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Radar

Radar: The Ambassadors

Laura Swinton chats with old Amsterdam competitors that teamed up to form a company with many talents

Radar: The Ambassadors

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. When Dutch VFX whizz Ton Habraken bumped into his competition at a mutual friend’s barbecue, the encounter could have gone one of two ways. Thankfully fisticuffs were avoided – and instead the pair hatched a plan to combine forces and launch themselves onto an unsuspecting Amsterdam, combining high-end sound, VFX and offline editing.

“I knew Halbo [Van Der Klaauw], my co-founder, by reputation long before we ever met.  We both have a background in VFX and, in the early noughties, all the big VFX jobs were either going to me or to him,” explains Ton. “Eventually we met at a barbeque and we joked that we should join forces and do everything in one place.  We didn’t think it could actually become a reality as it was such a big ambition but that planted the seed for us.  Then we met Ed [Meijaard], Sebastiaande Rooij and Rens [Pluijm], who are the best sound guys in the business here and incredibly they were thinking of doing the same thing.”

Suddenly the team was up and running. These days, though, the team is rather bigger than the original five-strong group with 40 Ambassadors and more to come throughout 2014.

Given the range of disciplines housed under the Ambassadors’ roof, the team were keen to arrange things so that specialists could cross-fertilise ideas and work together efficiently yet organically.

“The space was empty when we got here, there weren’t even any walls! This suited us fine as it meant we could lay it out exactly as we wanted to, with a little help from an incredibly talented interior designer. Rather than all operating in silos, we mix things up so the sound team sits next to the animators and the edit suites are rubbing shoulders with VFX.  This makes us better at communicating across crafts and has created an environment where every door you open leads to something completely different,” explains Ton.

And that ‘something completely different’ takes many forms. There’s ‘The Playground’, in which anyone in the company can pitch their own personal creative ideas – those that get the most votes get the time and resources to bring them to fruition.

“It’s a great way to showcase our individuality to clients and the collective energy we get from it spurs us on, brings us together and helps us grow creatively,” says Ton. “I’m proud to say we have built a truly incredible team of motion-designers, directors and art directors in house.  They give us true creative edge and are always on hand to give hands off direction and advice.  We think it’s vital to make sure we not only deliver technically perfect images, but also push the creative boundaries.”

But as well as pushing creative boundaries, the team devotes a large amount of time to geek around with R&D tech projects in the ominously titled ‘Lab’. Early supporters of Oculus Rift, they’ve been experimenting with bringing their VFX and 3D filmmaking knowhow to the world of virtual reality. And their experimental spirit has also helped them solve problems presented by trick jobs. One WWF project shot in poor lighting conditions was saved by the use of an infrared camera and infrared dots placed on the model’s body for tracking. 

“We love technology and challenging what you can do with all the cool tools available today.  That’s why we invented The Lab – a sort of mad scientist’s laboratory where we hack new ideas to make things work better and stuff look prettier,” says Ton. “We’re always coming up with new ideas, new ways of doing things. All I can say is watch this space!”

Perhaps the biggest innovation to emerge from The Lab is The Cube, a sleek archiving and asset management tool. “Back in 2006 we knew we needed a secure system to store all the high quality masters that The Ambassadors creates.  We were looking for something that would also allow us to send broadcast copies quickly and easily.  There was nothing out there that did the job - it was all too complicated, too expensive and not what we were looking for - so we realised we had to make it ourselves.  And, from there, we realised that if Cube was exactly what we needed then maybe other people would find it pretty cool too.”

Though it was born out of the necessity of organising their own workflow and archive, the team soon realised they had a saleable product on their hands and soon got DDB Tribal Amsterdam to climb aboard The Cube.  

But back to the bread-and-butter of creative post, the team has been on a roll with some interesting projects. “Without a doubt, G-Star really resonated with us.  We worked directly with the brand and with the young and talented director which made the process really enjoyable,” muses Ton. “Another recent job that we all really loved doing was for the guide dogs association here in the Netherlands (KNGF). They wanted to bring to life the way that guide dogs can be a big support to ex-soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress so they wanted to create a scene in a Middle-East style desert.  We were involved from the start of the process to advise on getting the look and feel just right.  It looks fantastic but it was shot in a studio, near our offices.  With both projects, we have worked with young, aspiring directors who are keen to take risks and challenge what’s possible – just the way we like it.”

Looking forward, Ton says that The Ambassadors have found themselves getting involved in creative projects far earlier in the process – reflecting both a trend in the wider post production industry but also their own particular ambitions. What’s more they see themselves moving out of the film cul-de-sac, as advertising and creativity becomes more immersive. “It’s not just about TV being king any more, my children don’t even understand the concept of traditional TV in the way that we did as kids.  Netflix and YouTube have put paid to that and we see these new channels opening up as huge opportunities for our core craft at The Ambassadors,” says Ton.  “The things we create are infinitely transferable – to online, gaming, outdoor, experiential, everywhere.  It’s going to be an exciting ride ahead!”

See more at: http://www.theambassadors.nl/

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Genre: Visual VFX