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Acme Filmworks: The Independent's Commercial Studio

Marcy Gardner explores the vision and diverse talents of this unique collective production company.

Image from Aleksandra Korejwo's Tammhäuser commercial for The Austin Lyric Opera.

In the fast-paced world of commercials, its hard to find room for vision and individualism. But a unique production company that emerged from the fields of production and distribution of independent animation is changing all of that, and the result is some of the most innovative commercial work in the industry. Acme Filmworks was founded six years ago with the intent to represent independent animators to prospective ad agencies. The role that this Hollywood-based company has since assumed far surpasses that original mission. "My vision for Acme," explains the studio's co-founder and now sole owner Ron Diamond, "was to find opportunities for the world's most creative animators. I wanted to work with these brilliant directors to help them not only find work, but better understand the commercial arena of the entertainment industry."

A Global Studio

Something of a cross between a commercial animation house and a talent agency, Acme matches animator/directors with advertising agencies. Representing over 40 directors from 8 countries, from a pool of talent that has no consistent venue in North America, Acme is a veritable global studio. Acme has no "house style," as its' directors use of techniques spans across all media: photo-collage, scratch-on-film, paint-on-glass, traditional character-cel, stop motion, clay animation, special effects and title design. "Any one director does not carry the company." says Diamond, "It is a collective group of directors, and that, I think, is a formidable force." The roster of Acme directors reads something like an animation festival catalog, with award-winning animators on the list such as Bill Plympton, John Kricfalusi, Caroline Leaf, Paul and Menno De Noojier, Wendy Tilby, Sue Loughlin, Raimund Krumme, Cordell Barker, and Christoph and Wolfgang Lauenstein, to name a few.

Monkey Business, Christoph and Wolfgang Lauenstein's stop-motion animated commercial for Nestle.

So how did an artists' rep turn into a full-scale production company? "Ron scours the globe looking for the world's best artists, the freshest styles and newest techniques," comments Bill Plympton, an Acme director and cult-status independent animator. Diamond's background in both production and distribution (For six years, he produced the International Tournee of Animation) lends itself to his unique line of work. "I decided that I wanted to be an integral part of production, not just sell already completed productions," says Diamond. And integral he is, traveling around the world to stay on top of everything. At any given time, Acme projects can be going on in several locations around the globe. Some animators, like Montreal-based Wendy Tilby, choose to fly to sunny Los Angeles to work on projects at Acme's Hollywood production facility, which is host to an Oxberry camera stand, Avid editing system and other equipment. Others, like stop-motion animators Christoph and Wolfgang Lauenstein in Germany, prefer to work out of their established studios to execute their unique stop-motion work. The more exotic the location, in fact, the more involved in the production Diamond seems to get. "The first major commercial we did was with the Russian director Mikhail Aldashin. It was a tumultuous time in Russia. Ad agencies want, above all, a sense of security and comfort. I just found it prudent to become directly involved in the production aspect." And it seems that coordinating productions all over the globe is Diamond's rather extraordinary talent. Says independent animator and Acme director Caroline Leaf, "Ron is able to pull things together over large distances. In this respect he's fearless. I remember the first time I got a call for a job from Acme. I was heading off to Australia. By the time I landed in Brisbane, Ron knew exactly where I could rent a 35mm camera."

Animation With A Purpose

One of Acme's best known campaigns is its award-winning series of commercials for the Levi's Jeans for Women campaign. The campaign consists of five animated spots, three of which were done by Acme for the San Francisco-based ad agency Foote, Cone & Belding. The three Acme spots include Woman Finding Love by Simon Mulazzani & Gianlugi Toccafondo, Woman with a Purpose by Susan Loughlin, and, most recently, Trading Secrets by Raimund Krumme. Each spot has a distinct, separate style and storyline.

Mulazzani & Toccafando's award-winning Levi's spot, Woman Finding Love.

Mulazzani & Toccafondo's Woman Finding Love depicts a young woman floating out in the stratosphere, flying over hills of lust, loneliness and rejection. As the music soars, she glides into a landing on a fat, red heart. The fluid, painterly style that the Italian duo are known for quietly seduces the viewer. Yes, this woman happens to be wearing a loose representation of Levi's jeans, but other than that, there is never a mention of product endorsement in the spot, which ended up winning the 1995 "Best Commercial" prize at the Annecy animation festival, as well as nominations for an Annie Award in 1993 and a Clio in 1994.

Trading Secrets, German director Raimund Krumme's Levi's spot, features a very different style of animation than the evolving line drawing the he is known for in his independent films such as Passage and Borderlines. Secrets borrows stylistically from the Surrealist movement and psychedelic art. Here, two women appear as if in garden of Eden, a landscape of stylized leaves and flowers where words turn into clocks, and pens into butterflies. As the women journey through the garden, a love letter is written, a boy grows out of the girl's head and they float away on a giant soccer ball of butterflies. We do see Krumme's sensibility here, in that the evolution of the storyline seems to evolve from the drawings themselves. "Things evolve by drawing them," comments Krumme, "This is where my ideas come from. Because my drawings sometimes only gain meaning through motion, it is possible to change content by adding a new movement." Krumme also directed four spots for the Got Milk? campaign last year, and is currently residing in Los Angeles, working on a short film.

Raimund Krumme's Levi's spot, Trading Secrets.

In British animator Sue Loughlin's Levi's spot, Woman with a Purpose, a line-drawn woman saunters through a looming, pulsing cityscape. The lines snake and flow around her as she walks, purposefully and undaunted, through traffic, a basketball game, and enormous buildings. She approaches a gigantic door which she proceeds to open and march on through. Loughlin's powerful spot garnered her a Clio award in 1994. Her exquisite line quality can be seen again, in her 1995 Amnesty International spot Human Rights. The spot features a woman, Free Spirit, who has been torn away from her family and unjustly placed in prison. Through symbolism, the artwork communicates the horror of this violation, without so much graphic depiction that the spot would not be able to air. Loughlin is a graduate of The United Kingdom's National Film and Television School, where she developed her trademark expressive flowing line style in her student films, Grand National and The Occasion. Loughlin recently completed three new animated commercials for Lowe & Partners, SMS agency's client, Weight Watchers. Now airing nationally, these light, humorous spots depict two women scheming up ways to lose weight or disguise their bodies.

A Resource for Animators

Dwindling arts funding throughout the world necessitates resourcefulness for independents today. For most Acme directors, producing occasional commercial work is the only way for them to support their independent filmmaking endeavors. Caroline Leaf, who is currently teaching at Harvard, and who has animated several award-winning animated films such as Two Sisters and The Street, says "As an independent animator, I can just drift along for years and no one notices. The commercial work buys time for the independent work." She adds that the commercial jobs help her to hone her technique, commenting, "I enjoy the structure of working within 30 seconds. Every frame counts and [that] forces me to be really clean with the animation." Bill Plympton, who is now finishing up his second independently-produced feature film, I Married A Strange Person, says, "I would not be able to do the features I am doing without Ron."

Paul Fierlinger's animated documentary, Drawn From Memory.

Acme has no staff animators, and thus has a fairly low overhead. Diamond comments that "The ability to pay directors star salaries is certainly an advantage of low overhead. One director said to me that after completing a spot she was going home to their country to buy a house--not just place a down-payment, but to buy an entire house."

In addition, Diamond wants to assist animators in finding new outlets for their work. He says, "My desire is to create means by which these directors can do well financially, and also develop their ideas into long form works." Branching out from the commercial arena, in 1995 Acme produced Drawn from Memory, a feature length animated autobiography by Paul Fierlinger, which was funded by American Playhouse, and is now airing internationally in Canada, Germany, Sweden and Holland. "We don't want to have any films fall in the forest and not get heard," jokes Diamond, stressing that he wants to see the animators obtain the benefits of exposure that long form provides.

Acme director David Wasson recently completed 98 Pound Weakling, a 2-D animated spot for the Texas Board of Tourism.

Speaking with Ron Diamond, one gets the immediate impression that he greatly admires and respects the artists he works with. Just describing their styles, he speaks with excitement. "I decided a while back that life is short, and that I'm going to spend my time working with creative, nice people." he says, "I really value working with people I respect and enjoy. Not many people get that opportunity." He also feels rather protective of these animators, reflected in his passion for protecting the animators' rights to the original artwork and characters that they create for the work they do through Acme. "The way I see it," he says, "animators are hired to make a 30 second commercial, not 720 individual frames of artwork. So why should the agency have the rights to this artwork? If they were hiring them to create 720 individual frames of artwork, than they should be paid substantially more than they are." This rather convincing argument seems to be holding sway with the ad agencies themselves. "These artists don't have a pension plan, and historically the studios they've worked for have shown them little loyalty," he adds. And if it sounds like Diamond is up on his soapbox about this issue, he just might be. "Last year my wife gave me a great gift," he muses, "It's this Nineteenth century shipping crate that has a label on it for 'Acme Soap.' So, now I have my very own actual Acme Soapbox for proclaiming our philosophy."

Acme is currently producing a series of three animated commercials for Starbuck's Coffee with director David Wasson, as well as three animated spots for Nabisco with director Scott Ingalls.

Visit the Acme site at http://www.acmefilmworks.com

Marcy Gardner currently works in the Children's Programming Department at WGBH in Boston, where she answers Arthur's fanmail and is compiling a library of kid's ideas, art, films/videos, and projects for the new Zoom show. Previously, she worked on Sesame Street.

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