5 Minutes With… Andrew Ruhemann and Alex Webster
2014 was a big year for Passion Pictures. Their World Cup campaign for Nike broke all sorts of records (76 million views on YouTube and counting) and December saw founder Andrew Ruhemann rewarded for almost three decades worth of work building the company into an animation, production and technology heavyweight with a British Arrows Fellowship Award (bestowed by no less than British news anchor Jon Snow). LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with founder Ruhemann and MD Alex Webster to find out about the past and future of Passion – and animation – and to thoroughly geek out.
LBB> In 2017, Passion is going to be 30 years old. I’ve known the company and your work for a long time and you’ve been a fixture on the European ad landscape for… well… forever. But I didn’t realise that the company was nearly 30!
AR> Yeah that’s true. I started it in 1987. I can’t do the maths but I think I was 25. This isn’t really an industry that’s kind to longevity or age or anything that’s in any danger of becoming conventional. The advertising industry is very dependent on the ‘new’ so I’m quite pleased that you say you didn’t realise it was that old. I don’t really want people to realise we’re that old, I don’t want to play on the establishment. I don’t feel that’s who we are. Every year we’re a new company. We constantly look at the roster, constantly look for new blood. But the hard facts are that we’re 27 years old.
AW> It’s a very fresh place to be really. When you take that R&D and new technology and bring it all under one roof and wrap it up in the core values of narrative storytelling and craft in whatever medium it may be, that’s what makes Passion what it is and will keep it at the very forefront of the film business moving forward.
LBB> And in that time, how has the perception of animation within the ad industry evolved?
AR> Animation is the poor relation, in some respects. It’s changing but as I’ve been growing up through the generations it has been thought of that way.
Look at the reception of animated features and the massive success that features like Despicable Me have had. Animation can connect with people. With big franchises like Cars and Toy Story as well as advertising campaigns like the Meerkats [comparethemarket.com] it’s in the public consciousness more than ever. I think we’re really hard with agencies and studios to make sure we’re making really smart films. You can be cynical and make work aimed at three to eight year olds and get away with an awful lot of poor story telling. We’re working hard to make sure we’re producing films that appeal at a lot of different levels. In the commercial world, look at the Meerkats for Compare the Market. They’ve got such broad appeal, people love them aged 80 and people love them aged 8.
AW> The Nike film we did for the World Cup has reached 400 million unique views online across various platforms – it’s that power to reach a younger generation and an older generation in different ways. I think, creatively, it’s in rude health but it’s probably not considered enough as a creative medium by agencies. It’s going to take a long time to change that but some of the technologies that we’re investing in, like real-time animation, are taking these barriers to entry away. We can take more character animation more quickly and reach more people because we’re working in a different way, so it’s more relevant to marketeers because they need to be on more platforms. Previously it would take 12 weeks to do 40 seconds of character animation and during the World Cup spot we were turning out three minutes per day.
LBB> Talking about real time animation, I know some of that involves borrowing technology from the gaming industry… that makes me wonder if you’ve ever considered a foray into the world of gaming. After all you’ve done commercials and music videos and features and interactive…
AW> I suppose it depends on how you define gaming, whether you mean development or publishing or working within that sector to create things like in-game cut scenes and marketing because we do have a really rich history of working with publishers. We’ve done three big film projects with Riot Games who do League of Legends. In answer to your question, it is a part of the creative landscape that we do take very seriously. We have a games specialist in-house now, who comes from that industry and who is leading our charge into extending our reach with developers and publishers. We’ve opened ourselves up to that market and we’re seeing returns on that. And they see the value in Passion and the storytellers here as opposed to some of the great technicians. I think we’ve been very specific about the areas we want to get into, and that’s anywhere where there’s good narrative. It’s not in the big super duper cinematics, most likely, but in these in game cut scenes and creative pieces.
LBB> From a business point of view, how do you balance that need to keep exploring new areas and keeping on top of that with the day-to-day running of things?
AW> It’s bloody hard, is the answer to your question! We want to do the work that we enjoy. It all comes down to craft and storytelling. You’re right, the commercials part of what we do, which is what the company was founded on, supports a lot of other parts of the business. It’s the corner stone that a lot of success has been built in. Keeping that balance right is the day-to-day challenge. In the commercial sector, every job is fought for very hard. The competition is incredibly fierce; there are a lot of talented people out there fighting for a certain amount of work. You’ve really got to earn it. That’s the thing that makes Passion so unique and such a great place to be. We work in lots of different areas with one common goal.
LBB> I wanted to ask you a little bit about young people who want to get into animation. It’s a competitive field – what’s your feeling about the talent pool out there at the moment? What sort of advice would you give someone out there, maybe still at university, who wants to be serious about forging a career in animation?
AW> Andrew has built the company on finding that talent, and working quite hard visiting shows, visiting universities wherever they may be. There are some fantastic animation schools out there across Europe.
AR> Stronger ones than there are here (in London) and we’re trying to rectify that. We’re thinking of setting up our own college.
AW> We are always looking to find raw talent and we’ve had some real successes with bringing in young directors who were still in the process of finishing their degree at the Filmakademie in Stuttgart and they’re now established directors with a huge IP and toy manufacturing deal under their belt. I think we can acquire and look for talent but Passion’s at the point now where we can start giving back. And that’s why we’re at the early stage of creating our own college. It’s something we’re only at the genesis of but we’re thinking very hard about it. How can we pass on that knowledge that has been acquired over years of working in a very competitive industry?
LBB> So often you read about modern employers complaining about young people coming from school or university without the skills that they need, so it’s interesting to see you investing in training like that.
AW> We do see a lot of young people and we are quite a young company – looking out to our production floor most people are in their twenties or there about. Good people stick out a mile away. If I’m talking about a generation of kids coming through, a theme that I pick up on is one of entitlement, which a few graduates and students bring with them. This isn’t the sort of industry where things are just going to happen for you because you’ve done a degree.
But if you’ve got the right motivation and you’re hungry and you put into it a lot, you’ll do well. Passion rewards those people who have the talent and then work hard to develop it as much as they can. It’s a very familial place; it’s a very supportive place. I get asked that question a lot, how do I get into animation? It’s about creating something that will make people like us take notice and see something. It doesn’t have to be polished. But there has to be something to latch onto, whether it’s a piece of comic timing or design. Once you get in it’s up to you to make things happen, you can’t just go into autopilot.
LBB> I wanted to chat about some of the big projects that Passion has done over the years. A nice place to start is The Lost Thing, the animated short based on Shaun Tan’s book and starring Tim Minchin. It was Andrew’s directorial debut short film and it won an Oscar. What was it about the story that made you want to make it into a film and turn it into your own ‘passion’ project, Andrew?
AR> I had been looking for something to make into a film and in a completely weird mood, I took myself off to a Children’s Book Fair. Literally the first thing I saw when I walked into the hangar was this book on a podium. I liked the style of it and I liked the title. As soon as you say the word ‘lost’ there’s an inherent drama. The Lost Thing, I quite like, especially when you put it in the context of this quite weird World War I type sea mine. I thought it was interesting. The relationship of that character and the boy on the front page got me intrigued. I thought ‘there’s enough there in one image and three words to get me engaged. I bought the book, and it’s only nine or ten pages, but I liked the atmosphere of it, the whimsy, the anti-sentimentality. It was the antithesis of the Disney thing and it was so subtle in terms of its emotional impact.
LBB> Creating something that’s entirely personal is quite a different beast from, say, producing a commercial. What did you learn from that experience?
AR> There’s a massive, massive difference. It taught me a lot. Putting a director’s hat on taught me a lot about producing. I made a mental note, which I haven’t followed up on, that I should make all our producers direct something at some point. You’re quite exposed as a director. As a producer you can hide behind the director a bit. Before doing The Lost Thing, if I worked on something amazing I would put myself out there and say ‘I produced that’ and if it was terrible I would say ‘oh, I only produced it, they directed it’. I’ve been producing all my life and there is an element that, when you’re the director, the buck absolutely stops with you. I was surprised by the weight of that. I guess it’s like artists who put their paintings on the wall and hope that people will like it. At film school you can get away with making things for yourself. And that’s what a lot of people do.
Nowadays, and I say this to all our directors, you’re not making it for you. You’re making it for an audience that you’ve got to engage. It’s a huge weight to ask people to spend 15 minutes with a piece of my work
Alex will bear this out – I get laughed at because I use the word ‘rigour’ quite a lot. I saw a rigour in The Lost Thing and the wonder of animation is that you can’t do multiple takes, you have to do it all in one shoot. It focuses you on what shot you want to use and why. Everything has huge significance and you don’t get another go. You have to think ‘ok I’m going to use a wide shot here and that angle there’. You have to try and get the perfect angle up front and I liked the rigour of that. I think there’s a lot of rigour in The Lost Thing. I watch it and I don’t think there’s much that I would change, there’s a reason for every bit of composition. I love that process of using film language to its maximum.
LBB> I’ve followed Passion for years and know so much of your work, but many people outside of the industry won’t know who you are and that you’ve been a part of so many iconic parts of modern British culture. You’ve already touched on the Meerkat and then there’s Gorillaz [illustrator Jamie Hewlett and former Blur frontman Damon Albarn’s animated band], the BBC Olympics in 2012….
AR> I think it [Olympics 2012] was under-celebrated, I must say. I think it was an exceptional piece of work and the kind of thing that could have been really ugly if it had been handled wrongly. I think the music was under-credited too.
LBB> What was it like being part of that Gorillaz experience? That idea of an animated band always struck me as unique – what was it like being in on the inside?
AR> It was a peak experience. We talked about how long we’ve been going and there are probably four or five peaks along the way of which that is a major one. A peak like that comes along every five or ten years. Why? Probably because of the level of talent involved, Jamie Hewlett, Damon Albarn, Pete Candeland and the Passion team. That’s a rare combination when you get all that working together. Why else? Because it was brave at the time. No one knew whether it was going to work. They put a lot of money behind it, tentatively at first, and it was uncharted territory. It hit much bigger than anyone had expected and it was good in every area. It wasn’t let down by anything. The music was as good as the visuals and the visuals were as good as the music. It was challenging but great to work on. It was incredibly difficult to try and draw in Jamie’s style. There are probably about eight people in the world who can draw like that and we had to find at least four of them. And then you’re under duress to animate quickly and within a budget but it was a unique experience.
LBB> Within the advertising industry, Passion is primarily known for its animation but your live action documentary features have been ridiculously successful and have won Oscars. How did you lay the groundwork for success in the feature documentary area?
AR> I’m not a big fan of boxing things according to convention. For me storytelling is storytelling and just because I had a lot experience in animation it never stopped me from thinking I might be able to tell a story in another way. I guess the key in all of that has been working with the right people. I suppose I’ve been blessed with spotting people with a similar spirit to myself, people who have similar values. And I think we’ve built a space where they gravitate towards us. It becomes almost self-fulfilling. You make an Academy Award-winning documentary like One Day In September – and we had never, ever made a doc before – and suddenly we’re the experts in documentary. You win an Oscar and all of a sudden you’re the go-to people for documentaries and you get lots of great people coming through the door and you can take your pick. In the same way, I imagine, Working Title get all the romantic comedies. I suppose, when I put my producer hat on, my job is to spot storytellers who are aligned with my tastes and my values. They then become Passion tastes and Passion values. And that, if you’ll excuse my language, is about giving a shit about what you’re working on. It means caring about the stories that are being told. Therefore I hope the stories we are telling pack some sort of emotional punch and make people look at the world slightly differently. I hope that’s what happens anyway.
LBB> In terms of the work Passion has done this year, the Nike World Cup film is obviously the big one but which other projects have particularly stood out for you in terms of the creative challenge?
AR> Nike really stands out and broke all kinds of records and was one of the biggest things we’ve ever worked on. It was almost like doing a feature film. But I think one of the things I’m really excited about from a commercial point of view is the animation we’re developing in real time. In an industry where people want things faster and faster, that’s brilliant. Three years ago if someone came to you wanting a character with fur you’d freak out about how expensive it would be and now we’re animating a little furry animal in real time. I think that’s amazing. It’s not any one commercial, we’ve been using that technology in a few projects. That’s been taking up a lot of our time and it’s an area of great interest.
LBB> It was fun to see that technology play out in an episode of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian Black Mirror series. I believe you created Waldo, the animated bear puppet for that episode?
AW> Black Mirror was perhaps the second iteration of that technology, taking what we had learned from the earlier Meerkat stuff. Since we’ve done that the technology has developed exponentially. Looking at the quality of the real time animation we’ve been able to do and the production values we can achieve now, it’s incredible. It’s a very analogue technology in a digital age. The instruments, or the puppets, that the guys use to make the character move have been around for a long time but hook them up to the right web engine and they suddenly have a whole new value. We’re working with incredibly skilled, trained puppeteers. Guys who worked at Henson’s Creature Shop and Spitting Image and all these iconic puppeteering institutions. Now they love working in this medium because it’s revelatory. It’s the truest form of the word ‘animation’. It’s about what they can bring to life. One of the people we work with, when he’s not working with us, is one of the UK’s top Punch and Judy guys.
We’re excited about using different kinds of technology and games engines and techniques that give us different capabilities. At times we use joy sticks and full motion capture suits so we’re able to get a full performance out of a character. With interactive lighting, it’s an interesting proposition. It’s interesting to see how creatives and brands are responding to it.
That’s a highlight for us. There’s a lot of derivative work out there in the commercial sector, but we’ve managed to stay at the forefront . The exciting thing now is looking into other avenues to provide a great creative diet. That means gaming, that means working with our feature film guys, with real time.
LBB> Who are your creative heroes? Who has inspired your own career?
AR> Oh there are so many, that’s the truth. The obvious one is Richard Williams, he’s who I studied with, the guy who did Roger Rabbit. He’s one of the founding fathers of modern animation. Brad Bird, he was a big inspiration and he was on our books for a short time but I’d met him anyway. He’s definitely a big mentor. Otherwise it’s the artists and writers out there who I don’t necessarily know but I gravitate to their work and get inspired by it. These are the ones that come to mind.
LBB> You’ve got three films currently showing at Sundance, but the rest of 2015 is spread in front of you like a blank canvas. What should we be looking out for?
AR> You should definitely look out for our Marlon Brando documentary called ‘Listen to me Marlon’ and I hope it will have a big impact. The guy was such an iconic figure that it’s a privilege to be able to use his image for 90 minutes. We had full access to all his archives from his estate and it’s all told in his own words and it’s incredibly moving. Every time you look at the screen you think ‘Jesus that guy’s had such a charisma and such a painful life’. I would be disappointed if that didn’t go a very long way.
AW> We’re pitching on a few projects next year. We’re hopefully going to be working with some renowned tech companies where we’ll be taking animated storytelling of the 2D screen and into a much more immersive area. It will redefine filmmaking and storytelling. We’ve got an opportunity to do something incredibly special on emerging digital platforms. We’re going to be opening an office in Melbourne to work more closely with some of our directors down there. Julian Frost, particularly, and our Meerkats are migrating down under too. Dare I say it, Passion’s animated feature film is a reality. Hopefully we will have some things to announce this time next year. We’re going in all the right directions. It’s broadening and taking animation as a medium into areas where creativity meets technology is high on the agenda for us in the commercial sense in 2015.