Axel Lavin - creative director at Stir

Norway-based Axel Lavin has been working in animation and VFX for the last eight years. As a child he made films in his backyard, and now his favourite type of work is making title sequences for films and TV series. Three years ago he started his own company, Stir, and he enjoys being both the creative director and the CEO.

How did you get into video and what was your path to working specifically in animation and VFX?

I’ve always been interested in video. I started making films aged 10 in my backyard with my neighbor, doing silly films playing James Bond. We also did a little bit of stop-motion with lego, but it was mostly film. From ages 16 to 19, I went to a media-oriented high school where we learned the basics of photography, storyboarding, directing, and filmmaking, and that piqued my interest further. My first job was at an event company in Norway. I started as an editor and then some projects came up where they needed some After Effects skills, and I said “ok I can try to teach myself After Effects”, and that’s how I came into animation. I jumped into stuff I didn’t know anything about, and learned by doing. I worked there for four years, then I went freelance, because I wanted to do something that would be seen by more people; something that would live longer externally. After a year freelancing I hired one guy, and six months later I started the company I work in now with one more guy. That’s almost three years ago now. There’s no real education other than just learning by experience. I now have eight years of experience.

Tell us about a typical day at work for you?

I typically come in and make sure everybody’s got stuff to do. I have different hats – there are seven of us, and I’m the project manager, the boss, and also the creative director. I have a constant to-do list because I do a lot of project management, and I also produce as an art director at the beginning of projects. Then I’ll follow up and often add final touches to projects.

What type of videos are you making at your company?

We make mostly animated stuff, commercials, TV advertisements, title sequences and brand films. We use a variety of different styles of animation, whatever fits the concept best. Our work is mainly for big businesses like offshore and telecommunications companies, as well as title sequences for feature films and TV series in Norway.

What's the biggest challenge in your video projects right now?

The challenges arise at different levels of the production. The beginning is mostly about creative challenges; getting your head around the universe you’re building for this production, and setting the rules. And then when you are planning the production you get the more logistical challenges. It’s also challenging communicating with the client, so making that process as smooth as possible is key to avoiding misunderstandings.

How do you use Wipster in your workflow?

We use it as soon as we start putting storyboards on the timeline, and basically use it all the way to the final delivery. We will upload every new version of a job. Sometimes it might be just shared internally because we have a project in progress that we want to collaborate on with our team. Our clients understand it well and find it useful, especially the agencies and clients that have previous knowledge of these kind of tools. Some clients who are not used to and don’t want to be introduced to a new solution might prefer to still receive the video as a file by email, but mostly clients are willing. Wipster is easy to get your head around, and clients usually understand the benefits.

How were you collaborating and reviewing before Wipster?

We were basically sending video files by email then getting a reply with notes connected to time codes. Wipster is much easier, and actually means you have a better relationship with your client. When you view it in Wipster, you can see so clearly what the client is talking about because they mark the spots where they want you to do something. Whereas when you get an email, you read the list of all the comments and feel like there’s so much to do, and then you need to go look at the film and go through the notes. Wipster doesn’t set you in that disappointed mood. You might get exactly the same feedback in Wipster, but you read the notes as you watch the film, so you have the context, and go “ah ok, that’s not too hard”. I think it’s just a better, more friendly way to receive feedback.

Where do you look for inspiration?

It’s mostly the internet – we have maybe 20 to 30 websites that we scan for inspiration once we get a project going. We frequently look to inspiring blogs such as MotionographerStash, and Fromupnorth. We also have discussions in small groups of two to four people and throw around ideas. We don’t have any kind of ritual where we go out camping or anything.

Who do you admire in the industry?

BuckElasticAntibodyManvsMachineGiant AntDvein. They’re all very conceptual and always very thorough – you can see that they’ve spent the extra hours necessary to achieve great results, all the way from preproduction to deadline. It’s just very thought out, there’s nothing left to randomness, everything is planned by great creative minds, and then created by skilfull artists, and crafted by great craftsmen.

What separates a good creative director from a great one?

You need the ability to think creatively without worrying about how it’ll be done technically, yet also have the knowledge of how to do it technically. You need to be able to think freely. In the beginning of a process you need to be able to separate yourself from techniques, and just think of concepts that would tell the story in a nice visual way. And then you need to be able to follow up the process technically at a very high level. You also need to have an eye for how to improve things. You need to be able to say “ok you’ve done it this way, but need to do it that way instead”, rather than just “it needs to look better”. If a creative director has hands-on knowledge of all aspects of production, as well as being creative genius, then they’ll be able to really channel the workers to do exactly what they should do to achieve the creative director’s goal.

What do you think about the medium of video compared to other communication channels?

You get drawn in very quickly because the combination of moving image and sound makes you concentrate on the video more; you get more sucked in than just visuals, or just audio. Video has benefits and downsides. For me personally, I like to listen to the radio because I don’t need to look at it. Sometimes I actually listen to TED Talks in the car, and don’t look at them, I just listen to them. That’s the downside of video, you need to lock yourself 100 percent to watching it. The benefits are definitely that you get the consumer more concentrated on the medium. It’s something that almost everybody likes to do – to see a film at the cinema or watch a series at home. And it makes me proud to work with video because almost everyone I know watches HBO series or Netflix series. It’s all around you and it’s nice to be a part of.

Is there one piece of advice you would give video creatives just starting out in their careers?

For me it’s always been about finding the balance of risk and sustainability. I think it’s important at least in the beginning – and it’s important all the way too – to push yourself. Don’t be afraid of what you don’t know, because you can always learn it. Someone has always learned the stuff you think is hard. So it’s about just always wanting to learn. You need to be able to risk failure, you just need to go with ideas that will push boundaries and if you think that something is not doable technically, then you need to try to find a way to do it. Some projects you need to push yourself, because maybe you’ll fail, but maybe you’ll succeed, and if you succeed you’ve hopefully created something great.