Nice Shoes at 25: Dominic & Justin Pandolfino
There are precious few companies which can claim to have had as meaningful and enduring an impact on our industry as Nice Shoes. Originally co-founded by Dominic Pandolfino in 1996, the past 25 years have seen the studio bring to life some of the most iconic work in short and long-form alike.
In this series of articles celebrating the studio’s 25th anniversary, we’ll speak to the people who made it all happen - as well as those behind the work that continues to push boundaries today
Here, we reflect on the company’s story, ethos, and defining moments with founder Dominic Pandolfino and managing director Justin Pandolfino.
LBB > First things first - congratulations on 25 years in the business! How are you guys going to be celebrating?
Dominic > Thank you!
It’s amazing, really - a couple of us just recently were able to go into the office for a couple of days, all socially distanced of course. But it was a reminder of what it’s actually like to be communicating with someone in three dimensions. I hope we’ll all be able to celebrate together in person sooner rather than later. But in the meantime, I imagine we’ll celebrate in the most modern way possible with a big Zoom toast - stay tuned if you’d like to join us and raise a glass.
Justin > Yeah, is it possible to celebrate 25 years remotely? I think so. Like Dom said, we’ll get people on a Zoom toast, but we’ll also look for opportunities to highlight how the studio has evolved and be sharing news throughout the year about how we’ll be rising to the challenges of the next 25 years.
LBB > Walking right back to the start, what can you tell us about the origins of Nice Shoes? I’ve heard your name came about because on the day the company started someone said you were wearing an amazing pair of shoes…
Dominic > Haha, that’s certainly not how I remember it! One of my co-founders would use “Hey, nice shoes” as an ice breaker when starting a session with a new client. “Nice Shoes” seemed like a great fit because growing up, my mother always said to me that you can tell a lot about a person’s character by the shoes they wear. It was important to me that people started getting to know our character as a company right from the moment they saw us.
On top of that, I wanted people to know we were totally different from what had come before. You’ve got to remember, this was back in a time where everyone was calling their companies stuff like ‘TransCom’ or something similar. I always knew we needed to stand out - and Nice Shoes certainly did.
Justin > And more recently than that we found out an interesting coincidence about the name…
Dominic > Yeah, that’s right. I was talking to a friend of mine who’s Italian. And you know, I’ve always assumed that my name, ‘Pandolfino’, came from an Italian background and that we were Italian Americans. But this guy told me actually no, your name likely comes from a Greek derivative. Not only that, but it translates to ‘Nice Shoes’ in that dialect. So unbeknownst to me, we’d set up a company years before that was named pretty much as a translation of my own surname.
LBB> Wow, that is more than a little bit coincidental… You mentioned earlier about being a totally ‘different’ kind of company. What do you mean by that?
Justin > One of the things that Dom has been talking about ever since I’ve been around has been the idea of reinventing the client experience.
Dominic > A common complaint in the industry when we started was wait times. When you work with the best talent, you don’t want to be let down by technological shortcomings. We invested heavily in the machinery and infrastructure when we launched Nice Shoes so that no one would ever be waiting around. We set revolutionary workflows and processes that were completely different from what anyone else was doing. We had to sell our clients on it, but they quickly realised how much better the end product looked, along with how much time we were saving them. We were one of the first to shift from tape to drive workflows, which sped things up, and allowed for more flexibility. Then we looked at the next way we could push the envelope and make our clients’ lives a little bit easier.
Justin > In every interaction our clients have with us we listen carefully to the feedback we receive. We’re in the midst of another round of heavy investment in technology that’s driven by our desire to provide the best service we can for our clients. The development of cloud pipelines has further reduced the limits of hardware and software. We can tap into what we need, when we need it, and it’s totally invisible to the client.
Dominic > We also would hone in on the little details. I remember a client told me that it really bothered her with how lunch was delivered during supervised sessions at most facilities. A guy would show up with a sloppy burger in a greasy bag, just kind of plop it down and that would be that.
So from day one of Nice Shoes we started organising proper meals, fresh food, plated with silverware and cloth napkins. So yeah, I think that speaks to the kind of attention to detail we were going for, looking at every touchpoint that we could provide a better experience, and ultimately ensure that everyone working for or with us was enjoying it. It’s all about little details adding to a greater whole.
Justin > So that kind of thing became a lot more commonplace after we started doing it. I guess the question for us now is, looking at that, how do we rework it into a modern experience? And that, I would say, means looking at things like workflows, service offerings, and how to make sure you’re a true partner for someone you’re working with remotely. For a long time now the industry has been heading in a direction where people are being asked to do more with less time. So perhaps the best thing we can offer a client is taking work and time off their shoulders.
LBB> So would you say that your overall ethos as a company has changed a great deal since 1996?
Dominic > The ethos certainly hasn’t changed, but the methods of demonstrating it have.
Justin > Exactly, yeah. I think it’s fair to sum up our ethos as being smart, helpful, and ultimately human. That’s a challenge today where every conversation happens on a screen and a microphone, but we still strive for it. It means doubling down on listening, empathy, understanding, and working to put yourself in the shoes of others.
For example, at the end of a big and stressful project recently one of our artists ensured we had a bottle of wine delivered to the home of everyone involved so that they could sit back with a glass on the last day. It’s about being thoughtful and present.
I mentioned our investment in technology. That’s something we do regularly, and with careful consideration of our clients. If you just have something that’s high tech, chances are you’ll spend a good deal of time educating your clients about it rather than solving their actual problems. Technology is one of our tools, but our people and their ability to service our clients is what makes Nice Shoes special, and what drives us.
LBB > 25 years is a good stint of time in any industry, but in this one it’s particularly impressive. Dominic, when you set the company up did you always do so with the intention of creating something that lasts?
Dominic > I think so, yes. I was younger and maybe a bit more idealistic than I am today, having not gone through the various ups and downs of the economy over the years. I remember when we sold a previous company six years after having opened it I was kind of heartbroken, because deep down I thought that company was going to be something that we kept together forever. So with Nice Shoes, we wanted to build something that would last.
A big part of why it has endured is our people. One of the things about our people is that they stick around, and that wouldn’t happen if we didn’t support a culture of togetherness. I’ve always said that I wanted our office - back in the day we were all using offices - to be like a home. A place where you know that everyone has your back, and that you have theirs. When you have that philosophy, you can make hard work look easy from the outside - and that’s exactly what we did.
LBB > And have there been clear moments over the course of 25 years that you could identify as turning points? Or especially significant moments that really came to define Nice Shoes?
Justin > I think, in a way, what defines us is just how many of those kinds of moments I could point to. The business has really been in a constant state of evolution, which is probably one of the biggest reasons we’re celebrating this anniversary. In the early days, our decision to invest and innovate in non-linear colour and finishing was a big one. We spent a year educating and evangelising high definition with our HD roadshow in the mid 2000s.
Following 2008, we pivoted again to focus our growth on remote production and on adding complimentary services like editorial, design, animation, and visual effects. Winning a Cannes Lion Grand Prix in 2015 was pretty special -- awards aren’t everything but there is a level of validation when your new initiatives start showing signs of success. We launched an experiential department in 2017, which we have big plans for in 2020. And most recently, we entered the film and episodic market in 2019 with visual effects and then, in 2020, with digital intermediate. It feels fitting to get back to our roots, launching a colour grading department in a new market on our 25th anniversary. Life really can be circular.
Dominic > I couldn’t agree more. 2006 was also a big moment as that’s when Chris Ryan was made a partner at Nice Shoes. Chris is not only one of the best colourists, but he is a prime example of the type of person we want on our team. He’s creative, and always has an eye towards what’s coming next - whether it’s technology, content trends, or new talent. Chris is incredible with clients. He makes them feel welcome the moment he sees them, keeps them engaged as they collaborate and people will sometimes hang out long after a session has completed. He’s also very critical and keeps us all on our toes with feedback on what we can be doing better. I’m proud that he stands beside me as my partner.
And, I suppose if you take the long view, you could say that 25 years ago we were something of a ‘traditional’ post production company. You’d have distinct silos back then: edit, VFX or animation, and then we would be your colour destination. But whereas over the years we’ve seen the industry around us mould into this more ‘one-stop shop’ model, we’ve taken care to make sure we’re offering everything at the same level that we’re known for in colour grading. If you look at a timeline of our milestones, or key projects, I think you’ll find that we’re always holding ourselves to strict standards, trying to outdo what we’ve achieved before. A few years ago, we were partners to the National Museum of Qatar, helping them to launch a museum filled with immersive video installations. I’m immensely proud of that project, it’s a massive technical and artistic achievement from our team. But once it delivered we immediately looked at what lessons we learned, and what we could do better on the next project at that scale.
LBB > What about noteworthy projects? Can you pick out favourites from the last 25 years?
Dominic > The project I just mentioned, for the National Museum of Qatar is a standout. It brought together our artists, producers and engineers in a way that we’d never worked together before. We developed custom workflows, reconstructed areas of our studio, and our team even worked on-site at the museum. There were years of experience that everyone could pull from, but it introduced an entirely new way of creating to us, and it made us incredibly hungry to do more in the museum and installation space.
Justin > More recently, we’ve had the opportunity to do some really powerful work with Droga5 and Ad Council on their Seize the Awkward campaign. It was a project that was nearly canceled as the shoot was scheduled at the height of the pandemic’s spread in North America. But our teams came together and shifted to a solution that combined remote production, stock footage, UGC, and a variety of animation styles, and when you look at the finished product? You can’t really see it having been done any other way.
Our work with the Biden campaign is another recent highlight. It was such a huge volume of work, and they needed a partner that could provide edit and colour support on a nearly 24/7 basis in order to be able to respond to any message from the opposition in real time. Our team also animated a piece encouraging early voting in Georgia in the lead-up to the election. To be involved on any scale in this election would have been rewarding. But to have played a part in creating content that generated voter turnout, and helped elect a President? That is a monumental moment in the history of Nice Shoes.
LBB > And if you could go back in time and give one piece of advice to yourself right at the start of Nice Shoes, Dominic, what would you say?
Dominic > Never compromise on who you are. When I first moved to New York it was 1979 and I was working for someone who I don’t think would mind me describing him as a tough SOB. There was one particular Good Friday - I’m not that religious myself anymore but this guy was - where we had a conversation that stuck with me. So you’re really not supposed to do anything on that day between noon and 3:00 p.m. as it is a Holy Day, but the president of the company asked me to do a favour for him so I ended up doing a bit of work during that period. When my boss found out he said to me ‘kid, you are never going to make it’.
When I asked him why, he told me that I was too nice. He said ‘you are gonna get eaten alive out there.’ But, I wanted to prove him wrong. So my advice to anyone, be it myself, Justin, whoever, is that no matter how tough times are and no matter who tells you you don’t have what it takes, stay true to yourself. You’ll face problems, but you’ll come through. And the best way to make sure you sleep at night is to know that you’ve been true to who you are. Success is being comfortable in your own skin and doing that which you know is right.
LBB > Finally, the industry and the world has changed a lot in the 25 years since Nice Shoes started. If you could gaze into a crystal ball, what kind of an industry do you think we’re going to be working in in 2046?
Dominic > Ha, well that is an impossible question, but… I think we are going to see a revival of the physical. Tangible experiences that go against the tide of digitisation that we’re seeing now. I think that may well already be underway, fuelled by what I would say is maybe the excessive reliance on digital we’ve seen this year, partly forced on us because of the pandemic. I think people miss the physical, the ‘real’, as it were. So yeah, if I have to make a prediction I will say that we’ll see some pushback against the digital revolution and there will be a kind of ‘reawakening’ for physical experiences.
Justin > I’ll go the other way. I think we’re going to see a growth of AI in workflows that is going to free up artists from technical tasks and allow them to focus on pushing the creative boundaries. The use of AI machine learning is evolving to a point where it can recognise elements the way a human would. This allows software to do things automatically that would take hours of meticulous tracking in the past.
On a human level, I think one really positive trend we’re seeing now is flexibility. That’s going to continue to define our industry in the years to come. I’m not saying that everything is going to be remote forever, far from it - but this past year has broken a seal on old models of working and I think that level of flexibility we’ve seen from employers and teams has been a positive.
People now have the ability to design their lifestyle. I grew up wanting to work in film and, because of that, I never considered living anywhere except New York or Los Angeles. Now I’m not planning to move anytime soon but, if I wanted to, I could. And I’m sure a lot of people are excited to take advantage of that opportunity. I also assumed that I wouldn’t get to see my kids from 7am to 7pm (if I was lucky) but now I have the opportunity to make my kids breakfast and take them to school each morning. That kind of flexibility is precious.
Dominic > I like that, and think it’s right on the money. At the end of the day we’re all in this industry because we love creativity and we love ideas. Anything that helps us all focus on that can only be a great thing.