"Right now, street art and skateboard culture is part of mass culture, but it wasn't always like that," says Andre Stringer, one of the 'core creators' of the brilliant Shilo. We talk to the company's creative talents about skate culture and how to make a living from motion graphics
It's 12pm at Shilo's New York offices, where co-founder Andre Stringer and producer Tracy Chandler are based. On the west coast, it's just 9am, but cofounder Jose Gomez has already been called into a meeting and is unable to talk. This juggling of time zones, as it turns out, is nothing new for the folks at the motion graphics and design collective, whose motto is "Do, do, do!"
Shilo has been around for nearly four years, but Stringer and co-founder Jose Gomez were both heavily involved with design beforehand. Indeed, from the age of 16, Gomez had been designing skateboards, as Stringer explains.
"He was well-known in the skateboard community for his art and illustration work, working with companies such as New Deal, Rhythm and Audio Footwear. That involved creating and designing shoes, the print campaigns. So he comes from a side that's much more product and art-based, much more about branding."
Conversely, Stringer's background is in film production and live-action direction. "I did an hour-long documentary on independent hip-hop before I started in television as a creative director at Digital Kitchen in Chicago. The first project we did together was a skateboard video called One Step Beyond. After that, we were like, well, we should keep making work together, and that went on to be Shilo."
From little acorns
The early Shilo was a side project, something to keep the pair interested and connected to skateboarding culture while working at more mundane jobs. "In the last year, it's become much more of a full-time gig for us, and that's what you're seeing now. For a long time, we didn't even have a website. We just had connections with friends in the industry and it wasn't about promoting ourselves. Now it's more about making the company great."
The promotion has certainly paid off. This year, the company was invited to exhibit at Resfest in the prestigious By Design category. Their entry, a short film entitled Comserv, co-directed by Stringer, is typically Shilo, combining 3D, motion graphics, a semi-political message and a disjointed yet trance-like soundtrack. "Resfest was huge for us," says Stringer, "and it was an honour to be put into the category of work with a lot of people who we consider to be top of the game."
Comserv was an experimental piece, one of many created by Shilo to complement its commercial work. The new opening title sequence for MTV's Total Request Live (TRL) is another. "Total Request Live was a pretty cool project," says Stringer. "It has a rich history of great design, from the mid-nineties to now. TRL was fun because we were able to explore some of the things with live action and compositing that we've been familiar with. We wanted to capture that kind of mood and intensity of fans, and teenagers, the younger audience's passion for music."
So Shilo, it would seem, is one of the few motion graphics specialists actually making a decent living - except that Stringer finds such a description rather limiting, particularly given his live-action background. "We see ourselves more as design-driven film production," he explains. "We do motion graphics only because it helps tell the story we want to tell in a more interesting way. The whole idea of combining a lot of different genres into one is what excited me about motion graphics in the first place. It's the spinal cord that keeps our mentality together.
"We've been trying to experiment with some new forms, cel animation and straight-up live action, for example. So although the core of work is motion graphics, we see ourselves as being a bit broader than that."
A fluid collective
Like their work, the team at Shilo is hard to pin down. Stringer and Gomez are the "core creators" and their producer, Chandler, ties them together, making sense of the incipient chaos. Beyond that, it's a fluid collective of friends and collaborators that varies with each particular project, depending on what's required.
"Shilo has an amoeboid form. It takes different shapes, but it always has a core of collaborators, no matter what," Chandler explains. Or, as Stringer puts it, "We take sound designers, directors, editors and all those different roles, and put them together to make something we wouldn't make by ourselves.
"Some people we've met just by putting the work out there," he continues. "People might just say, 'Hey, are you interested in doing some work with us?', but we also have some rich friendships and creative relationships that fuel new projects. Even if it's not a client project, we're always trying to push forward and do new stuff that we haven't done before."
Working with people globally and over multiple time zones doesn't faze the team; in fact, they seem to thrive on the hectic nature of it all. "Our principle is just do, do, do," says Stringer. "Pretty much no-one is waiting for anyone else. We only work with people who have that built-in enthusiasm. I'm pulled along by others all the time.
"Technology has revolutionised our business. We use things such as video conferencing every day, all day. Obviously, the core detail of most work goes on in the same room, but with things like concept and design, we can be all over the world at once. It's exciting."
Many of Shilo's repeat clients seem to recognise this relentless work ethic. MTV in particular revels in the company's action, energy and connection to the "youth" market, as exemplified by the title sequence to the Jackass inspired Viva La Bam. Shilo not only directed the liveaction shoot on 35mm, but handled all post-production, editorial, compositing and animation. In quality terms, the project is more like a 30-second pop promo than a straightforward title sequence.
As a result, Shilo rarely pitches these days. "Coming from an advertising work model, there was always a mandate for the client to triple-bid companies," says Stringer matter-of-factly. "We come from that world and we understand we're there to help create a presentation for our clients. But nowadays most of them come to us, because they love our work and our perspective. They have an idea about how we can help them communicate their ideas, and a lot of times we don't have to pitch. However, sometimes paid pitches are just part of the landscape."
Shilo's development process is relatively standardised. "We weed through [ideas] and pick out the ones that seem to have the most potential, and we flesh them out into storyboards or written treatments," says Stringer. "Sometimes it's like a traditional storyboard, hand-drawn, and sometimes it's comped frames in Photoshop, where everything looks beautiful and finished. We like to give a lot of ideas, because when we go into production the work is 50 per cent there. Then, if there's anything we have to work out, we can do it in the most malleable form, which is in the design rather than a re-edit."
Nailing the concept
As with many designers, the central concept is the most important aspect for Shilo to nail down. "We ask ourselves, 'What are we trying to communicate?', 'How is this going to engage the viewer emotionally, whatever they're watching?' It's much more about the core message and trying to find the device to help us get that across."
But that central message doesn't necessarily rule out more complex, abstract ideas. "The audiences are so much more sophisticated than they were ten years ago, when we first started getting into this," adds Stringer. "It makes it much easier for us to communicate on a visceral level, [to convey] things that are intangible, that people wouldn't necessarily think of when they think of the programme."
Shilo relies on a familiar roster of hardware and software, which varies from project to project: After Effects, Maya, Softimage|XSI, Photoshop and Illustrator, and flame, all come in useful.
"It varies so much from work to work," says Stringer. "On a project we're working on right now, for instance, we almost drew every frame of the piece. It's less about the tools you're using and more about how you juxtapose those ideas."
Unsurprisingly, Shilo's future is flexible and unplanned, so far at least. "In one way, it's a calculated thing, and in another it's a total mystery to us," says Stringer. "We embrace the idea that we're always going to change, so the next thing for us is just to make something great. Of course, if I were to say that was all we were going to do, I'd be putting a serious cap on our potential.
"It's always a challenge. The work is complicated to make, and there are lots of restrictions, but we always try our best to make something that encapsulates what we and the client like. We're excited to be on the road we are now."