This month XYZ Studios
celebrates its 10th anniversary. Not bad for an animation company that was founded by a director who had never animated before.
Having studied communication design at university and armed with a vague hunch that animation might be something fun to do, Tim Kentley set up his company in Melbourne in 2003. These days XYZ Studios works with agencies all over the globe. There’s the New York satellite office based in VFX studio Charlex and the recent European representation deal with Partizan. On paper, the studio’s trajectory, which has seen it become one of the world’s leading animation boutiques, looks to be an unlikely fairy story. Start talking to Kentley and you’ll discover a man with the initiative and bloody mindedness to Make Things Happen.
“People said that I was really brave to start my own shop but I don’t really see it like that,” muses Kentley. “It’s always been in me to start out on my own . It’s part of my personality. I like making ideas happen and I’m not someone who’d want to work for someone else.”
In fact, Kentley’s entrepreneurial drive has been apparent ever since his teenage days. Craftily forging his brother’s university card, he was making up to 250 dollars a week flogging fake IDs at the local private girls’ schools. As well as topping up his pocket money, the fledgling enterprise also gave Tim his first taste of design.
These days Kentley’s hours are dedicated to his roles as director and businessman, but he still finds time to indulge in graphic design, primarily creating branding for XYZ studios and its sister companies. There’s the bold, looping logo for Crayon, a business that focuses on live action post, and the quirky Wheelbarrow, which turns children’s books into interactive iPad experiences.
However, running these ventures as a stable of separate brands is more than just an excuse to play with different fonts. It’s a business decision that Kentley takes very seriously. By focusing solely in the commercial sphere and animation, he can keep the brand strong and concentrated. “I’m a big fan of specialisation being very focused. Its’ something I’ve seen in America – they have a go-to guy for ‘cars’ for example. XYZ just does commercial animations – and the goal is to be the best that it can be. That generates cash that we can use to fund other creative ventures that we do under other banners,” he explains. “Crayon works in a more artistic space making music videos and documentaries and that sort of thing. I’m quite hard-nosed about what each business does. It keeps it simple and direct. At the same time there are really good synergies between the businesses.”
Smart business choices like this strict brand separation – and also the decision to eschew the typical Australian agency-to-post-house model of animation in favour of the director-led repping system of Europe and the States – sit paradoxically next to the organic and experimental development of the early XYZ days.
As an aspiring animator with no contacts in adland, Kentley had to work with what he had around him, often in areas where he had little experience. His key breaks came when he contacted a local Melbourne graphics festival and pitched the idea of creating an opening animation for them – this led to more motion design work that was picked up by international magazines and galleries and, after approaching the charity World Vision with a 3D version of the little blue mascot for their 40 Hour Famine project, they then commissioned him to create live action corporate films; cue a flurry of last minute Googling and cobbled together lighting rigs. “I had to be entrepreneurial to break the chicken and egg cycle.”
Kentley’s first advertising campaign for Honda Minibikes proved to be his making. Whilst the agency initially requested a slick 3D animation, trendy in the early noughties, he felt that the target age group of 8 to 12-year-old kids would respond better to a hand-drawn, hand-coloured; hand crafted approach. After creating a wireframe computer animation, Kentley spent hour after laborious hour tracing each frame over a light box to achieve his desired effect.
These days, with over a hundred advertising awards under its belt, a roster of seven directors and a team of producers and assistants, XYZ Studios is no longer a one-man band. However, Kentley’s workaholic hunger, instilled in those early days, shows no sign of satiation. It’s after 11pm in Melbourne when we speak to Tim and he’s taking a brief break from working on a project.
That hunger, though, does not extend to all areas of the business. When it comes to selecting directors, XYZ is rather more restrained. “We have a lot of approaches, people who want to get represented,” says Kentley. “I only add people very sparingly to the roster, people who have a real talent and a unique voice. As a director they’ve got to think conceptually, be able to lead a team and handle a conference call with an agency. There are not many people who can do that to a very high level. Most of them are very hands on – they can illustrate or use After Effects or do 3D; that’s really important too. It means they are very aware of the medium, what works, what hasn’t been done before.”
“One of my sayings is ‘put yourself into the work and no one else’. It’s about not being derivative; not being cool; not ripping off other things. What’s exciting about animation is that you can create a whole new visual language for a campaign,” says Kentley, who describes himself as ‘conceptually-led’, preferring not to rely on any one style.
The roster of fellow directors reflects this ethos. As we talk through the studio’s talented collection, like Darcy Prendergast’s in-camera animation to Celeste Potter’s scratchy, illustrative work, it becomes clear that there’s no particular house style. Another member of the XYZ team is young Israeli director, Eran Hilleli. His graduation film ‘Between Bears’ won ‘Best Animation’ at the first Vimeo film festival and he recently completed an ING campaign with Droga5 Sydney; Kentley is full of praise. (“He’s a real gentleman and he’s absurdly talented – and he’s a busy boy.”)
This emphasis on carefully selected diversity and the avoidance of an XYZ ‘look’ is, explains Tim, a deliberate decision. It’s designed to extend XYZ’s longevity – and, as the studio reaches double figures it’s also an approach that works. The Melbourne HQ is currently gearing up for an almighty party for clients, past employees and friends – a celebration of beating the odds. But it’s no time for XYZ to rest on its laurels – it’s a chance to look forward to the next ten years.