The CEO/Founder of Framestore shares his thoughts, feelings, moments of joy and insights with the Little Black Book.
5 Minutes With...Sir William Sargent The CEO/Founder of Framestore
Interviewed by LBB editor, Gabrielle Lott
LBB > So tell me a little about Framestore; how long have you been running?
SWS > We’ve been here for over 20 years. We started with four people and the aspiration was to work in the environment of Soho, but from the beginning we wanted to work globally, because the industry is a global industry and now we are lucky enough to work with clients all over the world. We’ve always worked in creating images, visual images, moving images for all platforms. I like all the platforms. We follow where people want to take those images, to television or cinema but they now also get adapted for other screens.
LBB > You went into film in 1994?
SWS > Yes, with ‘Lost in Space’
LBB > And now you make ground breaking work such as Avatar?
SWS > We operate at the top end. Our aspiration was always to be successful and so far we have been lucky enough to be at the top end of each of the genres that we work within, be it commercials, music videos, title sequences, instructions, digital or film. We like to be part of the cutting edge.
LBB > Following from there, you’re the first ever top tier civil servant to have won an academy award.
SWS > I’ve always done two things at once and so alongside running Framestore, I was a Permanent Secretary in charge of regulatory reform.
LBB > Are you still involved in government?
SWS > No, I stopped just over a year ago, once I’d overseen the handover of the topic I worked on. Most agendas need to be about ten years in duration and if you’re not prepared to do the second term, my view is, you should not start it.
LBB > You said in an interview with the Financial Times that one of your frustrations with government is that no one gives anything a chance to work and that with each administration, changes are made before the last agenda is complete…
SWS > That is a very true thing. People think in parliamentary cycles rather than in the cycles of an initiative. Changing things in an economy and society very rarely takes two to four years; you normally need the second cycle to allow whatever you did in the first cycle to succeed.
LBB > Is that one of the reasons why you left your role last year?
SWS > No, I was asked the year before to take on another term. I don’t believe you should start something you’re not prepared to finish and it needed leadership to take it through. We had set the framework and all three parties in the election had pretty much the same agenda for regulatory reform. It was the area that they were pretty much united around, any variations were fairly minor; so the general support for the role was pretty strong and the work has carried on – with slightly different emphasis. The problem is that Ministers have an average ministerial life of roughly 14 months. The Minister, understandably wants to make an impact. They get to ‘do something’ and by definition, they wish to do something that will impact in that cycle. One of the good things about having a permanent secretary on a long-term subject was that they have the authority to talk to Ministers with a long-term view.
LBB > How did you get into advertising?
SWS > You meet people. You have friends. You set up a business. Film making in the UK has always been world-class. Back when we set up in the late 80s, music videos and commercials were the two art forms that, as a director, you could aspire to. There were very few people that aspired to be feature film directors because there weren’t that many films being made. That being said, the UK was the leading place in the world for making commercials. This was the time of Ridley Scott, Allan Parker and Hugh Hudson. British advertising agencies dominated the world in the 80s. It’s more global now and less obvious to the nationalities, but then it went from being the Americans in the 50s, 60s and 70s to the British in the 80s and 90s. Like most things in life you don’t have a totally coherent plan to do something, you just look at something and think ‘this’ll be fun, this’ll be good, this’ll be nice, I’d like to do this, this is something I’ll be proud of’.
LBB > Well, we could say you’ve fallen on your feet…
SWS > Well, most things are about a bit of luck. Everybody needs luck to meet the right people, at the right time. It’s a mixture of hiring good people, the people being around at the right time, the right time in the cycle. We started as a company off the back of digital equipment, so we were the beginning of the digital applications to film making. We started with the transition to digital but also with the transition to working with tools that previously never existed. We were lucky that it was what we wanted to do. We also took huge risks, at key moments of our existence. Walking with Dinosaurs is an example, or Dinotopia or some of the films that we’ve done where you look at it and you go ‘we just know we can do it. We can’t prove we can do it’.
LBB > You spoke before about Avatar and the challenge of having a multitude of artists (over a thousand) talking to one director across a global range.
SWS > Well, Avatar was particularly unique because [James Cameron, the director] has a reputation for being challenging to work with but actually, collectively, when we compared notes, that hadn’t been the experience. That was probably because there was a good team. Certainly, in the last three months it was not unusual to be doing a conference call with him, and he was based in Los Angeles, with people on the same call from San Francisco, Wellington and London. Communication isn’t the technical stuff, it’s the desire to work together and when it doesn’t work, it can be attributed to the fact that people just didn’t want to make it, or didn’t try to make it work. In most films, when you’re working closely across two continents you’re all making the same movie and partnering together, that’s normal. The first time we did it, many years ago, was Sleepy Hollow. It was the first time it had genuinely been a good experience, because up until then, people had been reluctant to share projects. That project had been Tim Burton in LA and us in London. People don’t realise, that the average large movie (Avatar wasn’t average in terms of scale) will have two, maybe three large companies with roughly 250 – 300 people each on the movie and then three or four smaller companies. It’s very common in the last three months , for there to be at least 1,000 artists working on the film and maybe a third will be credited. Meanwhile, on the set everyone is credited, without exception, right down to the PAs and the stars’ drivers.
LBB > Avatar was ground breaking and you’ve mentioned that Framestore are working on something that is coming out this year that is even bigger?
SWS > Well, we are working on something called “Gravity” that is more challenging technically than Avatar; the complexity of the imagery is more challenging. I’m not allowed to give anything away about it. Just in terms of the technical challenge and the complexity it is taking what we’ve learnt on Avatar and what we applied on Avatar to another level. We deliver this summer and we’ve been on it since the beginning of 2010.
LBB > How do you retain the passion and drive on a project that takes that long to complete?
SWS > The team that is on it for that long is probably no more than 50 who see it from beginning to end and then when you ramp up to 100s they’re probably on the job for no more than 9 months. So it’s the leadership team that has to maintain the passion for anything over three years. Feature animations are three-year projects and most effects movies are about 18 months. You need to feel very good about the project because it’s tough, the hours are tough. You have to believe in the director and you have to believe in the vision. You have to like the movie. You have to have a great inner drive that strives to do great work and the visual community is great for that. In terms of leadership, in terms of my role, I just have to make sure that the environment is right. And when the pressure points arise (and they do arise; and they can be quite tough) I have to intervene at the right moments and I have to make sure that things are not becoming too unreasonable and to remind the team why it’s such a great project.
LBB > Last year Internet Week Europe happened here in London and one of the subjects that was discussed is whether we are losing the art of story telling through digital technologies?
SWS > I think the direct opposite, actually. The analogy I would use is from games. Between the PS2 and PS3 and the XBOX 1 and 2, the games industry took on board the storytelling skills of film in that if you look at the successful games they have characters that resonate with people, they have story lines. If you look at the interesting digital things that are going on they all have a story to tell. If you look at a fragrance, it has a back-story even if it’s not obvious what the story is. The Advertising Effectiveness Awards have recently done, research into the last fifteen years’ awards winners and found that 80% of the awards winners were emotional advertising and that only 20% was rational advertising. Emotional advertising by definition has to be a story and characters or a situation, something that drives the emotion and creates a story that you can relate to. What digital is doing and referring to is that the story is being told across different mediums and the bit that excites me is that you can tell the story in a non-linear fashion, across media, with different aspects of the story. Now, I don’t think anybody has actually cracked it. Someone who is already directing will create a phenomenon where we collectively consume a story on a number of different media and platforms, in a way that isn’t necessarily linear or direct but we will love the story that we are consuming. We might have first got it on our mobiles, we might have gone to the cinema, but we will be able to relate to that story irrespective of where we came into it. That requires a director’s mind. A major director that can carry a story and relay it to us over an array of forums. The person that has done it, that has never had credit for doing it was George Lucas with Star Wars; it’s been told over a range of media. So Lucas has in some ways established the business and story telling model from snippets of the story.
LBB > You live in London, but you’re originally from Dublin. What is it about this city that you love?
SWS > I love London and obviously in my industry you’re either in London or you’re in Los Angeles. I made conscious choices over the years not to live in America. I came from Ireland; it was a third world economy when I left college. None of us got jobs; there were no jobs in Ireland, which unfortunately seems to be the case again now. So we all left the country for London or America. The more I travel the more I love coming back. It is the most remarkable city in terms of the cosmopolitan aspects, the nationalities, the languages – there are 144 languages spoken in London and over 130 cuisines. I remember a few years back looking at the Paris “Time Out” and they were reviewing the classical concerts and there was something like 30 classical musical events that week in Paris, in London that week there were over 300 classical musical events. You can go to a ridiculous amount of films (possibly over 500) in a one-week cycle in London. I love flying into London and being put on the holding pattern and there is one that flies directly over the Thames and the Houses of Parliament. You fly at about 10,000ft and you look down at London from above and it’s full of green, endless parks. Barcelona, Berlin, Paris, New York and New Zealand are the five places that I love going to, which I adore visiting, but none of them can compare with London itself.
LBB > What value do you put on awards?
SWS > They are not important to me, personally, but they are important to my colleagues. They are affirming in that you feel good that other people recognise your good work. People misunderstand when I play them down. I play them down because they are not relevant to winning that next project. Which can be a little demoralizing at times. People assume that they give credentials, but the reality is that once you’ve joined a particular club, you’ve got those. Once you’ve delivered a job to a client it doesn’t matter whether you’ve won an award or not. Awards tend to be given anything up to 18 months after the work was done. It’s easy for me to say so because we’ve won up to 14 awards in one year. For the VES Awards a few years ago that cover advertising and film, we had seven different nominations across six different teams, across two different cities. For me, that’s what I was proud of. Whether we won the award was not important, it was the nomination that counts because that comes from your peers. In the Academy Awards and the Baftas, the nominations are what your peers are voting for, the actual award is the wider creative community which doesn’t necessarily have the knowledge to understand the achievement of the visual effect.
LBB > This year, what’s been your favourite job?
SWS > It’s difficult because one should never pick out a favourite. What’s the one I’ve reacted to? Gosh, we do some many different images. I’m very focused on digital at the moment, we’ve done a piece for McLaren, which I can’t really talk about yet, but that’s my favourite at the moment. I’ve enjoyed Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy which is in no way a visual effects achievement, but just because I’ve enjoyed the project and love the movie. It struck a chord in me and the work that we did was very supportive rather than groundbreaking, but it had to be done impeccably. I think the other is War Horse. I loved the whole experience of War Horse. It was the first time that Spielberg had worked outside his usual company and they were so inclusive, delightful to deal with, and respectful. We are currently on location with him on their next movie, Lincoln, with Daniel Day Lewis and that, equally, is very satisfying. It’s an emotionally satisfying experience.