“Can we rotate that mushroom just 20 degrees to the right?”
“Ok back, just like, 5%”
“Ok that looks perfect”
“Ok we’re nixing the mushroom”
“We’re over mushrooms”
That’s a typical conversation for an art director on a video production set (and one that really happened, I might add). It’s designing IRL. Instead of rotating and adjusting artwork in 2D software like Photoshop or Illustrator, you’re tweaking things on a real set, within a real-live composition. You’re making minor adjustments based on what registers on a monitor that’s 6 feet away from you, and everything is moving the opposite way you think it will move. This isn’t easy stuff, but it sure is fun.
At Vox Creative, we create many different types of content. We work with advertisers to create Explainer videos, written branded content, experiences, and custom videos that all live within the world of our editorial networks. We are always experimenting with different visual approaches to our content, ranging from animation to documentary-style filming. That creative flexibility is what makes working in production so exciting.
But when production shuts down—when in fact the whole world shuts down—where does that leave art directing in a pandemic?
In the first few weeks of Covid-19, our team at Vox Creative found ourselves having to make some real-time decisions on current projects. We had to decide what content was no longer culturally or commercially relevant (like travel, or restaurant recommendations.) We had to push back scheduling of photo and video shoots, or cancel them all together. With this constant shift in stability and normalcy, there was one thing we could rely on: Good old reliable design. Though it might be obvious to some, design and animation can be done anywhere in the world, and can cover any topic. We wouldn’t need to rely on shoots or large productions if we could just tell stories through animation. If we needed to consult an expert for an Explainer video, there were plenty around the world with a laptop and a camera who could jump on Zoom and share their advice. If we needed world class recipes, we could consult a food stylist over the phone. As a remote-friendly organization, we had been doing this all along, collaborating asynchronously and remotely, so it seemed like a natural advantage for us to push on this during a lockdown.
So that’s what we did, we made creative pivots. We turned what was supposed to be a fully produced photoshoot for California Avocados into a beautifully illustrated hub. We even worked with the Qatar foundation to talk about what remote learning would look like in the future, and created the video while fully remote. These projects are just a few examples of what it looked like to pivot to an almost entirely design-focused approach to content creation. We even presented this idea of design forward thinking to our own Vox Media Revenue team as a promise that we could continue “business as usual.”
And though this continues to work for us as a line of business, a fully-animated Explainer at Vox Creative takes a complex level of care, thus, a lot of time. An animated Explainer takes about 12 weeks to produce from concepting, to research to storyboarding, and sprinkling in a client review every now and again. Bandwidth had begun to become an issue for our small team of 5, and creatively speaking, this approach wasn’t going to work for some projects already in the pipeline. Not to mention after 8-weeks into lockdown, we were itching to get back to flexing our creative chops.
Pre-Covid, we pitched an Explainer video for the client Lending Tree to explain debt consolidation through the visual metaphor of a board game. You got that right, we’d create a board game, from scratch, and follow the journey to describe the obstacles along the way, the possible fallbacks and potential leaps forward one might face in debt consolidation, toward an end goal of financial security. We had already created one Explainer video for Lending Tree that explains what Choice Overload is through the metaphor of a Diner. This very specific, studio-based approach is something we wanted to keep for the second video, as it was to be a part of an entire series. Now that it was time to execute on this accepted pitch, we felt well-positioned to still pull it off with a small crew on set, to be directed remotely.
Our creative partners, a Brooklyn-based wife-and-husband duo called Ficca Luciano, had shot our first Diner video for Lending Tree back in 2019. We knew we could trust them with taking on this unique approach, not only because we had worked with them before, but because we knew they had created exactly the right conditions for collaboration in a pandemic. Their crew had been isolating themselves, only coming together for shoots with one another in a unique work/life bubble. But to keep everyone safe, this meant I, as an art director, wouldn’t be there by their side. There would be no person on set rotating mushrooms (or in this case dice, cards, and spinners,) and we would have to let go of some of those particulars in order to make this happen. We had to build trust.
First, we designed the game. Then, we started the process by holding multiple Zoom check-ins where we’d discuss the production of the board game, we’d collaborate on ideas for shots, camera movements and all that goes into choreographing compelling video content. I got to work closely with a fantastic paper artist, Samuel Shumway, who built the board game from my Illustrator files into a real-life interactive board game. We looked at paper samples ‘together’, we collaborated on what items would be 3D—all from the comfort of our ‘home-offices’.
When it came to the day of the shoot, we were able to watch what was happening via Zoom. The director connected the camera to their laptop, enabling us to see everything the camera was seeing, just like being on set. They were also only an earshot away, so I was able to say “Hey, can we 86 the pillow you have in the background?” Which feltl good, like I was still an integral part of it.
The feedback loop was reassuring, but mostly, we trusted. We trusted that the team could handle this on an expert and professional level. We entrusted them to make creative decisions on the fly, as one normally does on a shoot, and they entrusted us to interject when we needed to metaphorically ‘rotate those mushrooms.’ The end result, thanks to laptops, and internet, and microphones, and cameras—and trust—was that our Vox Explainer video on debt consolidation came out beautifully. Maybe even better for the adaptations under extreme circumstances. I found that embracing art direction from a distance allowed me to rise up out of the weeds, to let go in some helpful ways, and, through trust, pursue an even stronger collaboration.
Executive Producer: Daniel Littlewood
Creative Director: Laura Delarato
Art Director & Designer: Brittany Falussy
Production: Ficca Luciano
Paper Artist: Samuel Shumwey
Editor: Zhen Lin
Motion Graphics: Louis Hamwey
Content Management: Alex Andrial
Production Supervisor: Skylar Wesby
*Update: since writing this we produced a second video with the same team, for the same client, all directed remotely. Check it out here!