Dreamers and Doers: Airbag on Australian Innovation
Airbag is one of those companies that’s stealthily been evolving over the years and, all of a sudden, is working on some of the most inventive creative projects in Australasia and beyond. When it opened its doors in 2004, it was a hub for VFX artists, directors, animators and photographers, more recently its lab has also been building interactive installations and innovative experiences. It’s part traditional production company, part VFX and animation studio, part mad inventor’s workshop. They’ve recently opened a VR studio but the team is just as interested in exploring ancient scientific experiments and working with academics to make sure that their innovation projects are rooted in the right technology, not just the trendiest. Their ‘Emotional Trailers’ for the Melbourne International Film Festival, created with McCann Melbourne, saw them dig out the wacky 19th century experiments of Duchenne de Boulogne.
LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Managing Partner Adrian Bosich and Chief Geek Steven Nicholson to pick their brains about why he makes sure his non-techy directors and writers have a say in innovation, keeping the creative idea central and the practicalities of running the adland equivalent of Doc Brown’s workshop.
LBB> I’ve heard a lot of people say that Australia and New Zealand are particularly ingenious when it comes to advertising, perhaps because budgets are a little tighter and you have to be extra smart to do more with less. I was wondering whether you thought there was any truth in this and if you had any thoughts on that?
AB> We do work in Asia, the UK and the US and we represent US directors here. It’s always striking the difference in money available in those markets compared to here – especially in Melbourne (compared with Sydney). If we were completely honest with ourselves, without that international work covering some of our overheads it’d be challenging for us to provide the level of service we do here.
But more significantly is that the quality of the briefs we get asked to look at here are far more creatively ambitious than we see in Asia (and beyond). I don’t work on the agency side – so I’d hesitate to guess why that is. Maybe it’s just us.
SN> When the brief that lands on your desk is the most exciting thing you’ve encountered in your life... I guess you just find a way.
It’s been a good while since we’ve started a project knowing exactly how to finish it. And I’m gratified to find so many people here that share that sense of adventure.
People willing to take a risk: that’s why cool stuff gets made here.
LBB> More generally, Australia and New Zealand really are doing things differently and, in many respects seem to be leading the pack when it comes to activation/experiential/innovation. Do you think this is an accurate representation?
SN> When we started AIRBAG ‘labs’ five years ago we were constantly looking to Europe for inspiration and saying, why aren’t projects like that happening here?
We took something of a ‘build it and they will come’ type approach. Theresponse, particularly in the past two years, has been fantastic. Personally I think creative teams love working with us in these arenas because it often means they get to play and explore, without other agendas at work.
Traditional advertising implies an at least partially captive audience. But these days it’s very easy to choose not to view an ad.
The work we do is about building an audience – not monopolising it; and I think agencies are buying into that idea more and more. So the uptake on this kind of thing has gotten faster and faster. As to whether we’re now ahead of the curve? Yeah, it feels like it. It’s an exciting time to be in the industry.
LBB> When you’re working on innovative, techy projects, what’s the key to making sure that the technology serves the idea and that the creative idea is not lost?
AB> Great question. There’s something of a trick to that. At the beginning of a project, that’s often about ensuring you’re not falling prey to that old adage “when you have a new hammer, every problem looks like nails”. And sometimes that means making sure there isn’t a lower tech solution to the problem that does a better job.
But during the project we *literally* put the idea up on the wall. And at every stand-up, every WIP meeting we look up at that scrawled note and ask ourselves if the decisions we’re making serve that idea. AIRBAG directors are all fundamentally human beings and that’s who these projects get made for. Regardless of the technology you might employ, it’s all about the feels.
That’s a lesson hard learned. So I know that fundamentally there’s also a very important role for the creatives to play throughout these projects too. There is always a need for fresh eyes and hearts
Steven Nicholson experiments with VR and Cars
LBB> In terms of finding people with the right blend of creative sensibility and hard skills, what’s the situation like in Australia and New Zealand? In other countries, young people are increasingly being lured away from advertising and production by tech start-ups etc. Is it a similar story here or not so?
AB> People are the hardest part of any business to get right. But that specific problem sounds like something that’d be truer on the agency side of things than the production side. Many of the people we work with are very happy to be freelance or even have feet in completely different industries, especially the arts, science and academia.
SN> Maybe that’s just because we like to think of AIRBAG as a permanent start-up itself?
We encourage the AIRBAGers we work with to build their own teams, pursue their own agendas and live their own creative lives. As a company we’re owned and run by creatives, not suits. So we try to pay people as well as we can, we give them the space to grow, help them out on personal projects and they’re free to come and go as they please.
Perhaps it’s not such a surprise that people tend to want to stick around. We don’t seem to have any problem getting talented people to keep working with us.
LBB> When did you first start doing tech/innovation-based production projects? And how has your company evolved since then?
AB> In its current form we’ve been together just going on five years. Pretty much since the formation of AIRBAG, it’s been in our nature to be multi-disciplinarian and a bit forward thinking.
We also identified early on that a company that only makes television commercials is a tough proposition in this era – and one that isn’t exploring the full picture. Which sounds pretty mercenary, but in reality mostly it’s because we’re curious beings that like to play. It’s a nice bonus if we get paid for it.
SN> We try and learn something new every day – and I’m fortunate to be able to surround myself with people who can teach me new things.
And it’s pretty awesome being able to play with gadgets and have it be tax deductible.
LBB> There’s no such thing as a ‘typical’ project when it comes to innovation, so how do you organise pipelines and processes in order to adapt to the unique challenges of each project?
AB> This is double-edged – procedures can be very useful for certain types of people, and a millstone to others. If given a choice, I like working with people who are comfortable improvising. But working without those safety nets only works when people really know their business. We are quite blessed by the talented producers and creatives we work with.
SN> That said, there’s a lot value in procedures where they remove otherwise annoying questions, clearing the space for more important ones. And Damo in accounts is pretty scary if the paperwork is out of order..!
Mostly our projects are composite – components of film, animation, events, graphic design, VFX, software development, product development, technology, hardware and so forth. Each has a conventional production paradigm that typically applies. The job really is sitting in the middle of that and playing conductor to a very fun orchestra.
In functional terms, members of our team are Agile trained, and we use that methodology where appropriate. We’re big fans of cloud based collaboration tools lie Slack, Basecamp and Git.
AB> But fundamentally it’s about talking often and being honest about where you’re at and really bringing the client on the journey with you.
Damo tries his hand with Oculus Rift while Adrian looks on
LBB> What does the set up look like at Airbag LAB? How many people have you got working in this area? Is there an in-house workshop in order to play with new tech and to iterate?
AB> We’re doing quite a bit of VR-related research just at the moment, and there are VFX projects going through for the Beijing Auto Show, and supplying 3D elements for a car game for the States. There are schematics, soldering irons, 3D meshes, bits of wire, pulled-apart electronics (an LCD TV had to be sacrificed to the Tech Gods for one experiment...) and other bits of electronic shrapnel.
SN> It’s a floating population of dreamers and doers. On any given day there are usually 7-10 of us in that part of the office. The VFX team is mixed right in too – but literally any AIRBAGer is welcome to come and join a standup (NDAs permitting) when we have active projects. Our non-tech/innovation creatives –film directors, writers – often have very insightful, human, storytelling input to offer.
We usually have at least three self-funded research projects on the goat any time. We often share the fruits of these projects with our agency friends – and sometimes they turn into real projects. We also run the odd workshop where we bring them in and let everyone play with that new thing – whatever it is.
LBB> Your MIFF Emotional trailers project has done incredibly well at Adfest recently and, perhaps more importantly, delivered for the client in terms of cold, hard numbers and bums on seats. Why do you think it caught the public’s imagination and worked so effectively?
AB> Well I’d like to say it was because we invented a new way of presenting data that so perfectly fit the medium that all films will be reviewed and marketed this way in the future. But, in truth, that’s not even half the reality there.
SN> There are a couple of things at work here. Yes, it’s a pretty bonkers idea. Yes, it makes for such striking visuals.
But at its core – the very idea of sitting in that chair and surrendering control over your body is... a de-railer.
Why would you do that? Who would actually do that?
It’s an idea that’s almost impossible to be indifferent to. Everyone spends a moment thinking – would I do that?
LBB> What’s fantastic about the project is that it’s rooted in scientific experiments from the 1860s – proving that innovation doesn’t always mean chasing novelty or jumping on the newest fad. What sort of research and testing did you do? And, more generally, how do you make sure that you’re looking at or for the most appropriate technology or science to solve aclients’ brief?
SN> A lot actually. This was one of those projects where we at least started off knowing it was possible – after all this Duchenne guy had done it –we just didn’t know how. Of course we found out later that he had the advantage of doing his experiments on people who couldn’t feel pain due to neurological defect. Sadly, I didn’t have that advantage.
AB> He was lucky to get some guidance from a professor of Neurology
and Anatomy, but mostly there was a lot of self-experimentation. Not all of it
Actually, Steven wrote a bit of a post about it on the AIRBAG site, which you should read.
Testing times as Chief Geek Steven Nicholson self-experiments for the MIFF Emotional Trailer.
To answer your more general query about tech: That’s an interesting question, and actually something we’ve been enjoying educating our clients on. Our tech team, led by Steven, are geniuses. But even they rarely know the answer to that question straight away.
SN> We try to insist on a research phase on every one of our projects. It’s a little like the creative treatment we’re all used to – but with a technology focus. I find it’s always worth taking those three-to-four days to explore the options before you get married to something you’re later going to regret.
And that needs to be a process that involves an eye on the budget, of course. We’ve seen quite a few briefs that are groaning under the weight of tech buzzwords that are wholly unsuited to the problem.
Sometimes the best solution for the problem at hand is a 5 cent piece of paper and pencil, not an $800 tablet.
LBB> Which other recent projects are you particularly proud of and why?
AB> Right now we are doing a project at the National Gallery as an adjunct to the Ai Weiwei/Andy Warhol exhibit for La Trobe University (via JWT Melbourne). We’ve set up an installation where we measure exhibition goers’ brainwaves in response to the art they’re viewing. We’re using those brainwaves to create new pieces of generative art.
Basically it’s where the brain meets art. It’s been an amazing exercise,and one we’re documenting with a film at the moment.
Check out more 'Thoughtography' images .
Check out more 'Thoughtography' imageshere
It’s been a very interesting jump-off point for conversation about why art is such an important, and subjective human experience. And of course, what science and physiology has to teach us about that.
We’ve also been doing a lot of VR research – and we’re hoping to have something very exciting to share about that very soon.
Having Kit Webster on the team means there’s always something interesting that he’s doing – lots of fantastic work in fashion and large scale projection mapping, and he’s about to gear-up for Sydney’s Vivid festival with an amazing installation. And of course our North American directors, GMUNK and Aramique are a constant wellspring of inspiration. GMUNK’s TrueCar installation on the Santa Monica pier was an awe-inspiring, data-driven spectacle, and Aramique’s Art Piece ‘8 Phases of Enlightenment’ for the Palais de Tokyo was a haunting insight into disconnecting from the real world, to enter the virtual.
Genre: Activation , Creative technology , Digital , Experiential , VR