King & Country's Multi-Disciplinary Path Leads to Creative Solutions by Anthony Vagnoni 27 June, 2012
Its partners came from design, direction and visual effects. So it's no surprise K&C has put them all together in one place. That's how they roll.
At first glance, it seems the guys at King & Country in L.A. have traded in their Super Duty just when they need it most.
The all-in-one production house that's made a name for itself thanks to a colorful, graphics-laden and hard-working broadcast campaign for Ford Trucks via Team Detroit has expanded its palette of services, its capability for handling complex jobs and its ability to juggle multiple (and vexing) assignments all at the same time. And they're doing it, it might seem, from the back of a station wagon.
That wagon in question (as shown in the image at the top of this story) is the star of "Metamorphosis," a new TV spot from The Richards Group in Dallas for the US lodging chain Motel 6. The brand is best known for its folksy radio commercials and the occasional super-low budget TV spot, but to celebrate its 50th Anniversary, the agency created an ambitious TV commercial in which a classic 1960s-era station wagon carrying a family going on vacation morphs into a modern-day minivan.
King & Country was selected to produce the spot, and they handled everything – live action direction, visual effects, editorial, CGI, the whole enchilada, as they like to say in Texas. The spot was widely hailed as a breakthrough for the brand, not to mention a standout piece of creative and production on its own merits. Adweek, SHOOT, Adverblog, Stash, Motionographer, Best Ads on TV and The Inspiration Room all singled it out for attention.
"It was a perfect fit for our studio," says Director Rick Gledhill, who co-founded King & Country with Director EfrainMontanez and Executive Producer Jerry Torgerson. "It gave us a chance to showcase so many of our skills. And that's where our strength lies, in combining live action with motion graphics, animation and VFX. It was really a great calling card."
K&C opened in 2006, and was profiled in SourceEcreative's "Pixel Players" Special Feature on Animation and Visual Effects last fall. (Check out the story here.)
So what's changed the most since last we spoke? "We've expanded virtually across the board," says Gledhill, adding key staff in production, effects and design (including new VFX Supervisor Andrew Cook, referred to internally as "The Chef") and boosting their rendering power. They're up to 20-plus full-timers now, a number that swells with freelancers depending on the workflow.
The studio has been riding the wave of one-stop production services for some time; indeed, as they'll point out, it's how they've always worked. The trio, who all hail from different sides of the film, design, advertising and broadcast promotion business, first worked together at a studio in Los Angeles called Belief.
"It's not new to us, because we've been working this way since we first opened, and were doing it even before then," says Montanez of the trend towards more integrated production resources. "We've been knee-deep in this kind of work for years. It's just grown up around us."
The approach was a natural progression for them, based on the combined experience of the partners, adds Gledhill. "The three of us, as a team, can shoot, design, animate and produce projects start to finish," he remarks. "As we expanded as a company, these skill sets turned into their own departments, like Directing, VFX, Design, Production, etc."
When K&C opened in L.A. they had no particular agenda, they explain. "We came in with a fresh perspective, not looking to compete with what others were doing, as we were ready to do our own thing," says Torgerson. "Our big idea was to do what was best for clients. We didn't want to be a gimmicky or trendy shop. When you see our work, it doesn't have our fingerprints all over it, other than it tells stories, sells products, and elevates brands."
The partners say that they're generally met with a level of pleasant surprise when agency people find out that the K&C work they're looking at was both directed and edited at the shop, or that they did all that and the VFX, too.
"It's often a little difficult to get that across," says Gledhill, who attributes it to the usual discipline-specific pigeonholing that takes place in the industry. "For example, as a director, you can easily get locked into that 'design' designation," particularly if your work is perceived to be motion-graphics or effects-driven.
But they often surprise creatives with the breadth and depth of what they do, adds Montanez, and that often leads to the kind of organic growth that's played a big part in their expansion. "They'll come to us for one thing and we turn the job into five or six good reasons for them to come back," he says.
That's the case with the Motel 6 job, which grew out of a campaign K&C produced for the agency for a different client, the HEB chain of supermarkets. In those simple and highly visual spots, various vignettes of people doing everyday things are played out against a bright red background, supported with on-screen type that delivers copy points about the store.
Chris Smith, Creative Group Head at The Richards Group, had first bid the company on the HEB campaign. "We looked at their reel and saw that first, it was awesome, and second, they had some relevant experience with a particular technique we wanted to use. So we went with them and, as predicted, they nailed it." He describes the project as being "pretty tough, with lots of last-minute changes, and they just rolled with it. So I definitely put them in the 'Let's do this again' file."
Smith started bidding out "Metamorphosis" just as he was wrapping up HEB. "The chemistry and confidence were there, and they just nailed the treatment, again," he says. "We had a couple really good shops in the mix, so my art director, Pete Everett, and I had a lot of back and forth, right up to the client presentation. But there was a boldness and originality to their approach that just felt right. The client recognized it immediately and confirmed where our heads were."
So were there any concerns about handing off such a critical spot for a longtime client to a single production resource that would handle all aspects of the job, particularly one as complex as this?
"Not at all," Smith says. "In fact, the one-stop-shop aspect helped us keep within our budget, which was bigger than we'd ever had for this account but still not huge. It just streamlined things so that everybody working on the job at K&C – and there seemed to be more of them every day – were all within a few feet of each other. And because it was a one-shop team, the director was already tight with the VFX artists, so they just plussed each other. It wasn't the directorial team, the editorial team, the effects team – it was just The Team."
Now that the spot is done and the afterglow can still be felt, how would Smith characterize the experience? "Work shouldn't be this much fun," he admits. "K&C got the feel and tone of the concept immediately, so there was trust from day one. I'm a bit of a caveman when it comes to some of this VFX stuff, but K&C thought of literally everything. Not just ways to make the spot better and more entertaining, but also ways to make the production flow from a logistical standpoint."
The can-do attitude the studio brought to the assignment was a plus as well, Smith continues. "We didn't hear 'no' a lot, which is always nice. It's also nice to work with people who make 'unfazed' a point of pride. No panic, no drama. Any problem that popped up went away just as quickly. Pete and I just kept shaking our heads and smiling at how amazing it was, and how easy they made it look."
Sheri Carpenter, The Richards Group producer on the job, echoes the sentiment. "There's always a bit of concern once you award a job, but you have to trust the production company's work and your intuition regarding your interactions with them up until the award," she says. "But K&C was so buttoned up and responsive at all phases of our project that any concern was erased almost immediately."
The King & Country partners are justifiably proud of their work on "Metamorphosis," and suggest that it's a good case study of how things seem to work out for them. They get called in to an agency, often on word of mouth or thanks to a prior relationship, and are asked for a specific thing. Once the toy box is open, however, imaginations and possibilities start to play.
"What we're finding is that it's nice for agencies to have all of the key people working on a job in front of them at one time – the director, the editor, the lead effects artists, everyone," notes Montanez. "It really minimizes any confusion there might be, and for agency producers it can eliminate the nightmare of having to deal with several different artists and their companies, their bids and their producers."
Gledhill agrees, noting that when it comes to hiring directors, everyone is looking for that unique twist that a filmmaker can bring to a script. "But when you need a specific ability to do things like direct for post or for visual effects, then working with integrated companies such as ours makes more sense," he observes. "And we're finding that this kind of need is coming up more and more often in commercials."
There are other advantages to the integrated structure, too, particularly in terms of the kinds of treatments the studio is capable of producing (as Smith noted above). "We have lots of tools to come up with strong ideas," says Torgerson. "Access to designers, illustrators and artists all combine with our ability to create tests and treatments that can serve as proof of concept for agencies and clients."
And when K&C pitches a job, they're pitching with a holistic view of the project, he adds, not just one aspect of the assignment. "When a director pitches a job, he's pitching for the shoot. Maybe he or she can speak to the edit or the effects, but someone else is going to cover that portion of the job. With us, you get the whole company on the job. We're all on the call."
The partners are aware that calling oneself a "360" production company is becoming something of a fashion statement these days, but they question just how "360" some of these players actually are. "A lot of them say they can handle all aspects of the job, but you find that they don't really have the chops to staff and run every department the way it should be done," says Torgerson. "I think that's what differentiates us – we've been doing this for a long time."
Recent work suggests that the K&C reel is undergoing subtle yet significant changes; spots for Marathon Oil and Coors, for example, feel more live action than effects, more lifestyle vignettes than bold graphics. "We think our showreel is evolving in lots of ways," says Gledhill. "We're seeing better scripts and bigger brands." Adds Montanez, "We approach all of these jobs the way we always have. We don't have a niche or a style. We do what's right for the client and what works for the brand."
So far this year, the K&C partners say they've shot almost twice as many spots as they did in the same period last year. Not only has their workload soared, but the amount of jobs they're pitching has more than doubled. When asked where they'd like to be in a few years, Gledhill doesn't hesitate: "Fiji," he quips.
But seriously, folks, the trio seems pleased with the pace and scale of how they're growing. "What's helping is that much of this is coming from repeat clients," says Torgerson. "It's like with The Richards Group. Once we get in the door with them, they come back with more and bigger projects."
The studio relies not just on its production moxie, but on its support staff as well, Torgerson says. "We have a great team, and they're often just as important as our creative," he comments. "We get compliments all the time on how we work. What agency producers like is how knowledgeable our people are; they know everything from live action to effects, design, editorial and finishing."
And don't discount that last part, Torgerson adds. "That's a key point. When I say finishing, I mean someone asking for 75 versions of a spot with different legal in different languages, uploaded to DG before 5 PM tonight – that kind of stuff.
"Our goal is to simplify agency producers' lives by maintaining a clean, crisp, structured process with great attention to detail," he continues. "They're not dealing with multiple shops or producers, they're dealing with one producer at King & Country. This might sound trivial, but it's key to making these relationships work. The best creative in the world is no good if you miss the deadline by five minutes."
The partners say their focus now is on managing their rapid growth and making sure that agency clients are happy and well taken care of. What's also helping is that the King & Country Fan Club is spreading – people they work with at one shop have left to join others, and they're sharing word about the studio and its capabilities.
The result is a growing list of agencies in cities across the US and in Toronto who've worked with the studio; most recently, mcgarrybowen in Chicago tapped them for a design and branding assignment for Sears. It's not soup to nuts, says Torgerson, but then we've seen how this goes.
Which raises the question, when do they start packing for that Fiji break? "We don't take vacations," Gledhill responds, in deadpan fashion. "And we never get sick!"