Promax/BDA From the Inside Out

The view from my room at the Marriott
New York By the Numbers
2 slices of pizza and a bottle of water: $12.24
Internet access at the Mariott for one day: $16.95
Tuna salad sandwich delivered to my room: $27.00
Our greeter at the official kick-off party
A typical cab ride home
Yet another shot of Times Square
Good night

Monday, June 19th

I checked into my spacious room at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square in the early afternoon and immediately tried to take a short nap. I lay in bed listening to the distant sounds of police sirens and the not-so-distant sounds of a boisterous Italian family moving into the room next door before deciding that sleep was going to be impossible.

I threw back the curtains and faced the bewildering array of flickering, pulsing, dancing advertisements so familiar to the locals that they seem blind to them. Broadway ads stretched across ten floors on the sides of skyscrapers; jumbotrons looped Samsung and Coke ads; and down below, a cacophonous jumble of neon and fluorescent lighting blinked excitedly at passersby, despite it being the middle of the day. To look at everything all at once felt like an unfair game of optical arm wrestling. In the end, I admitted defeat and retreated to my computer.

Riding the glass elevators up past the fifth floor earlier in the day, I noticed the lines of registration tables set up for Promax/BDA. All was quiet, with only a couple people tidying things up. The conference starts tomorrow, but I’ve already committed to a couple parties tonight. I’ve been told to prepare my liver for the next four days. Thankfully, my hedonic week in London prior to this trip was the equivalent of training for a marathon.

Know Your Enemy

One thing I’ve noticed about New York that I’ve never paid attention to before is the way police officers use their sirens as instruments. They don’t simply turn their sirens on and let them wail. They create baroque patterns of rising and falling beats punctuated by the angry blasts of their sirens’ full range of sound. I listened to one such performance and could have sworn the cop was doing the opening of Rage Against the Machine’s “Know Your Enemy.” But then I thought about how ridiculous it would be for a cop, of all people, to play a Rage Against the Machine song, and I tried instead to fit the melody into a Peter Frampton tune.

In the evening, I started to get a glimpse of how Promax/BDA really works. It started in a bar. Not just any bar, but the bar in the W hotel on Times Square, a trendy but subdued lounge shot through with streaks of fucshia and illuminated partially by projected videos of liquidy, ambient visuals.

In addition to The Ashy Agency entourage I had already been drinking with, I met a strikingly attractive Puerto Rican woman who works for Imaginary Forces, a designer from Chicago and a business type working for CBS. (Or was it ABC?) We laughed about things I only partially understood and had a couple drinks. (For some reason, my drink of choice was gin and tonic. It made me feel like a grown up. Too bad my Boy Scout haircut made me look like a perpetual fifteen year-old.)

Teaching Young Pups Old Tricks

Speaking of which, at twenty-eight years old, I’m in the strange position of being simultaneously old and young. In terms of BDA, I’m a spring chick. Most of the people here are in their late 30s, 40s and 50s. They are managers and VPs and entrepreneurs with silver domes and power suits endlessly smiling and shaking hands. But in terms of designers—the people actually making the work we’re all here for—I feel like I need a walker and some dentures.

There aren’t really any designers here, of course. But their presence is implied by the constant glow and flicker of countless kiosks and screens showing their work. To meet the designers in person, you need to go to parties. Thankfully there are many of these, usually with an open bar or a tab being picked up by some benevolent soul pumping hands and giving one-armed hugs to everyone in his or her vicinity.

One such party was an intimate little soiree thrown by Lifelong Friendship Society. It was exactly what I’d hope it would be: feel-good vibes wrapped around a rag tag crowd of friendly hipsters. We fished cans of beer out of a cooler and played slow-motion hackey-sack with balloons while listening to the eclectic mix of semi-psychedelic music LFS was spinning. As for LFS themselves, they were great. So friendly and honest and open. Which made me feel like a real cheeseball, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a used car salesmanâ€â€?I don’t know, something plastic and fake.

I stood there talking to them about their work as though I knew what it took to be that creative, as though I understood their side of things perfectly, as though I were a veteran of some sort. They saw right through me, of course, but being the kind people they are, they said nothing and treated me very well. Bless their hearts.

Tuesday, June 20th

BDA’s kick-off party at Crobar. Insane. Bass so loud and low my chest literally thumped in time to the music as a woman in a green and white leotard tumbled from the ceiling, suspended only by ribbons and her own strength. Strobe lights and tunnels of concrete and glass. The raised, purple-lit hands of corporate types trying to find a rhythm they once took for granted. A swirl of perfumes like the intoxicating smog of an opium den.

On either side of me, two nearly naked men on pedestals thrust their pelvises in time to the music, causing their junk to bounce slightly out of rhythm. A short distance away, two nearly naked women bounced their store-bought breasts in a similar fashion. All this made me wonder: if your anatomy protrudes in such a way that its movement is delayed in relation to the rest of your body, which should be in time with the music: your body or the protruding anatomy? One could make a compelling argument for either side.

So why were there half-naked men and women flapping their protruding anatomy around? Apparently there was some kind of charity-raising effort that had to do with disrobing the dancers. A midget wearing a top hat stationed at the entryway explained it all, but it didn’t make sense to me. Nothing made sense to me.

We were all pressing against each other, strangers tangled in sweaty flesh and designer jackets as we either pushed towards or away from the bar, where drinks were free. I arrived with Vasil and Terry from Roger, but soon after we were separated as I made my way back to the bar for the evening’s fifth vodka and tonic. (The event was sponsored by Absolut. Thus, no gin.) Beautiful women surrounded me on all sides, and yet I felt like I was in fifth grade, beholding the unattainably gorgeous high school girls as they walked across the far side of the football field, unlit cigarettes in hand, a weak but sexy gesture of rebellion.

This analogy, I realize now, summarizes my feelings about BDA thus far. I am a perpetual “kid” here, albeit a precocious kid with a decent vocabulary and a penchant for observation. But a kid nonetheless. The only thing that really separates these people from me, I think, is the fact that at some point in their lives, they had the balls to move to New York or LA and pursue a life that, to me, is something only shown on movie screens.

Wednesday, June 21st

The morning kicked off with an attempt to rehearse for my session the next day. Brett and I had already decided to conduct the session as an interview, and we thought it’d be a good idea to run through a few questions before prime time. The only trouble was that I was perpetually hung over and Brett had a lot of business to conduct. We chatted for a half-hour before last-minute arrangements involving surprisingly expensive pitchers of water needed to be addressed.

Brett apologized, I assured him there was no need and left his business suite at the W to return to my room, where I pulled the drapes closed and tried to ignore the incessant flow of caffeinated thoughts running through my head. The most profound of these thoughts was something like, “I wonder which is brighter, Times Square at noon or Times Square at midnight?”

Since sleep eluded me, I put myself in a bathtub of warm water and reflected on the realization that I had absolutely no plans to attend any sessions whatsoever the entire day. Before you gasp and/or leap to conclusions about my arrogance or lack of appreciation, you have to understand something that became very clear to me during Tuesday night’s kick-off party at Crobar, probably at about the time when I was avoiding the swinging junk of an oiled male dancer: BDA isn’t really about the sessions.

The Truth About Sessions

The sessions are there to give the conference a general shape. The titles of the sessions and the names of the speakers indicate an awareness of trends and topics that are relevant to the industry, but actually attending several sessions in one day is an act reserved for overachievers and students. In most contexts, I am both of the these things, but for some reason at Promax/BDA I felt like a rebel outsider, like someone who slipped in through the back door and was quietly stuffing himself on the free crackers and cheese. To attend a session would have been to call attention to myself and thus blow my cover. People would have started to ask questions and wonder about my credentials. And as we all know, I don’t have any.

It was for this reason that I wasn’t concerned at all about how many people attended my own session. I didn’t even know the size of the room we’d be in or if I was to have a microphone. The real payoff had already happened: I was in New York, in the middle of things, moving and shaking and smiling and laughing and meeting people and forgetting names and shuffling business cards and drinking and drinking and drinking. That’s what it was all about.

I’m lying a little bit, I admit. Part of the reason I didn’t attend sessions was because I was feeling lazy and confused and overwhelmed. Taking a week long trip to London right before the conference seemed like a great idea three months prior, but as I turned the faucet on and off with my pruned toes in the Marriott, I realized that perhaps I had put a little too much on my plate.

Camera Two, Ready…

I also had other plans. Around 1pm, after eating yet another fabulous lunch at the Times Square McDonald’s (a “must see” attraction, according to a dilapidated marquis outside the restaurant), I made my way up to 60th and Columbus, where ABC News is headquartered. I met a friend there named Carlos, who’s basically in charge of creating on-air motion graphics for the entire news arm. At least, that’s what I think he does. He has a team of designers working under him as well as two offices and a slew of computers at his disposal, most of which seemed to be running After Effects, so if I’m not 100% accurate regarding his job description, I’m pretty damned close. I’m sure he’ll forgive me.

Carlos is one of those rare people that is constantly bursting with energy. He is also one of the few people I know who speaks faster than me. He loves what he does, which probably explains why he’s so damned good at it. He took me on a tour of the building and showed me strange areas called the “sandbox” and the “tunnel,” where I could imagine dozens of people frantically running about with clipboards and headsets as they struggled to live one second ahead of the images being shown on the television screens in millions of American homes every night. During the time Carlos showed me around the studios everything was calm, but I knew better than to think this place was always like that. The dazzling array of monitors and levers and buttons resembled NASA’s Mission Control, a place built for bursts of intense, frantic, and yet somehow highly orchestrated activity.

At one point I saw the studio where ABC World News Tonight is shot. Around the corner, anchorman Charles Gibson was having a relaxed conversation with someone. The normality of it all was downright weird.

We opened one door and walked into the ESPN area. The frat vibe was undeniable. Tanned twenty-somethings in khakis and golf shirts talked to each other in serious tones about the World Cup and made notes on elaborate diagrams explaining the progression of winners. I was terribly uncomfortable, and I think Carlos was too, as evidenced by his quickened pace and utter lack of commentary on the people and things around us. We put our heads down and continued on, completely unnoticed. (Thank god.)

When we eventually came back to Carlos’ area, I met his design team and instantly felt relieved to be back with “my people.” I thanked Carlos profusely for his generous tour and started to ponder what life would be like working for a network. Riding the subway back to Times Square I pictured myself wearing a headset and pointing at screens, saying things like, “Camera two, ready. Camera two, go! Camera three, camera three…” It didn’t matter that these are not things a designer would ever do or say. I was just trying to come up with some kind of image that felt, for lack of a better word, “networky.”

A Guilty Conscience

When I returned to my room, my conference badge prompted feelings of guilt, so I placed it around my neck like a rosary and decided to explore the grounds a bit. On the sixth floor were a few kiosks playing DVDs of various companies’ work. I watched Buster and Charlie Co’s reels before visiting The Ashy Agency’s triangular formation of plasma televisions playing work from their roster.

I then ambled down to the fifth floor to check out the expo. It seemed like most of the companies were peddling music composition services. Apple had a sizable area set up for demos, but when I went by, nothing was happening. Autodesk had a small space that seemed dedicated to showing off Combustion, but I think they were between sessions when I walked past. Stash had a booth manned by some of their staff, most of whom I met later in the week. It was a pretty quiet expo, and many people explained to me that last year’s was much livelier, with daily ice sculptures commissioned by Stardust and strange tent-like structures spanning the room.

I’ll Buy That for a Dollar

I hydrated myself and prepared for another party in the evening, this one in celebration of Buck’s new New York office. The party was held at a photography gallery near 24th street and the bar, of course, was open. I ordered a trusty ol’ gin and tonic and got to business looking at a decidedly narrow array of photographs. Most of the images seemed to be of young people out partying and/or causing mischief in semi-urban areas. In some cases the subjects were bleeding. In one case, the subject was a headless deer on the side of the road. But for the most part all the images smacked of my generation’s particular brand of irony, not to be confused with every other generation’s brand of irony.

Jeff and Ryan from Buck were delightful people who seemed genuinely excited about their success. I chatted with each of them about the future and tried not to gush too much. It was hard, though; I didn’t have much else to talk about. I know jack shit about New York and LA, and I know even less about the business of motion graphics. I was also starting to feel the effects of my gin and tonics. I was like a reluctant groupie, someone trying to hold back for fear of losing cool points while simultaneously swearing that what the band really needs is a full-time shoelace organizer (me) and could I please just hang out in the back of the tour bus? Please?

Thursday, June 22nd

I woke up early to get ready for our 10am session. I had taken it easy at the Buck party last night and felt pretty okay. I headed over to Brett’s room at the W for a last-minute checkup and then we set off together for our appointed room at the Marriott.

Everything went smoothly. Brett asked me how I got interested in motion graphics, and I explained my long, circuitous path to the industry. We chatted about the birth of Tween and its metamorphosis into Motionographer, covering related topics along the way. I showed a few pieces that were inspiring and we fielded questions from the audience. The inevitable “So do you make any money off this?” question came up, and I answered no. Not yet.

Honestly, I was a little worried that I was boring, but most of the crowd seemed to dig it. Brett drew on his great stage presence to keep things fun and light, and I did my best to say interesting and unexpected things. At one point, I felt that maybe it would have been appropriate for me to get up and do an interpretive dance set to some Blazing Lazer music. That moment passed quickly.

After the session, several kind people came up to me to and introduced themselves, and at that point, I have to admit, I felt a little bit like a rock star. Just a little, though. And I’m sure it won’t last. BDA was a nice little trip through the spotlight, but I’m not going to get all weird and egocentric about it. Well, no more egocentric than I already am.

A Real Rock Star

To cap things off Thursday, I had a 2pm meeting with Jakob Trollback in his suite at the W. I was greeted by an attractive assistant who offered us drinks and ushered me to a comfy couch. Jakob munched on a plate of sushi while we chatted about his career and motion design. You know, just shooting the shit with Trollback.

It was rad.

He’s actually an incredibly laid back guy. Confident, but not cocky. He told me about Trollback + Company’s plans to start doing more live action work, and it occurred to me that even though Jakob’s been doing this for fifteen years, he’s still pushing his own envelope, learning new things, seeing new places. In fact, I’m hoping we can get him to visit SCAD for a little presentation soon.

Final Thoughts

It’s impossible for me to sum up my BDA experience. I’m still processing the long blur of people and parties, looking for some kind of perspective , something that will tell me for certain that yes, this is the right industry for me. Before I left for New York, I joked that I was going to a conference to meet my future. I think I ended up doing exactly that.

While BDA isn’t about the day-to-day realities of motion graphics studios, it did teach me what really powers this industry: connections. Yes, you need creativity to make it, but I saw time and again how creativity can take a back seat to a warm smile and the safety that comes from working with someone (or a group of someones) with whom you’ve formed a bond of trust. Your work may be outstanding, but if no one knows your name, it’s awfully hard to get a job.

I’m not being cynical. In fact, I’m trying to express the opposite sentiment: BDA works because it brings people together. Those people and their relationships — new and old — shape the industry. It’s kind of like a giant orgy with no condoms. In nine months, all sorts of babies will be born from this alcohol-induced frenzy. Some of those babies may be ugly and regarded as mistakes, but many of them will be decent testimonies of their parents’ creative powers.

Somewhere along the way, that analogy totally lost its meaning. Whatever. The bottom line is this: I think everyone should attend Promax/BDA at least once, especially if you’re a student. Go to the parties and put yourself out there. Meet people. Oh, and for god’s sake, make some business cards before you go. I can’t tell you how many times I groped my back pocket and pretended to have forgotten my stack of nonexistent cards. “Shit. Must have left them on the nightstand in the hotel. Here, have a gin and tonic instead.”

About the author

Justin Cone

Together with Carlos El Asmar, Justin co-founded Motionographer, F5 and The Motion Awards. He currently lives in Austin, Texas with is wife, son and fluffball of a dog. Before taking on Motionographer full-time, Justin worked in various capacities at Psyop, NBC-Universal, Apple, Adobe and SCAD.