Lauren Smith: “Animation Is a Gateway to the Human Imagination”
Of all outlets for creativity, animation must be one of the purest. The ability to transport ideas from mind to page and screen is a form of magic which has long underpinned how we communicate and consume creativity.
That’s why Tonic DNA is exploring the link between creativity and animation. We’ll be speaking to great creative minds about what animation means to them, and how it affects their approach to their craft. Today, we speak to 72andSunny’s group creative director Lauren Smith. Lauren’s history with animation can be charted from adapting Shakespeare into Play-Doh in seventh grade, right up to jaw-dropping campaigns for Adobe Photoshop in the last year.
Here, Lauren reflects on her own creative journey, why being a ‘full-on Mom’ is good for creativity, and what makes animation a gateway to the human imagination…
Q> Dialling the clock right back, what kind of a kid were you growing up? And was there ever a moment you realised you were ‘a creative’?
Lauren> I think all kids are naturally creative, right? That’s definitely something I see in my own since I’ve become a mother. When we’re growing up, our creative imagination is kind of like this other world in which we live side-by-side with reality.
Thinking back to my own childhood, my family didn’t have a TV. So me and my sisters spent a lot of time reading books, and then making up games with our own weird rules. I also remember putting on these theater performances, and then charging for the tickets! We’d made a big deal of it - this would be while we were on vacation and I would take a play and cut it down, giving out all the parts to my cousins and perform it to all of the adults. So I guess yeah, you can see how a career in creativity was always on the cards!
Q> And you’d charge them tickets for entry! Would it also be fair to say you’ve always identified a link between creativity and commerce, then?
Lauren> Haha, I suppose so… In fact, another really clear childhood memory I have is working a paper round. We worked out that we could carry more papers in a stroller than we could on a bicycle, and that helped us expand the paper round. So yeah, scalability as well!
Q> And what role has animation played for you creatively, both in terms of your career and what’s inspired you?
Lauren> Oh yeah, it’s been super important. We can go right back to childhood for this one, too. In seventh or eighth grade, I made a play-doh stop animation of Shakespeare’s King Lear with my friend John Rich.
Going right up to present day, one of the most fun and rewarding recent projects we did at 72andSunny was the Adobe photoshop spot. I think, throughout my career, it’s been the practical side of animation - where you see people working with their hands - which has been the most inspiring for me. It takes so much craft and patience.
Q> When there’s that level of craft in animation work, does that give you an extra level of pride in the finished product as a creative?
Lauren> I think so, without a doubt. So with the Adobe Photoshop film as an example, we actually started work on that right as we headed into lockdown. We were working with Antoine Bardou-Jacquet remotely in Paris with his animation house, two hour calls every morning where you could just see him and the team crafting the heck out of this thing. And of course that was for Adobe, who are all about craft.
In fact, Adobe as a brand is really a testament to the beauty of craft. For example, I don’t think it’s truly possible to ‘master’ Photoshop. You can always learn more, just as you’re never truly finished crafting something.
Above: The ‘Fantastic Voyage’ spot for Adobe from 72andSunny was the first time the company had ever advertised their Creative Cloud on TV in many regions.
Q> Getting those creative partnerships right must be so important. When it comes to a production partner, what are you generally looking for?
Lauren> Craft is key. There’s a bar of I guess what you could call ‘excellence’ which just has to be there, and the Photoshop campaign is a great example of why. I don’t think we’d look at a partner unless we were convinced they had the chops needed to pull off the kind of magic we want to pull off.
And then just underneath that is collaboration. At 72andSunny we have a philosophy we like to stick to which is ‘be kind to the people, and hard on the work’. We have to hold ourselves to a standard of excellence which will allow us to create the kind of quality work we want to create, and the same goes for our production partners. But as well as that, we respect that everyone involved in a project is a human being and wants to be working in a career which gives them personal satisfaction and which they enjoy. If our partners can help facilitate that kind of environment, that’s fantastic.
Q> With that Photoshop ad, the animation is so visceral - it really pops off the screen. So that must have been central to the creative idea at the start of the project. Do you always have a sense going into a project of whether animation is going to be the right way to communicate something?
Lauren> Yeah, in that particular example animation was always going to be the way we went. That was because we wanted to bring the magic of Photoshop to life, and animation is magic.
So animation is kind of a gateway to the human imagination, right? Whenever I’m working on a campaign which needs to express something imaginative, maybe something slightly abstract, animation will always peek its head into the process. More broadly, working in creativity can be a lot like solving a puzzle. When you embark on the journey of bringing an idea to life, you’re always balancing the practical aspects of it with wanting that freedom to follow the twists and turns that any organic idea will inevitably take. It’s an amazing process, and animation of course is one of the most powerful tools we can work with.
Q> I suppose the message at the heart of the Photoshop ad is about the power of the imagination. More generally, how important is that message for you as a creative?
Lauren> It’s probably the most important message there is. I remember at the start of that project, we were all kind of sitting around trying to figure out what’s at the heart of Photoshop. And, really, the world of Photoshop - much like the human imagination - is endless. There is no limit to what you can create.
I think this past year has been a real lesson in what imagination can do. The Photoshop campaign is a good example of that - we were all together being creative across national borders, time zones, and pandemic restrictions. I’ve just been watching as creativity shines through even as the world feels like it’s trying to push it down.
That’s not exclusive to our industry, far from it. When you look at the huge cultural events of the past year or so, there’s absolutely a creative slant to it. I’ve been doing a lot of work with anti-racism organizations and that has included collaborating with Black poets, Asian artists, and that’s been speaking to my soul as someone whose mother is Chinese. Everywhere you look, you see people’s imaginations at work and you learn from it.
Q> That’s interesting - have you been making a conscious effort to seek out more diverse creative voices, or has it been happening organically?
Lauren> A bit of both. I definitely adopted a mindset a year or so ago where I wanted to learn more about the Black experience in the world but also in the US. So seeking out books and information around that also led to discovering the most incredible poetry. Reading it kind of feels like you’re inhabiting someone else’s soul, and once I realised that I just couldn’t stop. So many artists are creating such powerful work in the field at the moment - two which come to mind are Danez Smith and Nayyirah Waheed.
Above: Two poems by the writer Nayyirah Waheed.
Q> In your day job, you’re the group creative director for 72andSunny. How do you go about setting a creative culture across a network like that?
Lauren> A while ago, my boss Matt Murphy asked me what my top goal was at work and my answer was that I wanted to go ‘full-on Mom’. What I meant by that was not just Mom to my children at home, but to go full-on Mom with the people I work with. Something that I’ve really found makes a difference with the people I work with is to come from a place of nurturing, caring, and figuring out what’s important to my team, not just to me. I mean, you’d have to ask our team but I feel like they feel seen, and we’ve created an environment which is based on love, growth, and possibility. Plus, when people are personally invested in the work they’re doing the work will be better.
Look, nobody is saying that work should be your family because families are incredibly important. But I do think that creating those familial, caring vibes at work is a benefit to everyone.
Q> Finally - Tonic DNA, who are supporting this interview, are a company with a strong female presence which they’re proud of. How do you balance finding the space for creativity with being a Mom, especially given the lack of space between professional and personal lives caused by the pandemic?
Lauren> Y'know, I can appreciate why it might seem like they need their separate space but for me they bleed into one another. Like we said at the start, children are creative spirits, they want to spend their days playing games and activating their imaginations. So with that in mind, how could I ask for a better environment in which to be creative?
Having said that, though, I’ve just had my second child. If you’d asked me just after I’d had my first, I might have given a different answer! I remember coming back to work from maternity leave and feeling like I had to operate with half a brain, because one half was always going to be at home with my child. I felt like a fraud, like someone was going to come in and realise I wasn’t very good at what I was doing. But, eventually, I settled into it and my confidence grew back. You figure out the rhythms of it all, and in doing that you’ll hit upon the balance you need.
Featured Companies: 72andSunny LA