Nice Shoes’ Chris Ryan: “Does Tech Scare Me? Absolutely, And That’s The Fun Of It”
Around 25 years ago, a politically-obsessed philosophy grad became a key driving force behind what would become one of the most important companies in the creative industries.
Chris Ryan’s journey into the industry is a unique one, perhaps fitting for a company as idiosyncratic and singular as Nice Shoes. Chris was part of a team, alongside company founder Dominic Pandolfino, that steered the company through its early stages in the industry and into uncharted, revolutionary waters. Chris, for example, was instrumental in the company’s move across to high-definition post in 1998, seen at the time as a gamble but which later came to define standard practice within the industry.
Today, Chris is still looking ahead to a world set to be shaped by new and emerging technologies such as VR, AR, and AI. In this interview, Chris reflects on getting his big break in the industry, the possibilities being opened up by tech, and how 25 years working with Nice Shoes has given him a sixth sense for predicting creativity’s future…
LBB> Chris, you first started working with Dominic Pandolfino at Manhattan Transfer straight out of college. How did you land that gig, and what was your experience of working with Dom back in the day?
Chris Ryan> Well, that is an interesting story - first of all, I never really knew that I wanted to be in this business. At school I was a ‘philosophy and rhetoric’ major, and speaking and writing were my passions. In fact, I wanted to be a political speechwriter at the time. I guess I saw myself as an upcoming David Gergen kind of figure, honestly. So I was volunteering for political campaigns and doing stuff like that, but I needed to make a bit of money.
So I spoke to a friend of mine and he got me this interview with a post production company for a role in shipping. And that interview was the first time I met Dom. I was going into it thinking ‘there’s no way I’m gonna land this job, I have no idea what any of this stuff is, these people are gonna laugh me out’. But then sitting down with Dom, he didn’t ask me a single thing about my schooling or my qualifications or any of that stuff. Instead, he wanted to talk about growing up Catholic and our shared experience of that. That’s the kind of guy Dom is, he wants to get to know you as a person above anything else. He gave off a great, welcoming vibe. So that’s how I ended up in this business by accident.
LBB> So how do you go from your first job out of college to becoming a partner at Nice Shoes?
Chris> Yeah, going in I thought I was going to be there for six months or so! However the company was expanding at the time and it was possible to get a promotion quite quickly with the company structure as it was. As it happened, they needed someone to do colour assist. And nobody really knew what a colour corrector was - all the people in the mailroom with me wanted to be editors, in fact that’s what they’d gone to school for. So I just figured, I don’t want to stand in the way of these guys’ dreams - I’ll be the guy who goes and learns about colour assisting to take that role. So I bit the bullet.
I did colour training at night, and I ended up liking the general vibe of it. I guess I’m more of a night person. I think I was kind of able to trick the people I was working with into thinking that I was a super smart guy - leaning into my image as a philosophy major probably did that trick, haha! So one thing led to another and I went from being in the mailroom, to assistant, to lead colourist assistant in the space of about six months. Then six months later, the lead colourist decided he wanted to retire. And they picked me to replace him. So it was a whirlwind, and suddenly I found myself deeply embedded in an industry I didn’t really even know existed a year or so previously.
LBB> You must have enjoyed it though, in order to climb that ladder so quickly?
Chris> Oh absolutely. It was creative, and it was fun. I was in New York, so I was working on a lot of rap videos. It could be quite surreal at times - I remember coming into work for a night shift essentially in my pyjamas, and working with a bunch of rap artists who just had these unbelievable stories of stuff that was happening to them. It was sort of a surrealist fantasy - like, is this really my life?! It was like something out of a movie.
So at this point I’m thinking ‘alright, this is something I could do’. And it so happened that around that time Dominic had been working with a few others on a plan to start up Nice Shoes. I was initially devastated - Dom had been like a father figure to me and he was my initial connection to the whole business. But then less than a month later, I got a call from him asking about making the jump and helping him forge ahead with Nice Shoes. I didn’t need to spend long deciding - I knew it was going to be right for me.
LBB> So looking back, how natural was that metamorphosis from a politically-minded philosophy student to a tech-savvy colourist?
Chris> Ha, honestly I argue the point all the time that philosophy is the best subject you can study. It helps with everything in life, sharpening your mind, thinking logically, and communicating on a deeper level. People say ‘oh no-one gets a job as a philosopher’ but it’s not about that. It’s about broadening your horizons and nurturing a curious mind.
So maybe where I’ve ended up now, being in a place where we’re interested in media and the future and how our world is changing because of technology, that’s not so much of a surprise.
LBB> Yeah, that’s something that’s always been a part of Nice Shoes’ story, right? I understand you were a big part of pushing for high definition post back in 98?
Chris> Yeah, we invested heavily into high definition early on. It was funny, we had a sort of travelling circus of a few of us going around the world and helping other companies, agencies and brands, to adopt it. All the technical stuff like making sure it was working for different aspect ratios which were standard in other countries and that sort of thing. It was interesting, and a lot of fun.
LBB> And so what would you say is at the forefront of technological change in the industry right now?
Chris> For me, I’m hugely excited about VR and especially AR. I feel like VR is the kind of ‘in’ thing right now and perhaps rightly so, but the potential we have with AR is just mind-boggling. In terms of advertising, imagine going into a train or something like that. Instead of billboards, you raise your phone and suddenly you’re seeing a whole new world in front of you.
I get that sounds like something out of a sci-fi film - and I am a huge fan of sci-fi - and that’s kind of the point. Sci-fi has this amazing quality where the best writers are pretty much predicting the future, given the nerds like me are reading or watching this stuff and being inspired by it. Their visions of the future becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. So thinking about a sci-fi cityscape set 50 or so years in the future, it’s easy to see how VR and AR are two vehicles which could drive us there.
LBB> And what about AI?
Chris> AI is an interesting one. And it can also be kind of nebulous - like what are we actually talking about when we talk about AI? There’s the kind of AI the business suits mean when they talk about stuff that measures data and that sort of thing. To me, that isn’t so interesting.
But what definitely interests me is the more creative side of it. The fact that, if we’re working on a project, we can pump 200,000 lifelike faces into a computer and have them completely representative of every race, creed, colour, and sex is jaw-dropping.
More broadly, though, I think what’s so exciting about technology right now is that we’re seeing more and more power getting taken away from what we might call ‘gatekeepers’. Technology has started to democratise our industry, and it’s not finished yet. It’s possible now to download and learn how to use software for free which in the past might have cost tens of thousands of dollars. It's an exciting time for our industry, creatively and, by extension, our culture.
LBB> Given all these rapid advances in technology and the kind of ‘democratization’ you mention there, are you not scared at all?
Chris> Oh, absolutely I am. And that’s the fun of it. That’s why I fell in love with this industry. You can’t get comfortable, because there’s always going to be something around the corner which will make you rethink everything all over again.
And one of the great things about working in a role like this is that it gives you a kind of compass for the ways in which the world is changing. That almost makes it harder to be truly scared by the big changes for too long, because you’ll inevitably end up riding the wave with them.
LBB> And finally, Nice Shoes is coming up to something of a reflective moment where you guys are marking 25 years in the industry. So looking forward, how do you see Nice Shoes’ role within all these changes?
Chris> Well for one thing, I think we are really killing it with AR and VR right now. We have a team, led by the amazing Ninaad Kulkarni, who I truly think is redefining the world of experiential. That’s something which I think we will see a big swing towards in the medium term future as we come out of the pandemic and have this desire for transporting experiences and new ways of looking at the world. So the work they are doing is huge for us, and exciting for everyone else.
But more broadly, I think Nice Shoes is going to rise to - and indeed celebrate - whatever challenges new tech and culture throw up because we can tap into the same mentality that’s served us so well these past 25 years. Namely the mentality that says we aren’t going to hide - we’re not going to look to skimp and cut costs and ignore the world changing around us. We’re going to embrace the future, thrive in it and, hopefully, have a part to play in shaping it. That’s a great place to be.