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Chris O’Reilly
Chris O'Reilly

Chris O'Reilly

APEngine’s Jacqui Davies talks to Chris O’Reilly, co-founder of London based Nexus Productions. The studio is dedicated to the development of unique voices in filmmaking, bringing together artists and technical talent to work in a collaborative atmosphere to make existing and creative content.

Nexus has a worldwide reputation for creative storytelling and its roster of directing talent – working with multi-disciplinary skills in animation, live action and interactive media – includes Jonas Odell, Woof Wan-Bau, Johnny Kelly, Carolina Melis and Jim Le Fevre. Nexus have been responsible for a diverse range of award winning work from the Cannes Grand Prix winning Honda commercial, a Grammy nominated music video for Franz Ferdinand and the title sequence for Steven Spielberg’s catch me if you can. Chris produced and co-wrote the Oscar nominated short This Way Up, directed by Smith and Foulkes.

So Chris what could you call yourself now?

Personally, I’m a producer…but I think that in itself has just become a bit of a catch all term that anyone working in the industry who is not directly an artist uses. My job is primarily focussed on development and getting projects going. And especially now everything’s got more diversified and where projects are coming from, it’s an incredibly complex media environment. I think producers are critical in pulling all those elements together and that’s what I think my job is to do.

And there’ve been lots of shifts that have taken a few years to settle in – how do you kind of see those shifts and how have they affected the way Nexus works and the way you work?

That’s right. And the recession has kind of catalysed a lot of changes that were already implicitly present but weren’t really being acted out. I think it’s brought a kind of need for a kind of different type of creativity. It isn’t possible to use the hammer blow of cash to shock and awe audiences and we’ve really been looking for other ways to engage with people. I think there’s a new kind of sense of collaboration between people and that’s really how we’ve changed how we’re working.

We’re now doing projects that aren’t quite square pegs – everything is now a little bit of an odd shape and needs quite a considerable amount of negotiation – and creative negotiation – to decide what it’s going to be.  So working with online projects, for example, which have collaboration between filmmaker and programmers, or working with film and animation on work for installation spaces – these obviously have a whole other set of criteria.

For us one of the exciting big shifts is that it’s just loads more opportunity, but it’s also quite hectic – everything is a whole new unique set up and not just a 30 or 60 second film – which was the traditional model of the commercial market, or a three minute music video which was the traditional product of the record industry so. I think that kind of massive shift is just the beginning.

So there’s one shift in terms of technology and another in terms of collaboration. And corporate structures are struggling to catch up with the way people now think and the way that they collaborate, and which makes them more productive. Have you shifted to the way that you work through Nexus to accommodate these different ways of working?  Do you work, allow people to work, in other places and bring it all together?

We’ve done it in a couple of different ways. We thought it was really important to do it in production. So as producers we’ve taken on different people in production who’ve got a better understanding of how that sort of thing works. We recognised that it needed to be sort of hard baked into how we work. And our most recent talent signings have been much more aware of how to work in an interactive environment – they’re still filmmakers, but interested in different types of screens.

I’ve noticed that younger directors don’t have the same sort of primacy of order of screens. Originally directors always saw it as cinema, TV, computer and then right at the end, mobile phone. And that was a job that no one would really want. Working now with young directors you notice that they don’t have any of that same sense of hierarchy between screens. They don’t see a cinema screen as any more exciting than a mobile screen. They know if they do something on a mobile phone all their friends will see it. And so it’s more exciting than something that only the guys who happen to be going along to see Marley & Me might catch. There’s a nice shift of enthusiasm in the talent as well.

I think that’s how the shifts are mostly reflected – in our production set up and the different types of people that we’re working with. And then extending the range of people that we can collaborate with. I’ve spent a lot more time meeting people who aren’t from a traditional animation background but who are programmers or more technical people, but creative in their own field. That’s probably the main sort of area that we’re interested in.

And do you find that label of animation problematic?

It’s always had certain problems with it because to some people animation is synonymous with cartoon and that was never our thing. When we very first started a long time ago, we called everyone digital filmmakers, and that was kind of meaningless to a lot of people, but now that’s actually a more useful term – digital filmmaking.  Obviously nearly all filmmaking is ultimately digital, but it’s less of a contentious trap.

But I think too, especially in the arena of interactive filmmaking, there isn’t really any division between animation and live action because it’s all frame by frame manipulated – so that kind of terminology isn’t useful. In a sense that’s gone out the window and we just really see ourselves as representatives of artists/film makers who will have a number of different tools in their tool box that they can use to put a film together. And that could be live action, it could be 3D, it could be 2D or stop frame…  And they will call on whichever ones they want.

We really try and throw the emphasis more on the artist as a creator and what their voice is rather than on any technique that they use.  So animation is at the core of what we do but at the same time it can be a kind of misleading term.

Everything’s digital with filmmaking nowadays but in the same way everything’s animation too.

Exactly. With feature films we’re getting to a point where you don’t really know what’s animated. The educational practice of animation – being taught that as a craft – is really useful for people coming into this new arena of filmmaking because these films are planned and created in your head first, and made very much to what you saw it as.  Whilst a lot of live action filmmakers come from a shoot in “we’ll make it in the edit” kind of way – which is not ideal for something that has such a high technical and massive collaborative element to it – as live action/animation hybrid films do.

A lot of animators are coming to the fore because of their real understanding of film. They really know how, working from a blank piece of paper or a blank computer screen, to create a visual image and that’s something that a background in traditional animation is always going to be an asset to.

What kinds of interactive animation are you starting to work in and how is that different to traditional animation?

We’re still learning a lot as we do it. The first forays have been in interactive music video and we deliberately targeted that area first because we thought how interactivity assumes a kind of interest in hanging out with the creative product – which you don’t always get if it’s for example for a commercial client. I don’t think many people want to hang out with a kind of butter or yoghurt!

We felt with music videos that people would have a genuine interest in interacting with those artists and musicians. And the music industry is intrinsically a digital business – if you’re selling trainers, ultimately you’ve got to get someone to buy some non digital trainers, and that takes you off the web. The beauty of something like the music industry is that it is a digital product. The music industry is 10 or 15 years in terms of what’s happened to their market. They’ve had a really rough time, they’ve been trying to work out how they can promote their artists and work in this new landscape and this felt like a really interesting way for them to get people looking – with the music video and interacting with it, and being part of a community.

We’ve of focussed on that area and it’s creatively simple. We deal with a band and there’s us – there isn’t a whole bunch of people around the table so. Creatively I think we’re discovering there are going to be different things that work better in this arena than other things and that’s going to be an ongoing process.

There’s a new language of editing that’s going to come, because suddenly you’re having to kind of take into account that there’s someone else involved – allowing people to touch and interact with certain parts of it. And it has further to go. For us it’s about finding how we can push further those levels of interaction. And there are different types of interaction… allowing the viewer to leave some kind of creative mark behind, there’s kind of game play.  There’s data visualisation. Social networking possibilities. It’s not always like it’s the same model.

It’s coming back to this idea that it’s not a top down kind of creative exercise, you’re open to other people having input?

But I have a slight wariness about it too, because you kind of have this sort of idea of a kind of a Mongolian Barbeque where you give everybody all the ingredients and then when they screw it up it’s their fault because they cooked it.  And to me that is not what it should be. I think a lot of interactivity errs towards being this un-authored experience and I think the best interactive stuff is still highly authored but it allows an opportunity for you to come in.

So we’re still very interested in the director’s voice. We still see this as being an artist led experience and created by one or a collaborative mind – not by just throwing it open to everybody to somehow pull it together.

Do you see it as educational in a way then, where you’re leading people to find certain things?

It’s more that we’re getting people to play within a framework that’s been created rather than just throwing them the bag of stuff. And we’re not trying to cover all aspects of the interactivity, we’re looking at a very particular slice. We’re interested in where filmmaking and interactivity are broaching. We’re not constrained towards game or web design and we’re trying to allow that authored voice prepare interactive content.

Nexus has been quite distinctive in that it you actively encourage people to pursue their own projects or nurtures artists to have their personal projects and visions.

We really started Nexus to do that other stuff and the commercial work was a side part of it. Obviously the commercial part of what we do has paid for filmmaking in the broader sense, which can be anything from title sequences to interactive collaborations and installations. There was never meant to be any kind of primacy between either.

What I really loved about the old style animation studios was that they were involved in such a really broad range of projects. They weren’t specifically commercial studios or music video studios, they had a really broad involvement in animated filmmaking, and we’ve always wanted to kind of keep that. It’s good for the directors but it’s good for the producers too because that’s what they’re interested in as well – everyone wants to be involved in those projects.  And they have a side benefit of keeping a creative atmosphere in the studio but we do them because they’re interesting in their own right.

And we get to do stuff where we get to push our work in different directions that we might not be able to necessarily do commercially.

Is on of those things engaging with many different platforms without having to break down those barriers?

Absolutely. The different directors have different engagements beyond their commercial work. A director like Woof Wan-Bau who works as a fine art filmmaker as Joji Koyama – his work comes from a very personal space.

And then other directors are more interested in the feature film industry – people like Smith and Foulkes, whose shorts are personal shorts but they’re not fine art films. So different directors we’re working with are working under different parameters.

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