Nestled on the ground floor of a residential building fronted by a formidable iron gate on the fringes of Vancouver’s gritty Chinatown, the animation and documentary studio Giant Ant produces work that dazzles with its elegant styling, crisp visuals and imaginative storytelling. The office of thirteen people hums with creative energy. The décor is spare: exposed heating and air conditioning ducts, concrete floors, prints and hanging Chinese lanterns that pay homage to the neighborhood. There’s a birthday celebration today for one of the studio’s staff—an animator from Brazil—and organic burgers with all the fixings are spread out on a communal table. Giant Ant has a reputation as the little studio that could.
Headed for eight years by the husband-and-wife team of Jay Grandin and Leah Nelson, Giant Ant operates on the simple principle that what’s good for the studio is good for its clients. Its philosophy follows three rules—don’t miss a deadline, don’t be a jerk and put love into your work. The last tenet is paramount.
Lounging on a couch at the front of the large, open-space studio, Grandin and Nelson radiate calm intensity. “We put a huge amount of value in the culture of the team and its creative energy,” says the soft-spoken Grandin. “It’s our most precious resource—the happiness of our team has to come before money, and that decision drives our success.” Nelson quickly chimes in: “We attract really talented, specialized artists. They know about the third rule and subscribe to that value, so they can shine here. Over the years, people have always said they can spot a Giant Ant project when they see it. It surprises Jay and me because if you look at our portfolio, nothing looks the same.” Indeed, the studio’s client list encompasses high-profile brands such as TOMS, Costa and Target, technology companies like Facebook and Slack, and nonprofits. The studio also creates original content: for example, Tangles, an animated documentary about Alzheimer’s disease, which Nelson is directing.
Storytelling beats at the heart of Giant Ant’s work. “Great design can really sweeten a project, but if there is no real story, there’s no soul,” says Grandin. When they first started creating videos, after art school, the couple had little animation experience: Grandin had studied industrial design and worked as a furniture designer, and Nelson had majored in film, focusing on documentary filmmaking. They relied on storytelling to carry them through.
“Leah’s sense of what makes a good story is always right,” says regular client Lisa Hurlbutt, communications and marketing director of the British Columbia and Yukon division of the Canadian Cancer Society. “She and Jay are passionate, sharp, hands-on and really care about their work. That’s an important asset for the kind of videos we make, and it’s why we always turn to them.”
In 2007, a quirky video the pair made about how men and women shower went viral. Myspace noticed and hired Grandin and Nelson to produce a ten-part series based on the self-described “mediocre shower video.” Before they knew it, they were Myspace’s most-viewed filmmakers. From that video experimentation emerged Giant Ant, starting with the two of them in a tiny office and growing as their artistry and reputation took flight.
When asked how the award-winning studio got its name, they look at each other and grin. “There’s this forest ant in Malaysia,” Nelson starts, going on to explain that these ants live on the forest floor and inhale the spores of Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, a parasitic fungus that eats away at their brains. When the ants die, mushroom caps sprout out of their heads from which spores fall, continuing the cycle. “It’s this crazy life cycle where the mushroom wins,” she says, laughing. “But I also thought it was funny that they are described as ‘giant’ ants. They’re still just ants. So when it came to choosing a name, I liked the metaphor of this tiny creature that has such a big impact.”
While the animation team is putting the finishing touches on an ad for San Francisco–based startup Slack, whose eponymous product is a team messenger/communication app that consolidates communication into shared channels for users, Grandin describes working on a retro-themed Slack video that launched six months ago. The creative process involved a diverse spread of techniques, including traditional 2-D animation, After Effects and 3-D animation. “Our approach spread out the ownership of different aspects of the project across the team, which ended up making everything so much better,” he says. “Every little part of that project exceeded our expectations because the team members really owned their phase of it. Everyone’s creative voice mattered.”
The resulting video delighted Bill Macaitis, chief marketing officer at Slack. The video’s 1940s cartoon-themed visuals and music and its adroit use of color captured YouTube viewers. “People loved the song and the retro look, and we accomplished what we wanted,” he says. “We wanted something fun and unique, and Giant Ant was just the right-sized studio, with a super-responsive, innovative team—we just vibed with them.” Macaitis says brand videos are part of a new shift in the business-to-business landscape, and Giant Ant is on board to create more.
Like most studios, Giant Ant has an internal hierarchy, which creative teams need in order to function. But when it comes to evaluating creative ideas, Nelson and Grandin insist that hierarchy is thrown out the window. “Our philosophy is that the best idea always wins,” says Nelson. “We take this very seriously.” Art director and illustrator Rafael Mayani says the team’s small size means that “we get to know each other and how everybody can help.” Henrique Barone, a 2-D artist from Brazil and a member of Giant Ant’s creative team, is clear about the studio’s appeal: “Here, it’s about the creative process, and it’s not as competitive as other places I’ve worked. We trust one another and talk a lot. We get to explore.”
Kevan Funk, an independent contractor who has directed projects for Giant Ant, says the studio is choosy about its commercial work and has a thoughtful understanding of the creative process. “[Giant Ant] knows about communicating through look and has a high standard for ideas based on elevation, not solution. The team is like a laid-back family that trusts each other and is open to big ideas.”
Giant Ant’s philosophy is that even in a creative field, a rigid process is key. “Client problems are almost always process problems,” says Grandin. Nelson, fresh from a phone call with her nanny—she had twins a year ago and has, for now, cut her workweek to two days—adds, “We designed our process not only to create the best work possible, but also to protect our clients, our team and ourselves. The best way to value everyone’s time and creative energy is to resolutely follow that process. Once we go through a gate—like the style frame phase—the intention is to never go back through that gate. So we stack our process with several phases where the client can see the work in progress and make approvals that move the project forward. That doesn’t mean we don’t iterate, but we make sure that when work or ideas need to be revised, the project still moves forward in a direction that doesn’t bring the morale of the team down or surprise the client.”
Part of Giant Ant’s success comes from deciding whether potential clients fit within its collective morality. The studio has declined lucrative projects with pharmaceutical companies and fast food chains. It can be hard, Grandin and Nelson admit, but being selective leaves Giant Ant open for projects the team wants to do. “Everything we put into the world is a statement of our taste, and we think about that when we’re tempted to take on projects that have large budgets or high profiles,” says Grandin. “We have criteria that help guide us when we choose projects. We ask ourselves, ‘Would we use this product or service ourselves? Is this a creative opportunity?’ ‘Would our moms be proud?’” If they’re still not sure, they will poll the team, and they also have been known to stage town hall–style meetings, at which they discuss the potential value of or moral aversion to a project. Nelson adds, “People do better work when they believe in the story they’re telling. It’s that simple.”
The couple’s marriage has not just survived the test of working and living together, but they have another family at the studio. “Jay and I have come in here on the weekends to pick something up, and we sit on the couch, look at this room and say, ‘Wow, when did this happen?’” says Nelson. “That gets us sometimes. We didn’t really set out to start a company, but this place and the people in it have exceeded our wildest expectations.” ca