Episode 365 – BUCK – Creative Director Orion Tait
Episode 365 – BUCK – Creative Director Orion Tait
Orion Tait is a Director and Partner at Buck, leading its New York studio in creating commercials and content for major brands from all over the world. With a background in filmmaking, fine arts and graphic design, his varied body of work is rooted in visual storytelling and continues to push the boundaries of innovation and quality in the commercial realm.
A champion and steward of Buck’s well regarded culture of collaboration, Orion has led teams large and small, developing campaigns and directing work for Google, Nike, IBM, Mastercard, Umbro, Oreo, and Sherwin Williams. As a respected leader in his industry, Orion has lectured at numerous schools and festivals across the globe and served or chaired on several awards juries, including YCN, AICP and the Art Directors Club.
In this Podcast, Allan McKay interviews Orion Tait, Director and Partner at Buck, about making creative choices as a company, people and relationships as the most important asset, innovation and technological disruption, effects of COVID-10 of creative businesses – and collaborating with Tim Miller on Love Death + Robots Season 3.
Buck’s Website: www.buck.co
Buck on Instagram (@buck_design): https://www.instagram.com/buck_design/?hl=en
Orion Tait on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm8952523/
Interview with Orion Tait: https://vimeo.com/33727625
Orion Tait on Twitter (@oriontait): https://twitter.com/oriontait?lang=en
The One Club Bio: https://www.oneclub.org/awards/theoneshow/-judge/2011/orion-tait
[03:05] Orion Tait Introduces Himself and Talks About Starting Out as an Artist
[04:37] Importance of Storytelling
[07:11] The Beginnings of Buck
[12:22] Effects of COVID-19 on Creative Businesses
[15:45] Nurturing a Company Culture of Camaraderie
[19:08] Making Creative Choices as a Company
[22:46] Relationships as the Most Important Asset
[25:43] Innovation and Technological Disruption
[32:58] Buck’s Contribution to Netflix’s Love Death + Robots
[46:05] Business Lessons Learned Over the Years
EPISODE 365 – BUCK – CREATIVE DIRECTOR ORION TAIT
This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 365! I’m sitting down with Orion Tait, Director and Partner at Buck, to talk about about making creative choices as a company, people and relationships as the most important asset, innovation and technological disruption, effects of COVID-10 of creative businesses – and collaborating with Tim Miller on Love Death + Robots Season 3.
I’m sure excited to talk to Orion. We get into a lot of great subjects in this Podcast.
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
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INTERVIEW WITH ORION TAIT
[03:05] Allan: Orion, thank you so much for coming on the Podcast! Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?
Orion: I’m Orion Tait. I’m one of the Co-Founders and Chief Creative Officers of Buck. We’re a creative company. We do lots of different things.
[03:20] Allan: Did you always imagine being in a creative role?
Orion: I don’t think so. I grew up in an environment where I was surrounded by creative people, but I didn’t understand a career path in a creative field. To be honest, I don’t think I thought far enough ahead. I was always scrambling to figure out my next move. I was raised by a single mom. I had a challenging childhood in terms of academics. I ended up going to an academically challenging school and I never had any perspective on that. I never stopped to think about what I wanted to do. Through a combination of luck and good instincts, I ended up doing what I truly love doing.
[04:37] Allan: That’s cool! With your background, how important is it for creatives to learn how to tell a story?
Orion: I think it’s essential. I think that Buck primarily is known for being at an intersection of a motion design studio. Earlier in my career, I found that in that space having a foundation in storytelling was essential. A lot of folks coming out of school didn’t really get that language of filmmaking. As we see these worlds collide more, they’re always using character and story. I find that blend has been useful for me.
[06:00] Allan: I think that’s so critical! With graphic design or FX, storytelling is something you can really neglect.
Orion: As we got more into more narrative driven work, we brought in folks where that’s their primary language. But I find that even with VFX folks, sometimes they don’t speak that language of the idea of character. Every choice you make in a scene should be informed. Everyone wants to be on the same page, with the same end goal.
[07:11] Allan: How did Buck first come about? What was the experience of building a company like?
Orion: We were at a pretty interesting time when we started. It was the early 2000s. It was a disruptive time in media land. It was the first .com bubble. Right when I graduated from film school, I found that I had student loans to pay off; so I just fell into this world of web and content. I was at this place called Heavy which was one of the first broadband media sites. That’s where I met my current partner Ryan Honey and many other folks that are at Buck right now. We were figuring out the license to do things differently at that time. A lot of people that were making content were doing it with a fresh start. It was a heyday of personal computing. We were lucky that we were small enough to be nimble and write a new way of working, without the bigger pipelines or spending. But we were early enough, while it was a competitive landscape, it wasn’t as saturated as it is right now. We were in this interesting time where we were exploring. We were able to create small, nimble teams. As we’ve grown in scale, we can have a huge CG team or marketing team. If you’re a hammer, you’re always going to see the nail. We were always more of a design team that thought about the brief and the best way to do that. That might mean a 3-person or a 103-person team.
[10:33] Allan: What do you find as a sweet spot? Do you prefer a smaller or a larger team?
Orion: I think both of them can be pretty gratifying. To me, it’s always amazing to see something change beyond what you could imagine it to be. And that’s the most exciting part of the collaborative nature of what we do. My imagination is limited to my experience. When you’re able to bring people on and integrate them – and realize that great ideas come from everywhere – then it turns into something you didn’t even imagine. And when it’s better than what you’ve imagined, that’s really cool! To see that at scale is pretty awesome! The larger these teams get, it’s harder for that magic to happen. At a certain point, it becomes kind of transactional. I think they can be both really exciting. But for the truly creative stuff, there can be that sweet spot in terms of the team.
[12:22] Allan: That makes sense! Working remotely during the pandemic, have you found that it enabled you to work with more talent?
Orion: To be honest, I’m still processing it. It’s been a really disruptive and traumatic time for people. But there is a lot of silver linings as well. We’ve seen a lot of growth during this time. Like you said, there is access to different talent. We can work with anyone, anywhere. Even 3 years ago, we needed a certain person and we’d have to fly them in from Toronto. It was that idea that we all needed to be in the same room. It’s been cool to see that mentality be disrupted. We have people working all over the globe. It was cool for us to see our culture change and how it translated. But I also think we don’t know what we don’t know. There is a lot that we don’t know yet. I always want to recognize how complex human interactions are. I think there’s been a lot that’s been awesome, but I still think there is something about some spaces in between we may have missed. I have this suspicion that Buck in particular, there is some equity we’re still riding on. I worry that it will be diluted if we don’t replenish it with more in-person trust building meetings.
[15:45] Allan: I’m actually in the middle of organizing a retreat for my company. What are some of the ways you try to build camaraderie?
Orion: Everyone’s a little different and I think that’s one of our strengths. We give people a lot of room and trust to work within their sphere. On any project, there will be a number of leads and everyone will do it differently. I’ve been on teams where camaraderie is built quickly. But there are a lot of introverts in our world. I’ve also seen that this evens out the playing field. There are lots of ways for people to contribute. We’ve started to go to conferences, now that things are opening up. I think that’s a great way to get together in an inspirational way, rather than a company retreat. We’ve been hosting happy hours at the offices. There are lots of little things. We’re going to do a big summer party and we’ll start with one in New York and LA.
[18:42] Allan: That’s awesome! Going back 10+ years, do you remember ordering a pink singing ape to come to the office to sing, “You’re my sunshine”?
Orion: I don’t remember that.
[19:08] Allan: I assume you’re the one who ordered that. It was a way to boost morale. Buck has been around for a long time. How do you choose what type of projects you work on?
Orion: I think it’s shifted over the years. We do turn down a ton of work. A lot of what has driven Buck’s success is that we’re a thoughtful and curious bunch. We’ll entertain lots of different things. Just because it doesn’t speak to me creatively or financially, it doesn’t mean it’s not right for Buck. As we’ve grown, that mindset has grown. There is a lot that we take into consideration. What’s changed over the years is that we’ve always been a good mixture of business and creative, and we’ve always been really open about our financials and budgets at Buck. I never liked separating the two. If you’re a creative, you need to know where the walls in the sand are. I think we’ve always had a great blend. We’ve always thought, “Is this financially viable? Can we make something great with this budget?” That way of working has always been valuable. Before, we used to think, “It is a financial opportunity or a creative opportunity?” Now it’s shifting to: What is the relationship? What’s the ask? How is it furthering our creative relationship with our partners (we call them that rather than “our clients”)? We work closely with them. They’re the trusted experts of their brand.
[22:46] Allan: I completely agree! At a certain point, you’re going to get to a threshold where you’re weighing the pros and cons. For me, it’s always about relationships.
Orion: We’ve found that it’s less about what we make, but more about how we make it and how we do it. It’s about finding people that we trust. Trust happens over time. Sometimes, it happens really quickly and that’s really awesome. That’s been the biggest indicator of success at Buck: There is a certain thing that shifted in the business landscape in the mid-2000s. A lot of power was shifting toward Silicon Valley, and we were no longer being put into a box. We were getting seens as creative partners. That’s what allowed us to expand our capabilities because of our relationships. That’s been a great thing for us. As you build those relationships, it can become challenging. We’re used to delivering animation at this level. What happens if they start asking us to deliver experience, creative tech (AR, VR)? You have to continue to show up at that level.
[25:43] Allan: How important is it to innovate and keep your finger on the pulse, in terms of new technology?
Orion: I think I’d like to say we’re getting more diverse. For a long time, we were playing defense. The innovation piece and having the strategy around ascribing value to innovation is becoming more and more important for us. The more financially successful you get, it’s easy to forget some of that stuff. When you were young and scrappy, you’d innovate naturally because you wanted to build your resume. I do think there is a danger when companies scale and lose that. So how do you institutionalize innovation and creativity and hunger?
[27:34] Allan: I love that! I was talking to Tim Miller about Love Death + Robots. We were wondering if it’s still exciting? Or did we come up during a magical time?
Orion: I think there is something that happens when we, old farts, get together and talk. There was that specific time in our industry. There were so many new tools and innovative breakthroughs. One of the things I’ve noticed with the younger generation coming in is that they’re so fucking good! There is a curriculum built around this. And there is so much access in terms of learning – through YouTube and social media – they’re on the forefront of it. When you used to come up with those videos, it was like sunshine in the water. It helped the rest of us. It’s amazing to see this young talent coming in and their portfolios compared to my portfolio back in the day…
[29:46] Allan: The tools you used back in the day were different. I’d see someone on ArtStation – and the person is 12 years old! The tools have become more intuitive.
Orion: Which is amazing! To me, that’s the thing that’s really cool. Now, these technical tools are in the hands of artists. But there was that mindset that when you’re pushing at the edge of things, you have to be so curious and fail so much. I know that’s a common adage. You have to be able to fail and document it. I do think it was happening at that time that led to interesting artists and companies. Now, we need to institutionalize that more, so we continue to push the envelope. I think it inspires everyone to push into new frontiers.
[31:24] Allan: You’re absolutely right! It’s important to find new inspiration. It comes back to that curiosity. New York is famous for coming up with new concepts. It’s about finding ways to be creative and unique.
Orion: We started calling it the What If Meeting. We recognize that it’s what we’ve always done intuitively. I have a friend who left to work for a different company. He came back and pointed that out: That What If Meeting, it doesn’t happen anywhere else.
[32:58] Allan: To pivot for a second, can we talk about what contributions Buck made to Love Death + Robots?
Orion: I wasn’t more involved in the early stages of talking about the What If’s of doing it. I was more on the executive side. Our contribution was a fun one. It was an idea that came from Tim Miller. Tim and Jeff may have pitched it as a game trailer, as a tilt shift. Then also we recognized there was something funny and interesting in that. At the time, they were like, “Blur doesn’t do funny.” They tried to crack the script a few times. They came to us as directors and a studio. We were brought in to do some story development. It got shelved for Season 2 but came back for Season 3 because it had some story development to it already. Our role was to take the initial idea and figure out how to crack the story. So much of cracking the story is about the visual things you bring to it, and animation specifically. It’s a weird way to tell a story, so it required some trial and error. Our involvement was mostly in story development, pre-production and animation. We did some of the custom animation, and then we worked with Rodeo FX on some of the larger VFX shots.
[35:48] Allan: How was it received?
Orion: It was well received internally. It was so fun to work on! Externally, that’s what’s exciting about getting into the entertainment world for Buck. On the brand side of commercials, we don’t get to see the audience’s reaction. One of the things that’s funny about that particular Episode is that looking at the reaction, it’s a bit divisive. People either love it or hate it. It is different and unique. The general attitude of it does kind of transcend the genre in a way. It’s talking about death and sex, and the end of the world. It’s been fun to see that reaction. Our take on it was: Idiocracy meets World War Z. We wanted certain satire infused into it.
[37:31] Allan: I loved it because it’s so refreshing! If anything, you could think of Zombieland. Here, you have a tilt shift of a perspective.
Orion: Tim and the Director [Robert Bisi] understood that from pretty early on: It was this idea of the perspective of that storytelling. It’s the wide tilt shift. From the storytelling standpoint, it’s so tempting to – especially when so much craft and VFX went into it – to zoom in and show all the detail. We really needed to resist it. The funnier it would be and the more it would resonate.
[39:35] Allan: What were some of the biggest challenges you witnessed on the project?
Orion: There were definitely story challenges. I think we weren’t sure if it was going to translate because it was just in a wide shot. But also from a VFX shot, we didn’t know how to bid it. Everything is a wide! We wanted it to be real and not stylized. We went down this stock route and that was challenging. But that ended up being a silver lining. We found this one person who’s done this miniature drone stuff, and his footage was amazing. What was interesting to see is how far matte painters can push it from there. There were so many technical challenges, but many of them are what made the project special.
[41:34] Allan: That’s cool! I want to talk about brand. To me, brand is reputation. For Buck, how important is it to have that visibility and what you’re known for.
Orion: That’s a debate. For many growth companies – and Buck has grown past 600 or so – it’s hard to focus on your brand. But I think we recognized when we started to pivot that our brand was pretty incongruous. I think a lot of people still don’t know what Buck is. We work with a lot of clients where the work is confidential. But a part of it is the result of our growth. Some of that mystery can be good, at times. So much of our business strategy (if you want to call it that) has been around recognizing that we’re in the talent business. That’s our only asset. The people we work with and the relationships we had, our official statement is: Buck aspires to be the pinnacle of sustainable creative culture where people come first, artistic worth is championed, and spaceship Earth becomes a better place to live, for all. That’s aspirational. But our brand pushes toward that, too. The more we started to recognize that should be our focus, the more our brand started to behave that way.
One of the things I’m really excited about is that we’re pretty far along in the B-Corp process. It’s pretty cool! The biggest one is Patagonia in terms of being publicly traded. It’s a set of credentials and rules that you have to abide by in order to get this. It institutionalizes the value. It’s important to act and behave a certain way with the environment, a certain way you treat your people, your financial transparency. Then, you’re able to have that designation. It’s hard to get that accreditation. We have to walk the walk.
[46:05] Allan: That’s awesome! What are some of the key lessons you’ve learned over the years, running a studio.
Orion: I think the core one is that this is a people business. Often, people focus on the end product which is important but it’s the result of people making it. Putting the focus on people has been a business lesson. Over the last few years, it’s come to the forefront. All of those lessons that we’ve benefited from our past jobs have borne fruit.
And then I’d say another one was to be true to the way we work. There was a pivotal moment where everyone around us had been working in a collaborative way. Our competitors were building a roster of name directors. We had reps at that time that were asking us to do that. We were losing big pitches. We could’ve shifted that way. But it wasn’t the way we worked. We doubled down on it. Whether it was luck or good timing, it allowed us to take on much more complex projects because we weren’t this single vision. It allowed us to be much more expansive.
[49:34] Allan: Orion, it’s been awesome to catch up! Where can people learn more about you?
Orion: www.Buck.com is our website and @buck_design is our Instagram. We have a great following up there.
[50:29] Allan: Thanks so much for taking the time!
Orion: Thanks, Allan!
Okay, what did you think? I want to thank Orion for coming on the Podcast. This was a blast!
Next week, I’ll be sitting down with the CTO of VOLTAKU, and AR/VR Developer Sally Slade to talk about her work in VR, AR, MR, XR; launching VOLTAKU, developing her own app, upcoming technology and the importance of programming skills for artists.
Until then –
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