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Style and Substance: A TEDx Title Chat with Scott Geersen
Find out how Scott Geersen is 'changing the game and leaving a legacy' by delivering style and Substance for TEDx.
Last year, Substance established itself as one of the world’s most exciting 3D studios. Their piece for TEDx Sydney 2018 broke new ground in photo-real 3D, not only in its technical prowess, but the way it provoked its audience to think! And they've just pushed it even further with this year’s mind blowing addition to the TEDx legacy, on the theme of, well, ‘Legacy’!
After witnessing the might of Substance’s work, you may have pictured the creative team in their newly converted warehouse, serviced by a crew of seasoned producers and eager interns. The reality couldn’t be more different.
Instead, Substance is a pioneering example of the leaner, shrewder model of creative production. Crewed by some of the world’s best freelance talent, Substance is piloted by one man - Scott Geersen. An Australian who’s a strikingly down-to-earth creative visionary.
One thing that will inspire any reader of this blog, is Scott only started using 3D software a few years ago! So, for those of us intimidated about working professionally with 3D, his story will certainly boost your confidence. And viewed from a wider perspective, Scott’s tale is a powerful validation of building your transferable skills to skyrocket your career.
But as I say, Scott’s a down-to-earth guy, so prepare for some invaluable tips. He details his creative process, inc. insights into managing a world-class crew of remote artists. Plus some realities of getting work, from landing the gig to promoting the final result.
Let’s kick off with the trilogy of titles for one the world most desirable brands, TEDx, and how Substance has faced the challenge of raising the bar, year after year!
Interview with Scott Geersen of Substance
Scott was kind enough to answer questions about running his lean MoGraph operation. Let's hop in!
I’m sure you’re still enjoying the incredible response to your latest TEDx Sydney titles, but can you briefly return to your breakthrough hit in 2018, and tell us how that felt?
That risk element was definitely on our minds when we released, even though early on we had made the decision not to hold back, trusting that people would see the message as it was intended.
TEDx of course were thrilled with the result, and for any studio a happy client counts as a win. But as far as test audiences go, TED participants are all very open-minded, curious people. When the wider response was also overwhelmingly positive, it was gratifying to know that we had succeeded in our aim of creating a title sequence that not only opened the event, but acted as a catalyst for thought.
We had shown that a title sequence could live far beyond its original purpose.
We did have some sense that early on, even as an animatic, people were responding positively or felt that it spoke to them on a deeper level. This made sense because we were visualizing topics that we had very strong personal feelings about, and if we felt that way, then others might too. But there was always an element of risk to it, in that any art focused on such emotional or political issues can be polarizing, and prompt an equal or greater amount of criticism.
When creating this years TEDx titles, was it daunting to follow up a project that was so well-received?
Even though 2019 was our third TED title, in a lot of ways it felt like it was the sequel to 2018, and that was in part because of the great response that TxS18 had - especially in the SoM 2018 wrap up podcast! Thank you guys. :)
In the end we had to put all thoughts of “a follow up” aside. Unlike a movie sequel or a second season of TV, this was a different theme. Not just a human theme, but a global one, that needed to address global issues, and leave the conflicts of the human race down below in service of a bigger message.
Even if that message may not connect with as many people, it was a message that needed, demanded, to be communicated.
We had to have the same hope we had back in 2018: that if we created something that we believed strongly in ourselves, if the message rang true, then TxS19 might just also receive a positive reaction and again confirm that a title sequence can, in the right circumstances, have the potential to be bigger than it’s own purpose.
Whether it does as well (or not) as last year’s is out of our hands, and is definitely not the point of the process.
And backing up again to 2017, how did you land that first TEDx Sydney gig?
This was part connections, and part cold approach. The connection was through the Australian Graphic Design Association (AGDA) for which I’ve been on state council for the past 3 years. Also on council was Mark Stott from Common Design, and Common had been responsible for the TEDx Sydney brand for many years at that point.
I didn’t know Mark well, but as we found ourselves in the same council meeting and I knew TEDx would be coming up soon, I asked. It turned out he was about to start considering the motion design component for that year (which is a full motion package BTW, not just titles). It’s possible that we may have won the work if we’d reached out without the AGDA connection but it certainly helped to be involved.
With 3 TEDx titles under your belt, how has the creative approval process evolved with the client?
Since the first title we delivered for TED the approval process has become a little more relaxed, but it still follows the process of most jobs. We begin with a treatment and references, followed by rough boards, then later an animatic, and the final. If that sounds simple, it’s because mutual trust and understanding means we don’t have rounds and rounds of revisions between each of those stages.
Can you give some insight into your production process on TEDx?
There are several defined stages to how our ideal project runs - soak, wash, rinse, spin.
Soak: As director I come up with the concept and narrow down what topics or visuals will be included. For title sequences, this is a very immersive process, with a lot of research – for TED especially so, considering their very broad topics - “humankind” or “legacy”. This stage also includes a huge amount of visual research.
Wash: After all the research is reduced to the most essential components, and after discussion with the client, I start building out the concept as animatic shots, to get as many ideas out as possible and define a structure and a progression.
Rinse: Playblast shots go into edit with my friend Joe, who has a lot of experience editing animatics - something not all editors can do well. This is where shots are evaluated and discarded or revised, and the structure is fine-tuned over and over again.
Spin: Once the edit is locked and approved, the rest of the team come in for lighting and shading, and we progressively add detail until time is up!
How do you manage a team of remote artists?
With apps like Slack it’s much easier than it used to be to have artists working remotely, either to discuss things individually or in groups. The internet is also fast enough now that we can also edit files or sync renders very quickly between us.
The challenge comes from the different time zones, in that the old studio 9am WIP can’t be done - instead you have several WIP discussions throughout the day. It can sometimes put a strain on my own time, but it’s worth it to work with the best people. For TxS18 we had people in 4 timezones, and for TxS19 it was 9.
Sometimes it would be nice to all be in one place - but the separation is certainly no barrier to producing good work with good people.
With such impressive global talent working with Substance, we’d all love to know how you source the artists?
Initially, collaborating with artists around the world came about simply by necessity - people with skills we needed locally were booked, and the technical barriers to remote work were being removed, so it made sense to find people with those skills from further afield. This of course means that potentially, any motion designer in the world is a collaborator - but it’s still often relationships that come first.
We all just want to work with good people who enjoy what they do, and so collaborators often come from friends or associations, and their recommendations. People we interact with online via twitter or Slack channels. So it’s a little of “who you know”. On the other hand, we’ve also reached out cold to artists whose work we love, just to ask if they are available and interested in collaborating, and often this has worked out too. By the same token, we’ve had a few people reach out to us, and this definitely gets them on our radar!
At Substance, who produces the projects and deals with the client facing?
At the moment I’m the producer, in addition to being client facing. There seems to be more directors doing that lately. We’re looking into options for producers though, because I’m also on the tools as well as directing and producing, and this can mean long hours at times.
How do you promote your projects? And has that changed since gaining media attention?
There’s no secret formula to this other than publishing, or submitting things to places that you think might connect with the work. Of course there’s Vimeo and Behance, and other various blogs or portfolio platforms, where promotion is a semi-organic process. The danger with promoting work is that it can sometimes feel like firing into the void. There are certain sites that we wish would feature our projects, and for whatever reason, it hasn’t happened yet.
Our strategy may have changed a little in that an equal number of acceptances and rejections for a project like TxS18 seem to indicate that at best, it’s 50/50 anyway, and at worst it’s completely subjective, so perhaps it’s best just to concentrate on making something we feel proud of, and that our family likes, which should be all the validation any of us ever needs.
Is Substance affiliated to any agency or other studio?
Not yet - but just as we’re looking into producing options, we’re also looking for representation.
How did you personally start your career and how did it progress?
In one sense this is a fairly standard progression, from being interested in design early in school, to doing a design degree and then having a job as a junior motion designer. But things took a turn here, as the junior role was inside a post house, and from exposure to different disciplines I became more interested in film VFX and Flame.
Part of this was the desire to chase the best quality work with the highest level of involvement in the process, and part of it was the drive to constantly challenge myself. Some people call it restlessness – I prefer to call it skill collection.
At one point I was in a dual role at another post studio as the Design Director and also a Flame artist, so I had somewhat of a unique perspective with one foot in design and the other in some fairly hardcore VFX. I then moved to VFX Supervisor and was often out on shoots, then overseeing a team back at the studio. Directing was a natural progression to the combination of design, VFX, and on-set experience, and this is where Substance began.
What was your journey into 3D?
Through the various roles I held there was a lot of interaction with 3D, so I knew the processes and roughly how long things would take, or where problems might occur. I wasn’t on any 3D tools myself, but had been working alongside 3D artists since my position as junior.
For a VFX Supervisor this level of knowledge was enough. On a personal level though, I felt something was missing. This was partly desire for the next challenge, and partly the need to be better able to bring to life the things I saw in my head, with my own hands.
Picking up 3D turned out to be less complex than imagined - but only because I had many years of other knowledge to lean on. For example, after so many years working in VFX, on shoots, and interacting with other directors, I had a good knowledge of how to light something on set, how to structure a story, and the principles of cinematography, combined with a designer’s eye.
I found that for me, 3D linked all of these skills together very nicely, especially now that most standard rendering is fast and physically accurate.
How do you manage down time between projects?
I have two young sons, a wife in need of some flowers, and a backlog of tv series, movies, books and podcasts to get through, in addition to building a new website and mowing the lawn. What downtime?
Do you have any role models?
Role models have changed as interests come and go. When I was young it was older (famous) designers. When I was in VFX it was prominent CG- and VFX-Supervisors. Now it’s more of a directing peer group, people who have mastered their craft, film directors and commercial directors alike. That said, there are a few that remained with me since my junior days, and I admire not just their work, but what they’ve built and how they’ve evolved it.
Kyle Cooper was the original of course, but also Karin Fong, Erin Sarofsky, and Andy Hall are all inspiring on dual levels, as artists and also studio owners. Outside of the motion niche (but still within design!), thinkers like John Maeda for design education, Mike Monteiro for social responsibility, and Stephen Heller for his prolific curiosity.
Are you the 5 year plan kind of guy, or happy to drift along?
Definitely planned, though at times the plan took different courses and at other times, life causes the plan to change. This still happens so perhaps we should call it a 5-year idea.
If all goes to plan, then more of the same - more title sequences and more design-driven commercials! Also more new collaborators, more friends and more opportunities. Maybe even TED Global?
Learn 3D from a Pro
Scott Geersen is crazy talented at 3D work. If you've ever dreamed of growing your 3D skills like Scott, check out Cinema 4D Basecamp. Cinema 4D Basecamp is the best way to get started with 3D modeling and animation, complete with lessons and insights from EJ Hassenfratz. Who knows? You might be asked to do some fancy 3D titles in the future?
Robert Grieves is a freelance animator with 15 years experience creating characters and graphics for a broad range of clients. Robert has animated Emmy winning TV graphics and his animation work has received both Oscar and BAFTA nominations. You can learn more about Robert on his website.