right. They wanted to be trendy but not explicitly trendy. That was a fine line that we had to walk. Because it was MTV, we had to sustain that young lifestyle, but we presented a variety of ideas to them in different directions, and they loved all of them. That’s why you see the whole gamut of styles when we launched MTVK.

Victor: There was a lot thinking that went into the network launch, just to make sure that we were going the right direction with the Korean audience, and that everything resonated and connected with them.

Hoon: We had to be sensitive to cultural things.

Victor: From color palette, to hand gestures, to which countdown numbers were taboo to use.

Elizabeth: We luckily have some Koreans on staff here, and we spent probably two weeks at the beginning of the project doing research, spending time on 32nd St. in Korea Town, gettting inspired by the shops and the streets and the people there. Taking a lot of photographs. Pulling a lot of references. There is a certain examination you need to do of the pop culture that you’re about to be speaking to, because you do need to communicate with them really quickly and easily, especially if you’re making a five or ten second ID that immediately needs to register. 

Victor: A few hidden things were put in there, too. From Korean text to the crane, which had some symbolism to it. There were a lot elements that may not be noticed by American audiences, but that Korean audiences would definitely pick up.

Hoon: Yeah, the different ying yang symbols, the color palette. We were sensitive to the things that would be touched on in Korean culture.

Justin: So you’re describing a very fine line, and we hit upon it earlier: the difference between being trendy and being a trend whore—you’re talking about understanding trends that can be used to say different things and become a sophisticated way of communicating.

Hoon: Yeah, a visual language.

Justin: That’s the good side of trends, I’d say. When you know how to use them appropriately. What’s the bad side of trends? When are they harmful?

Ken: I think they’re bad when they stifle innovation, when they become a crutch. When you instantly pull out whatever’s happening instead of thinking of something new and different, because that’s a lot more difficult and time-consuming.

Hoon: I think internally we push ourselves to do something that we have never done before or have never seen before within a certain context. You know, if you just mooch off someone else’s idea, you don’t feel good at the end of the day.

Elizabeth: I agree, and I think the long-term damage is the reputation of your company.

Ken: Not to mention a good deal of self-loathing.

(laughter)

Victor: Plus you won’t see it on Motionographer.

(laughter)

Justin: It’s funny, because I’ve been doing Motionographer and Tween for about three years now, and I’ve seen a lot of work. But instead of becoming hyper-sensitive to trends, I think I’ve become desensitized. I don’t even see them sometimes.

I think one of the questions that always gets asked about trends is “Who did it first?” But that’s a problematic question. Often times, it’s impossible to tell who did something first. To go back to the graffiti example, we could go back and forth asking, “Who did it first?” And that’s tricky. It’s tricky for designers, but it’s even trickier from the viewers’ perspective, because a spot that was done in July may not air until god knows when. So the studio may have done it first, but if no one sees it first, then who gets the credit for it?

Do you find yourselves thinking sometimes, “Hey, we did that first! We’re the ones who should get credit for that.”

Victor: I don’t. I’ve never really thought of it in that way. I mean, there’s nothing new under the sun. There’s always some source of inspiration, especially living here in New York City. You’re walking down the street, you’re gonna see a cool poster or cool signage and it’s always stored in the back of your mind. So I try not to think in terms of, “Oh man, these guys ripped us off.”

Hoon: I see it as the evolution of design. It’s ever-growing and evolving. There’s not a sudden overnight change.

Ken: And there’s something healthy about that. We’re a part of the same movement that’s taking place. You know, a guy invents the wheel, and the next guy invents the horse-drawn carriage, then the car. There’s a sense of progression. There’s a healthy way of looking at what’s been done in the past and building on that.

Hoon: We do question ourselves: What will be the trend in ten years? In twenty years? What will be the “in” thing?

Justin: On that topic, since you guys design for all media—you know, I’ve talked on Motionographer generally about convergence of broadcast and online media. Do you guys see yourself getting involved in this weird new market that’s opening up?

Ken: We already are. (laughter) In fact, when I get off the phone with you, I have to go back and work on a convergent project.

Justin: Yeah? So is this basically Flash delivery of broadcast work or is it more interactive?

Elizabeth: Doing both. We’re doing Flash delivery of video, and then the project that Ken is working on is a little more elaborate than that.

Ken: I think what’s happening now is about elements going from one medium to the other. If we think a couple years back, broadcast was borrowing from interactive and the aesthetics of interface design. Now it’s the other way around, where interactive is borrowing from broadcast.

Justin: I’ve felt that ever since Flash 6, Flash is trying to become as much a broadcast tool as an interactive tool.

Victor: Yeah, we did some promos for a show titled Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends that aired on Cartoon Network. It’s a show created in Flash, so we had to take their Flash files, then bring the package into our world and create animations from there. The whole cross-platform thing, that’s definitely happening.

Justin: I’m curious what convergence will do to trends. There aren’t five channels on the web that you’d go to, like you would on TV; there are five thousand. Will that splinter trends? Will trends stop making sense? Or will they still continue on as we know them?

Ken: Maybe we’ll just go into a hyper-accelerated trend cycle.

Elizabeth: I think that’s possible. The way we’re consuming visual information right now is much more rapid than when our parents were growing up. It’s astonishing. Trends may appear and disappear in the blink of an eye.

Victor: It’s interesting how the internet has changed amount of information that we taken in. At one point, you used to go to BDA once a year to see the best new work from around the would. But now, you see great new work everyday.

Justin: Yeah, it’s either online or you get it in the Stash DVD at the end of the month.

One thing I wanted to ask you about, which we touched on briefly: Do you ever have clients blatantly ask you for a trend?

Ken: No. Never ever.

(much laughter)

Hoon: On a job I’m doing, they asked explicitly for unicorns, lighting bolts—

Justin: No!

(more laughter)

Hoon: Explicitly.

Justin: So what do you do?

Hoon: I have to accommodate them.

Victor: It is our job to give them other options, to say, “Look, is this really what your brand deserves?”

Ken: It’s our job to be trend detectors, too. We have to say, “That idea you have is a trend. Maybe you shouldn’t do that, because everyone will be tired of it before you know it.”

Justin: Do you think, though, that it’s designers getting tired of things or do you think it’s viewers getting tired of things?

Victor: It depends. If you live in New York or LA, you’re constantly exposed to cool imagery, but if you live in middle America, you may not see this stuff. Maybe on the TV or the web. But you won’t see it everyday like we do just walking down the street. So it depends on where you are to determine how quickly you get tired of things.

Hoon: It’s interesting to see what’s happening internationally, overseas. Stuff that’s happening in Asia and Europe and South America is all different.

Justin: What happens a lot of the time for me when I look at international work is that it falls into one of two camps. About 90% of it looks like derivative stuff from the US. And the other 10% is the stuff that looks new. I know that’s terribly ethnocentric, but that’s what it looks like.

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to identify a whole country as being a trendsetter. I remember in 2000 and 2001, for example, it seemed like the United States was trying to follow the Brazilian design aesthetic. Do you guys see any countries that you think are leading the style pack in some way?

Ken: I think a lot of what you’re saying is true in the sense that international styles have evolved from one another and you have this sort of uniform look that gets propagated locally—you could argue about the source of it. For us, I think the things that really register are the things that are outside the norms, the really quirky stuff that makes you say, “What?”

Victor: The thing that’s interesting to me is that a lot of other countries treat design as a way of life, whereas in America, design is just kinda catching on. So we’re being trendy right now, in that sense.

Ken: Don’t trends emerge from culture organically? And then we happen to notice it and propagate it? For example, one of the big trends now is this—I don’t what you’d call it—sort of sarcasm and at the same time nostalgia? That’s where all the unicorns are coming from. I see all these hipster kids wearing “World’s Greatest Dad” t-shirts and stuff from the 80s.

Justin: Yeah, it’s ironic nostalgia.

Ken: Exactly. All this stuff happened before, it’s just that someone noticed it, decided it was a self-contained thing and started to propagate it, popping it into channels.

Daniel: It’s the Urban Outfitters design model.

Victor: Yeah, but you don’t necessarily have to buy into it. I was there for the first go round of t-shirts. You know, I don’t need the afro again. I had one.

Justin: It’s different when you were there for the first time around, because I think it’s easier to recognize nostalgia as nostalgia. When nostalgia is thinking back to some pre-dawn of consciousness, you can convince yourself more easily that things were better back then. But when you actually remember those days, you remember it’s all the same shit over again.

Hoon: Another interesting things about trends—back to the whole “who started what” thing—remember that argument between Psyop and Logan about the iPod spot with Eminem? There was this rift between them about who started what first. The answer is, “Neither of you did.”

Justin: That brings to mind the larger question that Daniel and I were talking about a few days ago: Does it matter at all? Does any of this matter?

Hoon: We’re making television. We’re not curing cancer.

(laughter)

Victor: The point is that they both did cool projects, and that should be the bottom line.

Ken: Design has some kind of importance, at least to us. Following trends only harms us in the sense that you wasted the time you could have spent coming up with something new.

Victor: Most of the designers here in New York, we all know of one other. It’s nothing for us to call each other up and say, “Hey man, that was an awesome spot.”

 

Special thanks to Tamara Walker at double E communications