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Sean Broughton Talks Collaboration

The Smoke and Mirrors founder talks about how the global recession killed collaboration, and why it’s on its way back.

Sean Broughton, co-founder of the VFX house Smoke and Mirrors has collaborated with almost everyone – from Stanley Kubrick and Jonathan Glazer to Spike Jonze and Spike Lee. He has worked with some of the best directors and ad agencies in the world. In this article written for LBBO, Broughton examines how collaboration has changed over the years, and which type of working relationships makes the most groundbreaking work:

Firstly, please forgive me if I name names. I do so only to get the point across.

It’s been seventeen years since I started Smoke and Mirrors and almost everything has changed since I did - the technology, the people and the creative - but the creative and collaborative process behind innovation remains the same.  Start with an idea, find like-minded people to work with and for God’s sake, don’t look down.

What do I mean by ‘don’t look down’?  It seems so easy these days for great ideas to become diluted, but it was probably always easy for that to happen, we just fought harder to make sure it didn’t.  ‘Don’t look down’ means don’t let the proles clawing at you and the idea, get a grip and drag you and the creative down with them. Jon Glazer and the AMV team Tom Carty and Walter Campbell taught me that… If I remember rightly, they had just told the client that they would resign the account if they changed one frame of the edit. 

That piece of work won countless awards that year and raised the profile of the product to unprecedented levels. It was 1998 and the product was Guinness “Swim Black.”

Would that happen today? Would it have actually have happened back then? I don’t know, but the passion and intensity of commitment struck a chord with me that still rings true. We had all, in some way, contributed to something wonderful.  We had all worked tirelessly as a team and we wanted to protect and nurture the work… no matter what.

That happy team was one (of many that we all belong to or have belonged to) where the flow of ideas and the raising of the bar became everyone’s priority. I had calls from everyone from Kubrick to Spike Jones, Kleinman, Ledwidge, Cunningham and Stern. We helped them figure out how the hell to make something work. That’s our contribution and how we earned our place. Collaborating with directors and creatives remains my favorite part of this industry. 

Up until the recession, we saw teams emerge that pooled from agency, editorial, post and clients. They worked with each other on multiple campaigns, over long periods of time and it showed in the work. These teams ate, slept and drank together until every detail was detailed and every nuance was nuanced. Then they shot, edited, and posted, but only after absolutely everything had been considered well in advance.

Well, we all know how the financial climate changed that. But does no money mean no creative? Of course not. Does lack of budget mean lack of collaboration?

Short answer; it did for a while, but now it doesn’t.

Long Answer; from a creative viewpoint, the industry reacted to the financial climate in possibly the worst way it could have.  The teams were split up.  

Producers were calling with budgets, but no boards. Production and post companies were given ultimatums rather than reasons. Many of the experienced producers were let go and so the downward spiral went.

This type of reaction was really no different than any other industry. Cutting to maintain margins was the common prescription written by almost everyone facing a broken and fragile economy.

Prior to the recession there was so much good creative that bad creative and those responsible for it, were killed at birth. But the recession took us through a period where people on all fronts were so afraid for their jobs that risks were no longer permissible. Great creative became the exception rather than the norm and even the mediocre was then sterilized further before public consumption. Maybe that’s a dramatic overstatement… maybe not.

Recently, as an industry, we have found that despite decreased budgets collaboration is actually on the rise. Our website is once again full of examples where we have been asked to do proof of concept work on the solutions we have come up with, as a collaborative group, rather than as merely vendors.

At the height of the recession, the lack of money had led us all down a dark path and the industry became divided, just when it needed to become integrated. We can all wax lyrical on how well we’re doing, but the truth is that the final product has, until recently, suffered. We had become something less than we were or should be. Collaboration had to start happening again. 

One example that it has?  We are currently working on a new show for NBC; “Hannibal” has David Slade (30 days of Night, Twilight, Hard Candy) gracefully directing the pilot. David and I worked together a lot in London in the great music video days, so when he called to ask if we could help develop and execute characters and effects, the answer was always going to be a resounding “yes”. The joy of working on something like this is truly palpable and I wish everyone reading this the same feeling. We’ve shot tests for transitions and at the time of writing this there is a CG team out shooting plates for creature effect development, which we’ve been working on for a month.

The change for the better is happening and happening rapidly. The best creative is coming from those who have taken lessons from the past. Those agencies who involve directors, editors, sound designers and effects specialists are getting better results than those who don’t.  Spit balling ideas, talking things through and collaborating leads to the most innovate, effective work.

Treat each other with respect and find a way to really create again. What we all love about this industry is not the money (though that’s not bad either), it’s the collaboration, the pride and the production of something wonderful. For my part, I am delighted the teams are back.

Jennifer Wolfe's picture

Jennifer Wolfe is Director of News & Content at Animation World Network.