Dream. Create. Share. This is the mantra for Belief Inc, a motion graphics and digital design firm in Santa Monica, California led by Founder and Executive Creative Director, Mike Goedecke, whose energy, vision, and creative spirit are the embodiment of Belief’s “passion to create”. Goedecke earned his honours MFA at USC‘s Graduate Cinema and Television Program, winning numerous national awards and grants as a filmmaker before launching Belief in 1994. It wasn’t long before networks such as NBC, ABC, ESPN, The Discovery Channel and MTV learned of this little design team creating innovative digital motion graphics for broadcast. The lineup outside Belief’s door has only lengthened in the years since, adding corporate clients such as Activision, JC Penny, Chevron, Lexus, Honda and Acura to their roster.
Now in its thirteenth year and with thirteen employees, Belief continues to grow thanks to Mike’s focused energy, creativity, and drive, while his mission remains unchanged: to create an inspirational space in the vein of a traditional artist’s studio where creatively gifted and passionate people with different talents, strengths and visions can come together with clients to collaborate on projects. Mike Goedecke’s passion and drive to constantly push at the boundaries where technology meets art led to the formation of Belief Experimental, a digital workshop for the benefit of the studio’s clients. Producing short films, like the award-winning, high-definition film Embryo, (password “embryo”) Mike infuses the studio with a progressive process that stretches the talents, yields innovative techniques and delivers extraordinary results for all of Belief clients and has won the firm the highest industry awards.
After a recent sold out speaking engagement and the Canadian premier of Embryo at an ACM SIGGRAPH event, Goedecke visited Industrial Brand‘s Vancouver studios and graciously sat down for an interview about passion, creativity, and design.
MB: Mike, How do you define creativity?
MG: To me anything that falls within the definition of breaking routine is creativity. It’s a pretty broad definition and I think a lot of truly creative people don’t even consider themselves creative. Which I think is the biggest bummer. The key is finding creativity in everything, no matter what your profession. People say “Oh, I don’t have a creative profession”, accountants for example. But there are accountants that do extremely creative things and come up with creative solutions to solve problems. Of course, one plus one will always equal two – that’s not creative, but how you go about other parts of your job, whatever it may be – can be creative.
It is the same from the opposite perspective as well. A lot of companies get this rep that they’re really creative companies and people worship them, but when you look at the span of work that they’ve done, it’s very homogeneous and not especially creative. I would say that’s not a really creative company. They’re riffing on themselves. But when you look at a company and the pieces that they’ve done are all really different and effective, even if not always super glitzy, then I would say that’s the more creative company.
MB: You’ve said that your work does not have a particular style, though your projects seem to contain common elements such as intense layering, texture, organic rhythms, and patterns.
MG: When you work on a computer, it’s inherently a very flat graphic style. I can go into Illustrator and pop up something and make something that looks very Zen, flat and minimalist. So, computers naturally flow towards that style. What they don’t do is create beautiful compositions with many layers. That takes a lot of work. If you are a painter, that is naturally what you do. Painting is creating layers. You are creating things organically. For me, I’m trying to go against what a computer does and I use it more as a tool than as a solution for a particular style or look. We fight against the fact that a computer does dictate a particular style. The applications themselves create a style. Flash for example creates a very flat simple look only because it was a technology created to get things over the internet quickly, but as a result, a style was originated not because people were creative, but because the program defaults to that particular look.
Everything I do is very organic and based in creating work that simulates what I see in nature. You know, white isn’t ever just white. Paper is made up of a mesh of solid materials. A scan of a white piece of paper is going to look and feel different than if you simply create a white box on the computer. It’s not something I can quantify, but subliminally I feel it and I try to get the designers to really use the computer as a compositing tool, but not a tool to generate anything. The process should be hidden. The result is all you are looking for.
MB: You are an admitted workaholic running a successful motion graphics and film production company, you’re married with a child on the way and you often travel for speaking engagements. What do you do when you actually find some free time?
MG: I spend time with my wife Lisa, travel or paint. We love traveling. We’ve been so many places because of Embryo. Work provides us with the opportunity for that kind of travel. We might be going technically for work, but it ends up being personal. Traveling is such a luxury. When you go to other places, you see how it really isn’t that much different. You are going to find people who like a certain aesthetic wherever you go. You are going to find your own tribe to hang out with. Maybe they don’t speak the same language, but you are going to find things to talk about and you are going to have experiences to share that everyone is going to relate to.
MB: Speaking of your film Embryo, your company’s mantra is Dream. Create. Share. And Untitled:003-Embryo is all about dreams. What is the strangest dream you’ve ever had?
MG: I never dream. Well, I never ever remember my dreams. My friends tell me about all these weird dreams that they have, and I think I’m really missing out on all these things. Maybe it’s because my life is filled with creativity and I’m always dreaming, hallucinating, and imagining things. If someone says something, I might go off for five seconds into this vivid recollection of some thing that has never really happened.
MB: What lessons can be found in Embryo?
MG: Embryo for me was twofold. One was the goal was to make something that my mom could watch. The previous titles are very weird. They are very out there, heady and artistic. They aren’t for the masses. Embryo is still very heady and interesting, but definitely for the masses. My mom could watch it, there are characters that people can relate to and they can think of how it is reflective of their own lives. For me it was hugely intense because it was the first truly narrative film that I’d done since film school. But we still wanted to make this inclusive thing that we’d done with the other titles. [Belief employed the talents of other motion graphics agencies for the dream sequences]. This may have been a mistake in hindsight. It could have been a much stronger film had we done everything ourselves. We could have made everything make sense, but it’s my passion to experiment and fail, and that was the key with Embryo. Certain dreams really worked and other things didn’t really relate to anything. And that is what makes it more experimental.
But, it surprises me how well it works even with all that experimental elements. The collaborators did not know what the movie was about; we literally got these pieces and just slapped them in and thought “I hope this works!” We shot the scenes not knowing what the dreams were going to be about. We didn’t know what the whole film was going to feel like when it all came together. That was the lesson. We decided that next time, everything should be controlled by us. The collaborative process works to a certain extent, but ultimately, great films have directors and great films have leaders that guide the audience through a narrative story. That is why interactive film will never work because you can’t have an experience that is changeable. An interactive film is a world to explore that is different than a narrative story.
Now, we’ve proven to ourselves that we can do it. Embryo was like a proof of concept. With Embryo, there were a lot of personal things going on in my life that I was dealing with. I wanted to make a love story – to me, ultimately, Embryo is a love story and it is about people overcoming their fears and it’s about people trying to do what is right even though that may hurt other people. Embryo was also reflective of a break up of a partnership within the company. I was getting over the betrayal that happened with that and I was getting over the fact that we eventually saw the world differently. He wanted to take the company down one direction, and I wanted to take it a different direction.
MB: You originally trained in film, but Belief is best known for its motion graphics work.
MG: Yeah, I totally got into motion graphics by accident. I tried to get a job at a company called Voyager that did the Criterion Laser Discs and I wanted to get a job there because you got to interview directors. I had no idea how to use creativity professionally or what design even was. When I arrived, they gave me this test on PhotoShop and I only knew a little about PhotoShop – this was back during the version 1.0 days by the way – and the tester was telling me to do this and that, but I really had no idea what to do. So I thought I’d never get the job, but I did. Very soon I realized I’d been hired to do motion graphics design. Voyager had this early application called CoSA, which later became After Effects, and when I got exposed to Kosa I realized this what I want to do. I realized I could create anything I wanted to – it was like PhotoShop, but with motion. And these were in the days of digitizing a frame at a time. To digitize a minute of footage took almost eight hours. Grueling work. And that was the world I was working in. It was completely foreign and revolutionary.
I started working on a film called Convergence for three years all about the Internet, long before most people knew what the Internet even was. I ran out of financing, but showed the trailer for the film to the producers at NBC around the time that Jay Leno was just taking over The Tonight Show. They asked me to create a bunch of promos for the show. I didn’t even know what a “promo” was! They offered us a lot of money, so we took the gig and that was my official business entry into motion graphics. Totally an accident.
I’m a filmmaker at heart and even today my interest in motion graphics is about telling stories. Each of our pieces has a story, even if it’s abstract, I can tell you the reason for each component and the logic for it in that world. I think that’s crucial in design; to have purpose in what you’re creating or communicating.
MB: In your film about inspiration and creativity Pollinate: Chain Reaction, you say “great design is art”. Tell us about your definitions of design and art. Where does one end and the other begin? Do you think communication design can transcend its functional role and become art too?
MG: We’re doing this documentary about artists right now and part of it is on design. The funny thing is that I think it has flipped: design is now art and art is design. Art used to be about self-reflexive statements about our culture, but that seems the role of design now. Most artists now seem to feel it’s about doing whatever they want making pretty pictures. At least in the communities that are becoming popular in the art world. More and more that work is less about statements and more about aesthetic. Whereas, the good designers are teaching the opposite: the function and the history of design and understanding the cultural relevance.
MB: Art history study shows how fine arts was really quite focused on the cultural psychology and events of a period and the affect that had on fine art. That seems now far less a matter of discourse in the art community as it does in the design community; the psychology of the target audience and zeitgeist and their affect on design and style.
MG: Yeah, even when we interview students, we often can’t tell what their own work is about or what they were thinking. And it could be something really good, but they didn’t even see how their identity is personified in their piece. There’s a total disconnect.
MB: Your short film Pollinate:The Common Desk offers creative professionals suggestions about items they could surround themselves with at work to create an inspirational work environment. What items would we find on your desk right now?
MG: Right now? It’s funny, because when we came up with the idea for The Common Desk, a good friend of mine, Richard Levine, said to me “The next film you make should be about the process of how you work. You should try to communicate to people about your creative process.” So Common Desk became a version of how my desk does work at Belief. If you came to visit, you’d find that I have my mental maze above my desk, my petting zoo area; I have my emotional oasis, my crystals, candles, incense, I mean, we gave them funny names for the film, but they’re all real. My desk is much cooler and more organic than the one in the film though. It’s actually an antique Indian door with glass over the top.
The goal of Common Desk for me, was that the audience for that video were people who work in some crappy TV station or design firm with a horrible boss, who is a numbers person and doesn’t understand the creative process or environment at all. I think it was my experience when I worked at NBC that made me say, “Somebody has to wake these people up,” these dropdown ceilings with fluorescent light and a really cold desk is not conducive for creative work. Even the best talent can’t produce good work in that environment.
MB: In the film you also suggest some unorthodox methods for creative inspiration. When you’re working on a creative project – either for a client or personal – what are your favorite techniques for developing ideas or unlocking your brain?
MG: I often start at the bookstore. If you’ve ever seen Wim Venders‘ Wings of Desire, there are angels hanging out at the library, where they inspire people by whispering in their ears as they read. And I don’t even really read very much. I’m actually dyslexic, so I read a book in spurts and put it down and pick it up again in a month later. But there’s really something inspirational about being in bookstores. Just being in that environment is like the angels are whispering to me. It feels like there is so much energy and thought that has gone into every book, that every book on a shelf has magic to it. And if you surround yourself with thousands with those magical things, some of that magic is bound to spill off onto you. I honestly believe that you gain power from just having books around you.
MB: You say that passion is key to creative success, and in Pollinate: Chain Reaction you claim “passion is a magnet”. What are you most passionate about?
MG: My passion is to be constantly coming up with new ideas. I think that if you get a group of ten talented designers together and give them sixty seconds to come up with new ideas, you’d be surprised how little they’d come up with. People you think are really creative and talented can really struggle coming up with new ideas. There are different creative talents, and new idea generation is very specific and special.
MB: You’ve mentioned that one of your goals is to make more films. Do you agree with the argument that Hollywood has become obsessed with safe, formulaic money-maker films these days with nearly all new releases being eye candy remakes or copies. Where do you feel the future lies for Hollywood versus the growing Indie scene?
MG: So many films created these days trade plotline, narrative and character development for glitzy computer effects. The recent third remake of King Kong is the quintessential example of what is wrong with Hollywood. It is amazing and beautifully produced in every way, yet it is completely flawed. It has no soul and didn’t move me in any way spiritually at all. It seemed a movie so confused as to what it was meant to be. When the original King Kong was made, I bet it had huge relevance to what was happening in the world. This film, like so many others, is totally irrelevant.
MG: No, I would say that a big problem in Hollywood right now is that they are not making films that directors want to make. It’s become a TV model. It used to be that directors had stories that they wanted tell and producers had very little power in Hollywood. And in TV, it was the opposite. The producers had all the control and directors were brought in and did what they were told. Feature films have become like expensive TV shows and we’ve lost that auteurship. The promise of digital filmmaking is that people with something relevant to say will get their messages. Hollywood is still operating under the assumption that there is a mass audience out there, but I don’t think that’s true anymore. I think the mass audience is disappearing.
MB: You created the entire identity and brand for India’s Zoom television network and your work was blatantly copied twice by both Chinese and Russian designers. Do you feel any flattery from this imitation?
MG: I feel like our work has influenced people. I think that as an artist and designer – and again, remember that I think that design has a stronger impact on the world and toward influencing the way people think – that in Eastern Europe and all throughout China, there is work being shown that is derivative of our work is pretty wild. It’s pretty exciting.
MB: You’ve worked as an instructor of broadcast and motion graphics design at the prestigious Otis College of Art & Design. Tell us your view of the state of creative education these days.
MG: I think there is often a disconnect between Design School curricula and the needs of Design Studios – certainly in the broadcast field anyway. I really think a broad education in Motion Graphics and Digital design is different than a program in Broadcast design. For instance, I believe the program at VFS here in Vancouver is an amazing overview of digital design, but unlike film schools where writing, shooting, directing, editing and sound are so intermixed, I don’t believe digital media works that way.
For me, it’s really about conceptual thinking and process. Predictable, repeatable process. At belief we have a set creative methodology and it’s ALWAYS the same no matter what the delivery format of the job. Our process starts with the pitch presentation or being awarded a project and from there our focus is on concept development and style frames based on extensive research efforts. We only present the client with style frames to communicate the essence of the design and the soul of the story being communicated and get their creative buy in long before trying to figure out what animation or motion graphics will be required. Anything is possible with technology now, so we focus on the message and the conceptual visual language. Once we start planning and assembly, we present the client with progress work and get their feedback before moving to final production.
So, if I was going to prepare students for the broadcast design industry I would teach everything involved with this process and little else. Understanding communication design such as logo development, typography, image compositing are crucial! So are techniques such as building things modularly so clients can make changes, or pre-rendering elements to save final rendering time. But do they really need to learn Flash or advanced 3D programs or character animation? Photoshop, Illustrator, After Effects and editing platforms like Final Cut or AVID are key technologies to learn, because many times graphic jobs require editing to fix timings and After Effects is NOT an editing program. OTIS is starting to follow this teaching model and the students are becoming more desirable hires right out of school, because they understand the real process.
MB: Any plans to go back to teaching in the future?
MG: Yes, I would like to teach again. Otis hasn’t invited me back yet as I developed a reputation of being a hard ass and super tough. But that’s what I think is required. I would like to teach again.
MB: Who was the biggest influence in your life?
MG: My grandfather, because he’s the only one in my family who had his own business and encouraged me to go for it and not work for someone else.
MB: Who inspires you now or whom do you idolize?
MG: The last thing that really inspired me was the Tim Hawkinson exhibit we saw recently in Los Angeles. He’s an analog art genius and does amazing work. In terms of things I’d like to be able to do one day, I was inspired by Delaguarda which used to be a show in New York which had immersive experiences. I generally hate live theatre and didn’t realize theatre could be so much more enjoyable.
MB: What is your favourite toy right now?
MG: The baby. [Mike’s wife Lisa is due to give birth to their first child this May]
MB: What’s getting the highest rotation on your iTunes?
MG: Music is one of my vices and I probably buy $300 of music every month, but I get it home, rip it and put it into my rotation and half the time I don’t know what the names are. I’m really bad at names. I just recognize the songs I like. [looks at his iPod] Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Mum, Eggmen, Cantoma, and I love The Necks.
MB: Goedecke and his gifted team at Belief continue bringing to bear the powerful marriage of progressive process with a passion to create great story telling, gaining even the attention of Apple Computers who recently profiled them. Belief seems aggressively poised to lead the charge into what Mike describes as an age of immersive experiences where the lines between imagination, creativity, technology and art blur to the point of disappearing. A culture based on what he calls “sensory perception”. The studio continues to create cutting edge motion graphics for numerous broadcast clients, while Mike’s Experimental division is gearing up for their first feature length film set to begin shooting in the near future as well as the next installments of the Untitled: and Pollinate: series. There is something about Goedecke’s doctrine that is infectious; perhaps it’s his passion. Or his energy. Regardless, anyone committed enough to refuse $2.5 million for the belief.com domain at the height of the dot-com frenzy is suitably committed to his own goals and beliefs. Belief: a fitting name indeed.
SIDEBAR: So, what is this creative process that Belief practices?