Rare Volume’s website thoughtfully outlines the range of work they’ve completed since 2016, illuminating how they have pushed the boundaries of motion design into new interactive territory. Before they became partners, both Jonathan Kim and Andrew Bell were featured on Motionographer in their previous capacities. These articles foreshadow the work they are currently making. Now with two other partners, Allison Keiley and Robert Hodgin, they run the studio Rare Volume in New York City. This Q&A is a deeper dive into their “Hello World, We Are Rare Volume” website launch.
Q&A with Jonathan Kim and Andrew Bell
When you’re at a dinner and somebody asks what you do, what’s your quick answer?
Andrew: My one sentence answer is, Rare Volume is a design and technology studio, and we do the kinds of projects that require excellent design paired with custom software development.
Jonathan: I would add that this is applied to digital experiences, in the physical space, for clients such as museums, institutions, agencies, and design firms.
I think my Mom would understand that description if she was sitting next to you at dinner.
Jonathan: Maybe you can explain it to my mom… but just to go down the list a little bit, our range of work includes things like interactive exhibits for museums and cultural institutions, dynamic way finding systems and generative content for stadiums and public spaces. We also create data visualization content for corporations and brands, and interactive broadcast packaging systems for networks that look and feel very much like traditional broadcast design but have a layer of interactivity. And of course, experiential marketing for retail, which is huge at the moment.
How did Rare Volume come about?
Jonathan: Both Andrew and I started our careers in the world of broadcast and VFX. I worked for many years as a designer and an art director for motion studios all around LA.
Andrew: I started programming at a pretty young age because I have a father who is a programmer. That sparked my interest in code and got me specifically interested in graphics. We always had Photoshop in the house. That got me excited about using tech in service of graphics. I actually started at Adobe as an engineer on the Photoshop team itself. I then transitioned to the world of VFX, operating as a technical director.
Jonathan: We both started our careers in Los Angeles. Around the late 2000s, we both made the jump to digital agencies here in New York, where much of our focus was on translating high-end design aesthetics and technical production into interactive experiences. In many ways, Rare Volume is a natural product of that past experience. Our work really aims to obscure the seams between broadcast and interactive, without depreciating the potential of either practice.
Andrew: Rare Volume came out of a desire to take really high-end broadcast style motion design that has been trapped inside of people’s televisions and put it out in the real world. I was thankful to start my career in service of designers and artists because that really instilled in me, as a technical person, a deep respect for what great design can bring. We’ve built Rare Volume with these two disciplines on equal footing.
How did the four Partners of Rare Volume find each other?
Andrew: I had intended to start a company for quite a while and spent my time looking for the three best people in their respective disciplines. Jonathan and I had done some pro bono work together for Charity Water. Allison Keiley, who is our Head of Production, she and I worked together at Barbarian Group. She was not only excellent at what she did, she was able to really respect both the design and the tech work. Robert Hodgin is our fourth partner and is our Interaction Director. He was a founder of the ad agency the Barbarian Group, where Allison and I had worked. I was a fan of his practice as an artist even before I worked at Barbarian. I called up these three partners, we had tacos, and planned a future together.
Tell me a bit about your staff:
Jonathan: We currently have eight in house. Along with the four partners, we’re really blessed to have an amazing team of senior talent. Alvin Groen, is our Associate Creative Director, Eric Renaud-Houde, Simon Geilfus, and Greg Kepler are our Design Technologists, and Jillian Stevens is our Executive Producer. We operate a lot like a traditional motion graphics studio in that depending on the project and the creative, we’ll ramp up and down with freelance talent as we need.
What do you look for in your freelance hires?
Jonathan: I can speak to the design production, and Andrew can chime in as far as development. A lot of the work we do, once we set the strategy and design direction, we can do in house with the internal creative team. But as an example, we just launched a project that was a real time experience but what fed the real time experience was a lot of pre-rendered content created in Houdini, which is obviously a very heavy 3-D software package. For that we called upon some of our favorite freelancers, real specialists in what they do. We definitely don’t want to skimp when it comes to design and animation.
Andrew: Yeah. And I would say we do the parallel on the technology side. We look for someone who has really deep knowledge to bring in. That would, of course, include the software disciplines we’re involved with, whether that’s someone who has very deep knowledge of cloud software development or knowledge of some of the unique back end systems we develop. We obviously like to use freelance as an opportunity to try out a potential staff member.
Absolutely. I imagine the turnaround time ranges, so can you speak to what the timeline process is like?
Jonathan: Our work with brands on activations and retail usually range from about three to six months. Which can then extend, depending on various roll-outs for additional events and/or locations. That was the case with our SK-II interactive installation. We also take on straight pre-rendered motion projects with shorter, maybe four to twelve-week timelines, at times. On the flip side, our work for institutions and museums and corporate headquarters can be multi-year engagements that spans discovery, strategy, and design, all the way to production and implementation.
One project to call out because it was our largest, was our work for Warner Media headquarters in Hudson Yards, which we did with ESI Design. It was a two-year project that included two touchscreen interactives and an 11-story digital sculpture, and a lot of generative motion graphics content for a range of displays around the building. That definitely was a big undertaking, and a long timeline for the studio. But, not just in terms of timeline and production but also complexity.
With the Warner project, is it “evergreen”, or does it keep updating?
Andrew: That is a great question, and I think points to some of what we’re doing that’s pretty unique. In the case of Warner Media, one of the briefs to us was that Warner wanted to constantly update graphics in the lobby because there’s a lot of high-profile people coming in and out. They want the latest work up at all times, and they do not have the staff to do custom graphics. Part of that technical solution was to build a system that allows Warner Media, who owns everything from CNN to HBO to Cartoon Network, to simply upload clips of shows or movie trailers and then our system automatically applies this broadcast-style graphics treatment that creates really elegant visual transitions between what can be very visually disparate pieces of content.
The trailer for Game of Thrones obviously draws from quite a different visual and emotional palette than a clip from Anderson Cooper’s new show. Part of that design problem was designing a transition and presentation system that feels unique to each clip but also allows them to feel like one unified family. On the technical side, we had to implement all of that in custom software. So we have what we call a “near-time renderer” that pulls down the clips from the Warner Media content management system, does things like hue analysis, color analysis of the clip to inform this renderer, and then we do a render process that takes the visual complexity of the transition system that is too complex to be done in real time. The near-time renderer works not only to generate the visuals but also to schedule them. Warner has the ability to say, “Hey, today, a VIP from HBO is coming through, so it’s important to emphasize HBO.” The system can automatically respond to that type of request.
Amazing. So, with The Shed, those screens are updating via whoever is updating their website, correct?
Andrew: Yeah, your question probably points to something you already spotted, which is, there’s a lot of parallels between what we did for The Shed and what we did for Warner. Even though visually they’re quite distinct from one another, on a technical level, it’s a similar type of software solution. When you talk about digital signage systems, a lot has been limited creatively because it requires so much manual input, both visually and in the scheduling, that you kind of land at the lowest common denominator.
The Shed has a content management system they use in order to maintain the website. Their brief to us was, “We need to control 81 screens in this building without having someone to manually generate graphics or, most importantly, schedule those graphics.”
This unique “near time” approach allows us to elevate what’s possible visually, because it doesn’t require any manual input. That system is constantly looking at that same content management system that’s controlling the website, and we can automatically derive the information we need to schedule the signs. As an example, you’re standing in front of the sixth-floor escalators, and it’s 7:30 PM on a Wednesday, and we know the last show on the 8th floor completed two hours ago, there’s no reason for you to go upstairs. So, the signage in front of the escalator says, “Continue down stairs,” because we know there’s nothing on the floors above you. The signage automatically adjusts based on that house schedule.
We worked with senior people at The Shed to gather a pretty complex table of rules to reflect the schedules and policies they have. We turned those rules into software. The software is able to automatically generate the graphics it requires and schedule those graphics throughout the building.
What programs are you using to make all of this happen?
Jonathan: From a design standpoint, nothing really changes. For The Shed, we started with good old Photoshop and Illustrator, and put all our sketches together. Then we moved into production in After Effects and Cinema 4D. So that looks pretty familiar. But then what happens after that, and also in the intermediate, is what may look and feel very different. Andrew, you want to talk about that?
Andrew: In general, we’re using a programming tool called Cinder. That is an open source C++ framework for doing what people usually call creative coding. That kind of real time graphics, real time audio, and software development, Cinder is really well suited for. One thing we do that’s pretty unique is we’re really obsessed with reproducing what the design team has brought. We try to bring that into the final piece, obsessively. The way this work is often done, those two disciplines are typically somewhat separated. There is a real potential for either to be lost in translation or for the design team to inadvertently design something that would be impossible to implement in software. We have a number of in-house pipelines that allow us to pixel perfectly reproduce something like an After Effects comp, for example.
Part of what we’ve built are these processes and tools that allow a client to preview precisely what they’re going to see in the final piece. You can really get into a bind with the client dimension of this work where you’ve shown a client a comp or a style frame they’re really sold on. Then it finds its way to the developers, who either don’t have the time or sometimes the skill, or reality will not allow that style frame to be manifested in the final piece. As you might imagine, that can lead to some very awkward situations with clients. We, over several years now, have built tools that allow the technical implementation to be one-to-one with what the designers have created.
Jonathan: And to our dev team’s credit, in their continual pursuit to obsessively hit each pixel of the design direction, at times they may hit a wall because they just simply can’t execute something at real time speeds. The benefit of our design team and our dev team sitting shoulder to shoulder is, for a designer, there may be 10 different ways to execute a certain look and aesthetic, right? That conversation, that back and forth, that iteration, we find super helpful. Both for designers and the developers in many of our projects.
It’s so smart to have the balance in house. How does the maintenance post-installation work?
Andrew: It’s a pretty important aspect of this work and it’s distinct from broadcast work, right? One of the things I miss from when I was working at Method doing more broadcast style work was when you might have a pretty brutal time getting to that air date, but once it’s done, it’s done, and you can stop worrying. But with these interactive pieces, we don’t have that luxury. These pieces live for years at a time. They’re dynamic in the sense that they’re pulling in new content constantly or maybe they’re reacting to visitors. Perhaps we’ve never had 50 people in the lobby, and then a high school comes to tour and that’s the first time the system has been stress-tested by this number of people, for example.
So, we build into our systems the ability to remotely verify it is behaving correctly. For example, we have an installation in London for Tom Ford Beauty, if that system were to ever have a problem, I would get an email immediately. We have some pretty sophisticated tools for remote monitoring that really are invaluable for these long-term pieces, in particular. To be a little inside baseball, what typically happens is there is an AV company who is not only responsible for the design of these systems, the installation of these systems, but also they are the first line of defense in the maintenance. We work closely with these AV integrators to educate them on how our software works. Then we collaborate to design diagnostic tools that allow them to explore the kind of common problems that might occur. It’s in our mutual interest for them to be able to do that. Because the more they can solve without our help, the more free time we have, obviously.
And also, location.
Andrew: Yep, exactly. When things are such that we can’t jump on the 2/3 train and go lay eyes on it ourselves, a lot of this becomes that much more important. I like this question because it really gets at the heart of a lot of the complexity of this work that’s not immediately obvious if you just look at an interactive screen and think that it’s primarily a design challenge, or even a software challenge. There really are processes that make this all viable, and we had to learn many of these processes through experience.
So interesting. How many projects do you typically have going on at the same time?
Jonathan: I think it’s safe to say we have two to three projects at various points of production happening on average. I think the most we’ve had running was eight. Production can start sooner and end later for us than a traditional motion design studio. The work that we create, even for agencies, is still very new. A lot of the work we do in the retail space and institutions, we have to get in pretty early to help in discovery and strategy, both design and technically, before being awarded production. And then obviously after design and animation production, we go into code and implementation. In a lot of ways, although having multiple projects in house in production may feel daunting for a small studio, it is at varying points of production, which helps.
Andrew: As you were answering, I was just thinking about how grateful we all are to have agency experience in particular. Because while we are not an agency, we have a lot of familiarity with the challenges they face. And to be honest, a lot of respect for the hard work they have to do because we all used to have to do that work ourselves.
Is there usually an agency between you and the client?
Andrew: Yeah, I think that’s fair to say. It’s not exclusively the case, but it is typically the case.
Jonathan: And that would be the case in both the ad world and the museum/institutional world.
Andrew: ESI Design, a client of ours, really specializes in the type of thinking and concepting this work requires.
Can we talk about budget?
Andrew: Yeah, it’s a totally fair question. I would give a little bit of a hint in saying we’re hiring the same designers that motion studios are, we’re able to pay the rates that that level of talent expects to earn. In some ways the most variance actually lies in the technical portion of this. It’s the part that fits the least neatly into the kind of broadcast pipeline everyone’s familiar with.
It’s something you can’t see visually, per se. It’s more like the plumbing of your house, rather than fancy new doors.
Andrew: Exactly. In the context of budget, one of the things we have worked pretty hard to do is build a software stack that allows us to steadily chip away at the technical cost of these projects. We are encouraged by some of what we are able to do on the technical side that we wouldn’t have been able to do previously. What we want to do with that budget, frankly, is put it towards design.
Do you have a say in the hardware or screen choices, or are you given the parameters and you’ve got to fit within them? Or does it vary?
Andrew: When it’s possible, we like to have input in the hardware choices. That is especially true on the computer hardware. We want to make sure the computer is not only adequate but that it’s also not “overly adequate”. When you’re talking about the kinds of computers that run these systems, that might be a $25,000 to $30,000 computer. Occasionally that’s not necessarily required, but the person who’s specing it has to err on the side of too much power rather than too little. A lot of times we can reduce the cost just by knowing more precisely what it is that we’re doing.
Jonathan: On the creative end, ask any designer about whether they’d like more say or not in these decisions, and of course we want more. What’s been most encouraging and what impresses our clients is when you can work within specific constraints and produce these ideas and visual approaches they may not have thought of.
Andrew: We have pretty technical knowledge of screens, cameras, those kinds of things. Strangely I am THX certified in color calibration. Some of that is just things we learned from working in the VFX world. When we have hardware constraints, that can even be kind of a fun problem to solve. Where we’re saying, “Okay, well, if this is the hardware we’ve been given, what’s the most beautiful thing we can do using it?”
Tell me about one of your favorite projects.
Jonathan: Reuters TV was one of our first clients and they really understood our in-house capabilities with design, motion, and tech. They asked us to partner with them on their Reuters TV interactive news platform. Our design team led the entire broadcast package. It looks like a broadcast package you’d see on TV with your openers, closers, promos, breaking news, lower thirds, and dynamic transitions. But what we’re most proud about, especially with what this means for the future of broadcast, is that this is a fully interactive channel because of what we were able to do with the help of our dev team.
Andrew: What we do for Reuters is what I would call “cloud rendering”. My team worked with Jonathan’s team to translate designs into code that runs unassisted. What I love about this project is it points to a totally new class of design work. This is the kind of project that really is only possible through automatic software rendering that has been shaped through the type of broadcast design process that many of your readers are familiar with. So that’s one of my favorite projects as well, because it points to how broad this work actually can be.
Jonathan: Having started in the world of graphics packages in Los Angeles, I really do love and appreciate it. There’s a certain aesthetic from that world which is just a beautiful balance of graphic design and motion design. For a while, that whole industry was really struggling. We do think that our work on Reuters TV points to a bright future for broadcast design in the interactive space.
Yeah, it’s beautiful. So, where do you see this all going? What’s the future like?
Jonathan: I do think all this points to a certain potential and future for, not just Rare Volume, but motion designers in general. Talking to my friends back in Los Angeles, and even here in New York, a lot of them in the VFX world have gone to VR and AR, and a lot of my friends have really awesome jobs up in Silicon Valley in tech. We think the work we’re doing at Rare Volume is opening up a new flavor of work and industry with potential for designers and animators who are used to executing, and fell in love with, a certain level of aesthetic and visual beauty.
Andrew: What’s exciting about this type of work is that we get to regain some of that wonder people in the past have had about something like movie visual effects or even those early days of motion graphics where you had never seen anything like that before.
Jonathan: And lastly, much of our work also requires a level of user experience thinking that many motion designers haven’t been exposed to. We think that’s very exciting to be creating work that invites the audience to engage with actual, functional, working interfaces, that drives the experience. That’s what really excites us as designers and developers– the idea that design and technology can push us forward even further in the future.