SOFT AND QUIET:
New Yorks Quiet Man Celebrates Ten Years at the Top, with a Little
Help from SOFTIMAGE|XSI
August 8, 2006 2:24 am
be told, Amy Taylor and Johnnie
Semerad never expected things to turn out this way. When
the duo started Quiet Man, their New York
City-based animation and visual effects company, in 1995, they had
no way of knowing what the ensuing decade would bring. Now the
premier visual effects facility in what is arguably the
world’s toughest market, Quiet Man still occupies an
(admittedly ever-growing) amount of space in same Manhattan edifice
that provided the first home for the bellicose editors of
The New Yorker.
In particular, the company’s 3D department has been growing exponentially during the last eight years or so. Indeed, the 3D department has grown to be the biggest one at Quiet Man. Now headed by Director of 3D Kris Rivel, the department is in so much demand that day and night shifts are required to satisfy a full 24 hour schedule, and there are no signs of a slow down in the future.
“Every board that comes to us now has some 3D in it,” says Taylor. “People are coming in to have logos redone, and they automatically ask that they be done in 3D. I mean, before Toy Story, nobody had a clue about 3D, but now it’s absolutely everywhere. We tend to specialize in characters, but we’re also doing quite a bit of photoreal 3D as well. We have 15 people now, and we bulk that number up with freelancers for the big jobs. We use SOFTIMAGE|XSI exclusively for 3D.”
And it all started with a few drops of Pepsi, a leaping goldfish and a friendship with Softimage. But let’s get back to the beginning.
Quiet Man – named for the somewhat taciturn, yet resolute Semerad – still adheres to the mantra set out by its founders: Do it with personality; Do it with style; Keep it comfortable for everyone involved. From the very beginning, vigorous talent and easy-going style combined to ensure Quiet Man made a whole lot of positive noise in the ad business.
“We just wanted to do great work,” says Taylor matter-of-factly. “It was as simple as that. I never dared dream that the company would be so successful, especially so early on. It’s been a wild ride, full of trials and tribulations, but almost entirely positive.”
Not that they weren’t confident. Executive Producer Taylor had plenty of experience in the entertainment biz, working for music producers Elias and Associates before moving to Rutt Video and Creative Director Semerad had nearly a decade of experience working with people like Jim Henson and creating some of the best visual effects the city had to offer.
“I just knew that I was capable of more imaginative, more innovative work,” he remembers. “I’d turned thirty and my wife had given birth to our daughter Emma, and I felt the time was right. I hooked up with Amy and, in just our first year out, we won five Clio awards. And we were off.”
Significantly, Quiet Man’s inaugural year of business also forged a long-lasting and fruitful relationship with a then-emerging advertising legend, director Joe Pytka. The acclaimed director discovered Semerad’s compositing talents while working on a Pepsi spot featuring 7’1” Shaquille O’Neal, then a rising star with the NBA’s Orlando Magic.
“The commercial called for Shaq to run through a series of television monitors, each showing some classic television moment,” explains Semerad. “We weren’t even six months old at that point, and the spot had already been awarded to somebody else. The entire piece had been shot with Shaq running left to right, but Joe wanted to have him run the other way. Initially, they simply tried to flip the film, but that meant his number was backwards and things just didn’t look right. Anyway, we took care of it.”
Sensing Semerad’s famous modesty gaining control, Taylor steps in to bring the story to its proper conclusion:
“The company they’d hired said it couldn’t be done,” she says with a smile. “They brought it here and Johnnie did it inside of four hours. They were suitably impressed.”
SUPER BOWL GOLDFISH
It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Pytka quickly offered Quiet Man work on The Beatles’ “Free As A Bird” video, which would go on to win a Grammy award and is still revered today for its innovative look and effects.
It was another Pepsi ad, however, that the company’s resourcefulness brought them to Softimage and, more importantly, to SOFTIMAGE|3D. Featuring a cute-as-a-button goldfish who feigns death in order to coax a drop of life-restoring Pepsi cola from his owners, the Pytka-directed spot would introduce much of the advertising world, and the young company itself, to the amazing possibilities of 3D animated characters
“It was such an amazing spot that we couldn’t turn it down,” remembers Taylor. “We snapped it up before realizing: ‘My God! We don’t even have a 3D department.’ We’d heard about Softimage, but we didn’t know anything of the complexity and intricacy involved with 3D work. It was way scarier than anything we’d done up until then, and we really had no experience in that area. Even back then, Softimage customer support was absolutely amazing! Through the years, we’ve always been able to depend on Softimage for the tools we need to get the job done, even if they have to practically invent those tools on the spot. In ten years, they have never let us down!”
What Quiet Man did have, however, was a friend in David Shirk, who just happened to be working in Softimage’s Special Projects division. With the kind of dedication that would see him become the company’s first Director of 3D, Shirk held his day job, while helping Semerad and Taylor put together what would become a seminal spot in the ad business.
The spot played during that year’s Super Bowl broadcast. That annual event would come to be the busiest time of Quiet Man’s year.
Even though Semerad kept a hideaway bed in his office and cut his own hair with a Flow-bee – the combination razor and vacuum cleaner made famous through late-night infomercials – he was forced to admit that, with “Goldfish,” Quiet Man had become too successful to remain so…well…quiet.
“The growth and evolution of our 3D department has been very interesting,” says Semerad. “Instead of starting off with a small job, we started with a huge job and, on top of that, with a very challenging character. We got through it somehow, and then we knew we could do it. From there, everybody knew us as compositing and 3D problem-solvers. The work just kept coming in, and the department kept on growing.”
FROM BLUE LINE GUY TO DANCING ELEPHANT
The 3D jobs started coming thick and fast, but the growing Quiet Man team found imaginative ways to avoid being pigeonholed. A case in point is “Blue Line Guy,” a unique spot for AT&T and ad agency Wunderman that blended traditional animation with the very latest 3D techniques. It was also the company’s first spot created with an early version of SOFTIMAGE|XSI.
Shirk directed the sixty second spot, and Semerad remembers well why it was so special:
“‘Blue Line Guy’ was a big departure for us, because we were mainly known for combining film with other elements,” he says. “This spot was totally CG; just straight traditional animation in 3D.”
Set against a paper-white background which occasionally and conveniently tears to reveal vital information, “Blue Line Guy” opens with an outstretched outline of a stick man using a deep blue crayon to draw both himself and his dream internet service. When the voiceover speaks of faster logons, the Blue Line Guy transforms into a Zorro-type character, using his blue crayon to slash time off connection speeds. When the topic changes to instant messaging and chat services, the character speaks to his crayon and is joined by another character. Finally, slightly more fleshed-out characters appear on a crayoned computer screen to represent video email.
Clearly unfinished but completely fluid in his motions, the crayoned character of the Blue Line Guy somehow manages to convey both the creativity of simple hand drawing with the precisely-organized planning of a blueprint. The effect is one of the purely imaginary about to be made real, brilliantly exemplifying AT&T’s – and, of course, Quiet Man’s – ability to turn the everyday into the extraordinary. According to Brad Gabe, who served as technical director on the spot, SOFTIMAGE|XSI was a big factor in the spot’s success:
“Maintaining a level of consistency from frame-to-frame was one of the biggest challenges,” remembers Gabe. “In a texture that is meant to look like a crayon drawing, there are all kinds of problems regarding distortion whenever you’re using 3D. That was kind of tough to figure out, but the XSI Render Tree was crucial in helping us develop appropriate shaders. We had to dig pretty deep into our imaginations, but we were able to come up with the right look.”
“It was fantastic,” says Taylor. “We totally designed that character. We worked very closely with the agency to get the right look, and it ended up winning lots of awards. And we couldn’t have done it without XSI.”
The company’s reputation for character animation continued to grow after the deceptive simplicity of “Blue Line Guy” showed how the team could do just about anything. While just about everything has continued to change since then – for one thing, Shirk has moved to warmer climes to work for ILM – Quiet Man’s reputation has remained pretty much the same. A recent spot for GE would seem to be the best evidence possible for that claim.
Slinking through the verdant undergrowth of a tropical rain forest, we hear the familiar strains of that old favorite “Singin’ In The Rain.” Instead of Gene Kelly hoofing to the beat, however, an enormous African elephant somehow steps lightly to the song. Despite its implausible story, the spot’s look is completely flawless,
“They told us they wanted an animal to dance like Gene Kelly, so we figured maybe a monkey,” says Kris Rivel, Director of Animation at Quiet Man. We never imagined an elephant. So when they told us what we had to do, it was pretty scary. In the end, though, it was a great choice. Nobody would ever imagine an elephant dancing like that. With SOFTIMAGE|XSI, it all went pretty smoothly. We got a lot of feedback from the clients with each shot in its progression, and we did the rigging and moved on easily to the animation. There’s no question that XSI is our weapon of choice. It’s so fast and so easy to make changes. The nature of it is non-linear and non-destructive, so you can go back and change things and carry that through to the rest of the job. We just did a new spot for Adidas, which shows how a sneaker is built. It’s our first spot using motion capture, and we’re really excited about working with Giant Studios, who did the work on the Gollum character in Lord of the Rings. Once again, we’re trusting the power of XSI.”
ALL WORK AND ALL PLAY?
It all sounds so fun and easy, doesn’t it? Despite their laid-back styles and mellow smiles, however, Taylor and Semerad will be the first to point out that Quiet Man’s decade has been as much about hard work as good fun:
“Quiet Man’s evolution has been one of constant reinvention and adaptation,” says Semerad. “I mean, the industry just keeps changing and we have no choice but to change along with it. Those transitions have been very tough at times. When we started, there were all these huge companies with little guys like us nipping at their heels. After ten years, we’re one of the big companies and our heels are often bloody.”
Taylor agrees, then points to that penchant for reinvention as the key to Quiet Man’s success:
“We still take the same risks that we took when we were a small company,” she explains after a pause. “The thing is, however, it’s easier to take risks when there’s just two of you. Now, we’re responsible for employees and their kids and, well, that’s a lot of responsibility. At the end of the day, though, it’s the risks that we take that make the work great and exciting, so it works out for everybody. I tend to gauge things by how often I ask myself: ‘Am I completely insane? There’s no way we can do what I just agreed to do.’ If I’m still asking myself that after agreeing to a job, it’s the right job for Quiet Man.”
Appropriately, the last words on the anniversary come from the Quiet Man himself:
“I’m very proud of the work we’ve done over the last ten years,” says Semerad. “I also think we’re doing our best work ever, right now.”
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About Softimage Co.
Softimage Co., a subsidiary of Avid Technology, Inc., delivers innovative, artist-friendly character creation and effects tools to animators and digital artists in the film, broadcast, post-production and games industries. Its product line includes SOFTIMAGE|XSI, the industry's only non-destructive digital character production software, and SOFTIMAGE|Face Robot, the first production toolset that multiplies face animation productivity by simplifying the complex process of preparing the face for animation and by giving artists precise control over the results.
August 7, 2006