Rama Allen: Definitely Not Run of the Mill

Celebrated director heads ADC 95th Annual Awards Motion Jury

Of the four major disciplines of the ADC 95th Annual Awards, Motion is the baby on the block — but what a healthy, growing baby it has been! As technology expands and evolves, the art form becomes accessible to more and more artists, and yet it still takes an unbelievable amount of talent and patience to make work that is brilliant and not simply ‘good.’ Rama Allen, Executive Creative Director of The Mill in New York, has both.

As Chair of the ADC 95th Annual Awards Motion Jury, Rama is set to lead five other accomplished creatives in selecting the very best in motion graphics, animation and production. We caught up with Rama and asked him to open up about his own work, as well as the work of others that moves him.

Most kids would have no idea that they wanted to be a motion artist or an animator when they grew up. In fact, the things you do now probably didn’t even exist in its current form when you were five or six years old. So with that in mind, what drew you to this profession?

I’ve always been drawn to the moving image and flickering lights. Growing up in Hawaii, Saturday morning cartoons (largely from Japan) and Star Wars were my everything, but very early on, I was introduced to films by visual masters like David Lynch and Ridley Scott. This crazy cocktail infected me with a love of dark, visceral, kinetic moving images.

I took a circuitous path in my career. I originally went to school for music. I worked as a sound designer, interactive developer and DJ, but the accumulation of all the authors and filmmakers I had absorbed over the years kept pushing me towards visual and narrative world-building. In the end, I had little choice in the matter. It was what kept me excited, and everything else simply fell into the shadows.

They say you always remember your first time. Can you recall your first ever accolade for your work? What was that feeling like — an awesome landmark, a glimpse of better work to come?

The first accolade that truly affected me wasn’t an award or public approval, but a thoughtful compliment from a creative director I respected enormously. I was a very junior designer, writing concept proposals and creating style frames for a job that was (at face value) extremely straightforward. I traveled way outside the lines and developed an idea inspired by Mandelbrot sets and calligraphy.

It was unexpected and over-complicated, but before the pitch, my creative director took me aside and told me I had a skill for seeking and finding the uncommon direction, and that was my key for moving forward.

I had always felt unsure of my skill. I was always the odd man out with strange and tangential approaches to creative problems. I think my heart stopped. I flushed. It was a moment of relief, enormous pride, and clarity for me: I think I can make a go of this.

My concept won and opened a new chapter in my career.

“I had always felt unsure of my skill. I was always the odd man out with strange and tangential approaches to creative problems. I think my heart stopped. I flushed. It was a moment of relief, enormous pride, and clarity for me: I think I can make a go of this.”

If you could list only one, which project of yours are you most proud of and why?

Ah. The Painful Question. Which of your kids is the favorite?

I’ll reframe this and remove my pride as measured by the final output of a project. Martha Graham once said, “No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

I have a strong emotional attachment to the True Blood title sequence for reasons that can’t be seen in the final work. I was lucky enough to be part of a ridiculously talented team that was generous with me in every way. We collaborated in an unorthodox manner to create a passionate, visceral piece of artwork born of experimental processes. The client and the team created a safe place to learn, play, experiment, and create from the heart—a rarity in the field of commercial arts.

I’m proud of the creative chances we took and the opportunity afforded us. It was a powerfully formative experience for me.

“I’m proud of the creative chances we took and the opportunity afforded us. It was a powerfully formative experience for me.”

Motion is a relatively new category in the ADC Annual Awards, but elements of motion and animation have been part of the awards as far back as 1950; two of the three first TV commercials ever awarded were animated. A lot has changed in 65 years, especially in regards to technology, but what about the artform of motion and animation has remained constant, as true as it is today as it was back then?

Instead of waxing rhapsodic, I’ll try and capture this is one sentence:

The constant is found in a strong idea informed by fearless exploration, beautifully and emotively crafted, sensitive to clear communication, and rich in metaphor.

95 consecutive years is an extremely long time to be handing out awards. Aside from its longevity, what sets the ADC Awards apart from others?

When I think of the ADC Awards, I think of legacy, rarity, and import. The creative industry drowns in its awards. There are new and increasingly specialized awards every year. ADC’s cachet is found in its consistently particular and thoughtful selection of winners across a wide spectrum of the creative arts for the better part of a century. It’s hard to get one. It’s always been hard to get one. For a long time!

Hell. I don’t have one. Can I have one?

“ADC’s cachet is found in its consistently particular and thoughtful selection of winners across a wide spectrum of the creative arts for the better part of a century.”

Can you give any examples of work you’ve seen over the past year or so that made you grit your teeth and say “damn, I wish my crew at The Mill did that!”

Another tough question! There’s so much beautiful work! I’ll have to leave out so many I’m in love with, so I’ll go with three distinctive projects for three very different reasons.

I loved Celluloid, the piece Artjail did with Marco Brambilla for a Vera Wang installation. Stunning. Simple. Evocative. A wonderful smashing of analog and digital processes with gorgeous audio accompaniment.

The short film Marilyn Myller, directed by [ADC Young Guns X winner] Mikey Please, is astonishingly good. He built a beautiful world that gives body to a lovely narrative and then invited us into it. The blending of techniques and scale of imagination is inspiring and humbling. The artistry is bonkers. It’s a story well told.

I’m passionate about immersive experiences, and I found Birdly by Max Rheiner to be a fantastic experiment in blending full-body physicality with VR. The graphic fidelity is low, but it’s so inventive; it helps us find the shape of new applications for the moving image. The best part is that it’s built on an experience that we’ve all had, but constantly seek—a flying dream.

You have a small but extremely talented Jury to lead this year. What advice will you be giving them to help decide which entries are worthy of an ADC Cube? What is the difference between a Gold Cube entry and a ‘mere’ Silver?

Our motion jurors were selected because of their varied talent, expertise, and perspectives. Anyone who has struggled and fought as hard as these folks to build their own distinct bodies of work has an instinctive ability to squint into the light and feel what’s right.

The truth is that sometimes we all overthink things. We need to be present and open to find the heart of the work. We’ll trust our individual guts, then reflect together on why the work spoke to us.

The difference between Gold and Silver? Everything and almost nothing. A Gold Cube is the ultimate mark of accomplishment, but enormous respect is due to anyone who is talented enough to receive a Cube, period.

“A Gold Cube is the ultimate mark of accomplishment, but enormous respect is due to anyone who is talented enough to receive a Cube, period.”

The campaign for the ADC 95th Annual Awards is called “Rare For a Reason”, and it highlights extremely uncommon occurrences. Name a possession or accomplishment of yours that’s pretty rare and that you’re proud of.

I’ve walked into the eye of a tropical hurricane, flown over a volcanic eruption, stood in the center of earthquake, floated feet away from a birthing iceberg, and narrowly missed getting struck by lightning.

I’m not sure if I’m proud of these, but each one is rare and irrevocably changed my view on the world.

Also, don’t travel with me. I seem to invite the wrath of nature.

Have your very best work be judged by Rama and his jury by entering the ADC 95th Annual Awards. You just might win a are ADC Cube! The deadline for Motion submissions is this Friday, January 15, 2016. 

ENTER THE ADC 95th ANNUAL AWARDS