The Creative Path: A Talk With Studio AKA’s Philip Hunt

Studio AKA's Philip HuntRecently, Everything PR News had the opportunity to speak with another industry decision maker, Philip Hunt, Partner & Creative Director at the acclaimed Studio AKA. Graduate of the prestigious Royal College of Art, as well as Stipendiat from the Filmakademie Baden-Wurttemberg, Hunt’s body of work and impact on the industry is profound.

Studio AKA, based in London, has produced some of the most enthralling animation projects ever presented. Many of you may more easily recognize the company, as I once did, via their commercial work for Lloyds TSB.

However, outside these immensely popular stories, the world Hunt and his collaborators have conjured extends to the edges of the creative mind, literally. The video trailer of Hunt’s own Lost And Found reveals a hint of what is a very deep well of excellence. Hunt (pictured at his desk left) leads a creative team of extraordinary talent and diversity.

Lords of the Creative

From a BBC campaign for the 2010 Winter Olympics to the most recent iteration of genius, A MORNING STROLL, looking into Studio AKA is a bit like taking a stroll through a J.R.R. Tolkien story, only with video, soundtrack, and art added. Hunt’s own Lost And Found from 2008, the exemplification of this idea. That story being adapted from the best selling picture book by Oliver Jeffers. But, more about Hunt and Studio AKA’s growing legend later, take a journey with us inside not only genius, but further into the makings of success – a Q & A with one of the Lords of Creativity.

EPR – Philip, can you relate to us just when the creativity monster bit you? Is there a way for you to remember that instant, time?

Philip Hunt – I think that if you can remember something like that happening, then you are invariably making it up. Which is fine, as a prerequisite for this job is an over active imagination. But, I think it’s more of a gradual awareness – like a dimmer switch cranking up so slowly that you barely notice it happening – and I think that the urge to express yourself in making & creating is something that is with you from the start, and you just notice it over time.

I also think some people never realize their creative potential – and I tend to agree with Ken Robinson who believes that many of us have creativity ‘educated’ out of us – which probably means I had the luck to have the right combination of parents happy to continually buy me endless felt tip pens, schools happy to let me doodle on at the back of the class (primary), or happier still to channel my distractions into productivity ( secondary ). The tricky part for anyone is realizing that it’s just about filtering & channeling whatever interests or talents you may have into something, which allows for that to be fully expressed – and on a repeat basis till you either get good at it or realize you should have done something else. My father instilled in me a great work ethic, which I’ve never shaken off, so that was helpful too.
I think I always accepted that I liked making, drawing or creating in any shape of form. But, I also like responding – I get very excited about working with other people when they have something I think I can add to or make help better, and its one of my delights at the studio that I’m surrounded by such a diverse group of creative talents that always have something interesting on the go – and I can’t help but offer my take on something (or meddle in it depending on who you ask).

Really, we are a very small studio and can’t sustain many people, so those that we do have working here need to be open to a simple process of always allowing themselves to try out something new – within quite crushing constraints at times. This ‘ability ’ is something most of us learned in the latter stages of our education, the relatively safe havens of graduate study where we all realized that what we liked to do was make stuff move. So the arrival of the ‘creativity monster’ is more a series of realizations then rather than a single eureka moment. I would tend to think that moments of clarity also happen more than once along the way and you get a few different acts in your career if you are lucky.

Take Steve Small, one of our directors for example. Steve crafted an amazing career as a 2D animator and director before he came to us, working before in a very solid classical way by most standards when he pitched up on our doorstep. He then set about reinventing himself and applying all that knowledge into projects that explore very different approaches to his craft and now he seems more inspired than ever – so it might be that the creativity monster comes round again and again for another bite as you make your way.

 EPR – Our series here has been about examining not only strategies and accolades of people who lead in industry, but a bit of an examination of the anatomy of success too. Your creative diversity extraordinary, the award winning AH POOK IS HERE on the one hand, bears only a tone similarity to the wonderful BAFTA winning marvel Lost And Found. My question is; “Is extreme creativity like an application?” Do you “just” apply thought atop a subject?

Philip Hunt – Well, I’m terribly erratic in my own output as a consequence of being interested in so many diverse and distracting things, and I can’t see much correlation between some of the things I’ve been involved with. So I’m impressed by anyone managing to find a link between AH POOK and LOST AND FOUND, as they are such different animals and each reflects a different time in my life and what interested me most at the time. Ah Pook was I suppose a pessimistic response to the world – but now, years later, as a father of young children it seems better to take a more optimistic view – and I’m inspired by what my kids taking interest in. However, it’s not that my interests have not changed – they’ve just widened.

So the fundamental approach that the directors and artists at Studio AKA tend to adhere to is that we try not to bring our own default or personal styles & approaches to everything that we are asked to work on. We apply our creativity in a way that we feel best suits a project, letting the problem drive the solution if you will. Looking at directors here like Kristian Andrews & David Prosser – who are more recent additions to the studio – I can see them embracing that approach wholeheartedly – which is no bad thing as we mostly get very little time to react and respond to the work we are offered.

We are asked often enough to senselessly bang square pegs into round holes, without adding to that melee by trying to force our own look on a project – and the studio has built its process within a simple guideline of ‘find the problem and fix it according to the simplest principles’ – in fact it’s the cornerstone behind AKA’s diverse output. In this way we certainly apply thought like an application, but it’s an instinctive thing – not a mechanical process.

EPR – I was reading an interview you gave right after Lost And Found won just about every award possible. There you commented in Animation Magazine that “attention to the story and expression of movement are more important than the tools or the medium you choose.” The idea of “care” and being meticulous comes out in that interview. As an artist, do you think it is fair to say being a perfectionist is part of the equation?

Philip Hunt – Perfectionism is a curse and a cure at the same time, without it we‘d have nothing by which to stand by, and yet because of it we doom ourselves to Sisyphean workloads and frightening deadlines. But, there is a reason that we need to push for things to be better than they might want to be, to raise the bar as high as a situation enables us – because without that we have no momentum, and without momentum we are stagnant. So, I see no conflict between care & meticulousness in that respect. But, it’s true that we also require our producers – and fellow directors – to sometimes tell us when to step back, when to stop.

We are a commercial studio of some 30 souls with real world bills to pay etc., and it’s a serious business which people depend on to live – so sometimes you need to know when to let stuff go, and you need voices around you that you trust to ease you back. The question of when a project is truly finished is often debated, and commercially it’s usually defined by a delivery date, which – however daft – is a promise that must be kept.

In our own work we try to self impose such deadlines to make sure we are not tempted to ‘Keep worrying & tinker on’. I tend to be someone who looks at the overall or the whole of a problem whereas others here might focus on detail or specifics to get started. The thing I appreciate most is that if you bring together the right co-directors and producers into your process then you are invariably stronger – insomuch that they lift you when you are failing and bring you down to earth when you are ‘losing sight of yourself’. There are, in my view, two approaches to perfectionism. There is the one I recognize in myself, which involves working over and over a problem from different angles until it makes sense – a war of creative attrition in some ways. Then there is the kind typified by someone like Director Grant Orchard, who tends to ponder a problem a beat longer than most and then reach out very succinctly to pluck from the ether what suddenly seems blindingly obvious in hindsight.

It drives me mad all the time as I wish I could do that – but both approaches don’t settle for anything less that being ‘right’ even if both require different cognitive skills.

EPR – Questions 2 & 3 frame a bit larger question Philip. In another interview with Alternative Magazine Online, you discuss AKA Studios’ collective mindset away from structure and repetition; you talk about surprising yourselves and clients. My question is; “in the creative process do you battle complacency and repetition at the personal level?

Philip Hunt – Surprising clients is not always so welcome, as it brings uncertainty and doubt into an already fraught enough process for both agency and client. But, we do struggle with the temptation to follow the easy line, after all you are dealing again and again with the same templates within a 30 or 60 second spot. The same structural beats that underpin each ad, the combination of introduction, statement, conflict & resolution to pay off…The hook we always look for, is the thing which helps us play the same rules out in a different way – however sleight – or the point of interest which we can then pin our own approach upon. You never know what it might be; an unusual concept from an agency, a particular kind of story or character narrative, a design style, a musical hook, a problem that has not been faced before, anything to allow the problem to remain appealing to solve.

The issue of reputation is usually avoided by not applying a fixed personal style as outlined earlier – but it’s true that the very success of that process often leads to more of the same work coming your way – and then it requires you to look somewhere else as hard as you can to keep fresh. He’ll hate me for describing it as part of his method, but I am always impressed that director Marc Craste still manages to approach each of the (now nearly 40) Lloyds TSB spots he has helmed with a fresh eye – and the spots have maintained a gentle optimism and humor as a result. Meanwhile, at the same time, he manages to run in complete tangents to this on other projects such as the BBC Winter Olympics sequence, or his short film VARMINTS. It’s no easy feat to bring that kind of adept consistency to bear and retain the level of enthusiasm required.

EPR – I find this fascinating, as I am sure our readers will, because in many industries working from a sort of template is actually preferable – building on success – but in your work such constraints can stifle. Is it fair to say that creative genius – even superb creative organizations – a built on just the right balance of freedom and rigidity?

Philip Hunt – It’s a contradictory process for sure – it’s very wasteful in many respects. However, the sheer amount of random variations in what we pull together in any one given project is what keeps us vibrant – I hope – and we often look at a pitch from many alternate points of view – even if within a narrowly defined brief. Without that we can’t keep up the momentum. I can’t think of anything worse than being part of a studio, which has one style it does over and over (note to loyal clients: long running campaigns excepted!). It might well be equally true elsewhere that the gradual refinement of a singular approach yields equally satisfying results, but at AKA what we strive for is a balance between what we want and what is required of us and we try to hit that sweet spot which satisfies both.

EPR – Stepping away from micro-analysis of creative greatness, can we talk about your dreams and goals Philip? Where do you see you and Studio AKA headed? Full length animation like Disney perhaps?

Philip Hunt– Dreams & Goals™ are dangerous things to get someone on the subject of, precisely because reality usually has other plans.  I also don’t believe in Master plans, 5-year targets or crystal balls… I just believe in our own collective gut instincts and our more willful daydreams. We run a commercial studio, both to eat and also to keep flexible that’s our pragmatism at work, but beyond that  – in our own realm, we like stories, we like characters and we like finding ways to combine the two in forms that other people like. We like long stories as well, and the chance to break out of the constraints of the short form work for hire framework from time to time – even if those constraints are one of the best ways to stay interesting and flexible. We have spent the past few years building an amazing slate of projects we are currently embroiled in – the projects are as diverse as might be expected and all at different stages – so who knows which one will drag us furthest.

EPR – Studio AKA’s latest animation making its way around film festivals worldwide, A MORNING STROLL, encapsulates a bit of what we were discussing earlier – it seems such a departure from the studio’s other works. For me, the film has a sort of 60’s flavor to it, can you explain a bit about how this animation is different?

Philip Hunt – I don’t see A MORNING STROLL as any more or less diverse when you look at the kind of films we’ve been making – or our interest in trying out different approaches to what we do – but it was certainly a motivation that this project would be a world away from either VARMINTS or LOST AND FOUND. In a nutshell, Director Grant Orchard’s A MORNING STROLL was produced on ‘down time’ up until the last hurdle when we put a full time team on to finish it. It was a typically unexpected offering from Grant, whose initial pitch to us about a chicken caught in a temporal loop, was just too tempting to pass up. The film re-enacts the same turn of events across three different eras and three different visual styles – and that in itself we found intriguing and could not immediately see how he could hang it all together.

What stood out was Grants desire to basically create three shorts in one film – each with a different visual style but each describing essentially the same moment – albeit with a few ‘differences’. I can’t spoil it if you’ve not seen it, as that’s half the fun, so find a way to see it… From a narrative point of view the film is also a little less formal, it might even be seen as throwaway, but that kind of comic book sensibility and absurd take on the three act structure seems to have been daft enough to work.

It’s also worth noting that both VARMINTS, LLOST AND FOUND & A MORNING STROLL were all produced and shepherded into life by AKA’s co-owner and Head of Production Sue Goffe who takes quite a libertarian view on what we choose to focus our energies on, I think for Sue that the idea and story drive where we spend our precious down time and that guidance can’t be underestimated

EPR – Studio AKA is famous in the creative world, among the communities of artists, techies, directors, and so on – and then in the popular culture for the now epic run of Lloyds TSB commercials. I will drop dime on myself and admit I am enamored with these (call me some cliché form of mediocre) – but why do you think these have taken on a life of their own Philip?

Philip Hunt – I touched on this campaign by Director Marc Craste above, but its enough to say we never saw this one coming. The agency adeptly cast us in the role of creator by having Marc develop a world they had outlined very clearly in both it’s purpose and what stories it could carry – leaving us to distill that into an accessibly odd universe that would parallel our own. We initially thought it might run to about 6 ads – in itself a decent size project to undertake – and we’ve been really very lucky to have the project develop as substantially as it has, and be able to pace an entire department around their inception and development.

As to why people respond to them I don’t know. The music has a role in that, I’m sure, and perhaps they represent a calmer more certain world while the real one seems to be capsizing all around us…? However, I’ve no idea really, and I tend to focus on the fact that they have helped sustain the studio and given us the chance to keep many people employed though their creation – and I’m very grateful for that. I would add only that the character I love most is the Trainspotter who Marc makes sure has a cameo in every single ad… I hope one day his hood will be flung back so we can see who is hiding under there. For the moment, only Marc knows.

EPR – I ask every leader and expert we interview about their heroes and role models Philip, can you talk about your inspirations early on?

Philip Hunt – And, do most of them go blank when you ask them? Well, I’ve been influenced and inspired by so many people at different times in my life that I’ll surely forget more than I remember now. Let’s see; I’m a huge fan of writer Italo Calvino at one end for his mastery of the craft of storytelling in so many forms, and more recently discovered the genius of Bill Peet, as an author for children of all ages. I admire Charles & Ray Eames for defining what a designer can be, I worship Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger for everything they did on film, as I do Albert Lamorisse for ‘The Red Balloon’ and Chris marker for ‘La Jette’.

My animation heroes would be as diverse as they are particular: George Pal for the ‘Puppetoons’, Ray Harryhausen for his sword fighting Skeletons, Peter Doctor for the lunacy of ‘Monsters Inc.’, Peter Firmin & Oliver Postgate for the sheer joy of ‘The Clangers’. The Brothers Quay for Street of Crocodiles and their wonderfully militant aesthetics, Jan Svankmayer for his razor sharp perception in films such as ‘Dimensions of Dialogue’, UPA studios for the kick back attitude they embodied – and especially for ‘The Tell Tale Heart’. My two favorite shorts would be Jiri Trika’s astounding ‘The Hand’, and Michael Dudok De Wit’s beautiful ‘Father & Daughter’.
I could go on but you get the drift – they all made work I wish could be mine.
But mostly, whatever inspiration I have, it’s all about sound & music. I consume music all the time, it is the closest thing to lifeblood I have and I cannot even begin to pick favourites without it becoming the worlds longest mixtape.

EPR – Reading about you, the studio, the work you guys do – it’s impossible not to notice there’s a point of division in your lives – work for clients versus work for creativity’s sake. I have a trick question for you Philip. If someone sent you a story, one compelling enough, do you think the studio would endeavor to make it an animated reality?

Philip Hunt– I see what you did there.

We have a lot of work sent to us – more than we can absorb or respond to without it taking over our waking lives and most it we decline – but that’s due to having a body of our own work waiting in the wings already that we are desperate to make – and life is so short!

So the answer would be that if the story really, really resonated, then yes we would try to bring it to the screen. It would have to be very good though to jump the queue.

A Serious Business At Play

As anyone reading Philip’s answers can easily deduce, despite the whimsical nature of some of Hunt’s, or Studio AKA’s characters, the man and the studio are very serious about their art. Hunt’s noting influences like Italo Calvino, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and especially Jiří Trnka, also offers a window into the “tale” of Philip Hunt. Somehow the depth of Hunt’s influences is eclectic, as well as almost systematic. If one were to paint a roadmap for creative genius in animation (or other arts) the journey might lead to reaching afar, then past the intricacies of film making art, to the essence of real puppets, as suggested by his influences. The images below Philip sent me, offer a snapshot of Studio AKA’s extraordinary talent and times.

Philip Hunt at work

‘Not the depth, but some breadth of STUDIO AKA’s art.’

Without searching to far afield into the ethereal, it’s easy to see a singular excellence in Hunt, but not one unfamiliar with emulation, refinement, the core of fashioning reality. Story, music, forms, motion, direction. We do not often delve into just what great animation or film is composed of. We like Jack Nicholson, Betty Davis, Audrey Hepburn, or Spencer Tracy, but never wonder at why actors appear in both wondrous and disastrous works.

The answer to this implied question can best be seen in Hunt’s own “Ah Pook Is Here” – winner of 10 international awards to date, this interpretation of recordings by the late-great William S. Burroughs is nothing short of gripping – mesmerizing. Right there is the essence of what reaches us from Hunt or those like him – great stories, an interpretation of reality, and the directing of it onto our own inner selves – reaching and often reordering reality for an audience. I said I would not reach farther into the ethereal, but reaching past Earthly bounds into the soul of things is what extreme creatives do. Another question for Philip Hunt might be; “Did you create Ah Pook, or did the essence of that just reach you?”

Maybe Carl Jung psychoanalyzed the creative mind (Hunt) best with:

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.”

I leave you with a beautiful trailer clip from Studio AKA’s VARMINTS by Director Marc Craste. I cannot recommend strongly enough that you visit Studio AKA’s YouTube Channel, investigate their other creative mastery via their website link, or check out some other great clips here.

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