Over the last decade, as the advertising industry has adjusted to the seismic changes wrought by the internet and digital media, various new agency models have been mooted as observers have become used to talk of 360 degree thinking, integrated communication and other somewhat painful buzzwords. By contrast, production companies, so vital in the creative process, have remained curiously static. A few production companies have launched experimental arms to explore the creation of projects that fall outside the traditional film and animation remit, but the core of the business has continued using the established model of representing directors and creating TV ads, resisting the slow encroachment of digital on the medium’s territory. But changes are afoot.
Certain production companies are at last making a concerted commitment to exploring wider creative possibilities than just TV. One of these, Nexus Productions, has launched a whole new roster devoted to such a concept, under the moniker Nexus Interactive Arts. As its name suggests, the artists represented by NIA are united by an interest in interactivity, whether that be in the form of web projects, experiential installation works, mobile phone apps or live events.
NIA launched quietly a year ago and feels like a natural progression for the company, which has established an excellent reputation for its animation work. Founder Chris O’Reilly saw a parallel between the development of interactive arts and that of 3D animation in the 90s. “It reminded us a lot of when we started in animation,” he says. “In the early 90s, lots of people were doing things in 3D but they were very much tech-driven people, because you needed a certain amount of technical expertise in order to actually interface with the software. Then during the mid-90s, 3D started to go through this tipping point, from being a technical medium to being an artist’s medium, and at that point it became a really interesting thing for us. There was this emerging generation of early 3D animators.
“I think we saw a parallel in interactive arts,” he continues. “It is obviously a field where a lot of interesting stuff has been done, but largely as a kind of technical exercise, and it just felt to us that we were looking and seeing emerging artist’s voices, people who are technically literate enough to bring an artistic agenda to that area. That’s when we felt that Nexus could have an impact. We’ve always been quite a technical company – there’s a 3D studio, we effectively have our own post-house within the building, and we’re not afraid of creativity and tech meeting. But creativity’s always been our story, not tech.”
NIA currently represents four sets of interactive artists, three teams – Hellicar & Lewis, Minivegas, Roel Wouters & Jonathan Puckey (the latter created this month’s cover) – and one individual, Quayola. The company is also working with a number of artists – including Champagne Valentine and Theo & Emily – on one-off projects and is looking to expand the roster over the next year. Unsurprisingly, Nexus’s animation directors are also keen to explore the opportunities that NIA brings to the company too. But despite this crossover, O’Reilly stresses that NIA is a new and separate entity both in the work created and the process by which this occurs.
“It’s not a replica,” he says. “I think fundamentally it’s a different process. It’s software development, not film development. There’s a finite delivery in film that you’re aiming towards – you deliver a film and it’s finished. Whilst with a lot of the stuff that NIA’s doing, delivery can be in several stages, it can be an ongoing thing. There’s also obviously, prior to delivering, a lot of research and development.”
Defining this new procedure, both to themselves and to agencies and clients, has occupied NIA for much of the last year. Unlike the fixed and long- established rules of engagement surrounding film production, interactive work demands an entirely different approach, which can vary from project to project, depending on the work being made. Not an easy notion to pin down, but essentially what is required is a move away from the pitch process – where a range of directors pitch their ideas for a project to an agency for free – to an earlier and deeper commitment from the client.
“It’s very different in the interactive space,” says executive producer Cedric Gairard. “The pitch process is in fact a research and development phase, which takes a lot of resources and demands much more time and commitment from the agency and client. Not just a commitment on time, but a commitment on budget as well, up front. There is a lot of production know-how and expertise that has to be put in up front.”
The process is also different for the artists, who often take more of an authorial role than they may do on a typical commercial project. “I think they [the agencies] tend to look to us to help them author the experience,” says O’Reilly. “So it’s a collaborative thing: we understand what they’re looking to do and we then come in and help refine what that can be. Obviously, as with animation, quite often the technical side of what is possible is sometimes driving where that story can go … so it’s very hard for an agency to sit there and write it all out perfectly.”
For the artists, a major benefit of joining NIA is help in navigating the commercial world and dealing with ad agencies, an experience that may be unfamiliar and daunting. “The artists really understand that this is a bit of a moment for them,” says Gairard. “There’s very much a sense of brotherhood between all these artists, but yet each of them, having now developed their voice, does see that getting to the next level, and engaging with an agency, is a different ballgame to doing little projects and experimentation here and there. So from an artist’s point of view, as well as from an agency’s, working with NIA – and so with the Nexus label and the kind of guarantee of quality, understanding of process and management that offers – is a relief almost. The pressure is off their shoulders in terms of figuring it out. They can just be focused on the output, the creative and the objective that the agency needs to pursue, and lose a little bit of that logistical stress, production stress and financial stress.”
NIA’s output to date has been, unsurprisingly, eclectic. Wouters & Puckey created the charming One Frame of Fame website, an interactive video for the Dutch band Cmon & Kypski, which invites fans to play a starring role by uploading webcam images of themselves performing the moves portrayed onscreen by the band. The result is a constantly changing film that sees fans appear alongside the musicians. Hellicar & Lewis created a large-scale interactive installation for a rebrand of NZ Telecom that was displayed in Auckland, while Minivegas created audio responsive visuals for the Red Bull Music Academy 3D Soundclash between Warp and Ninja Tune, that was held at the Royal Albert Hall in London last year. NIA has also created a website and two iPhone apps for Tate, to accompany its Miroslaw Balka and Eadweard Muybridge exhibitions.
More exciting projects are to come during 2011, we are promised, with events including a live gaming project for a museum and a large-scale public installation for a brand in the pipeline. NIA is also developing a project for the 2012 Olympics, based less in commercial territory and more in fine art. So far, certain types of companies, especially art institutions, record labels and those in the fashion industry, have expressed particular interest in experimenting with interactive work, but it seems only a matter of time before other, more mainstream clients follow, as the work rolls out and the possibilities offered become clear. “Making things will teach us what really needs to be done,” says Gairard. “You need to get to do it. You can do a lot of theory, you can draw a lot of scenarios but the experience is what’s really going to pay off. People need to have the guts to go for it and make stuff.”