Eight dogs charge across the sparse grass, chasing tennis balls, chasing each other, taking the zaniest routes around Hoxton Square. Their owners chat in a group, sipping coffee from cardboard cups, enjoying one of the first sunny days in weeks. Respite from the British weather makes for a laid-back morning here in the district of London called Tech City.
That same sunshine is streaming through the front windows of UNIT9’s studio, tinted a rainbow of colors thanks to stained glass artwork by the designers at Critical Architecture Network. It’s part of the ongoing Hoxton Window project, curated by UNIT9 interactive director Anrick Bergman. Every three months a new artist’s work appears—it’s a way UNIT9 gives something back to the community it has been part of since 1999.
Inside UNIT9 the window artwork is just one of many groovy features. There’s a meeting pod by the reception area that looks like it’s from a 1970s-style space station, and a neon light installation runs just above head height all the way along another wall. In the boardroom, there is a huge collection of awards, and a strange Heath Robinson-like machine with levers, buttons and car parts sticking out. Perhaps it’s symbolic of UNIT9’s creative engine.
What makes UNIT9 unique isn’t its location or its décor, though. As founders Piero Frescobaldi, Yates Buckley and Tom Sacchi point out, UNIT9 has its own approach to digital creativity. Often referred to as a digital agency, UNIT9 actually promotes itself as a digital production studio. “We describe ourselves as a creative production company because we see our role the same as that of a TV production company,” explains Frescobaldi.
Instead of creative directors, developers and design teams, UNIT9 has producers, technical leads and its all-important interactive directors. The directors are represented by UNIT9 in the same way that traditional production houses rep the directors who make TV commercials. “If you’re talking to somebody who’s in digital, they are slightly confused by it,” says Sacchi, “but anyone who’s been working on the TV side of things finds it incredibly reassuring because it’s like, ‘Oh, I get it, I can do a website in the same process that I’ve made a TV commercial.’”
Does it work? Well, the director system was introduced in 2008 and over the following twelve months, UNIT9 tackled roughly twice the number of briefs and won twice as many awards as it did the previous year. The current roster holds fifteen directors, each specializing in different areas—from 3-D to websites, from interactive storytelling to game design. So UNIT9 seems equipped to tackle the most challenging and outlandish of briefs. This is a good thing because that’s what clients tend to want when they come knocking.
As technical director and co-founder Yates Buckley explains: “Nowadays the technology and creative work are very close. In general, clients love the work that’s the most difficult to create, and they love the worst technical problems, so it’s tricky.”
One of his recent favorites is Find Your Way to Oz. Created for Disney, ostensibly to promote the recent film Oz the Great and Powerful, the site is a Google Chrome Experiment enabling users to explore a 3-D carnival full of Oz-related attractions. You can write your own pipe organ tune, take a photo and turn it into a stop-motion animation and find your own route through the attractions. It’s not exactly a game; it’s not a trailer either—and it certainly isn’t a movie poster.
However, Find Your Way to Oz makes brilliant use of WebGL, CSS3, HTML5 and other cutting-edge technologies, and occupies one of those ambiguous areas of digital that UNIT9 loves to experiment in. “A film poster is good for fixing on walls, but if you’re on something that can display a richer media, it’s more natural to have something that is browseable in a spatial way,” says Buckley. “It might take a few years until it’s standard, but if you’re doing a Pixar movie, you’ve already got half the assets, so you could reduce polygons and throw them into some kind of experience.”
There is innovation throughout UNIT9’s colorful portfolio. For airline JetBlue, director Michael Sugarman created the online game show Get Away With It, an event that ran for a week last June. Entrants played via Skype, answering quiz questions to win vacations. “Episodes” of the show can still be viewed on YouTube. Equally cheesy, but just as much fun, was the 2009 Doritos Dodgeball Challenge—a tournament that interbred online and physical-world competition. Directed by Frescobaldi, it saw online players controlling real cannons shooting dodgeballs at teams who were competing to win a trip to Las Vegas. Then there’s the MINI Maps Facebook app that director Christian Etter dreamed up for the French arm of the mini brand; here, you could turn a Google Map of any town into a track and race MINIs around it against your friends.
All these projects helped big brands reach audiences in new and engaging ways, and this is a key driver for UNIT9. “Advertising was something that we went into a little unwillingly, until we realized that actually it was an incredible engine,” says Frescobaldi. “The amount of research and development done through advertising briefs is unequaled in any shape or form. We work on about 100 projects a year using the latest technologies simply because somebody—a brand—wants to be the first to do it.”
Ultimately, this enables them to break new ground creatively too. For instance, UNIT9’s directors have made some fascinating interactive movies. Have a look at The Trip and Sufferrosa, both directed by Dawid Marcinkowski. The former is a musical tie-in with composer Andrzej Smolik, postulating that the 1969 moon landing was faked. The latter is a neo-noir thriller looking at youth and aging in a bizarre, twilight world. Marcinkowski slotted these projects in alongside work for the likes of Expedia and Honda. As much as anything, founders Buckley, Frescobaldi and Sacchi—who brought the company to the United Kingdom from Florence in 1999—want to create a playground where the directors can develop new storytelling techniques using technology.
Then there’s UNIT9 Apps, occupying the fifth floor of the Hoxton Square studio. It has developed games for iOS devices—including Astro Shark, Electric Tentacle and Nano Panda—and is working on a new fantasy-based card game. The games earn revenue on the App Store, and underline UNIT9’s credibility when it comes to designing apps for clients.
Captain Morgan: Captain’s Conquest, for Android and iOS, was directed by Takayoshi Kishimoto and turned the streets of United States cities into waterways upon which players could sail their galleons—in 3-D—having cannonball battles with rivals in their vicinity. Sacchi is certainly proud of the app, created for beverage giant Diageo. “Captain Morgan was Diageo’s best mobile app to date,” he says. “Do you know how many brands Diageo has, how many agents are working those brands? So it basically says our apps really work.”
Sacchi’s optimism fits his current mission—to open a UNIT9 office in New York. With 75–80 percent of business coming from the United States, it makes sense to have a studio near the country’s biggest agencies. With London remaining UNIT9’s production hub, New York will be its latest satellite. The company already has sales, development and/or creative outposts in Brazil, Sweden, Germany, Poland, Italy and San Francisco.
“The way we look at it, they are not separate studios, they are like different floors of the same building,” says Frescobaldi. “So we have another floor which is in Poland, we have another floor which is in Florence, we have one which is in San Francisco, but we all use the same channels of communication, we all write into the same internal e-mail.”
Looking around the Hoxton studio, it feels like there’s much more to come as well. Director Martin Percy is working on Lifesaver, an iPad app UNIT9 has found funding for that uses interactive storytelling to teach CPR skills. It’s an emotive piece that will help save lives. Upstairs, you can see the amazing concept art for a card game app that’s being developed. There’s an app version of a gallery exhibition being made, and an art-based project for Lexus.
There are some nice little touches to the company’s approach too. When a project is completed, its contributors from all around the world are brought together to meet up and celebrate. And everybody is credited for their work on the UNIT9 website.
“You can’t really hide talent and resources,” says production director Valentina Culatti Alisi. “The more you share, the better you succeed. I’d much rather think of it as a collaborative rather than a competitive industry.”
Together with other digital studios in London, Alisi is working on proposals setting formal ground rules so that digital production will be better understood within the agency system, from the terminology through to quoting, pitching and delivery norms. As things get closer to a TV-style production model, it seems only a matter of time before UNIT9 will be shooting commercials for big brands alongside creating interactive experiences. ca