In the sculpture garden of New York's Museum of Modern Art, director Mathew Cullen takes in his surroundings, assessing light and shadow. Cullen, cofounder of Motion Theory—the production company behind some of the most remarkable video work around, including Hewlett-Packard's "Hands" spots and the music video for Beck's "Girl"—is tanned, round-faced, cheery. But behind that chipper exterior, a complex apparatus is whirring away. "My father was a mathematician," he says, "so I was always drawn to a visual aesthetic of science and technology and numbers. I try to break things down into visual components." The MoMA shoot is part of an ad for New York's first global marketing campaign; as Cullen and codirector Jesus de Francisco organize their actors in the courtyard, vans packed with camera equipment head across the 59th Street Bridge to collect what seems to be tedious footage of the hazy skyline. Three months later, those bridge shots will emerge as an exploding electro-montage of Manhattan, mixing animation with live-action footage—shape-shifting skyscrapers sprouting trees on rooftops, colossal blood-red pumps sauntering across a busy intersection. It's a pop-up book on steroids.
Cullen and executive producer Javier Jimenez cofounded Motion Theory in 2000. Now it's leading a wave of New York- and L.A.-based companies that are reinventing the TV commercial, even the look of video itself, and changing the way advertisers and other clients connect with the public. Old tagline-driven spots are giving way to content that's at once more visceral and cerebral. Upstart shops such as Brand New School, Psyop, and Logan, which specialize in animation and motion graphics, have embraced a trippy style that draws from cartoons, comic books, and video games—a 2-D aesthetic with occasional live-action footage. More established production companies such as RSA Films, Radical Media, and Anonymous Content make edgy live-action commercials with the same high production values as their film and TV work. But no one blends those worlds better than Motion Theory, with its radically strange hybrid of live action, visual effects, and 3-D animation.
A radically strange hybrid of live action, visual effects, and 3-D animation
By embedding layers of visual texture in its work, Motion Theory has set itself apart, whether in ads for Budweiser, Electronic Arts, and Microsoft, or music videos for the likes of Modest Mouse's "Dashboard." Motion Theory's ad for Reebok's Wrapshear running shoe begins with an urban obstacle course that sprouts from the sneaker, a blend of cartoonish line drawings and live action. The geometry is brilliant: When a runner leaps onto a fire hydrant spouting water left and right, pigeons shoot like fireworks around him, creating first perpendicular and then chaotic movement across the screen. For the return of Sears's decidedly unsexy paper catalog, Motion Theory created a "living" book centered around one dizzying effect, where live-action scenes become catalog pages and vice versa. The viewer watches a young couple's life unfold in a flutter: Walls break apart and flip left; appliances "turn" into newer ones; live action becomes still photography and then comes back to life. If Motion Theory can give Sears some edge, it's doing something right.
A Gatorade ad from last year, directed by Cullen and Grady Hall, is typical of the company's aesthetic. In a style characteristic of what cultural critic Scott Bukatman has called "topsy-turvydom"—the way ornate visual effects can seemingly liberate the viewer from gravity itself—the spot imagines an elaborate system that propels Sidney Crosby, the all-star center for the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins, as he breaks for the net. After the camera tightens in on Crosby's face, it pans out over the rink, where engineers in a NASA-like nerve center hover over a virtual simulation of the game, orchestrating his moves. Moving inside Crosby, the camera plunges several layers to a grimy, sweaty boiler room under the ice, a Fritz Lang set reimagined by Terry Gilliam—pumps, gauges, men shoveling hockey pucks into a goalie-mask boiler spewing blue flames. Gatorade powers the Stanley Cup pistons that in turn power Crosby. Swooping back up through the layers, the camera pulls out from Crosby's eye and follows the puck into the goal.
Like much of Cullen's directing work, the Gatorade spot is all about patterns; each element of the action becomes a kind of proof. The engineers, for instance, are looking for a calculus, an all-inclusive formula that reveals the perfect strategy and shot. To create the effects, Motion Theory mapped out how the action would look before going into production. Hall's team created elaborate 3-D computer models, then shot the footage and built set pieces or props they could later enhance in 3-D. (They also embedded "Easter eggs" for hard-core Crosby fans: As we fall through to the bowels of the operation, for instance, we catch a glimpse of a creature that's part insect, part appliance—a nod to the fact that as a kid Crosby used to shoot pucks into the dryer in his basement.)
For Jeff Jackett, the marketing manager for Gatorade at Pepsi-QTG Canada at the time, the ad works because it is so dense, so heavily layered with imagery and ideas. "In today's media," he says, "where a lot of folks take content and view it online, then have the ability to pause and rewind, this richness of content, the eye candy in every frame, really encourages that viewer." In other words, it's the sort of material that naturally moves from TV to the Web. There, obsessive fans can pore over the details, the Gatorade logo burning into their retinas all the while.
But Motion Theory is about more than visual effects. For Cullen, it's a whole new way of thinking. "It's also editing, animation, the way people build sets and score music—it comes from graphic design," he says. "When you edit, it's the way you transition from one scene to the next, the way you incorporate type—these things are just beginning to make their way into films and TV shows." As a self-styled "microstudio," built on the old Hollywood model, Motion Theory is constructed differently from traditional production companies, which conceive each project around an A-list director, then bring in talent as needed during each stage of production. Instead, Motion Theory pools everyone under one roof: writers, artists, visual-effects people, animators, programmers, designers, and directors. Effects people and designers don't simply come in at the end of the process to execute someone else's idea—they help visualize the project from the outset. And while Motion Theory is outfitted with many of the standard tools used by movie studios and visual-effects companies, it also writes proprietary code to do what it can't accomplish with off-the-shelf software. "The advantage," Jimenez says, "is that we basically have an R&D team, so we're developing ideas during our free time, which a normal production company wouldn't have the ability to do."
That inventiveness explains Motion Theory's ability to create utterly novel effects. In its video for Beck's "Girl," the singer strolls around East L.A. while live-action streetscapes magically collapse in on themselves—a trick inspired by Al Jaffee's fold-ins from Mad magazine. When Beck reaches for pills in a drugstore, the shelves spontaneously merge to reveal the words side effects: death. A mural that reads beauty and grooming supplies implodes to become beauty lies. Throughout the video, more sinister truths "unfold," a concept that parallels the song, whose upbeat tune masks its dark lyrics. "I look at things structurally," Cullen says. "The foundation of the work we do is the understanding of visual syntax, the relationship of objects to each other." The video is an exercise in geometrical precision, solving the technical challenge of reengineering real-world locations with elaborate camera and computer tricks. While the footage of Beck sauntering around East L.A. was done documentary-style, with a handheld camera, Motion Theory used motion-control photography and computer graphics to create the illusion of, say, a wall as it reconfigures itself. To crank up the photorealism of the digital effects created for the fold-ins, they added layers of textures and materials shot in live-action, followed by another overlay of digital effects—falling dirt, candy exploding out of a piñata—to make them even more convincing.
Chris Carbone, an analyst with Social Technologies, thinks the visual-effects trend is about ratcheting up expectations. "Younger consumers—digital natives—grew up in a world where their baseline was The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings, and SpiderMan," he says. "But now that world-class effects are the standard, visuals need to be integrated in the message even more than in the past, and that's true of movies or marketing."
That line of reasoning led HP to Motion Theory's door in 2006. David Roman, worldwide vice president of marketing communications for HP's Personal Systems Group, had come on board in 2005 while the company was struggling, post-Compaq merger, to better compete with Dell. Roman wanted to create a global campaign to attract a younger demographic. Goodby, Silverstein & Partners developed the idea of a series of spots in which celebrities were seen from the neck down, using only their voices and hands to communicate how they use their PCs. Motion Theory produced the first "Hands" spot for HP's global "Personal Again" campaign and eventually three others.
"We were looking for a compelling way to say that you can tell who somebody is by what they're doing on their computer," Roman says. Motion Theory shot music producer Pharrell Williams, Survivor creator Mark Burnett, novelist Paulo Coelho, and tech entrepreneur Mark Cuban, each in one continuous take, as they described what was on their HP notebooks; their gestures illustrated the story by conjuring up animation and photography that seemed to flow from their fingertips. The campaign wasn't about pitching the product, Roman says, so much as communicating an attitude: "Here's a company that has its heritage and tradition but is also the company you want to be associated with—we're on top of tech, we're clever."
"Hands" went viral. Spoofs proliferated. "It became iconic," Roman says. "When you get viral distribution and word of mouth, that peer-to-peer communication really has value." Even Bill Gates asked HP to create a "Hands" spot to use in a speech announcing a Microsoft-HP partnership.
Motion Theory's name riffs on Newton's eponymous theory: A body remains at rest or in motion unless acted on by an outside force. Cullen and his colleagues don't seem to rest much—look out for Nike and Reebok commercials airing later this year, as well as a video for the South London singer Adele—but right now the biggest outside force coming at them is Hollywood: Film scripts keep pouring in. It won't be long before Motion Theory goes long form, into film or television. "I was always drawn to the idea that everything we do is constantly moving and evolving," Cullen says.
Now he and the Motion Theory crew are eager to figure out just what shape that evolution will take. "If you look at the grassroots of the most influential work being done out there now, it's short films, commercials, and music videos," Cullen says. "And that's one of most exciting things about this business. We don't have to go through the studio system to bring a new vision to life. We can wake up one morning, decide we're going to do something, and just do it."
Diane Mehta's work has appeared in The New York Times, Elle Decor, and The Atlantic Monthly.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.