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Do Creative Directors Actually Create Anything?
The industry is changing, but should we be worried?
When it comes to location L.A. is undoubtedly the best place for a motion designer to network and thrive, but that’s not to say that studios in other parts of the country are doing less-cool work. One great example is the team at Digital Kitchen. For years Digital Kitchen has been churning out incredible work and they just added one of the best MoGraph creative directors, Ryan Summers, to their team.
Ryan’s passions and hard-work have led him to work on projects for Guillermo Del Toro, Starbucks, and National Geographic, among many other incredibly cool clients. In this podcast episode Joey sat down with Ryan to discuss how he rose to the top of the MoGraph world. Ryan takes us on a journey from his upbringing in South Chicago, to his freelance career in L.A., to his homecoming at Digital Kitchen. This episode is packed full of helpful info and tips for freelancers and aspiring motion designers.
Joey: Imagine that you're a creative director at a big studio. You've got access to the best gear, the best talent, clients with large budgets. It sounds pretty darn good, doesn't it? What do you think your day looks like? Is it all brainstorming sessions and work critiques and high fives and beautiful renders out of the render farm and beers? Or maybe it's a little bit more than that. Maybe there's even some not so fun parts about being a creative director. For that matter, how the hell do you get to be a creative director?
To answer all of those questions, we have brought Ryan Summers onto our podcast. Ryan is an incredibly talented and experienced motion designer who has worked with shops like Imaginary Forces, Royale, Oddfellows, and who now holds the title of creative director at the legendary Digital Kitchen in Chicago. I threw tons of questions at Ryan about why he made the transition from freelance back to full time, why he moved from LA to Chicago and then, of course, what the heck does a creative director do all day?
Ryan is basically an encyclopedia of MoGraphs. This conversation is a really fascinating look at what the top of the food chain looks like in our industry. Ryan is working at a killer shop with killer clients on killer projects, so let's dive in and find out how you get that gig and what it's really like once you're there, but, first a very quick word from one of our incredible alumni.
Lucas Langworthy: My name is Lucas. I'm from Chicago, and I took animation boot camp. Motion design is a relatively young industry. I didn't study it in school and there are not many good resources that I knew about. In the first couple weeks of animation boot camp, I learned so many of the basics that I have just missed. It's immediately made me become better at the work I do every day.
The community that is cultivated by School of Motion is the most valuable part of the class. I've met so many people who I can get feedback from, collaborate with on projects, ask questions to, or just hang out with. I recommend animation boot camp to anyone who wants to learn how to improve their craft. My name is Lucas [Lanworthy 02:18], and I'm a School of Motion graduate.
Joey: Ryan, dude, thank you so much. I feel like it's about damn time you came on this podcast. I'm really happy you're here, man.
Ryan Summers: Awesome, thanks a lot. I love the show, I love the boot camps. After I heard that you had Radtke on, I had to try to find a way to get on myself.
Joey: Yeah, absolutely. He spoke highly of you. You must have some dirt on him or something.
Ryan Summers: I pay him. I pay him very well.
Joey: That's good, he's on the payroll, Ryan Summers' payroll. First of all, I know a lot of our listeners are probably familiar with you because you are one of the most active people on Twitter I've ever met. You also teach for MoGraph Mentor, your work's amazing, you've been interviewed on other podcasts. Some people know about you, but for those that don't, could you give us the brief version of the Ryan Summers story, so we can find out how you ended up as a creative director at Digital freaking Kitchen?
Ryan Summers: Yeah. The first thing to know about me is I'm a big fucking nerd, number one. I didn't know that for a long time and really realized it when I got into this industry. The short story is before I ever got in animation motion graphics, I was actually a chemical engineering student. I was a man of science, an, behind the scenes, always loved everything to do with art. I always drew, played video games like crazy, loved movies, loved animation, but didn't realize that was actually a real career path.
I'm old so, I'll date myself, but I was in high school when Jurassic Park, Toy Story, and Nightmare Before Christmas all came out around the same time. While I was going to school for chemical engineering, I happened to take just like an animation class in 3D Studio. It wasn't even 3D Studio Max, it was DOS. It wasn't even running on Windows. If anybody can remember what DOS is?
Joey: DOS. Wow!
Ryan Summers: I took that, and I've said it a couple of times before, but it's the first time ... I used to think these words were awful, but it's the first time I ever felt flow, just sitting down and all of a sudden 10 hours go by, and it was day time and now it's night time. After about two or three classes of learning 3D and starting to actually make a box of Pop-Tarts animate, I knew it was something I had to do. I dropped everything I was doing and became an artist, and dedicated my whole life to doing that.
More than anything, I'm an animator. I love animation. I went to school for character animation. Actually, my first couple of jobs were just doing character stuff. Then I've had every job you could have up until the last five years leading up into motion graphics.
When I moved to LA from Chicago, I started working at Imaginary Forces and then it's like ... I only went to school for two years for animation, but IF was the rest of my education all in a box, all in one place, all at once. Then I've just gone from there. I've been freelance, I've been staff, I've been working remotely, I've worked in offices, kind of all over the place since then.
Joey: I had no idea that you were studying chemical science in college. That's really crazy. I want to ask you about that because one of the things that struck me, especially because you mentioned character animation, is how technical animation is when you really get into it, especially if you're doing hand-drawn. There is a lot of science to it. I'm curious if that was initially what attracted you because, for example, for me, the thing that sucked me in to the field was how cool the software is. You could do all this stuff with it. The art part, the creative design and actually the art of animation, that came later. Did it work that way for you? Were you sucked in by the geeky stuff first?
Ryan Summers: I think it was actually the opposite. It was weird. Being in science, going to school for chemical engineering, so much was math and formula and a lot of studying, a lot of memorization, a lot of that one part of your brain. I felt like, when I was in school, I was desperate for writing classes and drawing classes, and I've always loved animation and film and comic books and video games.
While I was doing the thing that I thought was what I was "supposed" to be doing, like finding my career and finding a job, all of my free time was going to all these other things that were all more organic, that were more hand skills, that were more firing off that other side of your brain that's a different kind of analysis. I feel like it was me screaming out this is not what I want to do, but it's the safe thing to do. Then there's just this moment where a career path opened up.
I do think it helps me quite a bit, having a science background. I think the two things that really came out of two and a half to three years of intense science background was the power of observation, the way you have to study and the way you have to observe and build your hypothesis brain from science.
Then the other big thing, and hopefully maybe we could talk about this a little bit, I think it's actually helped a lot of my creative directing, where I'm interacting with clients and interacting with students or interacting with other animators, is being able to eliminate as many variables and find the one thing that makes the difference in that specific moment when you're analyzing something. That is a big part of what I was learning being trained as a scientist was to focus in on single variables and find a constant that's true that everything else can work off of.
I think that's what we do a lot, especially in creative direction, especially in teaching, which I've gotten a chance to do a lot of, is have so many tools, we have so many options, we have so many techniques. We're inundated with inspiration and the cool thing Ash Thorp just did and the other thing that was just in a movie and this other commercial and this movie title, that we have to still filter all that noise out and get to the one constant, and then work back up from that.
It took me a long time to realize that that's what science gave me, that's what studying to be an engineer gave me because I was like, "All right, I'm an artist. I'm going to run as far away as possible from all this other stuff," but it's only in the last three or four years where I've really done a lot of creative directing that I can see where it affected my personality and where it actually comes in handy now.
Joey: Okay, we'll definitely come back to this because I think that makes a lot of sense. A lot of your job as creative director is to focus your team on the important things and to ignore all the extra stuff that might be distractions. I've never thought of it that way. That is science. It's just learning to remove variables one at a time until you find the thing that's actually important.
Let's talk about how you got to your current position. I'm looking at your LinkedIn page. You've worked a lot of places, you've had a lot of titles. You worked at Imaginary Forces and then you were freelance for a while. That's when you came on my radar was in your freelance days. You were working with a lot of cool studios. You're freelancing in LA. Can you talk about how you got into freelancing? What did it take for you to become a "successful" freelancer in Los Angeles, the number one MoGraph market?
Ryan Summers: I think a lot of it just turned into reputation. It's funny, you mentioned Twitter. When I teach now, I teach a lot of different things. At MoGraph Mentor, we teach a lot about design-based thinking and design-based animation, but the other component that I try, at least on my side for my classes, is teach networking.
When I moved from Chicago and moved to LA, I didn't know anyone. About a year before I did, Twitter was just starting to become a thing in our industry. Before that, everybody hung out at Mograph.net. That was awesome and it had its own personality, but Twitter changed everything. I was actually able to meet a lot of people that, a year or two later, after having pretty intense conversations or studying together or coming up with ways to solve problems, when I went to LA, I actually knew more people than I thought I did.
That actually doubled back when I left Imaginary Forces to go freelance, that reputation of being somebody who shares and somebody who has lots of inspiration that they're throwing out there, and also problem solving really helped me go from having a pretty cool demo reel that people didn't know exactly what I may have done or accomplished at Imaginary Forces, because it's such a big team, it's such a big group of people on every project, that people ...
I've had the bonafides of the projects in being at IF, but then I think I also had a personal reputation with a lot of people that I could walk into a place like Royale and I knew four or five people that I never met in real life, but talked to probably on an almost daily basis, as if we were sitting next to each other.
For me, it was a shock to me when I would walk into shops and already know half the people there already. It proved my theory that networking and hard work are really the only two things that matter in this industry, that if you bust your ass and you work really hard, that's one thing, but if you don't know anyone or you've isolated yourself or you don't have a reputation of somebody that you want to sit down and work next to, it's going to limit what you can do and where you can work.
Joey: That's amazing advice. I've heard the same thing from guys like David Standfield. He talked to me about the power of Twitter and the power of Dribble and these social networking sites, that now that's our legitimate way to get booked. The wisdom you're spewing about the power of networking, networking is really how you get booked. I'm assuming, in LA, I mean you're extremely talented, but there's a hundred people out there or more that are as talented as you, but you are getting booked all the time, I'm assuming. That might have been the difference, would you agree?
Ryan Summers: Absolutely. I mean just talking about Imaginary Forces, even timing with what you said about not being under the radar until I went freelance, there are hundreds of people way more talented than me, with more experience, better client skills, more refined taste than I have, that are just buried away in studios.
At Imaginary Forces, we had, off the top of my head, I can think of five or six people that no one in your audience has ever heard of that are amazing. Every one of these shops has those people, too, but they're not on Twitter. Maybe they're a little older and they don't really think social media is anything more than selfies and shots of your dinner at a restaurant. I would say, for me, it really was a differentiator.
When I go to NAB or, hopefully, Blend, I feel like the only way I can walk in is to have a t-shirt with my stupid avatar on it. If I walked to every person and shook my head and said, "Hi, I'm Ryan Summers. I'm really excited to see you," one out of every 10 people might know what that means, but if I walk in and say, "Hi, I'm Oddernod," or, "Hey, here's my Twitter avatar," I'll get smiling faces and high fives and handshakes down the line because we've all been talking for forever. I can't stress the importance of it enough, that it really is reputation-building.
Joey: For people who haven't seen Ryan's Twitter image, it reminds me of Bam Bam Bigelow's face with a red wrestling mask over it, making the most ridiculous expression. Ryan, I'm not sure I've actually seen a photo of you. To me, that's what you look like.
Ryan Summers: That means I've done my job then.
Joey: I'll be disappointed if you don't if I meet you in person.
Ryan Summers: I don't want people to know what I look like, but that guy is Big Van Vader. It's funny that you mention Bam Bam Bigelow because they were tag team champions in the late '80s and early '90s in All Japan and New Japan Pro Wrestling, which probably three people in your audience will know what that means, but he's my all-time favorite pro wrestler. My brother and I were and still now follow professional wrestling.
When I was a little kid, I think I was probably 10, my brother was six in Chicago, we went to our first show, and this guy was in the semi-main event and he's like the big, bad guy. He's the villain, he's this huge dude. He was fighting to face the fan favorite. My brother and I, literally, these little kids, stood on top of our chairs and were cheering and screaming our heads off for this guy while everybody else was booing.
He ran to the corner, jumped out of the ring, ran to the metal barricades, and was just yelling at us, like going crazy, but he was smiling the whole time, like he was supposed to be in character, but he loved that these two little kids were going bonkers. Every time we ever went to a show after that, the guy, I think, recognized us. He made a really big impression on me, but he was also mega talented. We could talk about wrestling for forever. [crosstalk 14:05].
Joey: I was going to say ...
Ryan Summers: I love that guy.
Joey: ... that'll be in the wrestling podcast that we can start after this.
Ryan Summers: That dude embodies everything that I hoped to be. He was mega talented, he's got incredible energy. If you ever met him in real life, you'd want to spend time with him. He's got great stories. He's awesome.
I had to change my name. I couldn't use my name for my website or anything because there's 20 Ryan Summers, and they all are bald and they're all white dudes. I had to brand myself a long time ago. I made up this made up word and then stuck his face on it. It's done well for me for as long as I've been on Twitter.
Joey: That's great. First of all, I want to say there's nothing wrong with being a bald white dude. I feel you there, man. You mention this, and the way you put it, it created this funny mental image in my head. I think you said that there's amazing artists squirreled away in the recesses of places like Imaginary Forces.
I know that's not how everybody feels being on staff. There are people that are incredibly happy on staff. I'm sure, at Imaginary Forces, it's got to be an amazing place to work. However, I tell everybody that will listen to me that I think freelancing is a really great tool for certain times in your career and it's something that I wish every motion designer had some experience with. What was it that made you want to leave IF to go freelance?
Ryan Summers: When I joined IF and when I went to LA, I had three shops I always wanted to work at. One was Imaginary Forces, one was Blur, and one was DreamWorks. I had been on Imaginary Forces, I think, for about a year and a half freelance, and then I went staff. I think I was there for another two years. By the time I was done, I had gone from literally a guy working on a laptop in the kitchen, just doing ... I think my first job was the Chinese Mandarin version of High School Musical 2's teaser trailer, like literally throw away, we got to get this done, just give it to the lowest guy on the totem pole to creative directing jobs at IF and working with Max directly
In three and a half to four years, I did everything that I felt I could do at Imaginary Forces, and I learned so much from some of the heavyweights there, Michelle Dougherty, Karin Fong, Grant Lao, Charles ... All their heavyweight guys. I hit my glass ceiling at that office and I'd taken everything I could.
I was getting to the point where it's like I've seen how one company handles every kind of job multiple times, and I really knew there were other ways, there had to be other ways to pitch jobs, bid jobs, plan for them, hire people, execute them, work on different kinds of render farms. I was really just itching to takes these hypothesis that I had that I couldn't really test out any further, and I wanted to go to other shops. I want to try to work ...
When I moved to LA from Chicago, my goal the whole time was to just work with the best people I could. At IF, I got the chance to be an understudy to all of the great people that were there. I got a chance to lead and work alongside with a lot of those great people. I was at the point where I'm like, "Man, I've got to see how somebody like Blur does their jobs," because they make crazy stuff.
The other big reason, honestly was, I love character animation and I really wanted to start doing more. At the time, at Imaginary Forces, we really weren't going after that kind of work at all. It was really just a mutual thank you very much, I hope I can freelance later in the future for you guys, and best wishes. Again, there were handshakes and high fives when I left. Then I just started freelancing at as many different places as I could.
Joey: What's it like freelancing in LA after coming from a place like IF? Was it pretty easy to get work? You're booked all the time?
Ryan Summers: Yeah, it was awesome. It was one of those little honeymoon moments, where if you've ever worked at a big place for a while and worked on a couple jobs that people actually remember, you can go around town and just do some interviews, just see what's out there and see the landscape. I did that. I went to Elastic, I went to Blur, I went to Troika, a bunch of different shops just to see what kind of work they were doing and what kind of spots they needed to fill.
That's exciting. That's great because when you are staff, there's that amazing sense of security and comradery with people. You have this extended relationship and extended dialogue with all your coworkers, but, at a certain point, you are just a slave to whatever the cadences of the work that's coming in. All of a sudden we're doing a lot of Reese's Pieces commercials or we're doing ...
One kind of work gets really, really popular or gets accolades and then you get stuck doing that same kind of work over and over, which for the company is great, but when you're at the point where you're like, "Man, I really want to do some 2D character animations and I want to try messing with Toon Boom and Moho, and you find yourself doing all that work at home because none of that work is actually at work, when you're getting paid to do it. It definitely puts a grind on you if you have ambitions to try different stuff.
It's great, man. When you can go out to town and then you can cast the job you want based on the companies that are available, that's great. That was an awesome time for me to just feel like, "Where do I want to go? What kind of environment do I want to be in? What kind of work do I want to dive into?" For me, that was the big allure of freelance.
Joey: That's actually what I tell people the point of freelancing is. It's just this tool that lets you escape that situation that you just talked about, where you're on staff and maybe it's great, maybe all your co-workers are great, maybe they're paying you well, but you don't have a choice as to what you're working on. You're working on what the company needs you to work on, but, as a freelancer, you have the flexibility to say yes or no to jobs.
Ryan Summers: Exactly.
Joey: It's a subtle distinction, but it makes all the difference. You're freelancing in LA and you're working with ... I mean you just listed great, great, great companies. A lot of people listening would die to work at one of those, you're talking about five of them, but now you're back in Chicago and you're on staff at Digital Kitchen. Tell me about that transition. Why did that happen?
Ryan Summers: It's crazy. When I left Chicago to go to LA, a good friend of mine asked me, "What would make you come back here? LA's got everything. It's got animation, it's got feature films, it's got amazing music opportunities. It's got all this culture, it's got all this life. What would get you to come back here?" I literally told him, I was like, "If I could come back and be a creative director at Digital Kitchen in the next 10 years, that's the only way I would come back."
It's funny because about two years ago, my buddy Chad Ashley invited me to come up. I was actually interviewing a bunch of studios because I was going to be working at Adobe. I helped Adobe work on After Effects last summer. I was actually doing tours of studios to find out what their pain points were, like, "How do you guys use After Effects in ways I haven't seen and what would you guys love to see changed?"
I happened to go to talk to Chad. I sat down at DK, which I haven't been in the offices for a few years. At the end of that, Chad asked me if I would come back in and creative direct a job because they had too many jobs going on. They were doing this National Geographic Explorer opening.
At the same time, my really good friend Radtke, Mike Radtke, that you interviewed had just moved over here from LA. I would have had the chance to work with him as an editor. He's one of my favorite editors to work with. He's awesome. I would have the chance to work with National Geographic, which is one of my favorite companies. It was just this perfect storm.
I actually flew out from LA, organized my bookings so that I could take a month and a half off. Then I was here and directed that opening, and I had a really great time. Then about I think ... I'm trying to think how long it was. It was almost like a year later, I got a call from my producer at DK, who had become the EP, and asked me if I was interested in coming over.
I was getting a little home sick, but, more than anything, I was really looking for an opportunity to be a creative director, be in the position where you're top to bottom working on everything. You're not just jamming on animation, you're not a gun for hire. As fun as that can be, there is a certain part of me that loves being on the team and has these extended relationships, has this ability to go out and get work, has the ability to hire people and train them and grow with them and put them in the right roles.
There's a bunch of stuff beyond just jamming on key frames that, over the last two or three years, I've really appreciated and really ... Honestly, part of it has just come from teaching so much. I enjoyed that so much that being able to go back to Chicago and integrate that into my day-to-day life, on top of DK does amazing work and works on different kinds of canvases than I'd been working on. Lots of things to bring me back to Chicago.
Joey: Very cool. All right. It was a little bit of everything. Let me ask you this, was there some other option where you just remained freelance, but you are sort of a freelance creative director that DK can hire a bunch when they need to? You could go to Chicago, but then you could come back to LA, and then maybe you'd go to New York? Was that also something that you could have done? Was there a reason you didn't choose that route?
Ryan Summers: Yeah. That's one of the cool things about, I think, motion design, the industry in general, is that, unlike feature films or animation or TV or working at agencies, it still feels like 10 years ago, 15 years ago, the motion graphics industry was like a volcano. It completely exploded and it went a bunch of different directions, but it still is in that cooling stage. It's still like magma.
Every shop works differently. Every job title is different in every shop. A creative director at DK is different than a creative director at IF. I had done a little bit of freelance creative directing, but you really are that kind of gun for hire, where you're just called in, you drop in, you do a job, and you walk out. A lot of times you're still not the true creative director because there'd be someone within that company above you or there'll be someone in a relationship with the client that you're not really what I think of as the vision that's leading the job.
You can find those, but it's a lot harder, and sometimes the work is really specific to you're a freelance creative director. You're doing live action and it has a little bit of motion graphics, but it wasn't the kind of work that I was really seeing myself wanting to do more of.
There was the opportunity to do that in other places, not necessarily at Digital Kitchen. They were looking for someone to come in. I mentioned Chad Ashley. Chad had left Digital Kitchen and worked with Greyscalegorilla. They were looking for someone to come in and take that position and move the motion graphics into a different direction.
It was really specific. That's what's great about the industry is that every opportunity is specific to the person and to the company itself, which lets you create the future you want. This future at DK is exactly what I was looking for.
Joey: That's awesome. One of the things that I loved going from on staff to freelancing was that I had total control over my work, at least in theory. We all know it doesn't actually work that way, but total control over work-life balance, and especially if you're a freelancer that works remotely. You have a lot of leeway in terms of the hours you work and how many days a week and things like that. Are you able to still have a pretty good work-life balance being back on staff at a big studio?
Ryan Summers: I'm trying to decide if this is my problem or this is the industry problem, but I just came off of a 16-hour day yesterday of just trying to jam on a deadline. I have found it way more true that freelance is way easier to control as hours, because you walk in the door and you say you have a day rate and then you'd tell them that you have an after 10 hours rate and then you'd tell them you have a 1.5 or 2x weekend rate.
Those things just come down to numbers, where you really know when someone needs you to pull a day like that because they're going to pay for it. Whereas, in staff, it's again that team mentality, where sometimes you have to pull together.
Sometimes a job comes in on Monday and they need a pitch on Tuesday night. Sometimes you have a Friday delivery that gets pushed up to Wednesday. There's no real way to say no to that. There are ways to push back, there are ways to be creative about what you deliver, but, in a staff position, I've found more often than not that there's just times where you have to push and go forward.
The nice benefit of that, a lot of times, is that if you hit the deadline, you hit the mark, you pass the test, you win the pitch, the next day, there's a wonderful thing called [comp 26:16] time that comes into effect, that you never hear that when you're a freelancer. You either work or you don't, you get paid when you do, and you don't get paid when you don't. There's positives and negatives for both, but I definitely feel like I work a lot more hours when I'm staff than when I'm freelance.
Joey: Yeah, I hear you. In addition to being on a great team and being part of Digital Kitchen, which, of course, for decades has done great work, are there other benefits of being full time that were attractive to you? Are they paying you really well? Are you getting bonuses, better healthcare? Let's get into the weeds. What has improved for you?
Ryan Summers: I think, for me, the thing that I hated about freelance was the instability. I loved it when I was booked and I knew I was booked for the next month or two, but when I was getting down to the last week of a booking, I hated having to go up and have the awkward conversation of, "Okay. I know you've got me on hold. I know this job looks like it's going to go for another month, but can you just book me for that month? Because we all know if we really push on it, we're going to all be here," but then you get the, "I can only give you a one week extension," or, "I can only give you another one week extension." Just that instability, that lack of transparency, because you're not on the team, you don't get access to the financial situation or the organizational situation.
You really felt like you were ... Even though you were the most required element on the job because it couldn't get done, you really feel, a lot of times when you're freelance, at least I did, that you were the afterthought, even to the point we're speaking very openly about it, even getting paid. I've had multiple situations where I would work for six, eight, 10, 12 weeks for a company, and then I'm supposed to be getting paid net 30 and it turns into net 60 and then it turns into net 90, and then it turns into talking to lawyers, and then it turns into talking about threatening not to come in when there's a deadline.
That kind of stuff doesn't happen when you're staff. It doesn't happen. Even the best of companies, even with the best of intentions, I found it happened with alarming frequency no matter what I did, no matter if I put in kill fees, no matter if I put in 2x multipliers on overtime. The amount of abuse because of mismanagement or because of lack of knowledge that happens when you're a freelancer, it wore me down. It's definitely a grind. It's not every place, but it happened too often for me not to say it's endemic to the industry.
Joey: Got you. It's all true. I really harp on freelancing all the time. I wrote a book about freelancing because I feel so strongly about it. However, there is a downside to it. There's a balance to everything, and with the good comes the bad. I'm glad you're saying this stuff because it's really good for freelancers to know this, people thinking of going into freelancing.
Let's talk about another huge transition, which is not just freelance to full time, but it's LA to Chicago. I've spent a little bit of time in each city, but even just spending a few days there, you can tell they're very different cities. I know Digital Kitchen has an LA office. Why didn't you just stay in LA? Was there some other reason you wanted to come back to Chicago?
Ryan Summers: I mean my whole plan in life was always to come back to Chicago, partially I have amazing family here, I have amazing history. I'm wearing the shirt right now, but I'm a huge Chicago Black Hawks fan and we're going into our first game of the playoffs tonight. I could go to hockey games with the team that I actually enjoy cheering for instead of the Kings, who I hate.
There's lots of little things, but the biggest thing, honestly, is that when I left Chicago, I really wanted to get into motion graphics. I've said this to Nick Campbell before. I went to one of the Chicago motion graphics meetups I think three months before I actually left Chicago, and there were nine people there.
Then I think last year I came back and I went to HalfRez, and there were probably 500 or 600 people. There was a stage with people like Mike the Monkey, who was doing live tutorials. There was beer there. It was a party. I literally was like I can come back to Chicago because the industry is there now, the culture is there, the excitement, the heat, the body of freelancers that I want to work with are there. Sarofsky is here, Leviathan is here. There's companies that have matured so much in I think it's been six and a half, seven years in Chicago, that ...
It is not LA. I tell people all the time there's probably three companies I desperately want to work for in Chicago. When I was working at Royale in Larchmont, there were three companies on the block I wanted to work for. It's nowhere near comparable in terms of the amount of work or the amount of people or the amount of jobs, but it's changed dramatically.
Then, selfishly, in Chicago, I don't know if I should be saying it out loud, there is an incredible talent pool of 2D hand-drawn animators that are sitting just under the surface that the motion graphics industry has never taken advantage of because 2D has always been this unicorn galloping off on the side that only a couple of companies have really taken to heart, but one of my main goals coming to Digital Kitchen in Chicago is to get us using some of that talent that I know is there that is just desperate to be given a spotlight on a couple of the right jobs, and then it can explode, at least here in the city.
Joey: That's really cool to hear that Chicago has had such an explosion in their motion design scene. I worked in Boston. From the time I started freelancing to the time I left the company that I had started, I think Boston was just about to get there. It still doesn't sound anywhere close to what Chicago has. My biggest challenge when I was a creative director running a studio was finding good talent. It was very-
Ryan Summers: Always. Always. It's a hard thing, isn't it?
Joey: Yeah. It was so hard. So hard to scale up as a new company. You can't just hire a big staff. You have to rely on freelancers, and we couldn't find any. I was going to ask you about that because, in LA, I imagine it can't be that hard to find a good After Effects artist, but how hard is it in Chicago?
Ryan Summers: As much as I believe that and as much as I'd like to think that, it's still difficult in LA because it's all timing. It's finding the right After Effects person for the specific job you have for the rate that you need them for the time that you need them for. It's still difficult.
I would say, After Effects, maybe not as bad. Anything VFX, it's a little bit easier, there's more Nuke guys and there's more matte painters and high end texture map developers. That stuff there, it still exists because there's people on commercial runs and then they'll have two weeks off or they're on a feature for nine months, and they get two months off until the next feature.
You can find that, but, honestly, the thing I tell people all the time is if you want to work in our industry, I wouldn't even say go to school, I would say become an incredible cinema 4D artist, develop a design sensibility, understand type, understand color, understand layout, and get to LA and start networking, because the amount of jobs that I cannot find a reliable, dependable ... Not even, I hate this term, but rock star motion graphics guy, but just someone to get down, get in, start throwing down key frames, just start modeling, just start playing with cloners. Cinema 4D is still so difficult, even in Los Angeles, to find.
Chicago, there is a huge amount of what I would call middleweight cinema 4D artists. They're not juniors, they're not associates, they're not interns. They know their way around MoGraph, they know their way around key framing. They probably know a third party render engine like Octane or Redshift, or something like that.
I would say there's not a lot of heavyweight C4D people in terms of really knowing the intricacies, knowing Xpresso, knowing how to unwrap. For some reason, no one knows how to unwrap textures in the motion graphics industry. It's still a very difficult skill to find. I also find that there's a lot of people who know After Effects in terms of Trapcode Particular and setting up type, but there's not a lot of people who can take a raw image and spit up passes and composites, something that looks filmic.
It's one of the things that I am so stoked that someone like Chad Ashley is at Greyscalegorilla because that guy knows his way inside and out of compositing to make something look filmic. That pool of people that watch Greyscalegorilla tutorials or go to School of Motion, they're desperate to take that next level up in terms of their taste and their eye and they don't know how. Someone like Chad is a really, really incredible asset just to the motion graphics industry at large to push everybody forward.
That's what I find. It's difficult in LA. It's really difficult here to find people for the very specific ... Try to find a Realflow artist that isn't working at one of the three VFX shops, or a Houdini person, is really difficult in Chicago, but the industry is there, the people are there. We need to help everybody move in lockstep up to the next level, if that makes any sense.
Joey: That was an amazing rant. I was just nodding my head the entire time, the entire time in. It's funny, too, because you said there's not heavyweight C4D artists.
I guess the way that I would interpret that is there's enough people that know the software and if you tell them, "Do this," they can do it, but that's the surface, especially if you're working at a place like DK. You're telling a story with the image you're creating, and you need to understand three or four levels deeper than just how to use X-Particles to make some emit or do something, you need to know why, and maybe we should have some particles over here because that's going to balance the composition. I mean there's so many layers to it.
At Toil, when I was running Toil in Boston, we would find After Effects artists who knew After Effects inside and out. This is actually the biggest problem was they were booked constantly doing really poor work, just because clients ... At least in Boston, and most of the clients that you could freelance for weren't sophisticated enough to push back and say, "I'm not going to pay you $500 a day to turn this in." Just because you know the software doesn't mean you're good at using it.
I always push, like, "Forget the software for a second. Learn some animation principles, learn some design principles. If you're talking about 3D, learn some cinematography principles, learn where lights go and learn about framing and why you'd use different lenses." That's the stuff I think that makes people a heavyweight.
Ryan Summers: Absolutely. Honestly, that's why I took your design boot camp, not to be a salesman standing on top of the box right now.
Joey: Thank you, Ryan. Thank you for saying that.
Ryan Summers: That's honestly why I took the design boot camp, because I went to school for two years here in Chicago at possibly the worst school you could go to learn 3D animation, and I learned button-pushing. I always knew that was going to be the thing that held me back.
I felt it when I was at Imaginary Forces. I was working with people who went to SCAD, who went to Art Center, who went to all these amazing schools, and I didn't have those bonafides. Whether or not I could do the design or not, I didn't even have that reputation yet with the owners and the EP and the head of production. I knew I had to hustle to build up that skill set.
Even now, as a professional, I think I was in the beta of the first design boot camp, that was amazing just to fortify, like, "Okay. I think these are the principles." Finally, I've gotten to put where I have an instinct, but they're not formalized as, "This is what the rule of thirds are. This is why you kern things. This is why you have grids that you design off of."
I had internalized them from a long time of being around the work and taking apart ... I would go and take people's style frames at Imaginary Forces and stay late and turn all the layers off in Photoshop and one-by-one turn them on, thinking that there was magic in between the layers, just like through osmosis.
Over time of doing that enough, you do have an internalized sense of it, but I needed that formal someone that just ground into me, "This is why you kern things. This is what bad kerning looks like. This is what the correct use of space and value contrast and texture contrast," all those core fundamentals.
I think it gets back to what I see in Chicago a lot, is that, for some reason, there's this barricade between ... I see amazing artists, like illustrators and storyboard artists and people who pitch, and there's a complete aversion to technology, or I see people who are great at the technology, like amazing at the technology, learning new renders, sitting and watching every tutorial that comes up, tweaking out [one-a-days 38:36] that look like everybody else's one-a-days, but the artistry, there's a block there somewhere.
I haven't figured it out other than when I left Chicago, one of the other big reasons I left was that I had a really good job, I was making decent money working on slot machines in Chicago, but I could feel the slowly creeping feeling of security settling in, and my hunger and drive was getting slower because I was comfortable. I had great examples of people that were five to 10 years older than me that had calcified, and it scared the living daylights out me because I knew the industry changes every two to three years. These people had stopped. They weren't artists anymore, they were just people pressing buttons.
I knew I needed to be around other people that would challenge me and other people who were talking about this every day. When we went to lunch, we were talking about Nuke and we were talking about the new render engine. "Arnold 5 just came out yesterday. Can you believe it does this? It's got a new hair render." That wasn't happening around me in Chicago. I feel like that might be a little bit of why.
I'm working on a job right now, and I've got three, four amazing C4D heavyweights that we can talk about that stuff, but I don't see a lot of that yet. I feel like that drive for safety and security still exists in some towns, in some cities, and some parts of the MoGraph industry where they're not being pushed.
What I love is meeting somebody who's super ambitious. When I teach at MoGraph Mentor, or I have somebody who sends me their reel online and they're a junior artist or they're in school, and I see them pushing way beyond their capabilities, way beyond their bounds, that's the stuff that I want to hire that person right away, even if I can't use them on a job right now, because I know that they're going to push me, they're going to push the rest of the people I work with. Given the right amount of time to pressure cook them with tutorials and honing their art skills, that person is always going to be pushing the rest of their lives.
Joey: That's really great. Now that's part of your job as creative director is to cultivate young talent, push them, get them to do things they didn't think they were capable of. Can you describe what does a day in the life of a creative director look like? What do you do when you get to work?
Ryan Summers: This is one thing I love talking about to people because everybody, especially when I was in LA, especially, for some reason, kids coming out of Art Center, just saying that out loud, they all thought they were already art directors or creative directors, and nobody has just given them the title yet.
I don't know if you felt this before, but in this industry, I feel like it's really crazy because you spend four, five, six years getting really good at something creative. Then right when you're at the apex of being like, "I understand it. I feel like I have mastery of it. I'm ready to take the next step," whoever it is that's above you that's going to make that decision says, "That's great. We really like you. Now you need to do something you've never done before and almost completely stop doing that thing you've done for the last six years."
To me, that's what creative directing ends up being, is that none of us went to school for therapy, none of us went to school to be ... To go to school for bargaining or for the art of compromise. No one went to school for negotiation, no one went to the school for running Gantt charts or scheduling, but those are all the things that you end up doing as a creative director that everybody thinks is going to be awesome because you get to make all the decisions.
When I worked with Guillermo del Toro, he told me one time, he was like, "If you want to direct," he's like, "You've got to learn how to say no 99% of the time and then find the 1% of saying, 'Yes, that's the right decision.'" That honestly feels like that's almost all of what I do as a creative director.
I'm still lucky at DK that I get to be on the box, but that's me fighting to be on the box most the time. It's like I've got to animate at least one shot in every job. I've got to at least try to go in After Effects and comp a shot, but most of it is meetings, phone calls, looking at demo reels, traveling out to a client to convince them that what we're doing is the right decision.
It's that stuff that you don't think of when you're in school and you're like, "Oh, yeah. I'm going to be a creative director. This is going to be awesome. I'm going to get paid well and do whatever I want." There's a lot of not very sexy stuff with being a creative director.
Joey: I had the same experience, and I want to dig into a bunch of those things. Let's talk about what Guillermo del Toro ... Just a very sweet namedrop to be able to do, man. Props. Props for that. He's right. You have to say no 99 times for the one yes.
That's really hard for some people. It was very hard for me to tell someone who had just spent all day working on something that it wasn't even close to what we needed, and we still needed it to be good and we needed it tomorrow. That was always very hard for me. I'm wondering if that's hard for you and have you learned any ways, when you have to say that to somebody, to do it in a way that doesn't destroy them or destroy you?
Ryan Summers: There's a lot of stuff to unpack. We could talk about this for one whole show ...
Ryan Summers: ... but there's a lot of stuff to unpack with that, that I think, one thing, it's a cheap and easy thing, but I think it's served me very well, is to always find something positive that someone's worked on. You don't always have to lead with this, but it's always good to end with it, is that if someone's put in a lot of work and they've always put in the work for the best if they've been communicated to correctly.
They've worked with the best intentions. They're not working, saying, "I'm going to do the opposite of what this guy said because I'm going to wow him." Most people, professionally, aren't like that. They've gone with the best intentions. There's something there that if it's 100% off, that means I did a really bad job communicating the idea. I'm not even criticizing that person, I'm criticizing myself, or I should be.
I try to find something that we can keep or something that is positive whenever I interact with someone, when I'm looking at a [crit 44:02] or trying to look at a whole piece together to find something that we can build off of. I try to do that, but I try to very honestly and very quickly not beat around what's not working.
I think what helps with that, and it's actually in our ethos here at DK, is that we try to make things as real and as tangible as fast as possible. I think it's good to theorize and it's good to get people in a room and talk and it's good to have one person set a direction, but the longer you stay in the ethereal, ephemeral land of IDEAS that I hate, the faster you can get. Just write some words down on a board and say, "Hey, these are the things this job is not. It is not going to be funny, it is not going to be sophomoric. It is going to be austere and it is going to be serious and it's going to create wonder. Those three words are what we're doing and these three words are what we are not doing."
That helps me a lot when I get to tell someone, "Hey, this isn't working," because we can go back to that board and be like, "Hey, remember when I said it's got to be austere, it has to feel like there's a sense of wonder? This is what I mean by it because this is not doing it."
I try to do that, get to tangible as fast as possible. If it means go into Cinema, literally do 20 frame grabs, just literally Wireframe, gray box, screen capture. Don't even render, just screen capture and throw it in a timeline and get an edit going as fast and sloppy as possible, something that you can actually start making points of reference, then guided by those kinds of ideas that we all agreed on at the beginning.
That helps me a lot because then I could say it's not my ego as a director saying, "You did it wrong. I wouldn't have done that," because no one ever responds to that. We can say, as a team, we agreed on this concept and we agreed on these things, and they're not marching towards that. That helps me quite a bit. I don't know if that answers your question or not.
Joey: It does in a way because I think that that scenario is someone just missing the mark in terms of tone or maybe the way it makes you feel, but I'm thinking of, I don't know, every freelancer's worst nightmare, where you give them a board so they don't have to design anything and you say ... Let's pretend it's an end tag for a commercial you guys are doing. Literally, you just need to animate the logo on in some cool way, animate the type in, and they just don't do a good job at it, that you realize ...
I mean you might even blame yourself, "Maybe I shouldn't have hired this person," but the animation isn't good. There's no finesse to it. There's the [eases 46:26] or just like the default [EZEs 46:28]. In that situation, you know that you're going to have to give this person some bad news. Now those are the situations, and it could have just been ... I mean, I don't know, see now I'm filled with self-doubt. Maybe I hired too quickly. I was too easy to hire these freelancers. That happened to me a few times, and it was really awkward. Then I'd do it, I'd get it out there, and then I'd go home and I'd drink a bunch of beer.
Ryan Summers: How did you handle it, though, in the end? Did you replace the person? Because, for me, it really depends on how much room you have to pull the parachute. If it's a case of, "Oh, this has to get done tomorrow," I can't teach this person why it was wrong, I need to just do it, inevitably I'd end up going on the box and doing a part of it myself.
If there's still some time to pull the parachute, like, let's say, your scenarios, there's three shots to this end tag or three shots of this piece, I will pick the one that I think I can as quickly as possible show what I'm looking for and I will try to at least do that, whether that person's over my shoulder. I'll be like, "Hey, in an hour, I'm going to just rough this out and then I want you to take it to finish," or, "I want you to do the other two shots like this."
The worst thing, I think, you can do is rip a job out of someone's hands if they're still going to be employed by you, if you're still going to call on them. I mean the worst case scenario's having to dismiss someone and bring someone else in, which happens. It becomes a radar sense that you have as a creative director, where you and your producer, typically, you know when you're stepping out on the edge and saying, "Oh, this might screw up, but I really want to give this person a chance." Then you have the ticking clock in the back of your head, saying, "Okay. Every day we've got to check in with this guy."
If you have someone who you're fully confident in and you go for four days and you come back on the fifth day and it's totally wrong, that's ... I don't know. Have you run into that situation? Because that's the one where it's the hardest, where you're like, "Oh, man. I've got to scramble. I've got to put this person on something else or let them go."
Joey: There's been both kinds. I mean most of the time what I try to do in that situation is teach. I mean that's the point in my career where I discovered I really, really like teaching because then not only am I going to help the job get done and I'm not going to have to do it, I just have to spend an hour showing them stuff, but I'm also creating a loyal freelancer ...
Ryan Summers: Exactly.
Joey: ... which I mean there's a lot of value to that as a studio to have freelancers working with you. They're growing as they're helping you. But there have been situations where we needed someone, and it's Boston and there's just not a lot of freelancers, and so you book the one that's available. You think in your head, "I'm asking them to do something very simple. This shouldn't be an issue," and then you come back three, four hours later and you say, "Hey, show me what you've done," and they haven't done anything yet because they're still trying to find the tutorial to teach ...
In that situation, I've actually had to literally kick them off the box and just do it, and then have a talk with them afterwards and lower their rate. I've been in some very uncomfortable situations like that.
The reason I bring it up is because at the time that I had to have that conversation, I did not think of myself as someone who is capable of being that much ... I mean it's a very grown up thing to have to do and it is very uncomfortable. I didn't think that I'd ever have to do that or I definitely didn't want to, but yet I was able to, and it helped me grow.
I'm curious. Do you think that being a creative director is something anyone can grow into, or are there certain types of people that really should just stick to sitting behind the box and doing their thing?
Ryan Summers: I think there's a lot of people who think that's what they want to do because they have a misguided sense of what the job is. Then when they get there, those people either stick around and become really bad creative directors or they ... I've had really good friends who are amazing animators that have been forced into becoming creative directors. Six months in, they stepped back and like, "Look, I'm a better value being an animator."
I think there are people who are not creative directors. I tend to find that actually when there's people who are incredibly talented at a very specific thing. If you're an amazing character animator, but you're not a good communicator or you're not open to different types of workflows to understand that each person is really, really different and you have to fashion you the way you talk to people based on who they are.
That's why I said we never got trained to be therapists. To get what you need from each person, you need to have a different interaction style with almost every single person because if you're just the tough junior high school football coach to everybody and you just create great things out of constant pressure and conflict, you may have half a studio that won't react to that and you'll lose them.
Some people might really love it because they get pushed and they like that sense of being pushed, but I think if you're not a great communicator and you're not a great problem solver, not in the super micro cinema 4D way of problem solving, but in a macro, looking at the big picture, I don't think that creative directing is for you because you're going to get frustrated really fast, or you're going to do the worst thing possible and be like, "Here, give me that.
The worst thing a creative director can do, and you see the jokes all the time, like hovering art director, [inaudible 51:25], the worst thing you can do as a creative director is say, "Here, give me that," because I think the best lesson I can give anybody, I've learned it by stumbling and screwing up a lot, is that if you want to be a creative director or you're in the position where you're being forced to be a creative director, the number one word you can remember is "partner". You really are building partnerships with a lot of different people.
Everybody has this auteur theory, George Lucas, "I'm the guy making every decision, and I run it and it's mine. When it's done, my name's on the billboard that says I did this." In our world, a, no one ever cares, unless you're Patrick Clair.
Joey: He's earned it, though.
Ryan Summers: Yeah. Patrick Clair has spent 10 years getting to the point where he is now Patrick Clair to be able to do that. It's not an overnight thing, but, to be honest, it's all partnerships. Like you said, you don't want to just tell someone that what they're doing's wrong and then burn that bridge and never have them come back, or build a reputation that you're an asshole to work with, because that's not going to help you.
I also think that there's a lot of pressure when you're a new director, whether it's an art director, a creative director, anything that you have to wear the weight of the world on your shoulders and you have to have every single answer and you have to know every single tool and you have to know how to answer every single problem with the client immediately. That's not the job. The job is being able to find the right person to help you do each thing at the right time. If you're not a good people person, I don't think being a creative director is the thing for you.
Joey: That makes a ton of sense. Let me ask you about this part, too, because it's probably different from company-to-company, but I think the stereotype of creative director, and actually some of the ones that I've worked with that weren't as good, I would say, at their job, is that they've got the artistic side down, they can lead the creative, but then there's, I guess, almost the producer side of being a creative director, assembling the right team and managing expectations and talking to client and doing pitches and stuff like that. How was the transition into that role for you? What has that taught you?
Ryan Summers: I really enjoyed it. The thing that I love about motion graphics is that it's really just an umbrella term for all the stuff I would be doing otherwise, all the stuff I love. I'm not a musician, but I love music. I love photography, I have a weird fascination with type. I obviously love animation, whether it's character or moving a square to create an emotion, whatever that might be. I love all that stuff, so I feel like it comes naturally because I really appreciate every part of it.
I also really love the producing side, the figuring out all the different things that have dependencies with each other. I really like working with a good producer. I get almost thermonuclear mad when I'm working with a bad producer who doesn't appreciate the delicacy of a job. You need to set it up just right and you need to make sure that there's the waterfall of we just got an RFP to we just shipped a job is very delicate. It has a lot of dependencies and bottlenecks.
I've ran into producers who just love nerding out about that, that intricacy, to make sure the job runs smoothly. I've ran into other producers who are like, "Hey, that's your job. That's not my job. Good luck." That part, I think I've really struggled with. It's like finding the right producers to have the right relationships with that act as, again, partners.
That's probably been the hardest thing for me. It's like I love clients, I love talking to clients. The problem solving there is great. The payoff when the client really clicks and you solve a problem that they didn't even they have, that's how you become someone like Kyle Cooper.
Kyle is incredibly great at discovering the truth to something that even a director who spent his last three years working on something. Kyle can find a way to discover that to the point where the director will pay them crazy amounts of money and will come back to them over and over because they do something that they couldn't even do. That part is awesome. That's so much fun when you creatively link together and you realize you solved something as a team.
Again, I don't know if that answers it, but I think the producing side of it's been really difficult for me because I can see a lot of what I think needs to be done and it doesn't get done, or it's not as tight and organized as the production side, the actual execution side, needs it to be. The client side's great. Teaching new people is awesome. I love finding talent. That's really good.
Then I've actually been more and more excited about the business side of it. That was one thing that, when I was at Imaginary Force, I struggled with a lot. Then being at a lot of different shops in a short amount of time to see how different people set their companies up and organize them and create hierarchies. That's been fascinating to me.
On the creative director side, I've really liked all that ... I don't think we talked about cinema 4D at all in that. Those other things have been really fun to see.
Joey: I mean that's the goal if you are a creative director. You're still a MoGraph artist. You still want to get on the box, but that's not the best use of your time, especially from DK's point of view, if you have the title and salary of creative director.
Ryan Summers: Exactly.
Joey: Let's talk about the clients. You just talked about it. You said it a few times, you really love working with clients. At the beginning of a project, a lot of times there's a pitch phase. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the way that that seems to work.
We actually had a producer on the podcast a while ago from The Mill, previously actually worked at Digital Kitchen, Erica Hilbert. She said that The Mill pitches a lot, and they actually don't have a problem with it, but I've heard other people from other studios say, "It's a horrible model. We're doing work for free. It cheapens everything." I'm curious what your take on it is and how does DK deal with that. How do you decide, "Okay. We can put a month of resources into this with maybe zero pay"? How do those decisions get made?
Ryan Summers: I think I was really lucky being on Imaginary Forces because I maybe was a little bit on the tail end of it, but I got to see almost the whole history of how pitching was done, how it is now, and where it's going in the future. When I was there, I still heard all the people lamenting the fact that they had to pitch.
When Kyle was there, even when Kyle Cooper left and there were all of his acolytes, there was a moment where Imaginary Forces would get paid just to pitch, just to have the right to be attached to the cool of that company at its inception. They were getting paid tens of thousands of dollars to be like, "All right, cool. If you want us to do this, we're not going to put pen-to-paper until we get X."
Then it went to, "Okay. Now there's yU+co, there's a couple of other companies. We have a little bit of competition, but there's directors who come to us because of the relationship. We're not going to do it for free, but we may not get a fee upfront." Then it turned into now, 10 years into it, 15 years into it, there's a hundred companies in the country that can do this. We have to prove to people why our vision, and that's an important word, our vision is worth the money we're going to get paid versus someone else's vision.
Then probably the last year that I was there, it really turned into motion graphics in most positions are a commodity. People are literally ordering off of a menu of what they want and they'll tell you what to pay for it, and you need to spend $5,000 to $10,000 to fight against all the other people that want to get that little nibble as well.
I've seen the whole spectrum, and it's very frustrating. I used to be in visual effects and I have a lot of friends in visual effects, and I've seen that entire industry basically implode from the inside-out. The biggest problem in that whole industry was when ILM, which is Industrial Light and Magic, focused more on the industry and less on the magic, when everything was about computers and render times and software, and less about the Hal Hickels and the John Knolls and the true artists. That whole industry imploded for a multitude of other reasons, but to me that was the biggest thing.
I feel like motion graphics is a little bit safeguarded on that because we have more than six clients, but the pitching process is frightening. If you ever listened to Chris Do, he basically doomdays the apocalypse of the industry and tells everybody to get out, but he's at the front lines of a company that's been open for 15 years that has institutionalized overhead and big budgets and salaries and I'm sure real estate issues, all kinds of huge, big budget issues, but they have all the legacy of old machines and old software.
For those giant companies like us, DK, IF, a company like Blind, pitching is really difficult to say, "Yeah, we're going to spend $10,000 on a $100,000 job," because it really eats into if you can even make money on the job. Companies our size actually turn away a lot of decent jobs because the budgets just don't make sense. That includes from day one, when we're asked to pitch.
The good thing about that, I think, is that there are a lot of smaller companies that are a lot more lean, that have a lot more modern methodologies, that don't have as many people. They can go ahead and afford to spend $2,000 because if they get a $100,000 job, that's huge for them.
I feel like it's part of the natural cycle of this industry. The only problem is we're going through the first cycle. A company like yU+co or DK or IF or Blind, they're all going through this. We're about 10, 15, 20 years old. They're on the backend of that cycle. There's a bunch of companies starting up that are sometimes eating our lunch because they're small and they're agile and their overhead's not as expensive.
I think it's part of the natural cycle. I think that we're never going to get to the point where we get $20,000 pitch fees to do a job, but I do think that there's a way to course-correct as well. That's my take on the business side of it.
Joey: I am really glad you brought up Chris Do because as you were talking, you referenced the thing he said that set off a firestorm about ... I think what he was talking about ...
Ryan Summers: Are we going to say the word? Are we going to say the-
Joey: I wrote down bricklayer.
Ryan Summers: Oh, good. Awesome.
Joey: I did write it down. I wrote it down. I wrote it down. What I wrote down was bricklayer versus visionary, because you also said the word "vision", right?
Ryan Summers: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Joey: I think you're right. I think that there are companies out there ... I won't name them, but there are companies out there that unapologetically will make you a factory-perfect explainer video. Literally, there's a formula and they'll make it and it's $5,000. DK can never do that, neither can Blind.
We had Chris Dow on the podcast, and he talked about Blind didn't experiment, where they tried to spinoff a separate wing of the company that just did explainer videos. They had trouble getting people even to take them seriously because they'd look at their other work and be like, "You guys should not be doing explainer videos," even if there was a way they could do it profitably.
It's really interesting. DK is an interesting example because DK underwent what appeared from the outside to be pretty radical change, I don't know, it was probably 10 years ago at this point, where they started branding themselves as an agency. I'm assuming that that was in response to seeing down the road, "Oh, motion graphics is becoming a commodity. We need to be able to do more than that." Is that what it's like on the inside?
Ryan Summers: I mean I can't speak to that agency decision because I wasn't here when that happened, but what I can say is that I've seen it in a lot of places, is that when companies like DK or Imaginary Forces or Royale, or any of those companies, start talking about, "Maybe we should become an agency," what I really truly believe they're saying is, "We want to be direct to client. We want to have a relationship with Nike. We want to have a relationship with Apple. We don't want to go through Chiat or 72andSunny," or all these other middlemen that are reminiscent of the record industry, with the record companies being between the artists and the consumer.
They're really saying, "Hey, is there a way for us to cut that out so we could just work directly with you? Because it'd be a lot easier. You can talk directly to the people who are making this stuff. We'll do it cheaper, but maybe we can get some reoccurring work all the time as well."
I really think that's what people are saying when they say agency. When a company like ours, or another company our size, says, "We want to be an agency," it doesn't mean we want to do ad buys, it doesn't mean we're going to have a 50% strategy branding team in the back, it doesn't mean that we're going to have a hundred account reps. It means that we're really like, "Oh, man. Instead of having to work through three people to get our hands and our voices seen and heard by the client, could we just talk to the client? They're right across the hall, there's just an office in between us. Could we just be in the office right next to you?"
I think that that's what it means for the most part when people say that. I understand completely where Chris Do is coming from on some of the stuff. I disagree with the bricklaying comment, and I think it probably got a little turned out of control, but Chris also tends to be hyperbolic when he's got a focus on him because he's trying to get people's attention to the situation he's going through as well. I do understand that as well.
There is a certain amount for a company like his ... The biggest thing with someone like Chris or Peter Frankfurt or someone who's owned and been in the company for 15 to 20 years is that they don't have the perspective that you and I have, or, better said, we don't have their perspective, to be completely honest.
Chris is looking at it from what the business was from the beginning of the business, when there were only five other people like him doing it. We can't lament the fact that the industry is no longer like that because it would never be that way. It'd be like being in the Rolling Stones and being upset that there's a hundred bands that sound like the Rolling Stones 50 years later. Of course, there's going to be. That's going to happen, but you don't hear Mick Jagger complaining about, "Oh, there's all these people eating our lunch." He still goes out on the road and tours.
There's always going to be a market for our stuff, but I also think that there are companies where there are people and there are institutions and there are workflows that haven't been updated in 15 years, that haven't changed, that are getting paid the way they were when the money was so great because there were only five other places to go for that.
Companies have to evolve, they have to change. Sometimes, unfortunately, they have to restructure. The natural order of things at Imaginary Forces always seem to be someone would be there, someone would become a creative director. Two, three, four, five years go by, they leave and they start their own company. yU+co, I believe, was like that. I know Alma Mater is like that. My very first art director, creative director, Brian Mah, left probably the first six months I was there and started a successful company.
That's the natural order of things, but if a company just keeps on building up and building up this pressure of internalized overheads, old hardware, old techniques, and the same people working there making more and more money, I can understand where Chris is like, "The sky is falling, the world's crumbling. This is going to all change." At the same time, though, I'm not charging people $300 for a PDF on how to pitch. That's where I get a little ... My eyebrow gets raised when I hear people doomsdaying at the same time then selling you how to keep the industry going.
Joey: The gauntlet has been thrown down. You should go on Chris' podcast. I'm sure he'd love to talk about this.
Ryan Summers: Chris and I are friends. We've talked a lot. I respect Chris a lot. I think, again, the bricklayer thing lit me on fire. I probably had a 20-tweet storm about, "This is ridiculous," and, "How dare you," and, "The people that you work for are the people you're talking about."
In the end, if you're trying to get attention, then he did what he was hoping to do. If it was to get attention to the problem, I'm assuming that was his intent, then good on him for doing that. I disagree, but I'd rather have the conversation continuing about it than just be like, "Oh, screw that. He doesn't know what he's talking about."
Joey: The three of us are going to have a good time at NAB this year, I will say that.
Ryan Summers: Yes, definitely.
Joey: Ryan, you talked a little bit about, and I think you're right, when a company says, "We're becoming an agency," they mean, "We're cutting out the middleman." That middleman, oftentimes, is an ad agency. Ad agencies have responded by building their own in-house motion design studios. I'm curious, now what percentage of the work that you guys are doing is direct to client? Do you prefer to do it that way or do you still like to work with ad agencies? Is there still some reason that an ad agency should maybe be in the middle sometimes?
Ryan Summers: If it was 72andSunny, I'd love to work with an ad agency. I've worked on a couple of jobs with specific people. It's just like what I was saying before, I want to work with the best people possible that have the client's intentions in mind, not their own ego, not their bottom line, because if you line up with the client and it's a client that you've vetted and the budgets work for you, in the end the stars align most of the time. I think I just was tweeting last night about how much ... During MoChat. Do you take part of MoChat on Twitter at all?
Joey: I have three kids, so no, but I'm aware of it. Every once in a while, I'll try to poke my head in if I get mentioned or something.
Ryan Summers: There was a great discussion, I think it was two nights ago, about this topic, about what's it like working with an agency versus working direct to client. I, honestly, if you're asking me as a freelancer what would I like, I'd love to work with agencies because agencies get the hot jobs.
Agencies are the ones who have the huge multimillion dollar ad buys, with the ability to go and put an Apple commercial on every screen you've seen all at once. They have the ability to do that. If you want to be on a hot job for a really cool client and see your work on every screen possible, on billboards, on buses, in elevators, on your phone, on every screen, as a freelancer, I want to work with an agency because they have the key still.
As a business owner or someone working at a higher level at a shop, I desperately want direct to client. I want to be directly with the guy who's going to tell me what he wants, who's going to hand me the check, and that I can have the opportunity to have their arm put around my shoulder and pulled close so I'm part of the next conversation before the next product even launches.
I desperately want that kind of a trusted partnership because it creates stability, it creates security, it becomes reliable income, it becomes reliable jobs. The more reliable jobs you have like that, then the more you have the ability to go and do a loss leader or an experiment or, God forbid, your own products or your own projects. Those create the ability to extend beyond just being a motion graphics shop. I don't know if that makes sense, but the answer to that question depends on your perspective.
Joey: It does make sense, though, because I think that when you work direct with a client as a company, typically your incentives are probably closer aligned than if there's the agency in the middle whose business model is actually ad buying, and then the creative is just the cherry on top, which is the dirty little secret of the advertising industry.
Ryan Summers: I think that's the exact word I used, is that until you've done it a bunch times, you don't realize how much of a bother the actual ad is for the ad agency. It literally is that. It's a very, very tiny cherry on top that some people in the company don't even like the taste of that cherry. A lot of people are just like, "Do we even have to bother with this ad? Just make somebody make it so I can get it on a bunch of screens and get paid for it."
That's frustrating because it really feels like even if it's ... We did a job for Twitter when we were at Royale, and the agency had a 24/7 presence in our boardroom because we were offering the company 24-hour turnarounds at all times. The ad ended up being a little ... I don't know how it ended up, but it wasn't the most exciting experience and it wasn't the most exciting commercial, it wasn't the most exciting reaction. I think, for everybody, it was just like, "How did this happen?" It felt like the focus was never on the ad itself; the focus was like, "What are we going to do with the ad afterwards? Where are we going to put it?"
That's where, if I'm working directly with the client, I feel like, like you said, the incentive to do well and to be on point with the messaging, everybody's aligned because the goals are the same. If we do a great job on this one, we're going to get another one. Whereas with the agency, we might have just gotten picked because our creative was all right and the timing worked out and the budget worked out and they need to go. There's so much more that you don't see when you're working with an agency than if you're just direct to client.
That said, though, if you are direct to client, sometimes it means you are almost disqualified from those super awesome jobs. If you're working direct to client with a shoe company, you may not get the badass man versus machine, super Houdini'd, super tight macro stuff knitting together. You might be doing their show packages for a convention or for their store, the onscreen stuff, but it's reliable and it's consistent and you have a relationship. It really depends on where you're coming from.
Joey: Awesome. All right. We're going to close out this interview with two questions related. You've talked about your journey. You've gone from on staff, learning the ropes, climbing up the ranks, freelance, now you're at the top of the food chain at a very well-known, awesome studio. Throughout your career, you've driven in a direction that aligned with your goals, creatively and personally. Do you think, 10 years ahead, where do you want to be? Where's the end game for Ryan Summers?
Ryan Summers: Oh, I have secret plans that I can't tell you.
Joey: Fair enough.
Ryan Summers: But in a perfect world, I tell this all the time, and it's what I love about you, Joey, it's what I love about Nick, some photographers I know, I really want to see not just myself, but more of us in the industry go from making the product to becoming the product, whatever that means for you. If it means that you're an inspirational YouTube video guy that teaches people things or gets people inspired, I want to see more and more people do that, whether it means you go off to the side and you make your own videos and you make music videos, or you start directing shorts and you try to make a feature film.
I hope that in the future I get to find a balance between working for other people and working for myself. Then the third part of that triple play is that at the same time I can take the experience that I've gained.
When I was in Chicago, people kept on telling me no or I'm crazy or that's impossible. I can do the opposite for other people, where I can be like, "No, I can give you direct examples of what I did," and other people I know to say, "Screw what everybody else says. You can do this. You may not have enough money to go to Art Center, you can work at Imaginary Forces. You may not have enough money to do a feature film, you can get on Kickstarter and get one going."
I want to be able to prove that I'm from the South Side of Chicago, I had no money, and nobody ever even talked about art when I was in high school, and I'm working at the company that I wanted to work at 15 years ago, helping lead them in new directions. That's a big thing for me. If I can be in that position in 10 years from now, I'll be stoked.
Joey: Oh, you'll be there, I have no doubt. I have no doubt, man. That is an amazing goal. Then the last question is what would you tell your 25-year-old self? Maybe, I don't know, this might be a bad question for you because you seem like you had it all figured out. You went in a nice, straight line, but I'm sure you stumbled along the way. I'm sure there were times where you were like, "I made a bad choice." What are some of the things you wish you knew back then that might have, I don't know, saved you, maybe it would have kept some hair on your head or something?
Ryan Summers: I think it's easy for me. 10 years before I moved to LA, I had an opportunity coming out of school to go to Los Angeles, I would have told myself to do it immediately. Don't even think for a second not to go, not to try. There's a lot of fear, at least where I came from, of anything that's unknown or anything that feels like a gamble. The long play was always security and stability.
I would have said, "If you had an instinct to go, go." I don't have regrets, but I think the goals I have could be happening now instead of 10 years from now if I would've left Chicago and Illinois 10 years ago and do it.
The other thing I would tell myself is that if you have a gut feeling about anything, follow it, whether that's somebody telling you you can't do something and you feel like, "I don't know. I think I can," or it's, "Oh, man. Maybe I should try talking to this person," or, "Maybe I should email this director that I love and ask if he needs help." I would tell myself anytime you had one of those entrepreneurial, aspirational instincts, go for it every single time.
Joey: Preach, brother. I would say where you said Los Angeles, insert New York City, London, Chicago, Boston. When you're young, that's probably the scariest time to make a move like that, but it's also the easiest time. It gets a lot harder as you age, especially if you do what I did and just go ahead started a giant family.
Ryan Summers: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
Joey: Awesome. Ryan, man, this was a killer conversation. Thank you so much. There's so much wisdom you dropped. I know everyone's going to get a ton out of it. This will definitely not be the last time you come on this podcast.
Ryan Summers: Oh, man. All I can ask is anybody who likes this, follow me on Twitter. If you have any questions for anything, man, please hit me up, please ask me. I'm more than happy to share anything. We've gotten some specifics, but I feel like we could always drill down even more. Reach out to me if you ever have a question.
Joey: Right on. Hopefully those t-shirts will be on sale on your website soon. All right, man, we'll talk soon.
Ryan Summers: Cool. Thanks a lot.
Joey: You will definitely be hearing more from Ryan. I suggest you go follow him on Twitter, @Oddernod. We'll link to it in the show notes. If you find someone like Ryan who really lives and breathes this stuff, follow them on social media because you'll pick up a lot about the industry, what's new, what's going on, just by paying attention to what they're saying.
If you dug this interview, please, pretty please, go to iTunes, take two seconds and rate and review the School of Motion Podcast. It's a little awkward for me to have to ask, but it really does help us spread the good MoGraph word and it enables us to keep booking incredible artists like Ryan.
Thanks so much for listening. I hope you got inspired, I hope you learned a few networking tricks you might want to try. That's it for now. I'll catch you on the next one.