Concept and technique is central to Aaron’s process where a good story or communication is a gift that the viewer is eager to unbox.
What did you read/watch/look at/listen to as a kid or teenager and did anything particularly resonate and have a lasting effect on you choosing a creative profession?
When I was quite young, my siblings and I had a Sesame Street VHS tape called “Don’t Eat the Pictures”. The story starts as all the Sesame Street characters are finishing a day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. But just as they are leaving, Big Bird realizes that his imaginary friend, Snuffy, is missing. So Big Bird and the rest of the group of Muppets and humans go back into the museum to find him, only to be locked in the museum over night by mistake. They make the most of it by wandering through the galleries. Cookie monster tries to eat some still life paintings of food. Oscar the Grouch admires broken Greek sculptures that seem to be beautiful garbage to him. Big Bird meets the ghost of an Egyptian boy who is stuck in purgatory at the Egyptian wing of the museum and eventually helps the kid get to heaven by proving his heart is lighter than a feather. It’s intense. Coincidentally, it first aired on TV the day I was born, on November 16th, 1983.
Needless to say, it had a profound effect on me. The film is essentially a call to action to look at art in whatever way it speaks to you. Every character in that film has a different experience with the art and they leave the museum enlightened somehow. My mom was a “Learning to Look” teacher back then and would lead student tours through the Met, so I got to relive the scenes of the movie in real life. I can’t help but feel that this film taught me something about having perspective and lead me towards my career today. I recommend you watch this film if you have a moment or share it with your kids if you have them.
Can you describe your route to your current position?
I got quite lucky as soon as I moved to New York after graduating college. I had an internship doing stop motion at a small shop called Lifelong Friendship Society. I was also crocheting winter hats for people so I could make a bit of money on the side. One evening I took a break from my work at LFS and went to a Super Bowl party down the street. I took my crochet with me because I was behind schedule on some hat orders. It was a crowded party so I watched the game while crocheting under a table. A girl named Claire, who happened to live at the apartment that was hosting the party, looked under the table and asked me what I was doing. I explained that I was taking a break from my stop motion work to watch the game. We exchanged emails. The next week I received an email from Serge Patzak, one of the two founders of 1stAveMachine. Serge had started 1stAveMachine along with Arvind Palep about a year prior. He asked if I wanted to be a director and I thought I might like to try that. I was the first director brought into 1stAveMachine. That was about 10 years ago. Since then I have become a partner at 1stAve and a Co-Founder of SpecialGuest.
What do your positions at 1st Avenue Machine and Special Guest entail?
At 1stAveMachine I am a director on the roster and a creative director for the studio. For SpecialGuest I am what the industry likes to call the Executive Creative Director. But that sounds pretty silly to me as a title. My responsibility is to lead our team to creative success. However, my philosophical goal is to close the gap between commercial art and fine art as much as I can.
What does a day in the life for you look like?
We start our day with morning check-in. We make sure everyone knows what they are doing and what’s going on and then everyone goes about tackling our projects. I hate to say it but we do a lot of meetings. We have a mantra that we are trying to live by: “less meetings more making”. But it’s not the easiest mantra to live by. Sometimes we have time to step out for lunch and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we stay late, but not nearly as late as we used to. Personally, I am a nomadic member of the team. I don’t have a desk and I roam around from project to project trying to figure out how we can make great things. All that said, I think it is one of the luckiest things in my life that every day for the past 10 years has been very different from the one before it. We do not have monotonous jobs. That’s a big bonus. So it is hard to say exactly what a day in the life looks like at SpecialGuest.
How does your studio space affect your working practice and how has your practice influenced your space?
Our working space is constantly in flux. It is an open studio in which our team generally has an area where they can sit but we can shift positions easily depending on what we are working on. As a term of endearment, I call our space “the cage” because it is a four wall area built within a post production floor. The walls are a glass grid so that we can see out and everyone else can see in. I think the open format of the space helps everyone on the team know what is going on across all projects. Generally, we benefit from that, though I’m sure there are times when several groups of people are talking about different projects at the same time and the din becomes frustrating. I imagine that it won’t be too long before we out grow this space but for now, we are a cozy team in the cage.
I can’t say that we keep objects like that around the studio for inspiration. When I have time, I keep a crochet project close by. I’d say that’s a comforting activity. But I don’t have as much time for that as I’d like. Along those same lines, we have a director and friend of the studio that I’ve collaborated with, Magda Sayeg, who is considered to be the “mother of yarn bombing”. She does a form of graffiti with knitted designs on public structures. But she also knits around giant yoga balls that we keep around the studio. People sit on them or stretch on them in an arrant moment. They bring some cozy life to the studio.
Do you have much interaction with others, creative or otherwise in the area where your studio is based?
We are located in Dumbo, Brooklyn. There is a significant collection of creative businesses like ours in this area which is a nice feeling. There are sound design studios, colorists, app developers, and photography studios all within a couple block radius of us that we have worked with on various projects. We’ve even had clients that work in the same building hire us for various projects. Dumbo is like a little creative paradise (we could use some new bars/pubs though).
Can you give an example of an influence that comes from outside your profession?
Science and technology have always been a source of inspiration for me. I was a pretty bad science student in school, but in my life as a working artist I’ve found better inspiration in the natural world than in the world of fantasy. Aside from finding stunning visuals in biological studies or unexpected movement in the study of physics, science research provides a source of untouched subject matter. It makes me feel like I can truly develop an idea from scratch rather than rehashing age old stories and tropes. My tendency towards inspiration from the natural world probably also comes from working on advertising. When you are making an ad, you are already starting with a handicap because your audience is expecting bullshit. I believe that if you tell stories that are fantasy or imaginary, you are just feeding people more bullshit, no matter how beautiful it is. I prefer to ground the ideas in some kind of realism. There are plenty of unexpected things to find in the natural world.
Your films for Google Chrome brought together people that are now part of your core team, was this project a major turning point in establishing your current process?
Yes. Our work with Google started in 2009. Sam Penfield, who is now my business partner in the company, was just starting as our new EP. She got a call from a friend at an agency who needed some ideas fast. Apparently, they had pitched Google a series of concepts that would involve an artist who doesn’t work for brands. So I threw together a bunch of ideas all about features of the Chrome browser, which was new at the time, and pitched them. They were all single camera move, sculptural visualizations of 8 of the features of the browser. We won the work and needed to find someone to help build these things. Bob Partington was a friend of a producer I was working with and he went about building these things. The ideas also has some complicated optical trickery, including parallaxing illusions, scale illusions, gravity illusions, slow motion and time-lapse. We needed a DP who could cover all of these techniques and make it look great. Sam suggested Will Rexer. We built the 8 ideas in about 2 weeks and shot them over three days. On the last day, it was the night before Thanksgiving and we shot until 3 in the morning. It was a very scrappy production but turned out great. With the help of Sam Penfield, Bob Partington, Will Rexer and many others, that project really pushed my career forward. It lead to more google work that won us 7 gold Lions at Cannes Lions. Sam, Bob and Will are still some of the most important people in what we do and great friends.
Can you pinpoint a real breakthrough moment in terms of business but also in terms of creativity?
Coincidentally, the google chrome project I described above was actually the second Google project I directed. Just before an agency came to us for the Chrome work, google creative labs had come to us for a very small pet project they wanted to make. They had been working on a story about a kid who goes to Paris and meets a girl. It was loosely based on the experience of the writer on the project, so I’m told. When they came with the project, it felt like a motion graphics execution to me. I wasn’t very interested. I wanted to make sculptural projects. But I pitched it anyway, despite that it was a tiny tiny budget. After attempting a series of motion graphics animation tests with the story, we realized that the best way to tell it would be to use the google search browser as it was, without any animation manipulation. We boiled it down so that the video would look just like someone using the google interface, exactly as it works. At that point, it felt to me like the project was getting even more boring, but we continued to try to find creative opportunities in it. I was struggling with the way the video started because seeing the search interface right away felt like a bit of a turn off. It didn’t grab people. So I tried zooming in super tight on the blinking line that shows in a blank search field. When we first tried it, there was something too abstract about the composition. It didn’t feel like there was enough there and we weren’t sure if people would get it. But we kept it as a place holder. Then I met a composer named Jeremy Turner who was eager to write a song to go with the video. He put a single piano key to the blinking cursor which then slowly built from there. Instantly, the project changed and turned from something techy into something beautiful. Then we knew we had something. When we finished it, we liked it but didn’t think much else about it. We put it on YouTube and forgot it existed. A month later, it had 1MM views. Sergey Brinn’s wife saw the video and loved it. Sergey suggested that it should be googles first TV commercial. Then they took it a step further and decided it should play during the super bowl. After that, it was inducted into the Moma’s archive for the Art and Technique of the American commercial. This past year, it was named by TIME as one of the best super bowl commercials of all time. The lesson here is that great opportunities come from the most unexpected places. I wanted to turn that project down when it first came in because it didn’t exactly match my style at the time. But we gave it a try and it became one of the most important projects of my career.
A lot of your work involves hand-made or sculptural elements, have you always favoured more tactile and analogue methods and processes, where does that aesthetic come from?
My tendency towards sculptural elements is part personal preference and part communication. I love to build things and experiment with form and materials. Crocheting, for example, simply feels good. At the same time, these analogue sculptures and forms serve a communication purpose. When you see them on screen, they are what they are. Certainly, I am fond of computer graphics and other forms of animation. But when you are trying to convince someone of a certain message, I prefer to level with the viewer and show them something real that they feel they could reach out and touch. The misconception is that VFX and computer graphics are necessary to captivate people. It’s not true. You can captivate people with real sculptural things that people could just as easily experience in real life rather than through the screen. In fact, I think it’s more exciting to captivate with reality rather than fantasy. And while post processing always happens to some degree, my favorite work occurs when the viewer intrinsically knows what lengths the artists went to creating the work in camera.In the early days I did get to be very hands on. In our first Google work, for example, I crocheted the tactile browser we used to communicate the tab function. But as much as I love to build and design myself, I don’t often have the chance to do it these days. More importantly, I get to work with such skilled and talented people that it is often better to get out of their way. When I want to be fully hands on, I create a personal project. Fortunately, a lot of those personal projects make their way into my work as a director as well, so in that way, I do feel I get to be hands on.
This is very apparent in the music video for OK GO The Writing’s on the Wall, everything happens “in camera” seemingly in one long take… how much preparation goes into planning a project like that before a camera is rolling? And what was the collaborative nature of this project?
In the case of OKGO, the three directors (Bob Partington, Damian Kulash and I) spent one month concepting, one month building with the team in the warehouse, and one day shooting. We were lucky to have a month to build in the warehouse because on most productions, we get very little time to build on set. For this project, it would have been impossible to build off set and then bring the creations on set for the day of shoot. So we had to negotiate a deal to spend the whole month there with some very late nights. The preparation for that project goes well beyond the build. Since we didn’t have any kind of special camera equipment, Bob built all the camera rigs out of wood at his shop. Our DP, Will Rexer, had to figure out how to sufficiently light the massive dark warehouse without any lighting budget. While Damian was with us for the entire project, the rest of the band only had a week with us to rehearse choreography before we shot on the last day. Despite the tight timing, the band was a dream to work with.
It’s one of the best collaborations I’ve ever had and everyone put everything they had into it. After having pink paint poured in his ear over and over again, Dan, the drummer, was still smiling – right till 3am when we wrapped.
Those were some amazing days.