Communication Arts: Motion Theory

Diverse cultures and disciplines are the driving force behind this Venice, California-based production studio.

By Julie Prendiville Roux

Mad magazine, that irreverent comic book whose mascot is the fictional Alfred E. Newman, has no doubt fueled a creative mind or two. At Motion Theory, its art became the impetus for a music video for Interscope Records’s Beck filled with wild imagery, innuendo and the more colorful side of Los Angeles.

In an homage to cartoonist Al Jaffee, who single-handedly invented the “fold-in” comic page, where one image turns into another simply by folding the page in on itself, the video pokes around vibrant sections in and around East Los Angeles—a galaxy away from manicured Beverly Hills—to create a reality within a reality. Life-sized scenes like city blocks, hairstyle salons and sidewalk vendors literally fold in on themselves and become something else altogether. A child’s sidewalk drawing becomes a crime scene outline. A health food store sign extolling the virtues of vitamins becomes a death knell.

Director Mathew Cullen, co-creative director and co-founder of Motion Theory, says, “The song was Beck’s ‘Girl.’ There was a great dichotomy to the music. On the surface, the lyrics were light and the music was very summery, but then when you dug deeper, the lyrics said something darker.” Cullen and Motion Theory creative director Grady Hall contacted Jaffee to ask permission to borrow his technique. Cullen remembers, “He was very open to it and he said, ‘Go ahead—if it’s OK to show the grandkids.’”

The result is a series of cityscapes and indoor scenes that magically collapse as Beck sings his way through the scenes. Local artists including Martha Rich, Gary Garay and Kevin Christy created murals and miniature neighborhoods. Mariachis, who can be found any day at “Mariachi Corner” in East L.A., play with Beck as he sings. Jaffee was very happy with the outcome, which made the entire process all the more satisfying.

The form of music video is the perfect way to showcase the strengths of Motion Theory because the projects start at developing the concept. The staff, made up of writers, directors, editors, former still photographers and graphic designers, works together in an usually collaborative fashion to develop pitch books, a tool which outlines the music video in extensive detail, with a concept statement, treatment, storyboards, style guide—any pieces of information necessary to illustrate their ideas. Motion Theory then goes head-to-head with other directors. The pitch process is labor intensive and eats up hours and hours, but luckily their success rate has reflected the extra effort.

Writer/director Grady Hall, a former writer on the TV series, The Outer Limits, says, “We show people what the vision is as clearly as possible. Once they see a full book, they’re more excited than when they just get a single page. It’s so much more powerful when we all work together to develop a whole presentation. The ultimate goal is that the best idea wins, and then we later work out the style and techniques to pull it off in a way that hasn’t been done.

“We’ve been very fortunate—we’ve begun to develop a reputation for doing new styles and not copying ourselves or others,” he continues. “We think of the story first and keep it at the center. Budgets on music videos are so tight that you want to make sure the artist wants to do something great and new and special and that label wants to do something great and new and special. The people at labels are very up-to-date and creative. They’re very motivated to do great things.”

Founded in 2000 by Cullen and executive producer Javier Jimenez, Motion Theory is located in Venice, a beach community adjacent to Santa Monica, California. With a core staff of 25, their modern, cement building, which once housed the town’s gas company, can easily accommodate an entire expanded crew when they’re in post production. Cullen and Jimenez, whose families are from México, have attracted a multi-national talent pool, drawing from Spain, Turkey, the Philippines and throughout Asia and Latin America. Besides being culturally diverse, the founders have also pulled artists from many disciplines: print, editorial, illustration, animation, videography and script and story development.

“What it comes down to is when you put people of different backgrounds together, there’s a great intersection that happens. We bring on collaborators to revitalize the creative. We bring them into the process from the beginning to get the best we can,” explains Jimenez. The company works on commercials 60% of the time, music videos 20%, and the rest is spent on print and short film projects.

“We like to start on a project as early as possible, even if a client doesn’t have storyboards or final concept,” says Cullen. “A good team brings something extra and new to the spot.” For Wieden Kennedy, Motion Theory created a sci-fi set that initially looks like a normal basketball court for Electronic Arts’s NBA Live ’06, a video game that gives you the feeling you’re right in the game with NBA stars. Called “Mech Warriors,” at first you think you’re watching a practice session between NBA superstars Tracy McGrady, Dwayne Wade and a whole lineup of NBA greats. Then the spot takes on a more mechanical feel as though it’s a testing facility for robots. In the end, McGrady walks up to Wade, stands in front of him and suddenly begins to peel away, his humungous frame literally peeling down to the ground. A normal kid is revealed as he decides to play as Wade. It plays like a small film, with gorgeous production values.

Art director Kaan Atilla says, “This is a very open-minded environment. A lot of ideas come together; we spend an intense amount of time researching, trying to understand other disciplines. We don’t necessarily look at the competition all the time. We look at architecture, fine arts, illustration, photography, the movies.”

For Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, Motion Theory designed and directed a campaign for Hewlett-Packard called “It Consolidates.” The idea was to show the unifying power of the computer giant’s enterprise server. Combining live action, stop motion, motion control and illustration, the spots show a tangle of freeways merging into one, flowing line, a cluttered desktop organizing itself and other problem/solution situations. In a way that wouldn’t have been possible from a technical standpoint even five years ago, the production company is able to handle every aspect of this kind of project, sending out only for voiceover and music. They have the luxury of collaborating with an outside artist or studio for a specific reason, but in general they don’t have to wait for elements to come back from an animation house or a titles company—here, it’s all down the hall.

The assumption is that the end product would only get better and better since all the bodies are under the same roof, layering discipline upon discipline and sharing the result instantaneously. Collaboration is vital; there’s no room for closed doors or ideas. “A lot of competitors have started offices in different cities,” says Cullen. “Our mentality is that in doing so, we would have to split parts of the Motion Theory team when that’s the everyday interaction that’s integral to the atmosphere and our work.”

Art director Jesus de Francisco says, “It’s a free and very open environment. Everyone has an opinion. We tend to do one initial brainstorming session with ten, twelve or fifteen people. Then we break it down depending on how the project goes. We might end up working in teams of two or three, then we’ll go back and have new sessions with the rest of the group.”

Besides attracting a variety of talented artists, Cullen and Jimenez have managed to create a culture that’s empowering, never intimidating, even in the face of intense workloads. To a person, the staff talks about how relaxed and yet energized the atmosphere is. Hall says, “Matt and Javier are two of the reasons we have such a mellow, motivated environment. Matt cannot be satisfied by anything but the most extraordinary, yet he keeps it light and fun. It’s like rolling up your work into your passion and hobby at the same time.”

He continues, “We’re in this area which is a very unique space—are we a design company who directs or a directing company who designs? In the end, nothing can limit our imagination. We’re idea guys who are gonna figure it out.” ca