Framestore celebrated the launch of its Chicago office with hundreds of guests at the Adler Planetarium last Wednesday night. They ate, drank, and hobnobbed in the curving glass pyramid of the museum’s Sky Pavilion for hours.
It was a hell of a bash, no doubt; but also a fitting introduction to the enthusiasm and expertise that the internationally renowned visual effects company brings to the Windy City.
“I love Chicago,” says Sir William Sargent, Framestore’s CEO. “There’s very much an open mindset that we’re finding here.”
Sir William is an Irishmen who cofounded the company with a handful of friends in London 31 years ago. At the time, the group was dedicated to maintaining staff of no more than twenty people.
“That was it,” he recalls. “Beyond twenty, we couldn’t manage.”
Since then, Framestore has hired more than 1,700 employees and expanded to New York, Los Angeles, Montreal, and Chicago. It also earned hundreds of Emmmies, Oscars, and official nods for work on ad campaigns and films like Superman, Harry Potter, and Avatar. Along the way, Sir William was awarded a knighthood for his brief stint as a British civil servant.
But Sir William has no interest in talking about awards.
“That’s the past,” he explains. “The bits that get me out of bed in the morning are the ones with the guys sort of trying to work out how the hell to do something.”
A few hours before the party began, he gathered a handful of global and Chicago-based higher-ups in the company’s Greektown office to explain exactly how much they like working out how the hell to do something.
“It’s not uncommon for an agency creative team to call up and say, ‘we’ve got this notion, this idea, and we’re not quite certain whether it could be done,’” he says. “We will say, ‘you know what, let’s have a cup of coffee and see whether this idea’s got any legs or not.’”
Solutions frequently involve a combination of computer graphics and applied technology. With the right touch, their impact begins way before — and continues long after — anything appears onscreen.
“One thing leads to the next, to the next,” says Sir William.
The giant Morgan Stanley monitors that light up Times Square went from a pedestrian-friendly description of “what goes on inside their building” to a community board that announces, among other things, employee birthdays.
“We keep giving them new templates for different activations,” says Global Marketing Director Stephanie Bruning.
A 30-second commercial for Beats by Dre not only spawned a conference room with the technology to make films of famous visitors, but also inspired a cast of animated characters shaped out of the product’s line of speaker accessories.
Known as “The Pills,” they became the prototype for the actual speaker stands that the company sells today.
“That wide-mouth, chatty guy,” Bruning continues. “We designed him.”
Establishing creative partnerships in Chicago is a task handled by Executive Producer Krystina Wilson. With experience on both coasts at places like The Mill and Method Studios, she is more than qualified to judge how well Chicago will warm up to Framestore’s way. So far, it’s all good.
“The art directors, ECDs, and GCDs in Chicago are more collaborative than any other city I’ve worked in,” she explains. “The agencies that put the city on the map are more open to new ideas.”
Besides pitching Framestore’s capabilities, she’s also been busy helping the Chicago office on a number of traditional broadcast jobs. Since opening in May, it has completed several spots for Chevrolet, Capital One and United Health Care.
The Chicago office is staffed by what Wilson describes as “a really passionate group” of thirty people. But, according to Bruning, its total resources span the globe.
“There’s 1,700 worldwide,” she says. “Of Krystina’s team, fifteen to twenty have worked in different areas within Framestore, and they’ve got all of their peers that they can call upon to pick brains.”
A recent example of such brain-picking finesse is the Field Trip to Mars, a mind-blowing simulation of the red planet that enveloped an entire busload of kids en route to a STEM conference in Washington, DC.
As the youngsters traveled through the streets of the city, the view from every window transformed into a Martian landscape. At the same time, the visuals adjusted to the movements of the bus. When the vehicle made a turn, so did Mars.
“It had to read as a bus,” explains Global President of Integrated Advertising Jon Collins. “If there’s an undulation somewhere and your brain doesn’t read it on the screen, then you’re going to have kids throwing up.”
Besides digitally mapping over 200 square miles of DC, Framestore located video screens that could go from transparent to Martian “windows” and
Technology at that scale did not exist when the project began.
“Three or four of us were calling China and Korea to source these parts,” recalls Collins. “We were doing 40-hour shifts, literally putting sheets of glass, video cards and ribbons together in a dusty warehouse down outside DC.”
Once installed, the screens were controlled by a game engine running on servers behind a false wall in the back of the bus.
The trip ultimately utilized Framestore’s VR, film, motion capture, and animation teams. It also won 19 Cannes Lions.
But Sir William insists that not every job needs to be dialed up to eleven, because Framestore also enjoys “reverse engineering” solutions to fit within financial constraints. He recalls an “art house film shooting on an art house budget” that the London office handled several years ago.
Titled Gravity, it went on to win seven Oscars.
“(Chief Creative Officer) Tim Webber reengineered the filmmaking process, which has now affected filmmaking, through what we did,” he says.
Midway through the launch party at the Adler Planetarium, Sir William took a stroll near museum’s lobby and paused to admire one of the installations.
“I think it’s going pretty well,” he said.
To view pics from Framestore’s Chicago launch party, click here.