"New York's Psyop is doing the impossible in balancing commercial and creative success." says Dom Hall.
When Psyop's CEO Justin Booth-Clibborn says he's been busy lately, it's something of an understatement. First there are the pressures of running one of New York's most creative and prolific animation, design and visual effects companies: projects to balance, 75 staff to oversee, and all those balls to keep in the air. Then there's the company's list of ongoing work for clients as big as Adidas and Microsoft. Finally there's the small matter of the $30 million deal he's just done to sell part of Psyop in order to take the company public and start trading its shares on various US stock markets. When Computer Arts spoke to Booth-Clibborn just days after the complicated financial arrangement was finalised, he was understandably exhilarated by the size and success of the deal, and how the money will be spent in expanding the company for the better.
But there's no doubt that the price tag is justified. Psyop has picked up awards from the likes of D&AD and Epica, and you can see why when you take a look at its online portfolio: it features some truly stunning work on heavy rotation. Indeed, the company is currently causing a stir in US multiplexes with a spot it created for Coca-Cola.
Todd Mueller, one of the company's five founding members, takes up the story. "We did some work for Coke back in 2006 - that was Happiness Factory 1," he recalls. "Last year we did two longer pieces expanding the theme." Psyop was originally approached by the Amsterdam office of European advertising group Wieden+Kennedy, which asked the company to help pitch for some business. Wieden wanted Psyop to create the world inside a Coke vending machine. "We wanted to look at how the happiness gets inside the bottle," Mueller says. Psyop pulled out all the stops: "We spoke to Wieden on Friday, sent the stuff off to them on Monday, and on Wednesday we were flying off to Amsterdam. That's the way it often goes."
For the current Happiness Factory 2 spot, Psyop has continued with the original theme, but created an end product that's much more jaw-dropping. "We've gone for more of an epic version, made it longer and better. We've not finished with this either - there's more of it to come," Mueller promises.
Like most of the work it produces, Psyop put the Coke film together using a combination of technologies including Photoshop, After Effects, Illustrator, XSI, Maya, Flame and Final Cut Pro. The firm typically starts with a concept, then develops a script. When it's time to pitch, the creative team pulls together some style frames, treatments and storyboards, and takes it from there.
Psyop is at a crucial stage in its development. It's gained an almost legendary reputation for creating quirky, creative and off-beat advertising animations for some of the biggest corporate names in the world. It's won endless acclaim, and the ambition of its founders to take the Psyop message to as wide an audience, and as many clients, as possible is clear. So which strand wins out? Does the new deal represent the triumph of accountancy over the desire to create challenging work, even when it's not commercially viable? What wins - the cash or the creativity?
"We are a business and we have to make money, and this is something which will become more and more important as time goes on," Booth- Clibborn says. "But the important thing is, we do take on loss-leader jobs just because we want to do them and they give us a creative challenge."
Psyop was founded in 1999, and Mueller recalls how Psyop's first office space in New York was in an old bar where his friends and colleagues used to hang out. They moved computers in, but kept the kegs. It's Mueller, too, who assures us that despite the recent dealings with the money men, Psyop will always be about "making cool shit".
Such is Psyop's desire to keep in touch with the pioneering spirit of its bar-dwelling founders that it's split itself into three divisions. First is what Booth-Clibborn refers to as 'The Mothership': the brand-pleasing, ever-growing creative powerhouse of Psyop. Then there is Mass Market, which concentrates on techy areas such as photorealistic effects. And, finally, there is Blacklist.
Blacklist is the part of Psyop that is really admirable - inspiring, even. Mueller describes it as "a way we can give back to the culture a bit", and it's Psyop's real creative playground and the arm the company uses to nurture underground talent in the design and animation fields. One way to see it is as a New York creative industry update of the Beatles' Apple Records, though perhaps without Ringo's solo albums. "It's the way we leverage the Psyop brand and reputation with the design and animation community," Mueller explains. "We work with people from that area, mentor them and produce jobs for them - it's excellent."
While Psyop is investing time, energy and money in Blacklist, Booth- Clibborn points out that the company still has to keep its accountants happy, not to mention potential shareholders. Nevertheless, there's no reason to worry, despite his talk about the business side of things. "We've got significant growth plans and we need capital to finance them. We want to keep doing the same things we're doing now but do them bigger and better," he promises.
Mueller says that while Psyop's staff are all expected to work hard, it's a good place in which to create. "I'd like to think we've still got a bit of that bar in us," reflects Mueller. "We try and make working here as collaborative as possible. It's a very non-corporate environment with a family atmosphere."
Booth-Clibborn agrees, adding that Psyop is pet-friendly: "Any day there are between four and eight dogs here. We've got a fussball table too, we have drinks for people's birthdays most weeks at 5.30 - it's a great working environment."
So it's a case of dogs, kegs, "cool shit" and fussball versus responsibility to shareholders, NASDAQ and international expansion. That's a tricky tightrope to walk, but Psyop makes it look easy.