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Podcast: From MK12 to the Spider-Verse, a Chat With James Ramirez
James Ramirez swings by the podcast to chat about his career evolution from MK12 to directing titles in Hollywood.
Today's guest is really near and dear to our heart. He is a Texan, check. He was a legendary artist at MK12, check. And he recently co-directed the Main on End Title Sequence for Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse, check it out.
James's reel testifies to his incredible MoGraph work. In it, you'll find every rediculous MoGraph discipline imaginable including dynamics, 3D, 2D and plenty of Hollywood work.
If you're ready to hear what hard work and bustin' your chops will get you, James has a boat-load of knowledge and he's come to port with the goods.
James Ramirez Podcast Interview
You can listen to the James Ramirez podcast episode below.
James Ramirez Interview Show Notes
Below are some helpful links mentioned in the podcast interview.
- John Cherniak
James Ramirez Podcast Interview Transcript
Joey Korenman: Motion designers of a certain age will have a soft spot in their hearts for the legendary studio, MK12. Based in Kansas City, which, by the way, is in Missouri, which I always get wrong. Anyway, the studio helped created the modern field of motion design. In their heyday, they were the undisputed champs of using After Effects in ways that made you say, "What the hell sort of voodoo is going on over there?" And in the early 2000s, a young artist found himself in the middle of this artist collective, soaking up knowledge and trying his best to keep up. Many years later, this artist got a chance to co-direct a main on-end title sequence for one of the biggest animated films ever, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
Joey Korenman: James Ramirez is on the podcast today, and he has had quite a journey in the industry. Making his way from small town Texas to Kansas to Missouri, and finally to Los Angeles. He seems to keep finding himself in the middle of MoGraph history, kind of like Forrest Gump. He's worked on some really influential pieces and has built up his technical and creative chops through hard work and a humble attitude.
Joey Korenman: This conversation has some nostalgia, some cool stories about the early days of MoGraph and lots of great advice for artists looking to make their mark. So ladies and germs, here is James Ramirez, in one moment.
Joey Korenman: James Friedpixels Ramirez, it is amazing to have you on the podcast. And we were talking before we started recording, and we just started rambling for five minutes about the history of MoGraph. And I was like, "Finally, we have to start recording." So anyway, I'm really looking forward to this conversation.
James Ramirez: Yeah, thanks so much for having me on. It's a pleasure to be here.
Joey Korenman: So, I figured ... I mean, you've worked on so many cool things. And something that everyone listening's probably heard of is Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. You work on main on-ends. But let's start with MK12, because anyone listening to this podcast has heard of MK12. And if you're a MoGrapher of a certain age, then you used to worship MK12. And if I'm not mistaken, that was literally your first gig right out of school. So I'd like to just kind of leave it there and let you kind of tell the story. How'd you get there? What was it like?
James Ramirez: Yeah, it's really kind of crazy. I don't really know how I fell into it, and I feel like I basically won the lottery, because I was in the blind. I didn't know about MK12 until I had actually gone to college and I went to the Kansas City Art Institute in Kansas City, Missouri. And they, a few of them, had actually kind of gone through the program. I think maybe only Timmy actually, Timmy and Jed, finished the program, but they had gone through there, so the school was kind of aware of them, and they were kind of the only shop in town that was doing anything like them. So anybody who kind of came through and was doing anything related to computers and filmmaking, they kind of would push that way, and they were ... I mean, they were really proud that they had gone through there. So I kind of stumbled into them, unbeknownst to me that this was something you could do. I was very fortunate to where I was really into art, kind of in growing up. And I had gotten into computers, probably in '96 or '97, and I had never really connected those two things as related; I just really enjoyed being on the computer, because they were something new. The internet was kicking off, and it was just this really interesting slice of technology that I just kind of got infatuated with.
James Ramirez: And for whatever reason, nobody in my family told me no. Everyone was really just supportive and encouraging. And I was the first person in my family to go to college, and I was ... Looking back on it, it's completely crazy that my mom didn't tell me, "What are you going to do with this when you finish?" Or, "You're not going to make money doing this," or any of that. She just kind of was like, "Cool, yeah. Let's do this," and I applied to some schools and got in. And then it just became a thing.
James Ramirez: And so I moved out there, to Kansas City, from Texas, where I was born and raised. And I didn't have any family around me, and I was just kind of thrown into this whole new place and a whole new world, growing up. And so going to that school was super interesting, because the first year is what they call foundations, which are just kind of getting the appetizer sampler so you can just kind of see all of the different kind of curriculums; ceramics, sculpting, painting, photography, and kind of see what fits for you. And we did a little bit of Photoshop stuff, and I aced it. Everything else was kind of a struggle, and it was new and I was learning, but that hit with me.
James Ramirez: And so I went into the department that was called photography and new media. And then that's kind of where ... I remember going in, and we were all kind of showing the work that we had been doing, and kind of where everyone was starting at, just to kind of get introduced and kind of see what to kind of tackle. And what I brought with me was just kind of all of this Flash stuff, because that's what I had been doing. As soon as I got on the computer and got the internet, I kind of, for whatever reason; I don't even understand why, but I started learning Flash and kind of HTML and kind of website stuff. And I was really learning animation without realizing I was learning animation. I was learning how to ease and how to do timing and how to do all this kind of interactive stuff, and I never really pieced that together as a technical thing; I just was doing something that I enjoyed.
James Ramirez: And a good friend of mine, Carlos, who I grew up with in Texas, kind of messed around with computers and stuff too, so he was interesting to bounce stuff off of and kind of learn from what he was doing. And so the work that I was showing ended up being kind of like these Flash, I don't know, websites that I had made, or kind of random interactive experiments.
James Ramirez: And everyone kind of looked at me in a way that I didn't really belong, in a sense. Because it was almost commercial, in a way, what I was making at the time; was just websites for people and Flash, I don't know, banners and whatever and promotional content. But the professors there, I think really saw that I had a technical chop and that I was obviously interested in kind of the artistic side, so I think they saw something there to mold. And I kind of dove in, and it was really interesting, kind of taking in everything they had to offer.
James Ramirez: But it was kind of more of like a filmmaking course in a way, sort of; heavy on photography, but the new media part was like, "Anything computer goes." So it was just an interesting mix of people that were there. And then when they kind of put me onto MK12, I kind of began to have a focus. Like, "Okay, this is ... What they're doing is mind blowing." And, I mean, this is a kind of ... You're getting introduced in 2002, 2003. So some of the big pieces, I think, at the time were ... They had done the short film Man of Action. They had Sweaterporn, which is another kind of experimental, weird, crazy animation. Trying to think of ... Embryo.
Joey Korenman: Ultra Love Ninja.
James Ramirez: Ultra Love Ninja. There was all these kind of, just super experimental, crazy, weird, hybrid things that I didn't really understand, but it definitely caught my interest. And so I was basically gearing up to try to get an internship there my junior year, which was, I guess 2003 or 2004-ish. And it just so happened that there was an adjunct professor, Scott Peters, who was around the department at that time. He had graduated a few years earlier, and he had came back to kind of just teach this one animation class. It was kind of the only animation class at the school. And he was teaching Maya and After Effects. And there was maybe five or six of us in this class, and it became my favorite thing. I just kind of got so absorbed, and he was really teaching me something that I didn't really ... This is all new.
James Ramirez: And so learning Flash, I kind of had tried to figure out 3D. I remember downloading Rhino 3D, just a CAD software. And I just didn't understand it. And I had downloaded, somehow got my hands on Max, and that was Greek to me, too. So I didn't really know how to do anything. And then but Flash stuck, in all that kind of language of ... I really got into action scripting, and I got into the animation of it. And so it was cool for him to be able to see what I knew and kind of channel that into a focus, and then kind of point me towards trying to learn stuff that, if I wanted to go do this internship at MK12, this is the kind of stuff that I needed to learn.
James Ramirez: And so that kind of put me in a position, basically, to learn the basics and then approach them with kind of a plethora of experiments and stuff that I had made. And it was, I guess, interesting enough to them that they kind of entertained the idea of doing an internship. And they didn't really do that a lot. They had done it, I think, in the past. And I don't think it went really well. Sorry to whoever that person was. But so it's just because they're artists, they're ... That's the craziest thing, and I think that's kind of what ended up defining them in their style, was that they went to art school and then they decided they worked well together when they met there. And it was just kind of this organic process, how they formed. And I say that in a sense, it's not like they ever went into this to be a business. And so I think they became a business, unintentionally. And so there's just this kind of nature to how they were creating things that was much ...
James Ramirez: They called themselves an artist collective, and I didn't really understand it at the time. Because that's the only place I had been introduced to. But later on in life, when I look back at it, I'm like, "Oh, wait. I totally get what you meant by being an artist collective. It's not like you were just a boutique studio or you were a studio proper or a visual effects whatever." It was these guys getting together to collaborate, to make these experimental things, because it really wasn't even an industry at the time. It was just ... They were kind of figuring out how to do this and also make money from it, at the same time.
James Ramirez: So it was really interesting to kind of fall into there, and I think that's kind of ... I don't know. I feel like they brought me on, and were ... Ben was really kind of the person who was interacting with the interns the most, because I think he really kind of liked that mentorship, apprenticeship kind of style to learning, having somebody there. And I mean, I was so green. I mean, I was learning ... I remember, there was a guy there at the time, John Baker. I remember my first week there, he handed me this printed document of like, "This is in TSC specs, and this is what frame rates are, and this is what-"
Joey Korenman: Oh, god.
James Ramirez: You know? "This is how we make QuickTimes and stuff," and it was just all these things. I didn't even know what to do, and they were so accommodating to my lack of knowledge. And what they saw in me was potential.
Joey Korenman: But let me ask you this. I have so many questions about this. So this is amazing to me, because ... For everyone listening, you have to understand, in 2003, I was at my first real job. And I think you were maybe interning there around that time. And then in 2005, you get hired. And in 2005, that's when I really went deep. That's when I realized ... Because I was kind of doing 50/50 editing and motion graphics, and I was like, "I really like the motion graphics stuff." And I was on mograph.net every single day. I was-
James Ramirez: Yeah.
Joey Korenman: You know? Because there was no YouTube, there was no Vimeo.
James Ramirez: Yeah.
Joey Korenman: And so if you wanted to see cool work, people would have to post about it on there.
James Ramirez: Yeah.
Joey Korenman: You know? There was no way to discover this stuff any other way. And every time MK12 dropped something, it was like Christmas. You know? And so it's just really interesting to hear the backstory to it. And at some point, I definitely would love to have Ben or Timmy or anyone else that was there at that time talk about that stuff.
Joey Korenman: But from your perspective, I'm really curious. Because you and I, I think, have ... Well, first of all, we're both from Texas. We definitely have similar backgrounds. In terms of the technical side and how we got into this; I got in from ... I didn't get in through Flash, although I was using Flash and I was watching some of the same websites that you were, I'm sure. And I sort of found myself in the world of After Effects and got in, basically through my technical chops. That's what got me in the door. And all of the conceptual thinking and design and animation, that all came much later.
Joey Korenman: And it's interesting, looking ... Right now, I'm on in Vimeo. I'm looking at MK12's Vimeo channel. And you can go all the way back and see their stuff they posted from 2000.
James Ramirez: Yeah.
Joey Korenman: I mean, they've uploaded everything. And you look at it, and I mean, it's amazing how well something from 2001 holds up. The animation was never really sophisticated and the design was sort of simple at times, but there was some really crazy After Effects stuff going on. There was really strong design foundational stuff, and really, really, really strong concepts. And amazing reference, too.
Joey Korenman: And I'm curious, for you coming in, what was that learning curve like; to go from ... And I'm assuming, like most students, you were probably focused a lot of learning the tool and getting good at the tool and being able to understand things like NTSC and frame rates and how to render. And then you're working with these artists who are probably pulling references, for sure in Ben's case, from the '50s and stuff, and thinking on this different level.
Joey Korenman: And I want to know, just on the creative side; design and concept, how was it to acclimate from that, coming from school?
James Ramirez: Yeah, in that same regard, kind of like I was saying, I was very kind of technically-oriented. And I think getting to school what the program helped me figure out, was that conceptual side of learning; that you can make stuff, but then there was also reasons to make stuff.
Joey Korenman: Ah, yes.
James Ramirez: And so I went from kind of making these Flash websites and banners and ads, or whatever, to ... I remember making a lot of interesting interactive Flash pieces that would kind of almost be installations or that type of work. And so I remember there was one that I did that I mapped the entire keyboard. Every key was a phrase that I had said. It was kind of very diary-esque, but very art school work, but it was like you could press a key and you would hear these different phrases I had recorded.
James Ramirez: But I began to kind of think of it as an outlet for ideas. And so I think being in that environment helped me come from kind of the same educational background that those guys had gone through. So I think that buffer helped a lot. Because of, that was something that I had no experience in. And then working with them, I remember starting and they very clearly told me, like, "We're hiring you not to come on and do MK12 style stuff. We're hiring you to come on and just do you." And it's hard to tell somebody young who's learning that kind of big thinking, because it seems like such a simple statement, but at the time, when you're going to work with some place that's that big and they have that many kind of eyes, you think that they're just like, "Hey, come on and make stuff like us," and, "We have a vision and style, and we want you to adhere to that." It was more just like, "Come on and make some things and be a part of this."
James Ramirez: But, granted though, what I'm learning from them I'm obviously going to kind of do things the way that they're doing it. So inherently, I kind of picked up some of their style. But yeah, when it came to references, it was kind of like all things were welcome. And the more weird, the better. We were never trying to reference our industry. It's not like we were looking at ... Like you said, it's not like there was a big catalog of stuff, and there really wasn't a lot of places where everything was hosted. So it's not like you were going to Motionographer to look for the latest piece. I mean, that kind of eventually came.
James Ramirez: But it was just kind of like a, "Let's make stuff, and we're going to make it whoever we want." And of course, based on the brief, you're going to try to tie it back to whatever you're doing, but I think that was what was interesting about them, is that they ... I always looked back at it as they were very, very, very stubborn artists, and they loved their ideas that they came up with. They got attached to them, and they would sometimes pitch clients these ideas that, now, we would never do because it seems so unsafe. You want to get work, but these guys were so artist-centric that the ideas and stuff they were putting forward was, I feel like, sometimes so outlandish. I mean, I said earlier, like Chinese acrobats in hell. That was literally the-
Joey Korenman: That was real.
James Ramirez: That was a real thing. I believe that it was a Diesel Jeans pitch. And it was so weird and surreal, the things that they were pulling from. But yeah, what ended up happening, though a lot of times, is we would come up with these fun ideas that we made design for and actually loved. And then the client didn't go for it, and they basically got put into this pile of stuff that we wanted to make anyway. So there was so many short films that got kind of born out of these ideas that came up that were just too wild for actual commercial work.
James Ramirez: But yeah, so I think that process was to kind of learn from them, how they were putting together decks and learn the treatments that they were writing and the references they were pulling. I was constantly picking up new things. There was always something that someone would put as references that I hadn't seen, because I was so green. I just hadn't seen anything; film history or art history. I was learning so much. And so they would always put out these great things that I just didn't understand. And it was fun to kind of absorb all this. And I feel like, to this day, that has really stuck with me, to try to always pull as far away from the normal thinking that I can, and it's something that I really enjoying doing, is putting together reference decks and trying to figure out treatments that feel a little outside the box. At least, even, if at the end of the day they get kind of brought back down to earth a little bit, and what the execution ends up being, I feel like at least I was able to start from a really interesting place and kind of sell through the idea to get to that point. So it's always a journey.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. So I mean, it's funny because a lot of the things that MK12 was doing way back then are things that every successful studio has to do now. You were talking about this really odd thing they did, where they would have this cycle of doing sort of experimental studio projects that would then bring in client work, that would then pay the bills so they could do more experimental studio work. And now, I mean, that's the same formula that Buck uses with a little bit of a modification. I mean, it's still ... The coolest work is generally not done for clients. Although I do think that, back then, client work had a higher chance of being cool than it does today, it seems like.
James Ramirez: Yeah.
Joey Korenman: So one thing that I wanted to ask you about, and I know anyone listening who was following MK12 back in the day would probably be curious about this. I remember before YouTube, and really, the early, early days of Creative COW, even. There was no place to go and say, "Hey, here's a neat thing I saw. I'm pretty sure they did it in After Effects. How the heck did they set that up?"
James Ramirez: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Joey Korenman: And there was a lot of that coming out of MK12. And I remember ... And it's really funny, because I have this specific memory of, I'm pretty sure it's Ultra Love Ninja. And by the way, we'll link to everything we're talking about in the show notes so everyone can go check it out. Ultra Love Ninja had this type reveal.
James Ramirez: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah.
Joey Korenman: And it was sort of this fake, 3D kind of looking type. And I remember watching it, and there was this long thread of mograph.net, "How did they do that? Oh my god." And I think someone from MK12 came on and sort of explained it. Or somewhere, it was explained. And it was so clever. How the heck were you guys figuring out stuff back then? Because every project would have something crazy. I mean, you mentioned Sweaterporn, which is another piece that everyone should go watch. There's this effect in there were these images get extruded in these weird ways, and then they become 3D. And I mean, even now looking at it, I would kind of struggle to know exactly how it was pulled off. And every piece, it seemed like it had some crazy, cooky technical thing going on. Where did they come from?
James Ramirez: Yeah. I have no idea where that comes from. They were all very good at tinkering, and I think I picked that up from them, too. But so the main ... Just to also kind of set the stage, let's talk about who kind of was there during my time. The main partners were Ben Radatz, Timmy Fisher, Shaun Hamontree, Jed Carter and there was ... Chad Perry was there. He as kind of like our office IT/office manager/everything. He was such an amazing guy to kind of help facilitate so many things. Maiko Kuzunishi who was this amazing kind of designer, but she also did kind of After Effects; ended up learning After Effects to kind of help out with stuff. Matt Fraction, who was kind of really into comics and he's having an amazing career in that field, and he writes for Images, I think, and has helped on a ton of films and all kinds of stuff, so he's really blown up. And John Baker, who did 2D animation, and he was mostly kind of like an editor. John Dretzka was there during my time, who was kind of another After Effects kind of illustrator kind of guy.
James Ramirez: And so it was these people who kind of came from these very different backgrounds, and everyone kind of came together to make things. And I think all these different backgrounds later on, kind of a couple years into being there; the other people that joined on were Heather Brantman; she kind of came on a designer, but she ended up learning After Effects stuff, too. And like I said, she's a type guru. I love her. She's amazing. And Shawn Burns came on, as well. So there was kind of this group of people that, some of those names were there when I started and then kind of left, but it was always around eight or nine people.
James Ramirez: But what I was trying to say with that, is that I think this kind of approach of having all these different voices come into the room together ... And back to the filmmaking background, I think everyone approached things in a really interesting, deconstructive way. There would be a problem presented, and then everyone would kind of go away and figure out the best way to kind of execute that, and then kind of figure out a way to at least make it a process that, if it was, say ... Like Ben was really good at coming up with these crazy After Effects solutions that he could then save out of project and hand it to you. And at the time, I guess I didn't think of it, but it's kind of like he would figure out a way to template things to hand off, which was amazing at that time. Like you said, it's not like you could just kind of go out and find ... It's not like you could go get an example from anywhere. These guys were making it all up.
James Ramirez: And so Ultra Love is this amalgamation of ... they had a small ... They always had a green screen stage, at various stages in their careers and the different spaces; it was smaller, and then when we finally moved to our bigger space that I was in for half my time there, it was a huge ... Half the size of the studio was a green screen. And so they would shoot stuff on their own, and then incorporate ... They would shoot their friends and then bring that in. They would shoot elements, which is really common these days. But, again, these guys are kind of very DIY, so they were scanning in textures to use and make brushes and different elements to bring into 3D or 2D; capturing video to bring in and use as elements.
James Ramirez: So there was all this kind of things that would funnel into the creative process, which then lent to the visuals being very different than everything else. But yeah, I remember also on History of America, there was these ... When I joined, they had already done the teaser for it at the time. But when I came on, they were getting ready to kind of jump into full production on it, so there was some stuff they had figured out; the kind of stylized look they were going for. And I remember opening up one of Ben's projects for how to treat the footage, and it was this laying of these precomps that were just so stacked deep. But you would get to the bottom, he would always label his stuff like, "00_ ... " the name of something. So at the very, very bottom, there was this comp that was called 00_footage. You just throw stuff in there, and you go to the top, and magic happened. And you would go to the top, and you'd be like, "Wow. What is even happening?" And he would just kind of stack all of these effects. Because, you know, it was not like there was a bunch of plugins at this time, either. It was just straight up After Effects. You were just making After Effects stuff.
James Ramirez: And he would just layer all of these effects in a way that would create interesting outcomes. And I think all of them there kind of inherently had that in them, to kind of experiment and push the software to do things. And I think that led to that weird hybrid style of incorporating ... There was no rule; no one ever said, "You can't do ... This all needs to be all 2D," or, "This needs to all be 3D." It was always just what gets the job done. And that was it. You know? There was no question about ... If you made something, no one was going to question you on how you made it or ask you to go in your file and mess with it. It was really just kind of like everyone was making pieces, and it somehow all got brought together, and then that would all get rendered together.
James Ramirez: Some things had more structure to them, because they needed it, but most things were kind of really loose and full-on Western style of just doing whatever.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. I think it's a really pretty amazing experience to have someone like Ben, who sounds like he's just a total After Effects sorcerer, doing stuff like that.
James Ramirez: Yeah.
Joey Korenman: I mean, there's been a few people in my career that I've met like that, and you always pick up so many little tricks and ways of thinking that you would never have, otherwise.
Joey Korenman: So I want to ask you about a specific project that is kind of the total opposite of that. It's actually ... I suspect it was a much simpler sort of setup to do. But I'd say in my entire career, the number one things clients would send me as reference is the opening titles for Stranger than Fiction.
James Ramirez: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Joey Korenman: I would say I was probably sent that by clients at least 50 times. Like, "Oh, we want something like this." So anyway ... And of course, I'd say like, "Oh, yeah. It's an MK12 thing. Pick something easier, please."
Joey Korenman: So I want to just kind of hear what it was like to work on that. Because, I mean, that's kind of become one of those pieces where it's almost like a touchstone in the history of motion design, where, for whatever reason, that really stuck with people, and it was almost like, "Oh, I didn't know you could do that!" So I'd love to know how that project came about, and what your role was in there.
James Ramirez: Yeah, I always tell people if you've been referenced that piece 50 times, I've been referenced it 200 times, then.
Joey Korenman: Yeah.
James Ramirez: What's crazy though, is ... I mean, at the time, I feel like they had done such crazy experimental work that, for that to catch and have so much eyes on it and so much attention around it, we were kind of really baffled because it was ... And in my mind, it was so simple.
Joey Korenman: Right.
James Ramirez: It was as basic as you could get. And speaking of Creative COW, I remember, it was basically ... For those who haven't seen it, it's basically kind of tracked in graphics into shots and then they kind of have some swing and kind of kinetic movement to them. And I remember after we finished, and I was looking around on Creative COW, I think, or mograph.net, and somebody had said like, "Oh, I think I figured out how MK12 did that swing-in text. Here's an expression that I wrote that ... This is probably what they did." And I opened up the project and I looked at it, and it was so smart. They had set it up so you could add a layer marker, and whenever the play had got to that, it would swing or stop, or swing, or something. And I was like, "This is amazing." And like, "No, we just kind of hand-animated some keyframes and messed with the graph editor to do all of this by hand," and so ...
James Ramirez: Yeah, but it was ... It is a very simplistic thing, but I think what, again, ties it to a very MK12 quality is that it was all rooted in a conceptual conceit. You know? It was all thought about as a system. And I think that's something that I really learned from them, that they did really well; was again, back to looking at the project, looking at the brief, what it needed to accomplish, and then coming up with something that not only worked for it, but made sense for it to even exist.
James Ramirez: And so to kind of jump back to the beginning, though, the film's director, Marc Forster was working with a company called FX Cartel, who was helping find vendors to make work for the film. And they had tried a couple of things already. They basically had gone down the wheelhouse of trying, I think, two or three different approaches, and nobody was liking anything. And Marc was basically at the point of saying, "If we can't figure it out, I'm okay with losing it." And Gunnar Hansen at FX Cartel was like, "Hey, I've seen MK12's work. I think they would be an interesting brain to pick for this. Let's give them a call, see if they would be interested and see what they could come up with."
James Ramirez: So they called, reached out, gave us a shot, and sent over the script. Everyone kind of went to the script and read it, and we kind of put together two treatments for it. And then we kind of created styles for each of those two treatments. So the two treatments were ... One idea is that Harold's vision, which the main character is Harold Crick ... Harold's vision, which is what ended up in the film is, you're seeing his inner voice displayed through kind of what we called a GUI at the time, a graphic user interface. We were treating him as a like a computer. And so we called it the GUI. You were seeing his, basically, thoughts in the world. Because he's OCD and he's counting and he's just constantly aware of straight lines and all this mathematical things. And so that was kind of Harold's view.
James Ramirez: And then the other direction was Kate's, which was the writer, if I'm getting that right. I believe her name was Kate. And so there was those two directions. And Ben kind of spearheaded the other direction, which was kind of like this ... I mean, it was a really beautiful idea, which was almost ... Film was being kind of copywritten. Like, you're kind of seeing this kind of top-level editing of ... There would be words on the screen, and then you would kind of scratch that out and be like, "No, this word sounds better," or, "The character did this, and then," you're kind of seeing this visual brainstorming, in a way; that creative process. And it kind of ended up being visualized through kind of handwritten scribbles and overlays and things of that nature.
James Ramirez: And so he kind of spearheaded that and was working on a treatment for that. And then I kind of ended up doing some initial ... It was all hands on deck, so everyone was feeding into these things, but I remember just kind of leading the Harold version, and kind of trying to figure that out and coming up with design for that. And then we ended up making a motion test for both. One of the test shots that I had made was the ... Harold is fixing his tie in the intro sequence, and me and Ben made this motion test that we're like ... Well, actually I think we ended up making a motion ... The final was both of us, but I had made this test where there was lines extruding out from the dots on his tie, and with numbers, like he was counting the dots on his tie. And Marc loved that test, and he really liked that direction, so we ended up kind of barrelling full steam ahead on that and going that route.
James Ramirez: And so we ended up, overall ... We did an intro. All we were brought on for was like for an intro and the opening sequence. And we did a version of it that had titles in it, and Marc ended up seeing it and thinking that the titles were distracting. He just loved the graphics so much that it became ... They were so a part of the character and represented the character so well that he just wanted it to be that. So we're like, "Okay. You asked us to do an opening credits, and now you're telling us to remove the credits from it, but that's totally fine." He was like, "Yeah, maybe we'll do end credits." So we're like, "Okay, cool." So we did that.
James Ramirez: And then once the opening sequence had gone over so well, it became like, "Well, we have all these shots throughout the film, maybe we should kind of start peppering it in." So we then kind of peppered it throughout the film, then we ended up doing the end credits, too.
James Ramirez: But back to this kind of overall thinking, is once we went with the Harold's vision direction, everyone kind of got together and made this toolkit. It was like a Harold toolkit. And it was Ben and Tim, I felt created the system of the graphics; the infographics. Which, I wasn't even familiar with the term infographics, but it was ... Everything had a rhyme and a reason to exist, and the structure, the order, the type size, what font was big, what the header size was, what the smaller text was, what numbers looked like, how the linework would look, what angles you use; basically this kind of bible of what Harold would think. And with that, you could kind of go through the script and apply that thinking to all these shots.
James Ramirez: And so once there was kind of that overall thinking developed, then everyone could kind of jump in on different shots and execute things, and it would all feel like it was the same. But yeah, it was everyone's first film project; back to things that we were learning. We didn't know about LUTs, we didn't know about color space, we didn't know how to get things to film, we didn't know ... We were, again, working in standard resolution, so 720, 540. And this was done at 2048 square. So it was all these new things that we were learning. And again, it was super nice that we had supportive people outside of us who didn't just think of us as like, "Oh my gosh, we're going to take all this work away from them because they don't know what they're doing."
Joey Korenman: Yeah. I mean, what I love about that sequence is ... You kind of talked about it. I mean, it's not just some random user interface being tracked onto footage. There's this whole concept behind it, and it's almost like you built an entire world where there's an instruction manual for a toothbrush and for how to tie a tie and for how to walk across the street and how many steps you should take before you get in the bus, and all these OCD things. And then it's designed in a way where it looks like ... It's almost straight out of an IKEA manual, or something.
James Ramirez: Yeah.
Joey Korenman: And I remember looking at it at the time and having the same reaction the Creative COW person did. Like, "Oh my God, how did they get that swing to look so good?" And, "How did they get ... " You know, there's shots where you've added a little bit of depth of field, because the type is close to the camera. And all of these things that I was so focused on the technical, how do they do it. And now when I look at it, I see ... It's superbly art-directed. I mean, it really ... Even the typeface choice is saying something about this information.
James Ramirez: Yeah.
Joey Korenman: And I just think ... I don't know, I always felt like MK12 was just kind of really early to realize that motion graphics was really motion design, and that you still had to design things. You know?
James Ramirez: Yeah. I mean, speaking specifically, something like the font; I remember Ben picking out a font that he really liked, and then proceeding to print it off of our crappy printer, and then proceeded to photocopy it like 50 times, and then scanned it back, and then built a working font from that. So even the smallest things like that, those details were given to all these small things, that I think helped carry character through, and resonated even though that they were seemingly not that important, but overall they cohesively kind of tied together.
Joey Korenman: Yeah, well let me ask you this, then. Because that level of detail and thinking and love put into the design and the concept ... I mean, this could just be me slowly turning into an old man, but I feel like you don't see it as often as you used to. And a lot of the look that you see for the stuff that's just kind of everywhere now, this sort of illustrated look, or things are just flat shapes, or it's like super high-end, photorealistic 3D. Those styles are great and have their place and have been done at a AAA+ level, but you don't see this kind of stuff anymore, where there's this analog aesthetic, even in ways that you were talking about; photocopying a printout, turning that into a font.
James Ramirez: Yeah.
Joey Korenman: I mean, there's like 50 layers to this piece that you wouldn't even know, and no one would know. Unless you'd said it just now, I don't think anyone listening would have ever known that.
James Ramirez: Yeah, yeah.
Joey Korenman: But it's that level of detail. And so what I was going to ask you was ... You know, I don't see that level of design love put into things as often, and the look is totally different now. And I'm curious if you see that, has something shifted in the industry, or just the overall aesthetic that people are into? Or, are we just in the middle of the current trend, which doesn't look like MK12 stuff?
James Ramirez: I don't know the answer to that. But I kind of want to say that when there's ... There's a lot to unpack there, but there is so much work being produced these days that I think it's impossible to be able to find the work that is still doing this. And I think that that level of craft ends up coming back to the type of artist that is making things. And I say that because what I didn't realize until moving out to LA was how many people are flying under the radar making stuff that ... I mean, some of them not under the radar, but there's so many people just out there making stuff, and there's a lot of them that do has this attention to craft and detail that I think exists, and I just don't think it's the ones that are being written about, the ones that are being featured on places and the ones that are being asked for breakdowns of how they did it. I've been working with Brian Mah at Alma Mater for the past ... since I went freelance, I feel like, off and on for the past, I don't know, two and a half years, or something. And I feel like why we got along so well and we really enjoy making stuff together is because we have some of the same sensibilities in the craft. And I've learned so much from him.
James Ramirez: But he still ... I think he's very much like me, where he likes to do things practical. There's so many projects we've worked on together where we're doing something with type that he just wants to do it practical, or there's texture and stuff that he's photographing, or making things. He wants to have so much control over it that sometimes you can go CG, but sometimes he just wants to shoot and photograph things. And so I say that because it's not like I was very much aware of Brian before I moved out to LA. But I mean, I had seen his work. I just didn't know it. I think there's so many people out there making stuff that kind of fall to the wayside, in a way that ... There's so much saturation. I still think there are people making that level of craft in their design, but I just think it's harder to find. And it's ... I don't know. It's tough. I mean, I think there is a ... Maybe it is kind of an age bracket of people who think of it as a craft and want to make things that way. But I also think that now, that it's kind of grown into an actual industry and profession, that there's people who are so caught up in the moment of making things, just want to make pretty things without worrying about all of that.
James Ramirez: And so I think there's going to be a place for that range of people. Yeah, I don't know. It's tough, because in the same idea of I ... kind of this thinking thread, here. I don't like a lot of the UI that is in movies these days. Like say if you look at ... No offense to anyone who's worked on all this stuff. I understand why you did it. But say you go and look at a smart tablet or phone or something, and you look at it and it's just full of busywork. It's just all of these knobs and sliders and dials and things moving for nonsensical reasons, and it's just clutter. But in the heart of it, really what you're trying to convey is there's a story element. There's a reason why it's there. You're trying to convey a photo of somebody or whatever, and it really should just kind of be the ... I guess there's multiple ways to approach design, but you always want to kind of think of it in this minimalistic approach, like, "What can I say with the least amount of things?"
James Ramirez: And kind of to look back at an example of this is our work at MK12 on Quantum of Solace. We did all of the UI for ... There's a smart wallet, there's a smart table, there's some cell phones, tablet device throughout the film. And again, the guys got together and created this ... basically an MI6 OS system, is what it came down to be. But there was this thinking in how all of the graphics functioned. It was like this breaking apart of the information to kind of distill down to who was looking at information, what would the OS think that they needed to see, why would they need to see it, and what order of important would the information need to be displaced? If M, who is the top of the line, is looking at a file on somebody, she doesn't need all this extra information that's not important. She needs the quickest read possible. She wants to look at a screen, see what she needs to know, and then be out.
James Ramirez: Whereas, there's Q, who's the forensic tech who is going through all of this information and tracking and data. So he has ... His information can kind of be more diverse and busy because he's actually kind of going through all of that and thinking about all of that. And then Bond, who's in the field, again, just needs the information distilled down to what's essential.
James Ramirez: So I think there's that ... That overall thinking in application of it, I think still exists. I think people think about graphics and the designs that they're doing in ways that function as the systems, but not everything needs that level of thinking. So I think some stuff skates by and just kind of exists to be however it's crafted and made. And other things, I think begin to work well and also begin to have a much longer design life when they are well-designed and thought of.
James Ramirez: And that's the thing that blows my mind to this day, is that ... I feel like I'm still so green in learning, even though I've been doing this for so long. But when I go back and look at some of my early designs, I hate it. I don't like it. And I think it's ugly and can see all the errors and the technical imperfections. And I can go back and look at designs that Ben was doing [inaudible 00:47:51] and [Dex 00:47:52] or Timmy, and I'm like ... I think that they're beautiful. They're just these amazing design frames that still work and still could ... You could pitch them today, and there's something about this, like good design is timeless. And I think when you actually focus on the nitty gritty of it, like the nuances of the typography and the relationship of the elements that you're using and the appropriateness of the style and content that you're using for your creative endeavor; all of that stuff helps things live longer because it all makes it makes sense.
James Ramirez: And sometimes, we make a lot of things that are just temporary, so they don't really necessarily need that level of thought or care, but there are still people who are giving everything that level of care. So I don't know, it's such a wide gamut of stuff being made and different people making it, and also different age ranges of people making it. And I think once you've been doing something for long enough, I think you start to inherently make different decisions about what you're making and why you make it and how you make it, versus when you're just super excited about making stuff and you're not really thinking why you're making something that's pastel colors and super shiny, CG looking. You're just more interested in that you're making something.
James Ramirez: And I think that it's harder to express that to different people, because you kind of have to go through that until you understand on the other side. It's like learning life lessons. It's like I can tell you that if you touch something really hot, you're going to burn yourself. But until you do it, and actually learn that, then you kind of ... Then you know. But if I tell you about it, or if I ... I can't tell you what happiness is, but once you feel happiness, then you understand it. So it's like you kind of have to go through these motions to hit these different stages or points in what you're making to kind of then have bigger realizations of what you want to make and why you want to make it.
Joey Korenman: Yeah. I agree with all that, too. And I think you make really, really good point, that the volume of work being created by artists in studios now, I mean, it's probably a million times more than was being done in 2005. And so MK12 was sort of this anomaly, this amazing studio in the middle of Kansas at a time when, I mean, there may be were a dozen really good studios, and maybe 20 or 25 pretty good ones. And now there's hundreds, if not thousands.
James Ramirez: Yeah.
Joey Korenman: So maybe it's just that the echo chamber effect has kind of taken hold. And when Jorge does something amazing with simple shapes, that creates this whole movement of now everyone's doing that.
James Ramirez: Yeah.
Joey Korenman: And that stuff bubbles to the top, and it kind of drowns out all of this more nuanced kind of bespoke looking stuff. You know, it's really interesting, a lot of what you've been talking about the way MK12 operated; I'm sure a lot of it was just sort of happy accidents of that combination of people at that time, and you had someone like Ben who ... brilliant designer, also amazing After Effects artist. And it just sort of, everything kind of came together and worked.
Joey Korenman: And then after that ... You were there for years. I [inaudible 00:51:17] at your LinkedIn. I think you were there for almost nine years, which is amazing. Probably longer if you count your internships. And then you moved to LA. And you moved to LA in ... You can tell me. 2012, 2013. I mean, motion design was a thing by that point, and LA was the hub. And so I want to hear about MK12 being such a unique place to kind of come up in the industry. How did it feel, then, going into sort of the belly of the beast? I mean, did you feel like there was an additional learning curve? Did you feel like you were totally prepared by what you'd learned at MK12? How did that feel?
James Ramirez: Yeah, so basically, I ended up leaving at the end of 2013. So at the end of 2014, I kind of was out in LA. It was different. It's one of those situations where I didn't know what I had learned yet. Being in that environment, I didn't realize what I was being exposed to, in a sense. So moving out to LA, I ended up ... I freelanced for a little bit when I came out here. I think I went to Troika, and I spent a little bit of time at Rodger, and then I went over to Royale, which I ended up taking a staff position there for three years as an art director. And it was such a kind of learning experience. But I clearly remember on my first job with them, we were working on ... I guess it was maybe my second job with them. We were working on a spot for Nike ColorDry, and there was a practical shoot that was going to happen over the weekend. And I remember the effects supervisor, John Cherniak had put together a shot list for it, but he couldn't attend, and that Brien, the Creative Director, Holman, couldn't attend because he was doing stuff. So nobody was going to the shoot. And so I kind of took it upon myself to talk to the producer and to go to the shoot.
James Ramirez: And I went, and I kind of ... Because I was going to be the ... I was the lead compositor on the project, so in my mind, we were shooting stuff that I was going to end up dealing with. And so I went to the shoot, kind of helped supervise it. The shot list was great, and we were just making sure we got coverage. But some of the first stuff when they were shooting, everything was kind of happening out of frame; or they were shooting stuff that really wasn't important, because we were shooting ... The stuff that we were shooting, I guess also kind of helps just a little bit for context, was ... There was air cannons made out of PVC pipe, and we were firing different kind of dusty elements to kind of composite into this dusty, chalky world. So there was, I don't know, nerds that were mashed up and clay, and just kind of like ... It was like a pottery studio, so they kind of had all these different materials laying around that they were firing through these cannons and shooting them, I guess to kind of a black backdrop, and just with really nice lighting, to kind of have everything pop.
James Ramirez: And so I went and did this, and then I came back, and then I remember Brien taking me aside and saying like ... Or, maybe it was all of them. And they were like, "Man, we can't believe that you went out of the way on your own to go to the shoot to help make sure everything was done right, and then you kind of took that all ... You just did that." Like, "No one else would just do that." And over time, I kind of realized that, "Oh, at MK12, since we didn't have titles and we were part of the entire process from kind of pitching to final execution, every step in between that, I was a part of. I watched them shoot things on a green screen." I learned how, if you were going to get a good key, you wanted your lights to be doing this; that jewelry caused highlights and caused spill or something. You know? I was learning all of these different things from how things were made throughout the entire process that helped me have this overall point of view that was different than most people out in LA, which was they were an animator, they were a designer, they were a this.
James Ramirez: And so I feel like by being in that kind of position of being a jack of all trades and just kind of generalist, I picked up so many other things that I just didn't know I had picked up. And so it kind of took working there to kind of realized that I had learned all these things. But then on the flip side, I had so much to learn, because back to this ... MK12 is an artist collective, they were guys who weren't intending to make a business, and so everything kind of just ran like that, in a sense. Not in a sleight to them, but it was just ... There was no project structure. There was no server structure. There was no rhyme or reason to most things. I mean, we kind of had a loose thing, but I mean, we couldn't even really agree on PDS from clients could go on the server.
Joey Korenman: Right.
James Ramirez: And every project was different, and everyone worked out of different folders and local and all kinds of stuff. It was just madness, in a sense. But at Royale, it was like, "Oh, this is a studio. There's a hierarchy. There's people, top-down. There's a Creative Director, Art Directors, designers, animators, compositors, visual effects supervisors. And there's a server structure, and there's project structure." So there was all this stuff that I just wasn't used to. It's not that I didn't know it, it's just I had to kind of adapt. And I was just also ... MK12's work was so kind of stylized and specific to that kind of two and a half D, mixture of 3D thrown in there. And Royale's work, at the time when I was joining, I felt was ... It was stylized, but there was more an emphasis on really have 3D stuff. And their level of execution was just kind of mind blowing to me, how they could kind of operate and how what they were doing was so different and new to me, and I was able to just kind of absorb.
James Ramirez: And again, I feel like I kind of just kept ... I don't know. I just kept falling into these situations that I felt like I was so lucky to be in. But when I was there, it was like this dream team of artists. Handel was there, Mike Humphrey was there, Renzo Reyes was there, my friend, the Art Director, Juliet was there. My friend, another Art Director at the time, Belinda Rodriquez was there. I met ... It was all these just amazing talent, just sitting in there.
James Ramirez: And there was so much to learn from them. But it was also like I had stuff to share, too. And it was just really nice that, again, I think I was in a position where I think the partners saw in me my ambition and passion and saw the possibility of kind of helping form and shape that, in a way, to kind of be a very specific asset to them. So they could've said that I didn't have any experience, or just such a blanket experience of MK12, it wasn't specific. But I think they were willing to kind of ... I really kind of tried to learn and absorb as much as possible, as I could from them about how they did things, why they did things and how it was so different. You know?
James Ramirez: And I think that's the things that I ended up kind of struggling with a lot, was ... We weren't an art ... I wasn't at an artist collective anymore. The personal projects weren't really that forefront. They tried to do some kind of branding stuff here and there, but it's not like the studio ... It was just different. I mean, at MK12, my life was so different; that ... I mean, every night I pretty much ... We would work our normal hours. By normal, I mean we would come in around 10:30 or 11:00, because we were lazy. And then work until, you know ...
Joey Korenman: You were artists.
James Ramirez: Yeah. We would work until 6:00 or 7:00, or whatever. Go home, and then me, Ben and Tim usually came back every night. Like, I don't know, 11:00 or midnight until 2:00 or 3:00 or something. We just ... We were doing it because we loved it. It wasn't that we were mandated to come back, or that we had to come back because we had so much work that we needed to accomplish. I mean, there was times where it was that. I mean, we had some crazy big projects, but it was more of that we were so attached to what we were doing and we loved it so much that we just kind of really just hung out at that place and made stuff together. And we really loved the company of each other and making stuff together.
James Ramirez: And then coming out to LA, it's not like anyone was going back to that studio at night. No one was going back to studios at night unless you just had to work late. I mean, that just wasn't a ... It was just different mentality. So it was interesting to kind of try to go into something completely different. And I thought I didn't know anything, but I kind of was slowly learning that I had learned a lot.
James Ramirez: And so it was kind of ... It was a cool experience to kind of slide in there and learn how to be as effective as possible and actually kind of have talent to be able to execute things. Because at MK12, it felt like if we ever pitched something, the thought was always, "Never pitch something you couldn't make," because if the client picked your direction, then you were going to have to make it. So there was always there's kind of eggshell kind of walk, where you wanted to pitch really cool things, but you always wanted to make sure it was attainable and you were going to sell a dream and then show up with some doodles and be like, "What is this? That's not what you showed us in the style frames."
James Ramirez: So I also clearly remember that, when I was on my first Nike project at Royale. The compers were holding up the design frames as benchmarks to hit. And they were hitting them verbatim. And that blew me away, that they were making these kind of crazy, 3D projects and the designers were making crazy frames and then they were actually executing them. And so I felt like my wheelhouse kind of opened up a little bit, and I could kind of pitch maybe a little bit of crazier things, because I was in LA and there was a talent pool, and there was people to pull from and artists to kind of collaborate with, that I didn't really ... We didn't really have that before. It was really always just us. I mean, we brought on a couple of freelancers over the years. Like during Bond, we brought on two or three people. But mostly, during Stranger than Fiction, we brought on a roto artist to help us with tracking and roto. But that was really it. We didn't really work with freelancers. It was always just us.
James Ramirez: And so being in LA, that was a big cultural shift, is that there was this army of freelancers, and we always wondered ... You know, at MK12, we were always pitching against everybody. Out here, as if we were one of them. So I mean, we would often pitch against [cyop 01:02:45] and Imaginary Forces and Buck. And we were five or six artists in the Midwest pitching against these places that would have anywhere from 20, 30, 40 people. And so it was such a different resource point of view, coming out here to see what people had available to them. So it's definitely been ... It's totally different. Totally, totally different. And it took me a long time to kind of understand those differences.
James Ramirez: But I think that initial experience really shaped me not only as an artist, but kind of my personality a lot.
Joey Korenman: Well, it sounds like your experience at MK12, it sort of forced you to be a generalist. But way before that was actually the word that you would use for that. And in LA, because the industry's so big there and there's such a big talent pool, and the bar is really, really high at certain places, too, you can get away with knowing less about the overall sort of process, and just kind of staying in your lane. Whereas at that time, anyway, in the Midwest, and certainly in Boston where I was, it was a real competitive advantage to have a grasp of all parts of the process.
Joey Korenman: And I think that kind of leads into the next thing I wanted to ask you about. So you got an opportunity to work on a very, very big project; the main on-end titles for the Spider-Verse movie. And I mean, I remember at Blend this year, you had the presentation about the animation in that movie, and the animation director was there talking about it. And everybody was just riveted, because that movie has just turned into this monster, and it's this thing everyone talks about. And the bar is insanely high.
Joey Korenman: So I want to hear about how you got involved. Your way, I mean, the way I think I saw it online is co-director of that sequence, which kind of sounds like a big muckety-muck. And just tell me the story of that. How did you get that gig? What was it like? Did you have any idea how big that movie was going to be?
James Ramirez: Yeah, so-
Joey Korenman: All of the above.
James Ramirez: Yeah, it was an amazing experience, that's for sure. It was once in a lifetime thing that kind of happens. And again, this is like ... I just keep saying this, but again, I feel like I just keep falling into these situations by ... like the universe is just guiding me to places, and it all just works out and I'm happy, and I'm along for the ride, and I don't plan anything.
James Ramirez: So after Royale, I went freelance, basically in kind of March 2017. And my first gig right after freelance, I was terrified because I again, in another one of those situations where I didn't know who I knew until I realized it. But I was worried I would have trouble finding work. But my head of production at the time, Melissa Johnson put me in contact with some people that she thought I would really work well with. So she put me in touch with Ben Apley at Alma Mater, the producer there. And he reached out, and we connected, and he brought me on for some After Effects work.
James Ramirez: And that ended up starting kind of a work relationship that I had no idea that I was going to end up loving so much. And I've kind of been, like I said, on and off with him for the past ... since then. You know? Since then. I kind of work as much there as I can, and then to get quiet, I jump off to some other places and come back.
James Ramirez: But Alma Mater is a studio of like three people. It's Brian Mah, the creative director, James Anderson who's the visual effects supervisor and Ben, who's the producer. And so working with them over that period of time, even though it was just kind of working on a bunch of odds and end projects, I began to build a relationship with Brian, and he began to trust me more and more with the type of work that I was doing. So I kind of went from just doing After Effects animation and compositing to helping him with some design work, to then kind of helping him with references for pitch decks, to helping him with pitch decks, to helping him with doing projects on my own. And then he kind of like ... It basically got to a point to where they kind of trusted me to kind of ... If a project came in that was simple enough that I could just kind of run the show on, they would let me do that unde their kind of umbrella. And it was cool to kind of learn from him and kind of treat him as a mentor. And I feel like I've learned so much from him, and they've been so supportive of everything that I've been doing.
James Ramirez: And so all of this is happening, and this project comes in. And they basically had done work in the past with Phil and Chris on ... They did the Jump Street movie, and they had done the first LEGO movie, as well, main title sequence. And so they kind of had a relationship with them, and so when they were going to work on this, they thought of Alma Mater to bring in to do something for Spider-Verse.
James Ramirez: And so I remember Brian saying like, "Hey, so Phil and Chris asked us if we wanted to work on this Spider-Man movie that's coming out." And my eyes just popped wide open, and I was like, "What?" Because I think, at the time, maybe just the teaser was out, and that was it. And I saw that, and I thought it was amazing and beautiful, and I was so stoked for the film. I thought it was going to be just amazing, and it ended up being amazing.
James Ramirez: And so I was so stoked. I was like, "Dude, that's amazing." And then they also ended up getting The LEGO Movie 2, at the same time. I remember Brian having this conversation with me. He was like, "Look, we're going to be slammed. If you had to pick, which would you pick: Spider-Man or LEGO?" And I was like, "Spider-Man. All day every day."
Joey Korenman: Good choice.
James Ramirez: And so ... Well, I knew for the other one, that they were going to end up going ... For the first LEGO, they did stop motion, and for the second one, they ended up doing all CG. And it's like photo real CG, and it's just ... I knew it wasn't going to be my bag. I mean, I can help out with that stuff, but it's just not my forte. Coming from a [inaudible 01:08:58], it's like the stylized worlds are my jams.
James Ramirez: So it felt like the past 10 years of my life had been preparing for this job. It had spray paint and graffiti, which I had been into graffiti since the '90s, and I had been doing. And it was all these kind of different styles that I kind of had been refining over the years. And one of the ideas that I ended up wanting to do was this kind of zoetrope effect, which was, again, kind of a throwback to MK12 work. We did a quick zoetrope sequence on the Bond titles. The guys had come up with this crazy, weird strobing, kind of animation-style for a Coke project, Coke M5 video that they did for ... It was a music video for Guided By Voices, Back to the Lake. It was a brief moment. But again, it was all of these ideas that had been these small seeds in my mind, kind of were ... It felt like I was all building up to this point.
James Ramirez: And so all that to say is, basically the project came in, and it was ours to pitch on. So it was just us. We pitched three ideas. Brian did kind of two, and then I did one. And what's crazy about it is ... Well again, like me saying that the photo real stuff is not my bag; well, doing super stylized worlds really isn't Brian's forte. I mean, he can do it because he's an amazing designer. He can adapt to anything. The Spider-Verse is an obvious nod to that. I mean, he ... The final style that we did came so much from him. I think that he was leaning on me, in a sense, because this was so graphical in its nature.
James Ramirez: So we pitched some directions, they really liked the treatments. Its, of course, your total client move of like, "We like all of them. Let's do them all," into one thing; this amalgamation of all of the ideas. And so we went away, I made a motion test and some more specific design frames, and then we came back. They liked it, and we kind of were brought into the process ... Let's say the movie came out in December, and we were initially brought in to pitch like in May, I think. And then, over those months, we kind of did a little bit of design and stuff. I did a lot of design work in maybe August. And then the actual production kicking off and bringing on a team started in September. So then we worked September, October, and it was supposed to deliver October 27th, or something. But it kind of ended up getting pushed, and we went into November, early November-ish, and we delivered it.
James Ramirez: So throughout that time, though, it was kind of interesting. Because when you're brought in, the first rough cut we saw the film, it was like ... I mean, to step back one second, too, is ... The thing that I love the absolute most about this project, more than anything, was getting to peek behind the curtain and see this film being made. I felt like a kid in a candy store. I mean, I was getting to go to Sony and sit in these meetings with Joshua Beveridge, the guy that you mentioned talked at Blend. He was in these meetings. We were all in these meetings together with Bill and the directors, those three directors: Peter Ramsey, Bob Persichetti, and Rodney Rothman. And sitting in a room with all of them and all of the leads. It was amazing to kind of see; to show our work to them, get feedback, and then also just kind of full-on collaboration with all of them.
James Ramirez: And so with that said, being able to see the entire film being made was just amazing; to see the leaps and bounds that they were making behind the scenes. So we got brought on and saw the rough cut. It was really rough. I mean, there was the teaser. What's funny is you learn like, "Oh, the teaser trailer, basically those shots in the film looked more final than the rest of it," or if there was any CG in their previews, or anything. And then there'd be kind of a bunch of storyboards. But the last act, the third act, was basically kind of not figured out. And that's where art was going to be, right before our sequence. So when you want to end a film, you usually want to know how the film is going to end so you can kind of tie it into your sequence.
Joey Korenman: Right.
James Ramirez: So we didn't know how the film ended. So what we had originally proposed was like, "Cool, we want to do these kind of static characters, the cameras moving around them." And we're exploring each of the Spider characters, Spider people and how they relate to each other and how, basically, they're all walking in the same shoes, just in different worlds. And then Phil was like, "Yeah, we don't really want to do a recap kind of thing. We just kind of ... we would rather ... " Like, "Now, we've been introduced to the Multi-Verse, so let's just explore the Multi-Verse." So we're like, "Okay, cool."
James Ramirez: So we're exploring some stuff, we do another design round. And then as they progress and come up with the ending to their film, basically the third act ends up being bananas, as you've seen it.
Joey Korenman: Yeah.
James Ramirez: It's just full on crazy. I mean, all the worlds are merging, all the color palettes are all over the place, there're experimental line stuff happening. It's just wild. And so they're like, "There's no way you're going to be able to do anything that's as crazy as what we're doing, so you should just kind of maybe do something that's a little bit simpler or styled." So we're like, "Okay." So there was these burst cards throughout the film, that they called them, where the frames would ... The film would kind of just pop to these very graphic moments. And they were like, two to four frames long, maybe. And they were all hand-made, where they would trace the characters or the background and kind of create these very illustrative ... with speed lines and kind of Ben Day dots and reduced color palette and very graphic style on the characters. And they loved these. They were like, "These are our favorite moments in the film, because they do something that we can't do for the entire film, which is those very comic book ... " It's very deconstructed comic book, and they love that.
James Ramirez: And so they were like, "If you can do anything that flows in this vein, that would be great." So they kind of pushed us towards that. And we ended up developing our style further to kind of be in that world, take cues from that. And then that's kind of where our final style kind of really kind of derived from, was being influenced by that stuff, but then also just trying to ... Phil kept pushing us to be as outrageous and fantastic as we could, and just exploring the Multi-Verse and all that it ... this multiplicity, what chaos could happen. So he kind of kept pushing us through that.
James Ramirez: So then when we ended up landing at where we did, and then just kind of developing that and working with them throughout the process. It was such a collaborative process working with them on kind of the overall narrative structure of what we were doing. We really wouldn't have been able to make what we did without the collaboration from Sony. I mean, Sony ... Basically, I could watch the film and then I could call out a shot and say, "Okay, this shot, I love Peter swinging. I want him." So I could go through the entire film, and they would export alembic files out of the characters that I wanted.
James Ramirez: And so that was just ... Again, kid in the candy store. Probably had over 300, 400 gigs worth of just character animations from the film. So it was amazing to kind of just get the stuff and be able to integrate it into our shots. And then not being a character animator, I learned an important; very, very, important life lesson. I was so naïve to what they were doing, I just didn't understand it at all. But everything they were doing was so bespoke to the camera. If you saw Miles leaping at camera, and was in this very heroic pose, what you would learn is that if you would've rotated the camera around that, is that it was all cheated. So the back half of him; his proportions might be super shrunk down, his fist would be three times the size. It was all to get this kind of comic book framing and proportions. They were completely cheated and everything. So in my mind, I was going to take each character swinging and do like a 360 around them and kind of transition between them. And then I was like, "Oh, you can't do that because they're all cheated to frame."
Joey Korenman: Right.
James Ramirez: And also, say if ... I remember distinctly, I did it with one of Gwen swinging. And if you looked at her from an off angle, her back hand, her back arm was basically going straight through her head. So if you went around it, it just ... There was all this kind of interpenetration. Noir's cape was all hand-animated shapes. So if his coat wasn't in ... His cape and his coat. If his coat wasn't in frame, it just wasn't being animated. So, and you could imagine, the top half of him is in frame, and the bottom half is just a static object. So if you wanted to use something, it had to be there. And there was a few instances where they had generated some stuff that you could actually move around, like some of the run sequences.
James Ramirez: But it was a learning in what I could use, how to use it, the best way to use it; going through all of the stuff and figuring out how to kind of repurpose it and make it not just feel lifted from the film. But I mean, there were instances where they were exporting cameras for us, too, and we would just use their camera, as well. Because that's the angle that it worked for the character. So it was a lot of kind of dancing and maneuvering with these assets to kind of figure out how to push it into our style, how to execute it and make sure that we could make something interesting for two and a half minutes.
James Ramirez: All that said, jumping back. My role, I kind of was a designer, helping with that stuff. But then I thought I was just going to be art directing, because that's what I normally do. And then I just basically kind of got so heavily involved that, at the end of it ... This is my honest story. At the end of it all, we were like, "It's all done and finished." And I remember we were going to submit it to, I think, South by Southwest is what we were going to end up submitting it to. And Ben was filling out the form, and I think he sent it to me and Brian just to make sure everything was okay. And I didn't realize it until they were filling out that form, but Brian had decided to give me co-director credit.
James Ramirez: And it's not like we ever talked about this. It's not like I asked for it. It's not like I expected it. None of those things. It was just ... It just happened. And I was like, "Whoa. What are you doing? What'd you do that for?" And he's like, "Well, why not?" And I was like, "I don't know. Because I ... I don't know. I'm art director? I don't know." And he's like, "No, you poured so much effort into it, and you really helped shape this become what it was, and so we co-directed it together." And I was like, "Wow." I was just kind of blown away by that.
James Ramirez: But I mean, that to say, I did ... I mean, I ended up animating, I don't know, it's like 2 minutes, 45 seconds. I probably ended up doing 90 seconds animation in the whole thing. Camera moves, the experiments, full shots, just so much hands-on. Part of it is because I was trying to figure out what we were doing, but also part of it was because I would do these kind of quick motion tests just to figure things out, and then Brian would absolutely love them and kind of just keep pushing us to kind of make those as shots.
James Ramirez: And so it was a really interesting kind of collaborative process amongst everybody. I ended up, again, like all these kind of things worked out and I was able to bring on Renzo Reyes as our compositor, who ... We worked together at Royale. And so I knew he was a Spider-Man fan, I knew he was a Marvel fan. He was so stoked to be on it, and his energy just carried through. He was a new dad, he just had a kid in, I think ... I don't even know how old, maybe in August or something, or even before that. So there was a lot going on in this life, but it kind of timed out where he had just left Royale for that, and so I was able to kind of bring him on and he was so integral to kind of helping the style of it come together. We just had this ... We worked so well together that I trusted him, and I think the whole project is trust. I think Phil and Chris trusted Brian because they had worked in the past together. And Brian trusted me because, for whatever reason, Brian trusted me for our work relationship. And I trusted Renzo with anything. There was mostly design for everything, but there was a lot of stuff especially at the end, like the crazy kaleidoscopic tunnel stuff. There's no design frame for that.
James Ramirez: And so he kind of came up with that look, and it was jus so perfect. I remember walking over and seeing the very first time, the last shot. And I was just like, "That's it!" I just had this huge smile on my face because it looked so freaking amazing. I loved it. And so he was the main kind of counterpoint to the team. And then we kind of had people jump in and our during the production. So we'd have kind of some people jump on for a couple weeks or a week at a time, and then kind of jump off. We were trying to keep the team as small as possible, just given the budget of title work isn't crazy big, so it was always trying to juggle team size.
James Ramirez: And luckily, there was another big ... Yeah, I guess that there was two other big projects going on with the studio. One was LEGO, and then the other one was another project that had some 3D artists around, so it was kind of nice, because we could kind of grab some 3D artists on their downtime and be like, "Hey, I just need you to jump in Cinema and help break this shot into a bunch of takes. Could you do that?" Which is also ... Again, serendipitous, all of this stuff. Normally, Alma Mater is just a Maya shop, so they don't do Cinema work. And to kind of have a couple people around that did know it was lifesaving to me, because I was able ... Billy Maloney was one of the artists who was around. He's such a great generalist. And he knew Cinema, so I could have him jump in and help out. And there was another guy who was mostly my artist, but he knew Cinema, Rich. And he helped with some camera work, help me iron out some camera moves for a couple of shots that I was struggling with.
James Ramirez: So it was like the team was ... The core team was four of us, were around for most of it. And then there was kind of some people that jumped in and out of it. But ...
Joey Korenman: Wow.
James Ramirez: Yeah. It was crazy. It was fun. I felt like everything I had experimented and learned over the past, like I said, 10 years really just came to fruition and I was able to kind of ... I feel ... I'm so proud of it because I feel like for the first time, I was able to pitch something that I genuinely felt was my approach and my voice, I guess is the easier way to say that; my voice. I pitched something that I thought was me, and the execution, I feel like, in the end, has my fingerprints on it. And I feel like so much work over the years, especially at Royale ... I mean, I don't really feel like anything I worked on at Royale has my fingerprints on it. I feel like I worked on stuff and I was a part of a pipeline and we were making things, but I don't really feel like ... I feel like I could've disappeared, and that work would have looked the same. Like, it would have still been made. There wasn't anything me.
James Ramirez: At MK12, I feel like I was so green in learning that I was being a chameleon, I was blending into what the guys were doing. So I don't think I necessarily had a distinct voice there, either. And so I think my voice has always come from me doing personal work on the side or things that I want to make on my own time.
James Ramirez: And this was the first time ... I remember when I finished the first initiative pitch deck. I was so proud of the design frames I had made because they felt like I was pitching something that genuinely felt like ... It was like, "Here's something ... I'm just going out there on a limb. This is it. This is the most I got, this is all I got, and this is 100% me," and I'm pitching it, and they loved it. That feeling was unmatched by anything else I've created to this date.
Joey Korenman: I mean, dude, that's an amazing story. It definitely sounds like it's come full circle. You know? MK12 hiring you not to just scale the MK12 look, but to come in with the James look and start making your own things. And maybe you weren't ready to do that at the time, and then you went into the big LA industry, and now you're doing stuff that looks like what's in your brain, and your voice is actually coming through. And that's got to be an amazing feeling, and you've been in the industry a long time.
Joey Korenman: So I want to end with this: What's next for you? I mean, what are you excited to explore, having come off of something so big and successful?
James Ramirez: It's tough. I feel like it's been a lot of ... It's been kind of really stressful, honestly, to have this asking yourself what you want to do next. I struggle with it a lot. This year has been a big struggle for me, honestly, is to figure out what I want to do next. And I think that after doing it so long, I feel like I finally have ... It's so different for everyone, but I really feel like I'm just enjoying making stuff. I was on a Maxon panel recently, and I said, "My motto has been, I just want to make cool shit with cool people." And at the heart of it, that's really my goal; is I really just want to ... I enjoy the creative process. I love the journey and I just want to keep learning and keep pushing myself and just kind of keep making stuff.
James Ramirez: And I don't ... Now that I've kind of had the high-profile work, I don't really ... It's not like I'm seeing to do that kind of stuff. That stuff, really happens every two or three years. It's not common to do those kind of bigger projects. So it's not really like I'm seeking those big projects. I just [inaudible 01:28:17] artists that I really enjoy working with, and there's people out there that I haven't had the chance to work with yet, and so I really just kind of want to keep making stuff and kind of just keep exploring what my voice is and how that is executed across various different things.
James Ramirez: And I feel like Alma Mater has really given me a platform for that to kind of experiment and learn and do things, projects on my own. And so feel like I'm just going to kind of continue doing that and not really have too many expectations of what's next, but just kind of really enjoying the process and the journey. And it's been amazing to kind of do things like this, kind of having this interview is crazy to me, to think that I grew up in Texas and shouldn't really be here, but somehow, my journey has led me to here. And this year has been crazy to me. I have kind of been more outspoken than I have ever in my career, and we've went to South by, and we won the title design award there, which is such amazing. I got so emotional because it meant so much to me to go back to my home state and to win an award for something that I did out of passion, and people really appreciated the film so much. So it was amazing to be a part of that.
James Ramirez: So I've been able to kind of do some panels and stuff with Maxon. I did SIGGRAPH and it's just been kind of cool to kind of actually get out there and meet people who are doing stuff, and kind of network and connect with a lot of artists. And I just want to keep making stuff, and I think it's inherent in me to be creative. So I'm always exploring, always learning. And I just ... Yeah, I don't have any straightforward goals, but I just want to keep down the path that I'm on. And hopefully make some other cool stuff down the line.
Joey Korenman: I had so much fun talking with James. We got into the industry at around the same time and had a lot of the same references and experiences. Although, James had those experiences at MK12, and I had them from afar, watching and worshiping MK12. It's the same! But different. Right? Anyway, I want to thank James for hanging out and for sharing his story. Definitely check out his work at friedpixels.com, which is an excellent URL. And you can also see him occasionally speak at Maxon events, which I highly, highly recommend.
Joey Korenman: That's it for this one, people. Show notes are available at schoolofmotion.com, and I will be inside of your ear holes again soon enough. Bye-bye.