Psycho Powers

New York-based animation studio Psyop is fast gaining acclaim for its innovative work for TV. Neil Churcher tunes into the wavelength of its founding partners

Picture this: a white graphic background. Dots and circles emerge to the throb of a percussion-based soundtrack. They dance and mate like microbes on an animated wallpaper. A pulse of abstract patterns connect and merge, interact and change before racing across the screen in a blur of high-speed lines.

This pacy slice of animation is one of a series of US TV ads for AT&T Broadband so fresh and innovative it wouldn’t look out of place in a music video for Aphex Twin. The complex and fast-moving imagery weaves a story of broadband connections and speed, but it is the overall rush of imagery that impresses. Its real message is that of exhilaration.

Then there is the black-and-white imagery of the music cable channel VH1’s Music Awards campaigns. Images composed entirely of simplified, line-drawn people that look, move and act like real people in real time. The sense of reality jars with the minimal stylisation, increasing as each sting becomes evermore surreal. Both are the work of Psyop, the New York-based studio that is making TV animation as fresh as the best work coming out of London.

‘Psyop’ is a compound of Psychological Operations, borrowed from a dark governmental practice in mind and behaviour control.

It’s in the design arena that you find Psyop’s true mindset. It sees itself as a design studio rather than an animation production house, so it’s no surprise to discover that a large percentage of its creatives come from graphic design backgrounds.

Between them, founding partners Marie Hyon, Kylie Matulick, Eben Mears, Todd Mueller and Marco Spier previously worked at the design production studios of cable channels Nickelodeon, SCIFI Channel and the MTV Digital Design Lab. Almost as a cable channel design collective, the group came together to form a fully independent design and production team.

Psyop’s work does not allude to the traditions of animation design. Animation has always been a hard-worked craft and, in practice, has a history in handmade production inspired by Polish and Canadian animators of the 1960s and 70s.

Great work is still being built on those foundations but the format is usually heavily narrative. Animation is, after all, narrative filmmaking. But Psyop comes from the land of the ten-second TV sting and the cable brand, and its work is more ideas-based with the narrative strung through it. Its animations are snapshots of ideas like posters that have come to life. They are the evolution of a design heritage that mixes the film title work of Saul Bass with the visual quality of graphic novels and cartoon magazines such as Raw.

‘We see our work as designed storytelling,’ says ex-Razorfish and Fox Kids creative Matulick, ‘a successful merger of design, animation and direction in which the technique comes from the creative. The design and concept come first and then we figure out how to achieve what we want technically.’

This lack of animation tradition allows Psyop’s work to express more design-based ethics, such as brand creation. ‘It is becoming increasingly difficult to have your brand stand outí even with the funniest or most compelling story behind it,’ says director Mueller. ‘This is why animation has had a recent surge. With our work we try to tell a story and do it in a way that is graphically tied to the brand.’

And corporate clients love it. ‘We are able to create work that completely resonates with their brand. It does the business and acts as an extension of their identity,’ Mueller says.

Behind this innovation lies another tale of how access to evolving technology changes the face of design. With the use of advanced but affordable desktop computing, creative studios are more willing to generate their own 3D or 2D animation work in-house. Studio desktop power is now as technically capable as the kind of dedicated computing power once only available in post-production houses.

‘Several of us came from MTVíwhere we realised you can use [in-house] 3D software not only to create glossy dancing toilets, but as a design tool,’ says head of 3D Marco Spier. ‘And it was here we started to explore the new technology with a design aesthetic. Now we’re lucky to have assembled such an incredible group of creative, design and technical experts that allow us to animate anything we can think up.’

A lack of tradition coupled with a simple, hands-on approach creates an innovation present in all of Psyop’s work. For example, the AT&T project, co-produced with animation studio V12, was a branding exercise for AT&T’s newly proposed broadband division.

‘We felt the obvious place to draw initial design inspiration was from its classic Saul Bass designed logo,’ says Matulick. ‘We then had to decide what to do with three basic colours and simple geometric shapes to express the idea of convergent technologies,’ she adds.

Collaborating with V12 creative director Juan Delcan, Psyop developed a visually abstract and energetic world that expressed the brand and all aspects of broadband in a series of compelling metaphorical narratives. The result is a series of genre-forming abstract and rhythmical TV ads.

The imagery plays with the look-and-feel of the brand but stretches itself to a state ‘mutable enough to express the numerous aspects [of AT&T’s technology]’, explains Matulick. The work recently won gold at the 2002 Broadcast Designers Association Awards in Los Angeles.

The 2001 VH1 Music Awards stings also show that Psyop perceives its work as brand creation. VH1 asked the group to develop the successful branding it came up with the previous year, says fellow founder Marie Hyon.

The animation behaves like live footage of actual people removed from any sense of setting in real space. A stark two-dimensional black and white style and overlaid text-based graphics further enforce the isolation of the characters. The real-time movement seems slow to an eye that is used to rapid, edited motion.

The effect is captivating and slightly ethereal. ‘We wanted our [VH1] characters to become more aware of their own individuality, break out of the system of informational graphics and start their own music party,’ explains Hyon.

Psyop’s style has transformed other campaigns including a set of simple linework animated TV ads for Volkswagen and a music video for US hip hop group Coflow, in which live video footage follows a crazed black line of 3D graffiti that continually re-draws itself over any New York subway wall or train it comes across. In each case the work refuses to compromise on creativity.

Ironically, clients tend to be a bit wary of new ideas and it’s difficult to sell them, says Mueller. ‘This is why we work hard to develop a creative trust with them,’ he adds.

And the future? Psyop has just finished a big campaign for Starbucks print and TV which is running in the US, and is finishing off projects for Lugz shoes, a ‘textural and gritty’ Hip Hop-style spot, as well as an unusual 2D animated UK cinema spot for funky US shoe and boot brand, Merrell.

‘We’re moving into a new studio space in the Lower East Side of New York, and looking to work more in Europe,’ says Psyop executive producer Justin Booth-Clibborn. Europe-based creatives, beware.

Neil Churcher is director of digital media design consultancy Edwards Churcher

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