Carl and Elena shared their story here on Design.blog in “Things We’ve Learned From Telling Others’ Stories” back in November of last year. Recently we commissioned them to make a few video pieces that turned into our first TV commercials. The following is a little interview I did with them a few weeks ago.
John Maeda/ I understand that you’re both just back from Tokyo — what were you up to over there?
Elena/ Yeah we are! The trip was a mix of little of work and a little exploration. I’m a person that values personal growth, and for me, one way to spur learning is to change one’s environment and encounter new situations. We’ve decided to make travel, national or international, a part of our family’s lifestyle, not just a thing that happens when the opportunity arises. To me, it is a way for me to make a habit of refreshing the way I look at myself, the stories I tell myself, the meaning I give to things that “happen to me,” and my place in the larger world.
It also felt really good to be able to still work while moving around various cities in Japan and to learn how to do so successfully with with a 13-hour time difference. It’s always been our desire to work toward building the work and lifestyle that suits us—so that trip helped us to reimagine and more closely define what that might look like.
Carl/ For me, traveling is very important, even more so now that Elena and I have a daughter. I’m from the Detroit area, and until moving away after college, it really was the only world that I knew. Not to say it’s a bad place to be from, but let’s just say, that my perspective was limited from only knowing one place. That was a hump to get over, and for a while, once I found out how big the world actually was, it affected my confidence. I didn’t feel educated, cultured, or equipped to exist in any other place other than the small town I was from. I know that’s wrong now, but that was a part of the obstacle that I had to get over. So for our daughter, I want to make sure that that feeling of inadequacy, lack, or limitation was not something that she experiences. Or that that feeling is minimized. I know I can’t protect her from everything, that’s a big one for me. She may not remember much of our travels to date, but she will grow up seeing the pictures and hearing the stories enough to still benefit from the experiences. I just want her to know that she can always exist anywhere, and that she is bigger than simply where she is in any given moment. I also want her to develop relationships with different places and beliefs and cultures, so that she never feels constrained by the options of how she can construct her life. We are very big on carving out your own path.
JM/ When we first met in Detroit last year, the two of you were working on a few web spots with Hajj Flemings. At the time I was so impressed with the storytelling you achieved in your video spots. How did you get into this creative business of yours?
Carl/ Yeah, for me, it all started in 2009 after graduation from college at the height of the most recent economic crisis. In Michigan a film incentive would attract a lot of film-related jobs soon after, but when I graduated, especially in Michigan with a film degree, there were not many jobs prospects in sight. And I had fully bought into the dream that college offered, and was ready to work towards my 2.5 kids and a dog, house with white picket fence in the suburbs. I was pretty depressed when didn’t see paths to those things. So, I moved to New York because I had interned there the year earlier, just hoping to figure something out. And there, my whole vision of myself and ideas of success changed. Well, I’ll say that a more true idea of success emerged from within me. I just began to hear and trust myself more, which allowed me to let go of the white picket fence, realizing it was something that I really never valued anyway. It let me feel comfortable defining and working towards a life constructed with my own ideals. In New York, I just started making stuff that I was passionate about with my friends and posting it online, and through the power of the internet, doing that created pretty awesome opportunities for me. It felt really good to know that I could create opportunities for myself through following my passion. It was a level of fulfillment that I had never experienced, or knew possible, really. And I knew many people in a similar place, so from there, Culture of Creativity was born as a collective, an independent media producer, and also as what would be the creative agency that it is today. It all started with the intention to use my passion for media as a way encourage people to take a risk and launch out to build their own dream. Don’t be limited by what others say or think, or by what others believe is possible. Find those truths for oneself. We believe that each person is inclined [to embrace] some sort of gift—maybe it’s something that isn’t appreciated yet or for a market that doesn’t exist yet, but that inclination is their greatest offering to the world, and they’ll never know that, nor will the world see its benefit until one chooses to venture down that path. We believe that more fulfilled people are happier people, and that happier people make a better world. In all the work that we do, we incorporate an aspect of this ideology. We want to create a culture made up of people, places, products, and happenings where this type of creative thinking feels less lonely and lofty, hence the name, Culture of Creativity.
Elena/ After Carl and I got pregnant, I was living in London and Carl in New York for work. It became much more important to us that we were able to choose where we lived and how we spent our time. Carl had been working as a director and videographer for 8 years already, I had been working in brand strategy and marketing. I always admired the way he was able to take a creative interest and skill and make a living off of it. It just felt like a great moment to take more control of my life by joining forces with Carl to bring my marketing and brand strategy background to the creation of branded content for Culture of Creativity (C8).
JM/ So Elena went to Stanford and Carl went to University of Michigan — that’s a lot of education between the two of you. My parents were always worried about me when I switched from an engineering career into the arts. So pardon me for asking, but did you ever get caught in that awkward place of hearing some concern from your families about pursuing creative careers after college?
Elena/ Well, I studied Psychology and Latin American Studies, but I didn’t directly go into either of them for a career. I myself never felt very constrained to stay within the discipline I studied. I think my parents were always pretty open to what I could do, but they did want to know if I could “make a living” with whatever I chose. So, for me it wasn’t so much that my parents were concerned about me pursuing a creative career (they would have been very comfortable with me making videos for HBO or CNN), but they just didn’t have very much context for what it meant for me to run my own business. Both of my parents worked for the federal government, so they were extremely motivated by the stability that thier sector provided. So, when I came to them and said, “I’m joining forces with Carl to help run C8”, they took more of the, “let’s wait and see” position. For a while, they just didn’t really understand that I was working at all, because all the cues of what work meant to them, i.e. going to an office, working regular hours from 9-6, emailing, dressing, at a minimum, business casual, and getting a paycheck every two weeks just wasn’t what it looked like for us. We have a home office, we often work through weekends, we are paid by the project, we do a lot of lunches, calls and texts with clients, and we are always on the road. We could go and visit them in D.C. for a week, and they would ask, “How can you guys just take a week off for work?” I would have to say, “that’s not really how our work, works. It’s more integrated into our lives than that.” I think once they understood that, and they saw the projects we were working on, they began to be more supportive of it.
Carl/ I never specifically felt pressure or concern from my family per se, but they didn’t really understand what I was doing, so I didn’t get very much support either. They weren’t unsupportive, which I do appreciate, they just were not supportive in any nuanced way. It felt like I was tackling things on my own, and that is why I became so close with my friends that were doing similar things. Those friends have played large roles in my success. There is no separation between them and my actual bloodline in my eyes now.
JM/ Given the excitement around your new spots for WordPress.com, I’m certain that they are truly proud! I know that the videos that you shot weren’t intended to be made into TV commercials, but nonetheless we all “gave it a try” to see what would happen. What are a few of your learnings from the process that we went through to get to this outcome?
Elena/ I learned a lot about how much a team effort TV commercials are! It was really great to make something that you have a vision for, and see it come to life. But, I realized that the best outcome will come, not when you do it all yourself, but more when all the best of everyone involved is put to work.
Carl/ I personally learned not to second guess myself. Really what we created for the commercials isn’t very different from what we usually make. And because of that, I want to again give thanks to WordPress.com for that opportunity to make something that I believed in. But though I had been doing this for 8 years, I always believed that my work had to be of a certain formula, or of a certain style and “caliber” to be worthy of a platform like TV. But what this underscored is that it IS good enough. I could be 8 years into the experience of making commercials had I allowed myself to simply view myself and my work in a different light. I’ve been ready for this moment, but nonetheless, I appreciate the process and the experience of it now.
JM: When you presented the film of Kay Willingham in Detroit shortly after she presented to a large audience, can you relate what happened there?
Elena/ One of the most powerful moments for me in this work was watching Kay Willingham watch the finished spot we made about her. She had just finished telling her story of how she came to start her art studio and gallery at the Rebrand Cities & Automatic: Pop-Up Design + Innovation Salon, when the the finished commercial we shot of her was played on the screen next to her. She stood there transfixed, as she saw herself on the screen. At the end she stood there glowing, with tears in her eyes and a deep smile on her face. She came to me afterward and gave me a big hug, which, without any words, just told me that we had done our job. We had listened to her story, and we have reflected back the essence of what she felt strongly to be true. Seeing her, feel the impact of truly being heard and seen, just meant so much to me. It’s the thing that really keeps me motivated to do the best work we can, capturing and tell the personal stories of each individual we work with.
JM/ We’ve traditionally spoke to the most technically savvy folks and also the blogging community as a company. And now we’re expanding to develop our voice in the small business world. By working directly with family-owned businesses, we see a lot of struggle, grit, and hope. I love how your videos have captured the spirit of their hard work and unbreakable will to succeed. What have you learned from working with these business owners so intimately?
Elena/ For me, one of the things that really stuck out about working with small business owners was the value of making a real, personal connection. So often in our industry, people get caught up in the tasks of producing a film, and forget the humans, the individual people, that we are woking with. The norm in our industry is to use words like “subject” or “talent” when referring to the people you are filming. I’ve been on the other side of the camera before and experienced what its like to start talking to the director and producer minutes before we go on set, and never see them or talk to them again once the shoot is done. But what I learned from this project is that if you are asking a busy person with a lot of life experiences to say something other than their practiced talking points, you have to show that you care. To show that you care, you have to ACTUALLY care, and you have to do the things that you normally do to show people that you care.
Similarly, I saw each of these small business owners do the same thing everyday with their community members, employees, and clients that frequented their shops. THEY ACTUALLY CARED about the people that came to them to buy their products or services. They knew individuals names, they knew stories about their families, they knew their likes and dislikes, and that is what made going to their shops such a different experience than going somewhere else. People often say, business isn’t personal, but my experience with these small business owners just reinforced my belief that business must be personal.
I am genuinely grateful for the stories that were shared and for the people that I met through the telling of them. It’s one of the things I love most about doing this work.
Carl/ I learned quite a bit, but one thing that continues to resonate from the experience is that everything is not scaleable and that scalability is not, and should not be the goal for everybody. Even in our own practice, I thought that largely my style of filmmaking was due to the resources that I had available to me. But when given the resources that I felt I needed to make something of “top quality”, I realized I preferred, small crews with minimal equipment, and that telling a great story requires less of my intervention to craft the story, but just more time spent building understanding and connection with my subjects to simply turn the camera on to capture the story. I intrinsically knew that, and had been operating like that, but upon having the opportunity to further test that philosophy of filmmaking, it only galvanized my position. Everything should not be scaled, because it can easily get you away from the essence of what you do —and for us, that is sharing people’s experience of adversity and triumph to hopefully help someone else with their own.
JM/ Thanks so much for sharing your richness of storytelling experience so that more people can hear these Detroit businesses, Elena and Carl. I know there’s more a few more spots that are getting teed up — with even more richness to share. Thanks again.