Editor’s note: It’s always sad to hear that a studio has shut its doors for good. In this Motionographer Guest Post, we reached out to Aaron Ray, one of the founding partners of Legwork, to get some insight into the last 12 years and what led them to close up shop.
Be sure to head over to Legwork’s site for some added perspective on the work they’ve over the years.
In retrospect, I’m not sure why I thought it would be a good idea for my friends and I to start a studio, or why I was convinced it would work. There wasn’t much fear going into it, we just dove in headfirst. I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing the ‘Why’ and ‘How’ of running our business over the past 12 years, and I always come back to this one overarching concept: We were raised on and inspired by the independent, DIY mentality of skateboard and punk culture – Not afraid to fall and get back up, not concerned about the status quo, it’s OK to have fun, and do it for the right reasons with integrity and a positive attitude.
I know that sounds dramatic, but as a company, these ideas defined our brand and our studio culture, our founding principles you could say. And in place of a real business plan (oops!), they acted as our internal compass through good or bad.
The approach felt unique, and I think it was key to our success and longevity. And when we officially closed the doors two weeks ago, I can say it was that internal compass that helped us come to the decision.
A little backstory on how Legwork came to be. I went to school for 3D animation, during “A bug’s life” era. I loved animation, but there was a lack of contemporary design in the curriculum (motion design wasn’t really a thing yet) and I felt uninspired.
Shortly after graduation I switched gears and landed a position as a designer at a record label. To work in such a broad, progressive design aesthetic characterized by early 2000’s indie-music was inspirational and it had a big influence on Legwork’s visual identity and direction later on. It was here that I met the other two founding members. One handled business and operations tasks, the other was a digital designer who worked on various website projects for the label.
Fast forward to 2007, after gaining experience in our specific fields we now had three key ingredients to start a studio – interactive design, business, design/animation. That combination of skills made perfect sense for what was coming. The 1st generation iPhone had just been released, Vimeo was getting ready to support 720P, Facebook was plotting to take over our lives – and as video playback became more accessible on the internet there would be a huge need for animated content, interactive assets, and a level of exploration that could only be achieved through the combination of animation and technology. So, we incorporated under the name Legwork and went for it.
Soon after, we brought on three additional partners…now a total of six. That’s a lot. But all necessary roles for our growth (interactive development, sales/strategy), we offered them ownership as an incentive to take a pay cut and join us.
One lesson I learned that might seem obvious when starting out, is that business partners should all have the same vision for what the company is and what it will be. Considering we were an ownership of six, I’m proud of the fact that we were able to maintain a solid working relationship for as long as we did. Although, in the beginning, there wasn’t much conversation about the future or what kind of work we all wanted to be doing, which probably caused a few rifts down the line, we were just excited about the challenge of owning a studio and doing cool work together.
These first few years were a proving ground, a time to learn and find our bearings. We had some great opportunities doing everything from websites and motion design work for some well-known skate/snow/lifestyle brands, interactive music videos, album packaging (remember CD’s?), and a host of other projects that spanned our collective skill set. A big catalyst that helped launch us into the national and international scene was winning the CSS design award for the first Legwork portfolio site (2009) at SXSW. Suddenly we were being approached by some of the biggest agencies across the country and signing with a rep. We went from crawling to running.
Between 2011 and 2016 was an amazing time at Legwork. It was demanding, rewarding, exhausting, and almost always exciting. One of our principles was to always stay small, and initially, we did that by not having producers. This meant we were not only doing the work, but also keeping open lines of communication with the clients and managing budgets and schedule. Our clients seemed to appreciate this, and I think it created a greater level of trust in us because as company owners we had a bigger stake in making sure projects go smoothly.
In 2012 we began working with W+K Portland, a relationship that continued for years. One of our first projects together was Halftime in America. As a digital companion to Chrysler’s Clint Eastwood Superbowl spot, we created an interactive Youtube page (that launched right as the commercial aired) that visualized all of the social media share connections across the country. Just a few weeks later, we released an animation for the New York Times about how the 2011 debt deal between Obama and Boehner failed. Everything we were doing at the time felt experimental, whether it was a new animation technique or testing out emerging technologies on the web.
At some point, I was no longer interested in offering print/brand design as a capability as we had in the earlier years. Going forward we made a shift to clearly define our two main capabilities as animation and interactive. At the time we were still mainly thought of as an interactive shop, but one of the reasons for starting your own studio is to choose the work you love doing, and we weren’t taking full advantage of our animation skillset. This was just fuel to work harder and keep learning.
Interesting digital and animation projects kept landing. A few standouts include Google Roll-it (a Chrome webGL experiment), spots for Nissan, websites for Laika’s Paranorman and The Boxtrolls, an experimental film for a new social network, and a 3D music video that used rotoscoping to scribble paint strokes over the characters frame-by-frame.
Then we started getting into experiential work. At first, it was a few projection mapping projects. Soon we were collaborating with our friends at Hovercraft to bring a digital and animation offering to their environment design and brand work. It started with in-store screen content, then touchscreen experiences and games, and then full-blown experiential environments. The projects were exciting, they brought a new unknown challenge every time. Some of us loved the projects and some didn’t, which isn’t a bad thing, but here we started to see differing opinions on the companies future.
Then, in 2016, the first major change to Legwork’s ownership happened as we parted ways with one of our founding members. Losing a partner didn’t inherently affect the company, but I can say all of the distractions that the situation brought took a toll. It felt like we were spending 70% of our week dealing with it for almost a year. It was maybe the first time that we had dealt with any real negativity as a company, and I know we were all feeling burn-out from it.
It may have been the exhaustion of that situation, or maybe just a need for change, but within a year-and-a-half two other partners left. The timing was not ideal, as there was still a lot to manage with the split from the first partner, but overall we were able to part on civil terms and can still call each other friends.
This required us to re-evaluate our roles and how to maintain momentum. Not all of us were involved in the business/sales side of the company. We trusted each owner to handle their specific role. While I was always vocal about wanting to push our motion-design capabilities, we mostly left it up to our biz-dev and operations partners to pick and choose projects, as well as scoping and estimating them. So now, with just the three of us, we had to take on additional responsibilities that we hadn’t had to in the past. I enjoyed this change, although it added a lot to our overall workload, I liked the idea of being more proactive in how we would move forward.
In the past, it seemed like many of our animation projects were an add-on to the digital projects, and the budgets were usually much smaller in comparison to the budgets we were getting on interactive work. It just seemed like we were missing something. So we did a little research, talked to some folks in the industry, and started taking a creative-first approach to scoping – making sure we had the optimal team to make a project the best it could be, and priced it based on that, rather than using the schedule or a work-back budget as a way to estimate.
Almost immediately we were getting budgets for motion projects that were double or triple what they were in the past. This allowed us to augment our internal team with freelance talent, which not only boosted the quality of work but made it so we weren’t required to pull a straight week of all-nighters just to meet a deadline. Over these past few years, we did some of our best animation work in my opinion, and we continued to do great interactive work. Things were looking up.
Budgets were getting better, work was still rolling in. At the end of 2018 and start of 2019 is where a few compounding events began to trickle in that started our thought process of potentially closing. Our first employee, who started as an intern in 2009, moved to LA to go freelance (love you Zack!). Then another requested to take the summer off, and shortly after another put in their 2-week notice. This left us with a very slimmed-down animation team, and it felt like a set-back to our plans of building the teams out more. We were also noticing a trend of clients paying extremely late, anyone else notice that? This combined with things like the partnership buyout and our need to hire staff/freelancers made every day a balancing act. To top it off were a couple of rough projects, to a degree we had never experienced in 12 years, and that was a real damper on morale.
So in May, we decided it was time to shut it down. At the end of the day though, it was a choice. It was just a rocky time, and we could have pushed through. In fact, the week we announced we were closing we won a big pitch, and a few other projects rolled in. But when we looked back to our internal compass, and the reasons we started the company in the first place, we realized that vision was not lining up with where we were. Our idea of a family-like team driven by creative, independence, and positivity was being obscured by the culmination of unfortunate situations. It just wasn’t fun anymore. More importantly, we never wanted to be in a situation where we couldn’t support or pay our staff (we’ve seen that happen and it’s lame). We wouldn’t have been able to do any of this without them, and we held them in the highest regard. The future was unknown, so by closing when we did we could make sure to get them a couple more paychecks and give them some time to land on their feet, in addition to paying off any debt and wrapping up projects for our clients. The timing just made sense.
It’s tough to encapsulate a 12-year journey in an article (even though it’s really long, sorry!). There are many details, points, and perspectives that weren’t included, but I’ll just add that we are extremely grateful for this experience, the things we learned, and the friends and colleagues we gained. We feel lucky to be a part of this community and industry, and it’s been amazing to see how it’s changed and grown over a decade.
You are all killing it out there, be proud and keep it up. The future is bright.