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Riding the Razor's Edge of Reality and Fiction with Pomp&Clout


The studio’s director and founder Ryan Staake speaks to LBB’s Ben Conway about “breaking the internet” with a horse-face Instagram filter, motion-capping Ed Sheeran and using AI for everything

Riding the Razor's Edge of Reality and Fiction with Pomp&Clout

Pomp&Clout is a Brooklyn-based creative production studio working at the intersection of film, music and mixed reality. Known for its award-winning collaborations with global brands, immersive AR experiences and boldly original films, the studio has partnered with the likes of HBO, adidas, and Facebook on both video content and explosive AR/VR campaigns, including viral trending Instagram filters. 

Pomp&Clout arose from a bond between founders Ryan Staake and Aaron Vinton, who met at the Carnegie Mellon School of Design in Pennsylvania. With a shared love of music and film - and a mutual disdain for how their university taught design -  the pair transferred to different schools, before fate would bring them swiftly back together, reconnecting in Bushwuck in 2012. 

“Having both studied graphic design, where barriers to starting a company are relatively minimal, we just figured we’d start a production company to serve as a home for our filmmaking pursuits,” says Ryan, speaking with LBB’s Ben Conway, “We had no idea what we were getting into.”

The first order of business was fleshing out their skeleton crew; Pete Puskas (now lead VFX and new media artist) was headhunted on Craigslist, Ryen Bartlett (EP) came fresh out of college as an in-house music video rep, and Ryan’s brother Kevin started as an intern before becoming another EP. Ten years on, the tight-knit team has gone through the crucible of learning-through-doing and has built a network of collaborators and directors that share their vision.

As well as founding the company, Ryan had to make the transition from ‘graphic designer’ to ‘director’ - two disciplines that he believes are more similar than at first glance. Describing design as “problem-solving through visual means”, he draws comparisons between creating a logo, poster or an engaging website with the role he now holds behind the camera. “You have tools you can employ in various ways to achieve these goals (type, scale, weight, colour, visual tension, a viewer’s built-in visual and cultural vocabulary, art direction, etc.) In directing, this expands to basically every possible communication tool one could imagine. Luckily, advertising offers an artistic canvas with seemingly limitless problems to solve.”

His creative process has also always utilised one thing: technology. After working as a user interface designer for several years at Apple, he familiarised himself with AR and VR tech for the first time, experimenting with the Oculus developer kits and multi-GoPro rigs for 360° video shoots. Quickly realising that 360° videos underutilised VR technology, he switched focus to game engines like Unreal to create immersive, navigable experiences.

AR was a natural next step for Ryan and Pomp&Clout, and they quickly began experimenting with Instagram’s new (at the time) AR features. One of these experiments became the ‘Horse Morph’ face filter, a viral sensation that has since racked up over three billion impressions. He adds, “These technologies offer so much creative potential to tell stories in which the viewer begins to have actual agency over their experience, bringing games and film to an eventual convergence.” 

The studio saw AR lenses and face filters as a great way to piggyback on an existing platform like Instagram, and get their work to reach the users’ extensive networks. Ryan explains, “When someone watches a fun video, maybe they post it to their feed, maybe they message a few friends, and those friends might post it. But when you’re sharing an interactive experience that lives on your face, your friends immediately wonder, ‘What would that look like on my face?’. So they try it, and then their friends all get curious, and so on. Before you know it, three billion-plus people have tried on your ‘Horse Morph’ filter that started as an inside joke.”

From their success with experimental filters, Pomp&Clout has been asked to create filters for brands like Coca-Cola, Adult Swim and Goldfish, as well as doing one-off filter projects “just for the sake of it” with artists and comedians they admire. “It’s an entirely new medium we’re now working within,” he adds.

With new technologies being developed and used in the creative world every day, it can be tough to keep up. However, Ryan explains that his team’s curiosity and tendency to bore quickly leads them to be constantly on the lookout for the next digital tool to toy with.

“We were playing around with AI and deep fakes back in 2018 and actually deep-faked CharliXCX as the Spice Girls for her ‘1999’ music video with Troye Sivan (who was deepfaked into the Backstreet Boys). Now we’re using AI for everything – pre-vis, budgeting, art department and final finishing before our AI overlords eventually take all of our jobs and kick us to the climate change-flooded curb.”

One of Pomp&Clout’s “super fun but incredibly daunting” jobs that made waves with new technology was Ed Sheeran’s ‘Cross Me’ music video, which Ryan directed. The whole video was filmed simultaneously by two ‘cameras’ (a conventional video camera on a Steadicam, plus a motion capture performance camera) which allowed the team to cut between a live-action and a fully CG world. As well as being an innovative visual concept, the perfectly synced live-action footage also provided a convenient ‘backup’ if their animation partner MPC ran out of time to complete some of the VFX shots in the rapid five-week window they had for the project.

“Surprisingly, one of my biggest creative hurdles was writing a visual script that leaned into the song's lyrical content without being too literal,” says Ryan. “I wanted some moments to play off of the lyrics verbatim, while others were loosely connected, which proved to be a challenging balance to find.”

The world of motion capture has recently come to the fore for the studio once again as they’re now working with a tool called Wonder Studio. This allows motion capture data to be captured from any footage without any cost-prohibitive infrastructure. But it’s not just new, emerging tech that draws the studio to a particular project. For Ryan, it’s all about “a pure, direct and engaging idea.”

He continues, “Any idea that requires a 100-page deck to explain it is likely a complete mess and will result in a final film no one has the patience to even try to understand.” A project that exemplifies this reverence for simple but effective ideas - and which the director/founder is proudest of - is the Young Thug music video ‘Wyclef Jean’ that helped put Pomp&Clout on the map. He says, “It showed our ability to improvise, persevere, make you laugh, ride a razor's edge of reality and fiction, and ultimately deliver something truly unique that breaks the internet.”

So after several years of breaking the internet with music videos and AR face filters alike, where is Pomp&Clout now? Well… “All over the place!” says Ryan. Seemingly with a finger in every emerging tech-flavoured pie imaginable, the studio is currently finalising a short film made entirely in Unreal Engine, is in post-production for an Instacart campaign, is pitching for various jobs, developing originals and even launching a new face filter with filmmaker Joe Cappa. 

While constantly experimenting with new AI tools, Ryan shares that the studio has also seen structural change this year. Pomp&Clout shifted to a ‘roster-less’ model in 2023, allowing the team to ‘diagnose’ a project’s creative needs and ‘prescribe’ the right director and team in a more organic way. “Having worked in advertising for the past six years we got to a stage where we were able to look around and assess what was working and what was not, and build a business model that is more authentic to us,” he says. “The shortcomings of the traditional roster model are no secret, and we’ve never been traditional thinkers, so it came to a point where we asked ourselves why we were doing it ‘that way’.”

He continues, “We didn’t get into this to be in the business of collecting directors, and we’ve envisioned this new model that allows for more organic collaborations that ultimately benefit everyone involved. When clients work with Pomp&Clout, they’ll know that the director or creative leading the project has been specifically selected for the creative at hand and is backed by myself and the rest of the team. It’s the best possible outcome for all parties involved (production company, director, agency and client).” 

Hoping to set an example with this “more equitable model”, Pomp&Clout is leading a way forward in the advertising world with a non-traditional structure and attitude, as well as a focus on innovation that pushes the boundaries of creativity. So whether it’s motion capture, AR, VR or the next AI-powered tool, the industry will be sure to see Pomp&Clout’s continued experimentation making its mark with truly unique ideas and tech.

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LBB Editorial, Wed, 07 Jun 2023 16:47:00 GMT