“That sparrow was a labor of love,” admits Damon Duncan, who directed the commercial. “But it was the big moment in the gag of making the cows see-through.”
Luckily, those who matter (namely, large international advertising agencies) have taken notice of Assembly. Right now, the seventeen-person firm is probably New Zealand’s hottest production company, drawing bids and love from big American agencies like Wieden+Kennedy and Deutsch—and awards from Cannes and the One Show.
Because Assembly seems to have suddenly burst on the scene, you might think they’re a bunch of whiz-Kiwis raised on the Internet. Nothing could be further from the truth. The core team is old. Not old for the world, but old in the sense that Duncan, Jonny Kofoed, Matt von Trott and Rhys Dippie are still doing hands-on creative work at an age when most of their peers have taken a corner office. But this, like a lot of things Assembly does, was by design.
Five years ago, the team of four launched the firm when they all left a much larger company, Oktobor Animation, and the time was ripe for a new approach to production. Hardware prices had dropped, and technology had improved to the point that even complex executions could happen on a laptop, enabling them to get back to what they like doing: the work. When you hire Assembly today, you get an almost exclusively senior team that typically aces it.
That said, it’s hard to stuff them into a category. They do lots of things, and all of them well. To understand why, we first have to dispel a myth about talent. We often hear that we live in a globalized economy where great people can be found anywhere, and anyone with a computer and a half-decent connection can plug into the digital scene and become a rock star.
That’s not quite true. Most talent emerges locally, and the environment in which a creative person develops has a shaping effect on his or her mindset and capabilities. You can see this most obviously in Sweden, where a government initiative brought broadband access to all of its residents years before the rest of the world. That’s one reason Swedish digital firms, like B-Reel and North Kingdom, were far more successful initially than, say, French firms.
New Zealand has its own peculiar set of circumstances. On a Mercator projection map, it may look like it’s snuggled up against Australia, but it’s actually one of the most isolated countries in the world. Auckland, New Zealand, lies more than 1,300 miles from Sydney, and the differences between their creative environments are greater still. New Zealand has only 4.5 million people. The country broadcasts three television networks, which people still watch, by and large—commercials included. The Internet is not widely used as a brand platform. And yet, the national TV audience is generally wealthy and sophisticated, and they expect international-level commercials and shows. As a result, the local creatives have developed a practical mindset and the ability to work in almost any style.
“In New Zealand, you get a lot of generalists,” says Kofoed. “We do so many different jobs. As a barometer, when we bring people in from other countries, they often struggle with the diversity of the kinds of scripts we get. We get a joy out of working on different things because it’s the way you have to be.”
Assembly’s portfolio certainly proves the point. They do everything from live action and computer graphics to immersive web and flip-book animation. They can also knock out print collateral for campaigns if you need it. And it all looks perfectly professional.
In addition, Kiwi creatives have to produce international-level work on budgets that might be better suited to a mid-sized metropolitan area. As a result, Assembly’s team has a long tradition of DIY. Among other things, they’re masters at cost-efficient, high-quality animation. And technical director Dippie is no stranger to building new, custom hardware if they need a particular kind of shot.
“They’re incredible problem solvers,” agrees Suzanne Molinaro, senior vice president and director of digital production for Deutsch NY, for which Assembly has become something of a go-to. “They take a lot of initiative—for example, they had us using a world-class motion-capture stage and just worked it into the budget. Most production companies won’t do that.”
Even its offices, in a certain sense, benefit from practical, hands-on thinking. The agency inhabits an old warehouse in downtown Auckland that had once been converted into a high-end apartment. Assembly transformed the space back into a studio, adding essential workplace features like a bar while keeping plenty of apartment-like features.
“We have all the creature comforts of home,” says von Trott. “Laundry, fireplaces, kitchens and showers. So you can still work out, take a shower, do your washing and make your lunch.” In an industry where sleeping under desks is an occupational hazard, that’s brilliant.
A good example of how their efficient mindset affects their work is Deutsch’s brand campaign, Extraordinary Challenges, for PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). PwC is best known as an auditor, and a joke in the industry goes that auditors are people who weren’t exciting enough to become accountants. But the company actually plays a dizzying array of consulting roles for everything from airlines to medical research—and it wanted to capture that excitement.
Deutsch came up with the idea of an immersive HTML5 world where ordinary objects would open to reveal 3-D characters. Assembly created 27 different 3-D environments, which are remarkable for their density. Hundreds of figures seem to roam through the cutaway airplanes and offices that make up the PwC universe.
Although on the surface this may seem simple, creating so many characters takes time. Traditionally, you have to model each one out, animate it and so on. To get around that, Assembly turned to one of its old tricks—having actors perform on a motion-capture stage and then using the resulting files to drive the animation. That enabled them to quickly produce a richer 3-D world than you normally find on the web.
You can find a completely different visual style in “Devil’s Chair,” a short commercial made for insurance company NZI. The concept is pretty out there (with credit for that going to advertising agency FCB): an ordinary-looking desk chair takes on the role of “mysterious stranger” and wreaks havoc on a small seaside town. Backed by a soundtrack based on the theme song of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (created by Liquid Studios), it breaks pipes, triggers car accidents and causes a building to get struck by lightning. In the climactic scene, the chair blows up a gas station, terrifying a cow on a field that poops its pants (well, if it were wearing pants).
“The script from FCB was innovative with a great narrative undertone,” Duncan says. “We also had a brave client who allowed us to blow up a gas station and have a cow do a runny poo. That’s why it’s so heavily awarded worldwide.”
Perhaps the most interesting part of the project, however, is how it works on both an international and a local level. The story itself has universal appeal, but only Kiwis would understand many of Assembly’s visual references. For example, locations are often recognizable, the characters are based on New Zealander stereotypes and everything is styled with a nod to the country’s popular Footrot Flats cartoon strip.
Of course, Assembly is not simply about 3-D animation. To get a sense of its hardware capabilities, look no further than a project (also dreamed up by FCB) that turned the New Zealand Herald’s massive printing press into a flip-book animation.
Commercial printing presses, needless to say, do not make for good animation. They’re monstrous machines designed to spit out tens of thousands of paper copies superfast. Assembly found a solution to the problem through a video of a helicopter that appeared to be flying without its blades moving. The filmmaker, it turns out, had used a magnetic switch to sync the camera with the rotors. Assembly took a similar tack. Kofoed and Dippie devised a visual scanner that picked up the movement of the paper. Paired with a delay box on a camera, it allowed the crew to sync a camera’s frame rate to the pages as they whipped past.
“New Zealand is a much smaller market with smaller budgets than what they have overseas. We have to think in a more challenging way,” says Pip Mayne, head of content at FCB New Zealand. “And Assembly is very good at working with us. We come to them with a challenge, and because of their experience, they can offer the solution to whatever our creative issue might be.”
The printing press project was a huge risk because the animation cells had to be printed on a massive roll of paper and filmed only once (the press neatly cut the roll into newspaper-sized pieces, so it couldn’t be used again). Luckily it worked out, and the remarkable video has become a showpiece for client and agency alike.
With executions like these, you might think that it’s been a snap for Assembly to break into the larger markets. But in some ways, their versatility and problem solving works against them. Although some agencies put them on a par with the top production houses in the world, others aren’t quite sure what to do with them. In the United States, for example, it’s much more common for a director to simply have a style and for agencies to hire that style to execute a story. Without that ready-made package, Assembly has a lot of explaining to do—and it’s not big on self-promotion. But agencies that have worked with them often see the difference.
“They have a lot of sophistication in the way they’re doing things,” Molinaro says. “They’re smart and efficient about how they deliver their product. And we were also able to use them for all print and collateral that went along with that, so that really makes them an integrated asset.”
Whatever the case, Assembly is not standing around waiting for phone calls. It’s developing television shows for New Zealand media and commercials for local and international markets, and in the United States, it’s exploiting its newfound stateside recognition as an immersive web producer. It might seem natural that the relatively small firm has nothing to do but grow, but that would probably run up against the ambitions of four guys who decided against big corner offices five years ago… Then again, you never know. ca