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Design Philosophy and Film: Josh Norton at BigStar
Josh Norton shares insights from his 15 years of operational experience at his New York studio, BigStar.
Today's guest, Josh Norton, has created motion design work for some of the most biggest shows on Television. His studio, BigStar, has developed MoGraph work for Game of Thrones, Fear the Walking Dead, and the most epic show of all... Marie Kondo's Tidying Up. On top of that, Josh's studio designed work for Oscar-winning Free Solo documentary (which was coincidentally the working title of Return of the Jedi... that's a joke).
In the podcast Joey digs deep to figure out how BigStar ticks, what keeps them afloat, and how the world of broadcast and film design differ from traditional advertising.
A lot of knowledge is unpacked in this rich conversation, and if you're looking to start your own studio then this conversation is going to help set you off in the right direction. Listen closely to Josh's wisdom and take notes!
Josh Norton Show Notes
We take references from our podcast and add links here, helping you stay focused on the podcast experience.
Josh Norton Transcript
Joey Korenman: The 2019 Oscar winner for Best Feature Documentary was a movie called Free Solo. It follows climber Alex Honnold as he attempts to do what no human has ever done, climb the enormous wall known as El Capitan with no ropes, also called free soloing. The documentary will make your palms sweat profusely. It's a fantastic film. While watching it, I kept noticing these brilliant animations throughout that tracked Alex's ascent up the rock phase. I watched the credits and I wasn't too surprised to see that BigStar had done the film design.
Joey Korenman: On the podcast today, we have Josh Norton, Founder and Executive Creative Director of BigStar, a killer studio based in New York that has been around for just shy of 15 years, which is impressive as hell in this industry. BigStar is known for their amazing work in broadcast and film design. They've worked with just about everyone and their project list is something to gawk at. They've done promos for Fox NFL Sunday, ESPN, Fear the Walking Dead, and Game of Thrones, just to name a few. They designed the show package for Marie Kondo's Tidying Up on Netflix. Of course, they film designed the Oscar-winning Free Solo.
Joey Korenman: In this chat, Josh and I talk about the world of broadcast and film design and how that world is a little different than traditional advertising. We talk about how Josh and his team built BigStar from the ground up and have kept it flourishing for so long. We get into design philosophy and what it's like to work on a film and much more. I have to say, I learned a crap load from Josh, and I think you will too.
Joey Korenman: Josh, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. I'm a big fan of BigStar. I'm really excited to chat with you. Thank you.
Josh Norton: Yeah. Well, thanks for having me. It's exciting to talk to you.
Joey Korenman: Right on. First off, I want to talk about something that was really cool. As I was doing research on BigStar, your studio has been on my radar like on and off, and it was weird. I actually didn't realize how many pieces of work you've done that I have seen or crossed paths with over my career. I saw that you are almost at 15 years as a studio. That's pretty astounding, because most studios don't last that long. I was curious if you could just talk about what do you think has enabled your studio to achieve longevity.
Josh Norton: I think you have to start really young.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. Before you have children, right?
Josh Norton: Yeah, that helps a lot, and then don't have children. It's funny. My girlfriend says BigStar is my first life. It is a whole pursuit. It really becomes your life's work when you start a studio and you mean it. You want to have success. You want to play with the big dogs and work with the best networks, on the best shows, and tell the best stories, and help make Oscar Award-winning films. It becomes your life's work. It takes just a lot of dedication, and love, and hard work. I think it takes a lot of luck too. We could go into details, but I think those are some of the key ingredients.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. I actually want to dig a little bit about... I know that you're only half kidding when you said don't have children. I've met a lot of studio owners who have children and some don't have children. I'm just curious, of course, I have children and it did actually affect my job. When I was running a studio, it made it a lot harder. Frankly, starting a family was one of the things that turned the steering wheel on my career a little bit. I'm curious, in your opinion, is the effect of starting a family really just that you have less bandwidth, like less time available or is it more of a focus thing?
Josh Norton: I can't speak for persons that don't have a family, at least one that I've started. It's hard exactly to say. I would venture to say that the building of a studio and the interactions you have with people and the stories that you build with those who you work with everyday becomes a family in proxy in some ways. I'm a family-oriented person. I think that has informed the way I run the studio on a business level and also on a creative level, and viably like to promote around here is a family vibe. We are small, 15 people, give or take, plus freelancers. I would say, "Look, there's a family vibe around here, I don't think it's any coincidence that I give a lot of energy to the company like you would a family." Now, if I will still have a family tomorrow, would that take away from the amount of time and energy I could spend on this shop? I would say absolutely.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. I would agree with you. This is an interesting topic and it's one that I'm definitely interested in exploring more on this podcast because a lot of my contemporaries in motion design are now... I'm 38, I'm in my late 30s, and I have a lot of people I work with that were a little younger than me, a little lower than me. Everyone gets to the stage and you've either started your family or, in my case, my kids are eight, and six, and four. It really does reorient you a little bit. It's interesting to hear you take on it as someone whose child is actually a studio, which is good.
Josh Norton: Yeah, it is like that. I'm also a New Yorker. There are special set of circumstances living in New York and raising children in New York that has a different type of pressure to it, both financially and I think time wise. There are easier places to raise a family than New York City for sure.
Joey Korenman: Yeah, absolutely. Well, cool. Let's talk about the studio a little bit more. I listened to your interview with Joe Pilger on the RevThink Podcast. Joe has been on this podcast. He and I get along really, really well. One of the things that Joe said when I interviewed him was that what he likes to help studio owners do is figure out their unique positioning so that they can... Before we started this interview, we were talking about Viewpoint Creative, a studio that I used to do some work with in Boston. You guys are in that same space, doing broadcast graphics, and network branding packages, and things like that. You're two very different companies. How do you position BigStar? If a client says, "Why should we go to you versus loyalkaspar or some other studio that does on paper the same thing?" What's different about you guys?
Josh Norton: That's a hard question to answer because we don't look at our identity as a studio, we don't look at our identity in context of other studios. We're allowed to be very uniquely who we are. It's not how we are different from Viewpoint or loyal or these other competitors of ours. We take things day by day and do our work. We are not a "process-driven" designer production company. We're results-driven production company and design company. What I mean by that is that every project to us is a unique set of circumstances, unique set of problems and opportunities. I would say that we're very, very good at communicating.
Josh Norton: We're not somebody who defines ourselves or our company by what our capabilities are. It's more about the situational creative, flexibility, pivoting, and then ultimately being able to deliver extremely high production value and design value. I don't know how much that sets us apart from other companies. There are so many amazingly talented companies out there that are just as smart and extraordinarily hardworking. This business is just people at the end of the day. I think a lot of it has to do with relationships, connections you have with clients that you built over decades and many successful projects. I look at it as a people-driven industry, a relationship-driven industry, and we're in it for the long haul.
Joey Korenman: Yeah, that makes a ton of sense. I'm trying to think of other studios that I follow and that I know our students are big fans of. They sell their services a little differently than you just did. I guess that, ostensibly, every studio wants to be I guess results-driven, meaning that when the client comes to them with a business problem that can be solved by design and by animation that they want to do that. A lot of studios lean forward with their chops, their ability to do a certain thing really well, photorealistic 3D, or visual effects, or very metaphor-driven storytelling.
Joey Korenman: What I noticed about BigStar, and this is what reminded me of Viewpoint, is that it's almost impossible to pin down a house style. You guys can just do it all. I'm wondering, as you're marketing your studio, is that a challenge? Because you have pieces that are really live action driven and then some that are editorial. I wanted to talk about the work you did later on with the Miles Davis documentary where the execution is incredibly simple. Then, on the other hand, you have this Game of Thrones promo that's photorealistic 3D, very abstract, cool concept. How do you wrap that up and tell a potential client this is what we do?
Josh Norton: It's really not about the "what" to us or the "how" exactly, it's about why we do what we do and what our focus is as far as applying our talents. What are we trying to do, and why? The why really is in service of the story. We've been working on elevating stories for 15 years. To us, that means we really have to get into what makes that story, that towel that's being told and that brand that's being woven through narrative special. What are the challenges, what are the opportunities, what kind of materials are available? We don't think through the box. We think through the lens of we can do it all. What is the story really calling for? What does it really want?
Josh Norton: With that philosophy, you're right. You end up getting involved in a lot of different techniques and a lot of different ways to execute. We are not a style-driven company. We don't have a house style. I think that we have principles that guide us and that created many different styles. Those principles are very simple. I think a lot of them is driven here by creating timeless work, work that you can look at in 20 years and say, "That's good design, and that's good production, and that's good storytelling." Those are the things that guide us rather than saying there's a specific style that we adhere to.
Josh Norton: We like to come into things open-ended, have a conversation, figure out what the director, or showrunner, producers neither were collaborating with. Know what their dreams are, what their story needs, et cetera. Then, we start to weave different visual constructs together in order to help tell that story. When I say tell that story, it is a really wide net. We're talking about five-second teasers that end up on Instagram or two-minute long lead ImageFast or interstitial graphics and title sequences. These are all really just stories, and we're just here to help tell them.
Joey Korenman: That's really cool. Yeah, I love that. I'm just thinking that, in a way, it's a contrast to if I see something that... One of my favorite studios is Oddfellows, and if I see something they did and I want something like that, I would go to them. There's a lot of studios that get word that way. It sounds like what you're saying is that essentially your unique selling proposition in your domain of genius is that it doesn't matter what the problem is, you have the Swiss Army knife of creative tools to solve it. I think that that's really helpful in the world of broadcast design.
Joey Korenman: When I look at the work that gets a lot of likes and views in the world of motion design, a lot of it is this really well animated clever movement, neat illustrative design, that kind of stuff. You don't see as much of the really graphic design driven stuff, broadcast branding, and ideas, and promos, and things like that which have amazing design. Sometimes the animation is really simple, sometimes it's editorially driven. It's a little bit harder to pin down as an after effects artist looking for inspiration I guess is what I'm saying.
Josh Norton: Sure.
Joey Korenman: I was wondering if the fact that BigStar's work is in that world of it looks like graphic design in motion which to me, when I got into motion design, that was the look, the eyeball studio, the Shiloh, that kind of stuff that was what everyone was looking at. It's shifted a bit. Is that your personal taste that drew you to the world of broadcast design? Or is it just that these are the clients you've cultivated and that's the appropriate tool that you're using that type of design?
Josh Norton: Well, I think a lot of the work we do lives in a cinematic phase. I'm extraordinarily grateful for that because I love that space. There is that timeless quality to it. There is that sense of gravitas. You also have undivided attention from the viewer when you're in the business of making film series work. We create gravitas many times with piloting work that we do and the animations that we do. We're not really trying to fly around in the newest way that motion graphic designers can figure out how to get tied to come on screen. There's an emotion, and a weight, and an effect that we're trying to achieve that many times, this and that. That's, I think, a big part of it.
Josh Norton: As far as studios having a signature look and a signature thing that they refine over time, I think that's fantastic. I really admire the refinement and focus that they're able to achieve. For us, that isn't really in our DNA. We don't really work with advertising agencies very often at all, and it's because we don't really do the same thing over and over again. We don't really like to get boards that require us to be the same thing we've done before. When clients call us, we expect to do something new. We want to raise the bar. All of that adds up to us being a really versatile studio as far as capabilities and design approaches.
Joey Korenman: That's great. It must be really fun for the staff too, because there's always something new to figure out. I want to talk a little bit about, I guess, the business end of that. Looking through your work, and by the way, everyone listening, we're going to link BigStar's site in the show notes and every project we talk about, we'll link directly to it as well. You've got a humongous range of looks and styles, but you've also got a very big range of I would say scope. You have projects that are one promo for a show or a new season of a show, maybe it's one 30-second spot. Then, you've also done full-blown branding and graphics packages.
Joey Korenman: One example I saw was for the cooking channel. You developed this whole visual vocabulary and a whole concept. I'm curious about what it looks like when you're bringing those jobs in. I'm familiar because in my career, I worked on many 30-second spots. I know what that's like. Other than being a cog in a wheel working on these things, I've never pulled in a full-on branding package. I'm curious when it comes to the business side of bringing in a $50,000 one-off spot versus maybe a quarter of a million or half-million dollar yearlong project, is there a difference in the way that you land those projects? Or is it just there's another zero on the end of the bid?
Josh Norton: It's different. Every project is different, but certainly scale has a lot to do with the way you process it throughout, the way you begin on a half a million dollar project versus a $50,000 project, and the timelines, and budgets, of course. It is a bit of a different arena altogether. Most of the time, when you're talking about big broadcast, redesign packages, or refreshers, you start with a pretty robust pitch process. You're up against three, two, five. If they want to be rude, six or seven prime companies that are all awesome. You've got to come up with the best idea and the best articulation of that idea.
Josh Norton: We've been pitching, and winning, and executing rebrands for over a decade. Every single one is different. We sometimes pitch one idea, sometimes we pitch five. There's a wide range of ways that you can and should approach. I think getting to know your audience, getting to know who you're working with, what their position is creatively and hierarchically in the network I think is really important. You have to do as much homework as you can to get to know the people you're working with and get to know the content that you're working with in order to best strategize. There's a lot of cerebral sweat that goes into that whole process.
Josh Norton: It truly is a team effort to get all of that information together, to get all of those conversations together and come up with the right pitch. Some companies have a one size fits all version of that situation, we really don't. Again, we're not a step and repeat kind of company. We like to try a lot of different things. We like to keep it fresh and new. All that being said, there's just a ton of frontend work that goes into working on those big redesigns versus a promo, whether it's a 60-second campaign establishing promo that you're making or it's a small teaser. Usually, you get started right away. You get into, "All right, let's have a chat. Okay, let's get a sense of the story.
Josh Norton: Let's do some research. Let's start to throw down some ideas. Let's start to throw down some frames, some references, even some scripting, and really get things moving right away." Whereas there's definitely a longer lead when it comes to those bigger projects. The business of it all is extraordinarily different as well as far as when and how you get paid and the mechanics of the project. Those are wide ranging ideas, but I hope that helps answer the question.
Joey Korenman: Yeah, definitely, it does. I want to talk a little bit more about pitching. I wrote that down because that's what I assumed if there was one key difference, then that would be it, is that as the budget crosses some threshold, all of a sudden, I would imagine you're expected to now pitch for that project. Obviously, pitching has been a very contentious subject in our industry and in other industries. There's the whole no spec movement and things like that. I'm curious if we could talk a little bit about your feelings in general about pitching in our industry.
Josh Norton: It's a mix fact. You can't put it all into one box really and say, "Pitching is this one thing." Because again, it's all about people. It's like, who are you pitching to? What is your relationship with those people? Have you had successful pitches with them? Do they have a good reputation? Do you feel a connection to a project and to the people that you're collaborating with on the client side? These are really important things. I feel like you have to really think about what your involvement means when you pitch, what the environment and the setup of the pitch is before you agree, really just give it a think. We're excited to pitch on projects.
Josh Norton: We think we have an interesting, unique point of view that we want to share. Typically, pitches for us, if we win the job, fantastic. If we don't win the job, usually, we make it, make some real content. Introduce yourself through your work and through your thinking to a new client or a new area of the industry. That's fantastic. I look at pitches as a great opportunity generator. You just have to, I think, look at it holistically and really take your time and understand that it's about relationships. There's a lot of other ins and outs that go into that. If you feel like you're being asked to do something that you just can't do, you shouldn't do it. Be aggressive. Challenge yourselves.
Josh Norton: Try to get outside of your comfort zone as a company. What I would say also, at a certain point, you have to realize there are certain things that you're not ready for or that you're not going to be particularly good at. Make sure you measure that as you get into a pitch situation. Because, typically, pitches cost money. You don't make money doing pitches, you spend the money that you're given. Typically, you overspend as ideas circulate, and new things come around, and new conversations happen with the client. You tend to continue to extend yourself until you created this, hopefully, a robust, really smart pitch at the end of the day that has probably cost you a lot of money.
Josh Norton: There's just a huge investment, both the time, energy, and finances. You should take that seriously. That's something that I've learned through the years. Don't be afraid to ask the tough questions to really give yourself the best chance of being receptive during the process for both your time, and your energy, and work. Also, really know what you're getting into and know the subject that you're working on. That's, in general, my philosophy on how we approach pitching. I think that if you do it the wrong way and you have the wrong expectations or you don't really look at it as a relationship builder, I think pitches can be very painful.
Josh Norton: I think it's about the right strategy and right philosophy coming into it and knowing that, hey, you're not going to win every pitch you've given or you're not going to win every pitch that you partake in. It's a long drawn up process of building trust and relationships and really challenging ourselves to do new award-winning and pitch-winning work.
Joey Korenman: I love that philosophy. I think I heard a story from Brian Krassenstein, the actor, about he had a similar thing where he was going on all these auditions and never got any of them, and then at one point realize that he's looking at it the wrong way. His job is to audition. It's not to get a job. It's not to get a part. That happens if he does his job well, and his job is to audition. Looking at it, this is part of the process of running a studio and developing. The other thing that you said that I wanted to call out to everybody was that it's an opportunity to either form a new relationship or deepen an existing relationship, whether or not you get the project.
Joey Korenman: The world of broadcast design seems a little bit more relationship-driven than I guess the other side of motion design. Let me try to explain this better. There are new studios springing up that they're getting a lot of work just through their Instagram feeds or just based on their social media and them just putting out good work. Then, Amazon see something and they hire them to do a job. You don't often hear of CBS discovering a new studio that way. You have to go out and go to PromaxBDA and do all of these other things. I'm curious, how do you approach that side of it? How do you network and make sure that you're forming these relationships? It helps that you're in New York City, obviously. Like if someone was starting now, how would you tell them to go out and meet the people that will one day be their clients?
Josh Norton: I think that's a really tricky question. It's unique for everybody. What are your strengths? What are the things that you really want to get into? For us, BigStar, we've had Carson Hood as our executive producer for coming on four years who really is a relationship builder and manager. He gets us out into the world, and in front of people, and in meetings for networks, for streaming services, other platforms, agencies, et cetera, et cetera. Carson is a very well connected executive producer who is relationship oriented. He fits right into what BigStar needs. I wouldn't want to really go at it without him at this point or without somebody like him.
Josh Norton: It's very, very rare to find somebody like Carson that knows the studio, knows what the heart and soul of the company philosophy is, understands its owner really well, loves the creative, loves the creative process and all the challenges, and also knows the industry and is extraordinarily good with names, and just dedicated. That's really, really, really hard to find. That is our answer today as far as a company that's been around for 15 years. You're not going to find that person in the first five years, because you need to be established to get a person like that, because they are really functioning at a very high level.
Josh Norton: Before that, we had a series of reps which was really helpful for us but I don't know that that's a great idea for people after they get through their third and fourth years. I think the first couple of years, you just need to find a way to get in the game. Just get at the table, get opportunities to show your work, don't try to make money. That's what I think. It's not really about how much money you make initially, it's how much work that you can do and the relationships that you can build. I would say by any means necessary, do the work and gain some trust. If you're a young studio, maybe you're working with younger creatives on the agency or network stuff.
Josh Norton: Then, you guys can grow up together. That's a really good way to just get some loyalty and some exposure. It's a really magical time at least, as I remember it, 15 years ago when I started BigStar. It's exciting when you can just go at it and not really worry about a huge payroll and not really worry about the intricacies of running an older business. You can just go for it. You can have fun. You can take rests. You should be doing all those things for longevity of your company. Where I think when you're just starting on, it's all about that. It's you finding your feat. As you find your feat, I think you just have to do work. You have to get yourself out there and maybe get a rep and see how many people you can get introduced to, and take it from there I guess.
Joey Korenman: Yeah, that was all amazing advice. You echoed a lot of what Erin Sarofsky said. She came on the podcast recently. She said that one of the smartest thing she ever did was she made relationships with people who were at the time very low level, so much easier to get to. Then, as their careers... One of her first clients ended up directing an Avengers movie eventually, it worked out. That's really, really smart. It's hard to play the long game like that when you're starting off and you're worried about just making payroll and stuff like that. That's definitely the way to do it. I would love, at some point, to have Carson on the podcast.
Joey Korenman: Because you're definitely right that finding an executive producer that has the right combination of the insight into the industry plus the personality to be a salesperson is super rare, and that's awesome. Also, when I contacted Carson to reach out to you, Josh, I found out that he went to Texas Christian University, which is in Fort Worth where I grew up. I like him already. I think we get along. I want to talk a little bit about the creative process now.
Josh Norton: Sure.
Joey Korenman: You alluded to it a little bit. Take one of these network rebrands or something like that. I've been an animator on a few of those. I am always just astounded by how much talking happens before. One pixel has been laid down in Photoshop. It can be weeks of just mind maps and things like that. Every studio does little differently. I'd love to hear what the process looks like when BigStar gets an opportunity to jam on something like that. How do you begin that exploration phase?
Josh Norton: That's a great question. Because I think we just take the situation and go for it, try to own it, try to have a real point of view. Don't try to just read your clients as, "Oh, I think they want this." Just try to do the best damn work you can do. Know your stuff. Know the network. Know their stars. Know where their design has been on that space. Give yourself as much of a knowledge base as you can possibly get. Then, to be corny, grip it and rip it. Make some awesome stuff. Make some stuff that just reads really exciting, not only to what you think is going to excite the client but it excites you and that it excites your team.
Josh Norton: When I say exciting, what I mean is create some extraordinarily high level of work. Challenge yourself to create something that you really dig and that feels right, and that has a point of view. Then, I think that's your best chance of going into and winning pitches. Now, as far as how the mechanics and how the back and forth that works with the client side, creative or whomever you're speaking with, it's different every time. You have to be groomed a little bit. Some people want to check in a bunch. Some people want to be surprised at the end. I like to do a combination of the two. I think that as a design company, it's your mission to have a point of view.
Josh Norton: If you don't, then they're just going to do that should in-house. It's like, what are you there for? We can hire Photoshop people and illustrator people. We can hire after effects artists. There's a lot of those really cool, and talented, and dedicated people out there that do that stuff at networks. When an outside studio is hired, they are hired because they're going to bring something different, something that they could not have imagined in-house. That's what you have to do.
Joey Korenman: Now, I've seen creative directors leading these exercises, these explorations in different ways. On the one hand, you have artists that like to feel things out and almost go with their instincts. Then, I've worked with a couple that will literally get into psychographics and they like to look at data, and demographics of the network, and viewership trends, and things like this, and look at Nielsen to really be able to dial in like, okay, this network is for females between the age of 45 and 55 primarily and with buying intent. Do you ever look at stuff like that or do you come at it more from like, my gut says that this is going to be a cool direction to explore?
Josh Norton: Not to give you a soft answer, but I think the right thing is a combination of the two. Know your stuff. Know who your audience is. Know what the network history is. Again, know their programming really well, what works for them, and what they aspire to be. You want to be a rendering of what a network, or a show, or story, whatever it is, what they aspire to be, their highest self in a way. You have to figure out how to capture that. You're not going to capture it just by going in to your own head.
Joey Korenman: Interesting.
Josh Norton: It's like, don't go in your own head. At the same time, you have to really dig it. Or else, I think you're not being true to what your potential is.
Joey Korenman: Right. I'm looking at right now, I'm actually on your side. I'm looking at the cooking channel branding that you guys did. Maybe we can dig into that a little bit. It's kind of a case study, because I'm always curious really to get in the weeds a little bit. The concept that you ended up executing according to your site, it says, "Our focus was on what makes cooking special. We wanted to visually recreate the smells, tastes, and textures of food." Then, you did that visually and it's beautiful. It's a really amazing concept that works perfectly for that network. Now, how many other ideas are in the graveyard to let that one bubble to the top?
Josh Norton: That pitch was fairly unique. We only came to the table of one concept, which I love to do.
Joey Korenman: Wow.
Josh Norton: You don't always have permission to do that. Sometimes you get to the point as a creative company where you don't need permission. When people really want the ideas and... I don't like to push back too hard, I do like to please, I like to give people what they want. A network comes to us and they say, "We're talking to three companies. We're talking to four companies. We like three ideas from each." I'm like, "You have to look at 16 ideas. You have to look at 12 ideas. What's the matter with you, guys?" At the same, it's like, "Okay, that's standard and that's okay. Sure, we can up with three ideas, why not?"
Josh Norton: The way this pitch developed was our initial instincts really brought us from the beginning all the way to the end. Our initial instincts works and wants to create something that had a photographic, cinematic, textural, real quality to it. Because what they had done in the past is so digital and it had this digital coldness that I really didn't like. It felt like there was a bunch of geometric design over photography that just wasn't really helping. It feel like something you would want to eat, or something you would want to taste, or it didn't feel related in organic food. Food is such an organic and natural part of our lives, hopefully, natural mechanic part of our lives that...
Joey Korenman: That's right.
Josh Norton: It speaks for itself. It's part of us. I didn't want to create a digital rendering of that. I wanted to show it for all its glory, and all its excitement, and all its color and beauty. That's really was our initial instincts, and that ended up being a thing that we carried all the way through to the final pitch. Luckily, for everyone, that's how we executed the entire project.
Joey Korenman: Cool, yeah. I'm always interested in hearing the creative backstory to these things because for the first part of my career, I didn't have a lot of visibility into that, and so a lot of the work... I think this is true for a lot of our students now that are starting out. In the beginning, you're driven by this desire to make cool stuff. That can lead to you skipping steps and saying, "Well, okay, I need to come up with a brand for a food network. Okay, well, let me pick a color palette that make sense for that." Instead of thinking, "Well, wait a minute, I need an idea, I need to have something to say about foot first."
Joey Korenman: The way that you just walk through that was actually really helpful. I'm sure our listeners are going to enjoy hearing your thought process. Typically, on a typical job, I'm assuming that even if this was the only idea that you pitch to a client internally, I'm sure there's conversations with you and your team where people are throwing things against the wall and seeing if they stick and all that. That's one of the things that was really shocking to me when I finally got into a real studio and saw how this worked, was how bad ideas are okay too.
Josh Norton: That's right.
Joey Korenman: You actually have to unearth the bad ideas to make room for the good ideas to happen. If you need to come up with three ideas for the Speed Network or something like that, I don't even know if they're still around, how many ideas do you think you and your team actually throw out before you find three that work?
Josh Norton: Now, that's hard to say. We try to be efficient with our ideation and see things coming. Me and our trained leadership over here, we've been doing this for a while. We definitely don't want to linger on things that we feel are either untrue to the branded story, or just don't excite us visually, or feel a little old hat. I think what happens often is that you have a bunch of mediocre ideas and then you have a few really good ones. Those mediocre ideas hang out because there's something about them. In other words, there's a font choice, there's a color, there's a type set, there's an image, or whatever.
Josh Norton: Ultimately, I think those things start to orbit around the larger ideas and it becomes a supporting element to something bigger. I think it's okay to make a mess. I don't think when you're designing you should be banging your head against the wall. I don't think you should try to force things. I also believe like, hey, if it doesn't feel right for long enough, you have to be willing to let it go. The cutting room floor is the most populated place in a working studio. That just means you got to be quick about it. Look at a thing, feel it out, try some stuff, think about it, write about it. If it doesn't reach, just get rid of it.
Josh Norton: Be confident that you're going to have a lot of ideas, because you are. The longer you're in this business, hopefully, the faster and higher quality those ideas will continue to be. I think part of it is just being confident enough to let mediocre go and really shoot for larger things. If that mediocre or good thing hangs out, perhaps there's something to learn or pull from that and apply it to something that has the potential for greatness. That's I think part of our process for sure.
Joey Korenman: I love the line let mediocre go, that's excellent. That's really good advice. Let's talk a little bit about the makeup of your team. You get a project, you come up with a concept, the client buys off. Now, I've worked in studios that do these two different ways. I've worked in studios where the creative duties are really segmented into people who specialize. You've got the designer who does boards. You've got the animator that takes those boards and animates them. You've got the editor that then puts it all together. Then, other studios, you get generalists who can do a little bit of each thing and so everyone just jams in a way that they can. I'm curious how it works at BigStar.
Josh Norton: It's really about the people. For us, we keep our team together. We keep our team learning and growing. We don't have these boxes of like, hey, we have space now for five after effects animators, and three 3D guys, and then we need a 3D over here, and then we need four designers, and an art director, and two CDs, and then an executive creative director, which is the way our office is laid out. That's because people we love to work with, people we're excited about seeing every day and making great design and animations and moments with every day happen to be those things.
Josh Norton: For us as a studio, I would say that we get together as a team because we want to be together as a team because we complement each other both in talent, and point of view, and personality. The rest works itself out. I think with a smaller studio like ours, between 15 and 25 people, you're still allowed to do that. It's like we don't have an HR department that's telling us what we need or we don't have a top-down structural ideal. We have people that we know are going to make great stuff with us and that we want to see every day. That's how we build our company. So far, so good.
Joey Korenman: Yeah, that's a really cool idea that you can... I guess I don't know if I'm reading too much into it, but you're building the creative a little bit around your team as opposed to trying to break jobs up into design and animation and editorial so that you can create this factory assembly approach. Like if you have someone on your team that's a great editor but can also do a little bit of design, you know that you can plug them in in a certain way. Actually, does that influence the execution that you guys come up with knowing who's on the team that you can use as a resource?
Josh Norton: Well, I think it depends on who you ask around here [inaudible 00:47:35]. For me, I have the privilege to run a studio in general as a creative. To me, that means ideas and looks first. We'll bite off of a big idea that has a lot of executional means built into it. I'd always feel like we're just going to have to figure this out. I don't mind making ambitious promises to our clients because we will do what it takes to excel at those things that we promised. It's tough. That's a tough mission to accomplish sometimes. We do not think through our tools. We don't always think through what talent is available.
Josh Norton: We try to come up with the best ideas and let those guide us through at least the initial part of the creative ideation, process, and set the stage for the project. I will say that we do not design creative around our team. Our team is flexible enough and our producers are well connected enough to bring in specialists as we make ambitious creative decisions. We're able to follow through.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. That's one of my favorite things about working in this industry, is those I guess "oh shit" moments where you see a concept or a board that someone made and you're like, "Oh, that's so cool!" Then, you take a minute and you say, "I'm going to have to figure out how to do that. I'm not sleeping for a few days." That's always the funnest part for me, is figuring out how to do it. That's why I loved being an animator because I could work with these brilliant designers who design things I would never in a million years come up with and then it's my job to figure it out and they're on to the next thing.
Josh Norton: I love that part. I love the figure it out part of the process. Many times I wish that I was still figuring out kind of guy. Now, I typically say, "Okay, here's the idea, here's what we're going for. Now, figure it out. I'll talk to you in a couple of days." I don't want to ever take that away from the process of the how. I don't want to take that away from what our animators and executors and DPs and everybody else that's more in the execution side. I like to see what their point of view is and how they take this story or this look and bring it to life. I think that's a truly exciting magical part of the process as much as it's fun and come up with the ideas and so on. I think it's just as cool to figure out how. I have an amazing team of people that can figure out how to do so many awesome things that it's a real pleasure to see them work and to see the results.
Joey Korenman: That sounds like a blast. I have one more question on the business side of things, and then I want to dive into Free Solo. This is a question I've been asking a lot of people on this podcast. I think that the type of work the BigStar does, I would imagine this is something that's on your mind and has probably affected the studio. Traditionally, in the world of broadcast graphics, broadcast design, you have the big networks, and then you've got cable networks, and this ever expanding roster. Now, you've got Amazon, and Netflix, and Hulu, and now Apple is going to have their own streaming network. These are massive companies with almost infinity dollars. I'm curious, what is the impact been of that shift having these new players in the game that have this insatiable need for content? I would imagine a different financial structure than a typical cable network.
Josh Norton: Yeah. It's like two parts are the same, two parts are different. First of all, I feel lucky to be well positioned in the content branding and content motion graphics world where we have been a design and specialized production company in that space for a long time. Now, there's more work because you have these huge platforms that are looking to put out so much content and they're fighting over viewers. For companies like ours that have been helping tell these stories for so long, it's just fantastic because we have a track record and we have a ton of experience and great portfolio in that space. For us, I think it's just meant like more of a thing that we love to do.
Josh Norton: It's the same and that the tenants of great design and storytelling don't change whether or not you're on both the streaming platform or your cable network. The promos and stuff are a little bit different as far as formatting and the way they want to reach out to audiences. That's great. You have like a Netflix, and Apple, and Amazon. These are primarily like tech companies. I think there is a difference when you're talking to a tech company in the rhythm in which they're used to working and then some of the procedures that they like to employ versus a traditional been here for 50 years network. There's a different cadence.
Josh Norton: There are some different structures on their side. At the end of the day, as a design and creative studio/agency like, it's not up to us to always figure out what are the ins and outs of exactly what's going on in that time. You have to go back to trusting in what you do and understand that you are an expert in the space. Yes, they're Amazon and they have changed the world. They're Apple and they have changed the world. They're Netflix and they have changed media forever. You are an expert in motion graphic design for storytelling, and for nonfiction series, and documentary, and film work. That's what you're there for. Be an expert. Kick ass.
Josh Norton: Do your best work that you can and things go well. Platforms will shift around you. Some of it, you have to take note of and make sure that you can address. I think you're there for a reason when you're working with these companies because they need to work with the best people. You have to trust in that. Again, a philosophical answer but that's the way I think about it.
Joey Korenman: I love it. I love it. Yeah, just more opportunities and more things to learn. Let's talk now about the reason I reached out to you and that is for the documentary Free Solo. For anyone listening who hasn't seen it, it's a documentary about a climber named Alex Honnold who free climbed El Capitan. He was the first human being to free climb it, meaning he did it without a rope. It's one of the scariest documentaries I've ever seen in my life. There is some beautiful design and animation throughout. I wanted to know who did that, and I found the credits and found out that it was BigStar. Josh, how did you guys get the opportunity to work on that documentary?
Josh Norton: Sure. Well, Keaton, who was the post producer of the film, as well as I think she has a production credit, forgive me if I got that wrong, reached out to BigStar. We're just a non-entity in the space especially around New York when she... They are posting in New York. We got together at our office with Chai, the director, Jimmy, the co-director, and herself, and the editor, Bob. I'm at a first name basis with everyone because I don't remember last names. The meeting went well. It's so important I think to just get a sense of who people are when you [inaudible 00:56:02] working with them and what their work culture and environments is like. They came over here.
Josh Norton: They had actually let us watch a rough cut of the film, and this is about a year before the film was released. Of course, the rough cut was full of amazing and full of potential and full of some problems. It was an awesome rough cut clearly for a monumental film and what an extraordinary feat of filmmaking, and that was apparent right from the beginning. Of course, we were chopping up the bits to work on the project. Then, we were able to just figure out how to get in by speaking to them about their film and about some of their needs both on an archival treatment and typography level. It's really where the project started. We just connected.
Josh Norton: I think that they appreciated our honest point of view. They could tell that we were into doing the project. It felt like we were all getting on and had similar values when it comes to life and storytelling. From there, we are able to begin a design process where we established things like the main title, had a lot of conversations about both context, and typography, and rendering, et cetera. Then, the project started to grow. Then, I would say within a couple of months, we started to work on the El Cap sequences which we're a completely different neighborhood as far as creative and production is concerned.
Josh Norton: That's where we started to get 3D models and photography from Google that was impossible to use. We have to parse it and break it down and reconstitute it so we could actually use it for sequence production for the film. That was a pretty good example of how BigStar can do a lot of things when it's all about telling the story and figuring out how you can create a voice and graphic brand for a film, and then get into really nitty-gritty of a large 3D production and work with Google and getting assets, et cetera, et cetera. That was the long and short of it. Of course, a ton of back and forth, a very rich creative team that they have over there that I just love working with. I'm looking forward to the next project with those guys.
Joey Korenman: That's really cool. I should mention also if anyone listening didn't know this, that the film won an Oscar for Best Documentary. I'm assuming, Josh, that when you were first brought on to this project that you had absolutely no idea that that was a possibility. Did you have some sense that, oh wow, this is a pretty good movie, maybe this will make some noise? Or was this just another cool project that you guys get to work on?
Josh Norton: I would say that this was an extra cool project. They had already successfully made an amazing film in Meru, which did not win an Academy Award. It was really fantastic, a very exciting filmmaking, extraordinarily hard work went into the production of Meru. It was just a finish really badass film that I enjoyed and I watched it before we have met. Of course, when somebody does that and you, as a viewer, are really interested and impressed and you get to the possibility working with filmmakers that create that type of stuff, you get soaked. We were happy to be at the table and happy to talk to them.
Josh Norton: I think once we started to see the post-process mature and we started to really see some finish on the film, it got really exciting as far as, well, what's really going to happen with this? Then, it was released and it started breaking records. Then, that was like a holy shit moment. I don't know. To me, this matters even more than the Academy Award. It's the highest grossing documentary released of all time as far as theaters are concerned. The theatrical release is the highest grossing in documentary history. That is amazing. That is real people paying to watch a documentary film and going to the theater. They had broken, I believe, Inconvenient Truth record.
Josh Norton: They crashed it and they continue to crash it. It was at theaters forever in New York. It was theaters for six months. Everybody has seen it. That to me is a true testament to an amazing film and to the rigor that they put into this project. We're just happy to be a contributing party. I think that's really the staff that means the most to me. I feel like awards are a tricky industry. It is amazing that they won the Academy Award. It definitely filled us with pride. We've worked on now two Academy Award-winning projects. The feeling when you see that filmmaker that you met in your studio or that producer walked on that stage and accept that award and have the world's attention is really fulfilling. It's really awesome.
Joey Korenman: Yeah, I can imagine. That's really, really cool. When I got into the industry, I got in around 2003. Awards were still a way for companies to get new business. It was a good calling card if you'd won a broadcast ME or a local ad agency award that every region has, things like this. Today, it seems like it doesn't matter as much because with the internet, you can just find anything instantly. The PromaxBDA awards still get a lot of buzz. I'm curious if being associated with an Academy Award-winning project helps BigStar in any way or is it just a nice feather in your cap?
Josh Norton: Yes. Well, we work a lot with insiders. When a project wins an Emmy or we win a BDA, it's great. It's great press. You get to the front of the line in some ways. You become a name that is synonymous with quality and award-winning mark. Everybody does still want to be known and win awards, and collect accolades, and [inaudible 01:03:02] everybody else in the industry at stoke. It's part of what makes the thing tick. We like winning awards. We think it's good for business. I think it's also just good for the morals of the company. It's nice to get some recognition. I think everybody who does big things in this industry does or has worked really hard.
Josh Norton: It's nice to have some recognition even if some of the awards I think perhaps are a little political or there's a hallow quality to some of how they're gained. I think for the most part when you win an honest award and you've done great work to do that is just fantastic.
Joey Korenman: That's awesome. Actually, I didn't realized this, Free Solo has the record now for the biggest Box Office of a documentary ever. I'm looking it up and I don't know how accurate this number is. I found it on the internet. According to the numbers.com, it's just under $22 million it made worldwide in the Box Office. I'm sure it's going to do a lot more streaming and everything now that it's available. Compared to the opening weekend of any superhero movie, it is a drop in the bucket. The budgets for documentaries typically are just far, far, far smaller. I was curious about the graphics budget for a documentary like this.
Joey Korenman: I don't know how specific you want to get, but I'm just curious. Is this a project that BigStar makes a profit on or is this something that you do for other reasons? Because it's going to really fun, it's great to be involved, it's going to let you do something that might turn into other work. Or do you actually get your rate for this?
Josh Norton: You really think I'm going to answer that question?
Joey Korenman: You could dance around it.
Josh Norton: Look, I think you have to balance your desire to work on the projects that you want to work on with running a studio on a profit and make some sometimes hard decisions, but you get good at it after a while. We're not going to get rich working on documentary films. It's how you deal with it. We certainly don't lose money working on documentary films. We have to be financially responsible. We owe it to ourselves to make a living for all the hard work and expertise that we have. I owe it to my employees and studiomates to be able to bring in projects that both are fulfilling on a cultural level that are meaningful. I also can pay their salaries.
Josh Norton: We are very good at doing those things. I don't think that every studio can find that right balance. It's really something that's taking a long time to refine as far as decision making and the approach. I would work on Free Solos until they tell me I can't.
Joey Korenman: That's awesome. That is the delicate dance every studio has to do. I know that some studios have almost like a formula of, okay, well, this is amount for the meal, like one for the meal and one for the real. This is the amount of for the meal projects we need before we can take on one where we're either just breaking even or we're investing a little bit. I think every successful studio in the world has to invest in projects like this. It just goes with the territory.
Josh Norton: You have to realize, just getting eyeballs, hundreds, thousands, millions of eyeballs on great work is the name of the game. If you can't do that, you're not going to have a platform for success. You need some audience. You may call us old school, but we consider something like Free Solo the right type of audience for us. Whereas like Instagram and social media platforms is not something that for a sales strategy that we've ever really embrace. Now, that may change. For now, really, we focus on just doing really high quality work with high quality collaborators and just do the best that we can in that space.
Joey Korenman: Cool. I want to talk about what was the process like working on Free Solo. You have two directors, Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi. I had to look up how to say her name. I want to say it right. They co-directed this film. Now, I know that Jimmy is a professional climber. He actually was climbing and shooting this, right?
Josh Norton: Yeah.
Joey Korenman: I don't know Chai's background, but brilliant filmmaker. How involved were they in the art direction for the film and the actual execution and animation you guys put together?
Josh Norton: Well, you never want a client to be involved in the execution. It's like you want it to be magical where we have great conversations and then we show you magical stuff. You also have to have an open door policy to some respect. It was just a really organic process with Jimmy, and Chai, and their team in reviewing and discussing and figuring things out. I really enjoyed working closely with them on decision making. We are a studio that's not going to be happy until you're in love with the work we're doing for you. We're not one of those places that we're not going to count rounds.
Josh Norton: We're not going to count how many times we're turning something or how many times we're changing textures and stuff like that. It's just not really our bet. We approach things from our holistic level and our philosophy is that we're going to work until you love it. If there's redirect, if there is surprises that we all couldn't see coming, then we, of course, have to be reasonable and protect everybody's best interest. Jimmy and Chai was great as far as them being involved in the art direction. The art direction was something that we pitched and massaged with them as far as our point of view on things like typography, animation, and rendering.
Josh Norton: They definitely challenged us with the two things along the way. I was terrified when I found out that they were going to cut our 3D mountain next to shots of the real thing. I thought it was going to feel plastic in comparison. Luckily, it didn't. That is a really hard bar to jump over when you have a real photograph or real live action of El Cap and then you cut to the 3D rendering of El Cap and the audience isn't supposed to notice. That was I think a bit of a scary moment for me as a practical creative director with a technical background in 3D. It was like, "Oh God!" It worked out. I have to say there were other kind of challenges and opportunities along the way that are a bit surprising and took us out of our comfort zone, but all good. We like that.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. I want to talk about those El Cap shots actually. Because earlier, we were talking about these oh shit moments where you pitch something and the client says, "Yes, I want that." Then you hand that off to an animator and say, "Do this." They say, "Oh, that's so cool!" "Wait a minute, I don't know how to do that." In case someone hasn't seen the movie, El Cap is this enormous rock phase. I think it's like 3,500 or so feet. It's really, really tall. Most of the movie takes place along this. Throughout the movie, there's these really beautifully rendered shots that show El Cap and it's looks photorealistic, and you can trace the route that Alex is climbing.
Joey Korenman: As soon as I saw those, I was very curious how you executed those because they don't look like the typical Google Map, Google Earth studio shots that you see in TV shows and stuff like that every single day. It looked really beautiful. You have this time-lapse effect happening in some of the shots. It looked like El Cap but obviously, it was virtual. I'd love to hear a little bit more about those shots and how you approach them and how did you end up actually pulling them off.
Josh Norton: Sure. I can't believe that you really paid attention to that stuff. That's great to hear. Being in a time-lapse space was really important to us, reflect the chronology of his climb. He started the climb I think at 4:30 in the morning something and sort of like that. The mountain just has a little bit of a hint of morning light. You have this blue cast and then it goes all the way I think it was until at 8:00 or something like that. At any rate, we really did want to use time-lapse. It doesn't look like a Google Earth render. It has a photorealistic quality to it. There were a ton of challenges in creating the right environment, using the camera angles, and being able to get the geometry from Google's madness thing to something that could actually be used for film production.
Josh Norton: It was a big technical challenge as well as reconstituting photography. Then, pushing into the specific crevice that Alex is climbing from a wide shot where you're looking at the entire phase of El Cap from, I don't know, half a mile away to pushing in all the way to that crack so you get to Alex climbing is usually next to impossible and something that we had to do a lot of RMD and figuring out. That was another kind of, as you said, oh shit moment when Jimmy and Chai said, "We want to do that camera move." My initial reaction is, "You're crazy. You don't have the photography to support that.
Josh Norton: We don't have the geometry that's accurate enough that's going to match up with the photography to recreate that without getting into extensive modeling which is going to push us beyond what would be reasonable budget wise. We're going to have to find some ways to cheat." I remember giving them that speech, and then I remember eating my words after we figured it out. I was happy to do so.
Joey Korenman: That's excellent. I was wondering about the geometry because it's like a power of 10-shot, you go from really far away to really close. This is another thing I want to ask you about in a minute, it's very accurate. It is exactly El Cap. I'm thinking like, did you go out there with a Lidar scanner and scanned this thing? In the end, you said you got some data from Google. How did that work?
Josh Norton: Well, they sent us a 3D... I don't know. I don't know how they produced the models themselves. Actually, they are in the process of creating a case study film of the work that we all did on Free Solo...
Joey Korenman: Cool.
Josh Norton: ... from their point of view, which I'm very curious to see. Jimmy and Chai were able to wrangle, and perhaps Keaton and somebody else on their team was working on this as well, wrangle data from Google that gave us a model based on what I believe was Lidar scanning of El Cap and then this ultra-high res photography. They gave us this package that was... You can't open a file without it taking an hour to open [inaudible 01:15:40]. We have really FastFox [inaudible 01:15:42]. It was alarming to receive the stuff. We are able to after weeks of just working with the files and simplifying and breaking them down and then reconstituting and projecting the photography onto the 3D phases, we are able to finally get into production shape. That's as far as the technical details of it, that's as much as it.
Joey Korenman: That's really, really cool. I can imagine just the existential thoughts that your 3D animators must have been facing at that point.
Josh Norton: I mean like, hey, guys, figure it out moment. [inaudible 01:16:22] like that, I don't know. I don't know what to tell you. This is what we've got. It's just you just make it work.
Joey Korenman: Good luck.
Josh Norton: They did. That's the gig. I love it when they're able to pull that stuff off. I think it's magical. It's awesome.
Joey Korenman: Another thing, I want to ask you about this, and this is a general question because a lot of the work that you do is, especially with the film design stuff, it has a different bar that you have to clear in terms of accuracy. If I'm doing a 30-second commercial where I need to briefly explain a new product, I have to approximate accuracy. This is different. If you look at the route and if you're listening to this, you have to imagine that there's a rendering of El Cap, this giant rock phase, and there's this white line that traces the exact circuit that Alex climbs to get from the bottom to the top. It is extremely accurate.
Joey Korenman: I'm assuming that Jimmy and Chai were probably sticklers about this like if you didn't have that line traced exactly correctly, they would probably know and Alex would know and they would tell you. How does that affect the process of doing something like this when it has to be 100% accurate versus most advertising where it can just get close?
Josh Norton: It's one of those things that you just want to establish all the accuracy that you can upfront, and it never happens. It's one of those things where you do a couple rounds, "Yeah, this is looking great." "Oh, he said the path was going here, maybe it was going there." You have to allow for that to happen while you're in process. You do the best you can by getting as much information, and doing the research, and getting things in front of your partners, and even Jimmy was here at the office drawing lines on pictures of El Cap. Get hands on. Get as much accurate information as you can and giving your best shot and know that it's going to take some massaging and some refining. Just be prepared to make changes by building a flexible production pipeline where you can adjust the path so you'd be rendering all the 3D and stuff like that.
Joey Korenman: Right. I want to talk a little bit more generally about this kind of work. There's another project on your website called Miles Davis: The Birth of Cool. I watched the clip that you had from there. I recommend everyone listening to this, go to BigStar site and watch it. What blows me away about it is we're talking about this crazy technical feat that you just accomplished with getting Lidar scans from Google and probably retopologizing them and making photorealistic renders of El Cap. Then meanwhile, you've done this Miles Davis project where you took photos of him and you put little moves on them and just edited them to a bit. It could not be any simpler.
Joey Korenman: It's the kind of thing that you do when you're learning after effects, but it's done really well. It shows this restraint in the concept and in the execution that I think is hard to do sometimes. I'm curious if you agree with that. For me, I'm an after effects artist and I can do some 3D and I like digging in and doing cool looking stuff. It's satisfying to me. I think I might have to be told to tone it back a little bit. Do you find that you have to reel people in or does that come naturally to you?
Josh Norton: Well, there's a lot to be said for the input that the directors you're working would have on projects like Miles Davis. This is not like a commercial. It's not like a promo. This is people's lives work. Stanley Nelson, the director on the project, has done a lot of monumental documentary films. I would say that he just really means it. His projects mean a ton to him. He has a sensibility, and a vision, and a feel, and the real reverence for the material. You have to go into Stanley Nelson's world, or Robbie Kenner's world, or Charles Ferguson's world, or Alex Gibney's world. You have to be in the world in order to effectively do your work.
Josh Norton: We produce over 100 projects a year. These directors are working on projects. Sometimes it's two years they're working on one thing, three years they're working on one thing. Sometimes it's 10 years. The work we do in that space certainly reflects the sensibilities and desires of the directors as they should. We like to challenge those sensibilities. We like to hit the walls of that house that they've built. Sometimes we make an extension. With Miles Davis in particular, look, we definitely showed a lot more aggressive stuff. We could have made many different versions of what you saw for that main title and felt really good about them.
Josh Norton: Let me put it this way, the creative possibilities are pretty ranging. Again, our abilities are so ranging as well. We do things like affected the photography with ink and shot this golden liquid thing that blended and took the photos from one place to another and had all this gorgeous musical movement in it. Stanley was like, "No, comment that on. We want to see these photos. We want to see Miles. We want it to be real. We have this certain feel to it." He took us down to earth and really informed us on how to create the right sequence for his film. I love working with Stanley, and I love that process.
Josh Norton: I love that Stanley is still up for, "Okay, I'll give you your best shot, Josh and co. Let's see what you got." He won't be offended. I think he quite enjoys it when he sees things that he doesn't expect. Because again, we're not here to give our partners what they expect, we're here to give them what they couldn't imagine. That's the gig. That's what makes our job fun and that's what makes working with us fun. With regards to falling in line with the way a director wants to tell a story, I think that the Birth of Cool is a good case study in that. I love the way it came.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. I think there's a good lesson in there too for motion designers coming up in the industry. Because a lot of the motivational stuff that you hear and that people talk about, it's about finding your voice, and your vision, and learning to think like an artist, and things like this. Then, in the end, what you just described is the opposite of that. It's get your ego out of the way and help this other artist achieve their vision. It's a way more team focused approach and the individual is not important. It's about the goal of making this movie the best version of that movie it can be even if now you don't have something really cool to put on your reel afterwards, because that's not really the important thing.
Joey Korenman: It's easy to lose sight of that when you're at the beginning or if you're a solo freelancer and you're doing your own thing and you're not used to working on projects with a big team. It's really cool to hear that. I think it's also just a sign of maturity to be able to say like, "Okay, we're just going to basically do this whole thing in premier and edit these photos for you to the bit and make it look really cool and slick."
Josh Norton: Yeah. There's a nobility in doing jobs well. You have to, I think, after a while stand and embrace that and let that be a big part of what gives you satisfaction. It's not just about this singular vision that you have. You brought up the idea of ego. I guess your audience is full of people that are just finding their feat and figuring out if they want to be freelancer, build a studio, or [inaudible 01:25:17] some place, and so on. That's an exciting time. I would say that people in this business are here because they like to show how brilliant they can be, and that's awesome. That's fuel to your fire.
Josh Norton: You want to show the world that you can create this magical thing because we're, in a sense here, magician. That's not something that everyone can do. It's something that takes a certain kind of showman or showwoman to want to dance that dance, and to be in that space, and to show. You don't lose that. You don't ever want to lose that bit of ego that you have and that desire to show how brilliant you can be. That's I think parts of just being an artist. It's okay to have that ego. You have to learn I think how to apply that in ways that perhaps are not about you personally, and that's when you become a professional.
Josh Norton: That's when you know that you're making a contribution to something that's bigger than your ego. You're telling stories and helping tell stories that you could not have done the research for, you could have done the writing for. You wouldn't have imagine those stories just as well as your partners wouldn't have imagine what you could do to help them tell those stories. It becomes a communal thing, becomes a collaboration. That's when you can start to check your ego at the door without losing fire.
Joey Korenman: I love that. I love that. Josh, this has been a really awesome conversation for me. I think I want to wrap it up with this. We do have a very varied audience. We have people listening right now who are currently running studios. We have lots of freelancers. We have lots of people on staff and people right at the beginning that are just learning right now and are looking forward to the day that they get their first paycheck for doing motion design. I get asked a lot like, "How should I approach learning motion design?" Because it's very easy to get on the internet and see, "Okay, well, just learn after effects and now you're doing motion design."
Joey Korenman: When I look at BigStar's work, there's a lot of stuff in there that is beautifully designed and beautifully executed but it's not after effects. It's photography. It's very simple but well done graphic design. It's editorial. For any one listening who checks out your website, digs what you guys are doing and has a goal of one day working at a place like BigStar, maybe at BigStar, what are the skills that you look for in an artist that you're thinking of hiring?
Josh Norton: It's a wide range of things. Of course, there's the things we look for in freelancer and the things that we look for in staff, and they are different. Perhaps, it's worth talking a little bit about that difference.
Joey Korenman: Yeah, I'd love to hear that.
Josh Norton: The freelance world is so important to us as a company and to the industry at large. I think a lot of people find their best career there. Being able to work in a lot of different shops, pick up best practices, figure out what creative you really like to work with, what environment you like to be in, you like big shops, you like small shops, the list goes on. The freedom and the specific type of responsibility that you have with freelance, all that is different than the staff position. One of the other differences is I think personality types that come along with that as well as far as who can be a great freelancer and who would be great on staff.
Josh Norton: These days, we really just have a few freelancers that we know we love to work with, we know they love to be here. We have the shorthand and great relationship with them. We're all aligned. We're not out there looking for the next hot freelancer to work with. That's not really the way we do it. We have people we know show up that have a good vibe, and work hard, and do what they're asked to do in an expert way. We're really fortunate in that. It takes a while to get there. We're not looking to hire new freelancers all that often. When we are, we're looking for something specific typically, an IT specialist.
Josh Norton: We have a project where we made some crazy promise where we're going to render some water floating around these beaches that they fly in zero gravity [inaudible 01:30:07] and we don't have the water. It's like, okay, well, we can try to figure this out or we could get a water person in here that's going to render that water in a way that we're going to feel good about. We'll get them whatever hardware, whatever software they need, and we'll bring them in. We'll find that person and we'll give it a shot. I think you get the call many times when you're a specialist for freelance work.
Josh Norton: Then there are, of course, really good design animators out there that are freelancers as well that a lot of studios like to work with. We have a couple here. They're packaged, kind of figured out already. You don't need to have a long-term relationship with freelancers. It's a job by job gig. They work on one or two projects when they come and they're here for a week, or two, or three. Sometimes they're here for much longer if we're on a roll and we want to keep them around. There's a certain type of freelancer or person or professional [inaudible 01:31:23] freelancer. Then, staff, it's like a lot of the intangibles really start to come into play.
Josh Norton: A lot of the things like, what does that individual want out of their career? Becomes a huge question when you're hiring a staff person. Freelancer is like, you're here, and you're gone, and we're not really responsible for each other in that. A staffer is like he have to be aligned. It's like, okay, these are the type of skills you want to work on, these are the kind of projects that you want to work on. We're going to help you refine that goal. We're going to work with you really closely on the things that are important to you, is the hope. We're going to invest in you. We have a program that BigStar where... We pay for all continuing education courses for our staff members.
Josh Norton: It's a perk. It's so good for the studio. It's so good for the people working here. If you're a 3D artist and you focus on a cinema 4D, for example, but you're intrigued to learn more about Houdini, we'll find Houdini courses for you that you want to take and we'll pay for them. If you need to take time off of work to take them, then we'll do that as well. That's the kind of dedication that you start to understand that staff members need and deserve. In order to take advantage of those, you have to be in a certain place in your life. I think you also want to be around these people every day. Fast turnaround of staff I think is a very deadly thing for small studios.
Josh Norton: You want a team that's going to stick together and that's going to grow together. We don't like having any kind of revolving door. We haven't had a staff member quit or be fired in over four years of BigStar. That is one of my greatest accomplishments as a business owner. We take that really to heart. Staffers really become a big part of the culture, and the culture is really ultimately what leads to the success of the studio. It's very longwinded comparison between the two, but we look for different things.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. At the beginning of this conversation, you said that BigStar is like a family and you just described it as you were saying all of that. I was like, "Yeah." When someone's on staff, they're part of the family, and that's a much closer relationship. That's a really good way of looking at it and I think really, really insightful. Thank you for that. Thank you for your time, Josh. This has been really, really fascinating for me.
Josh Norton: Yeah, sure thing, man. Really nice talking to you. It's always really helpful, I think, for us studio runners and founders to be able to have these conversations. Hopefully, passed a few nuggets along. I really enjoyed talking to you, Joey. Good luck with everything that you're doing.
Joey Korenman: Definitely, check out BigStar's work at bgstr.com. That's very clever spelling of BigStar. They have some incredible case studies that you can learn a lot from. Frankly, just by going through their work, you're going to pick up on how design driven the studio is. They have the fundamentals down, great typography. They can be restrained when they need to be. They can also bring out the fancy stuff when it's appropriate. I'm a fan. I hope that after this conversation, you are too. If you haven't, check out Free Solo. It's a great documentary and also an example of the kind of work motion designers can get into that doesn't always make the industry blogs, just about every documentary needs film design and it's a really fast-growing field with players like Netflix getting into the picture.
Joey Korenman: I want to thank Josh for being so generous with his time and wisdom. I want to thank you for letting me into those beautiful ears. Seriously, I really appreciate the time you spend listening to this podcast. I hope it gives you tons of value or at least some new puns and bad jokes you can use. Here's a free one. I was working out at a seafood restaurant the other day. I pulled a muscle. We get it. All right, I'll just see myself out now.