Passion Projects III : Waldron’s Exquisite Corpse Project

mo•tion pas·sion proj·ects

/ moh-shuh n   paSHən   präjˌe kts /
Amazing work, by talented motion designers – no clients attached.

Over the past few weeks I’ve shared some extraordinary passion projects. From the motion graphics magic of the 9 Squares Project – to the obsessiveness of Beeple’s commitment to ‘making something visual every single day’ (9 years and counting!) – and Beat Baudenbacher’s immersive ‘motion picture’ storybook – Anna and Argyle: A Digital Tale for Kids.

This week I’m honored to share with you one of the most impressive collaborative passion projects I’ve ever seen: Michael Waldron’s The Exquisite Corpse Project.

Michael Waldron is the Senior VP Creative Director of Art + Design at Nickelodeon. In 2013, Michael sent me an email proposing the idea of directing a collaborative motion graphics project as his talk for motion 2014. Michael wasn’t new to speaking at motion, he had done numerous talks since he first took the motion stage in 2009. In his pitch, he referred to this as The Exquisite Corpse Project – a concept based on the Surrealist parlor game Exquisite Corpse – a game in which players write in turn on a sheet of paper, fold it to conceal part of the writing, and then pass it to the next player for a further contribution. Over the years, this game was adapted from writing to drawing and collage. Michael’s plan was to ratchet it up to yet another level: collaborative motion graphics. The creative team at TV Land led by Michael, produced the first ever Exquisite Corpse Project – created by motion designers.


The motion audience was amazed. After leaving the event, many of the attendees set out to lead their own Exquisite Corpse Project. And that’s when I presented Michael with a challenge for motion 2015. Create another Exquisite Corpse Project – but this time, invite creatives from around the globe to participate. I know what you’re thinking. Ask top motion designers in the industry to add more to their already overloaded schedules? Or maybe you’re thinking – ask creatives who are competitors in the industry to collaborate on the same project? Are you crazy?

Michael’s response was – sure.

A year later, we were treated to the most expansive collaborative effort by industry motion designers that I’m aware of: The Exquisite Corpse Project 2.

Collaborators included John Camalick (Super Fresh), Seokin JangGerald Mark SotoRogerJustin HarderUVPHACTORYJonas & CoTransistor StudiosloyalkasparAdolescent, Kurt Hartman (Nickelodeon), SUSPECTDaehyuk ParkSung I. SohnJie Yun Roe, Daniel Coutinho, and State Design.


So how can you top that? You can’t.

But you can do something equally as impressive. This June is motion‘s 10th birthday. And this calls for a special celebration. Michael’s gift? The Exquisite Corpse Project X. This time around, the players are all past motion speakers, including Karin Fong (Imaginary Forces), Alberto Scirocco (leftchannel), Greg Gunn (Blind), Marcel Ziul (State Design), Kurt Hartman (Nickelodeon), Ariel Costa (Blink My Brain), Vinicius Naldi (The Mill+), Fionna Mariani (Trollbäck + Company), and Stephen Hermann (Explosion Robinson). These are some of the most talented, creative, generous artists I have ever met. And, I for one – can’t wait to see TECPX at motion 2016.

A few weeks ago, Michael Waldron took time out of his busy schedule to indulge me with an interview about this year’s project.

An Interview with Michael Waldron: TECPX

EM: Good afternoon Michael! Thanks for sharing your time with us. I’d like to talk to you a bit about passion projects. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, passion projects are creative projects you do simply for the sake of exploring your own creativity – no clients attached.

Exploring passion projects has been part of the motion experience for quite some time. In 2013, you took it upon yourself to create your own passion project, specifically made for motion conference.

You called it The Exquisite Corpse Project. Can you tell us a bit about that? Where does the term Exquisite Corpse originate?

MW: I first heard about Exquisite Corpse back in my art school days. The concept started about 100 years ago. A couple of artists decided to play a game where they would create some art and hand it off to one of their friends. What you’d do is take a piece of paper and fold it into four panels and you would draw or write on one of the panels and then maybe take a line over one of the seams in the paper and hand it off to somebody else. That person would then continue that line into a new panel and create their own piece and so on. At the end you would have four separate pieces that would all be connected to make one beautiful piece of art.

So I thought this was a really interesting idea. We’d done something similar back in school, and a couple of years ago we created a couple of smaller pieces with other design companies back at nailgun*. So I had this idea “what if we created a motion graphics Exquisite Corpse Project here at TV Land that would involve all of my designers, animators, and editors – and then show it at the motion conference”.

EM: I loved it! The piece garnered rave reviews. How did the project impact creativity for the TV Land team?

MW: It was great in the sense that I had been at TV Land for about a year, a year and a half, and I knew the employees and what they could do in the world of TV Land. I knew people had different artistic backgrounds and different things they were passionate about. So I thought this was an opportunity to find out more about them – and see what they could do. They were really excited to work on something that wasn’t a “day in-day out, paid TV Land project”.

We all got together and brainstormed. We came up with different ideas and put this piece together. For me, it was great because not only did it let us do something that we wanted to do in our spare time – it also helped the rest of the staff at TV Land outside our group, see our group in a different way – and also see people in a different way. For example, “wow, this person draws” – maybe we can use that in some of our pieces. Or this person creates puppets. Maybe we can use that. I think it really opened up the other creatives to let them know our team can do more than graphics, more than animation. It really helped shed new light on the staff we have.

EM: It was a year later when you ratcheted it up a notch and directed TECP2. But this time you invited creatives from all over the globe to participate. Who were some of the companies who took part in that?

MW: Yeah, man, we had some really great companies take part. I reached out to friends and people who I’d worked with in the past and collaborated with – even some artists who I knew of but never really worked with before. We had Roger out in LA. We had Loyalkaspar, who is here in New York. Transistor Studios, also here in New York. Justin Harder who’s an artist out in LA contributed. Daehyuk Park who’s in Seoul, Korea. He’s a teacher there and used to be an employee of mine at nailgun*. We had this really great mix. It was really interesting to direct a project like that. Just coordinating all these moving pieces around the globe.

But also, to have all these people bring different techniques and styles to this piece. Some people were a little more live action based and some were more graphics based. So it was really kind of cool to see different techniques, different mediums kind of mesh together in one cohesive project.

EM: The results were impressive! How was directing TECP2 different than directing your own team on the original version?

MW: It differs because I’m not paying them (laughs). You have to be a little bit careful in terms of how we work together because I want them to have their creative freedom – but I also want this whole piece be seamless. So it’s a little bit of a push-pull situation you know.

Like, we would have conversations about the things they were pitching and I’d give them feedback from a direction standpoint and say ‘hey, where are you coming in the project’. They’d say they’re using this sort of look and technique. When things weren’t really flowing between the two companies I’d say, “what if we change some colors here and let that be the seam that connects us”. In certain pieces you can see where the communication between me and the company was great, and the communication between the ‘connecting’ companies was great. And you’d see these really seamless experiences. In certain sections – where it wasn’t as seamless – it was usually because the communication wasn’t as good. It’s a challenge collaborating with some of the best artists in the world – whether they’re companies or individual people.

You’re working with all these people who you know are doing a lot of work on their own for the company – paid work – so you’re also trying to make sure they have time to work on this project. I don’t want to be too demanding. But I also know what the agenda is and what we’re trying to do in the end. I have a lot of respect for them and they have respect for me. So a lot goes into how you choose the companies and the artists to work with because they have to know that there’s going to be some sort of give-and-take, and that there’s definitely going to be some stronger action from my end as well. So it was fun. It was nice to see. Some of the companies had expectations of what they would do – and then went in a completely different direction because they wanted something totally new. I thought it was amazing. So, I would start to see where their piece was going and help steer it into a place I thought would work best for the piece.

EM: What was the most difficult challenge you faced in TECP2?

MW: The most difficult thing for me, honestly, was getting the music done. I think all the visual stuff went really well. I think some of the difficulty was that some of the people were in different time zones and speak different languages – whether it was Spanish, Portuguese, or Korean. Making those things connect with a high level of communication when there’s a bit of a language barrier and time frame barrier, was difficult. But to me it was the music. I had an artist who was in on the music and literally we finished the piece visually and I handed it off, and the next day he told me he just got booked on a job and couldn’t do it. We were running out of time quickly. So I worked with a friend of mine who basically composed the whole thing. I wanted to do it differently than the year before – and unfortunately, it was way too musical. It didn’t work. He had spent a lot of time on it. And I felt bad coming back to him and saying “I like it but it’s just not working the way I think it should work”. So we took that music and chopped it up. Then I worked with John Wilkinson who does a lot of mixing and sound design for us here at TV Land. We cut it all up and went back and started doing what we did with the first one, which was to layer in sound design and get that working to see how we could connect the pieces. Sometimes it carries over from one piece to the next. Sometimes it cuts right on that transition. We built the sound design out and gave it a musical track through sound design, and then we added music back in on top of that when we felt we needed certain beats or we needed to have things build in certain areas. We composed it from the bottom up. And in the end I think it worked really well. I didn’t want everybody to have just sound design. It’s really a matter of feeling it visually and then building up that music to create a three structure act for the final piece. That was, I think, probably the most challenging aspect. We were also under a time frame. I was between LA and New York a lot at the time as well – doing my day job. So…it was a little tricky.

EM: What parameters did you give the artists when they started the project?

MW: The piece had to be between 3-5 seconds. There had to be a live action component to it. Somewhere within that 3-5 seconds, that live action component had to be composed with the main character in the center of the screen, vertically and horizontally.

The overall theme was ‘balance’. For example the piece could be about how to balance work life with family life or finding balance with the kind of art you want to do. My version: How do you balance snowboarding? Some people went in a very literal direction while others were more abstract. The theme was intended to be loosely structured and basically served as an area to play in.

EM: You mentioned the snowboard concept. How did you come up with that?

MW: Yeah. Snowboarding is something I love to do and it’s about balance in my life. I thought it would be a really interesting way to kick off the project. I’m walking down a NYC street, being my normal, everyday self, carrying my board bag and all of a sudden I’m in my snowboard outfit ready to go to that world where I love to spend my weekends during the winter time. My snowboard outfit is very specific. As a designer, I craft every single item I wear from my bandana to my helmet, to the type of goggles and color lenses. It’s who I am. I’m really not an actor by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I hate being in front of the camera. So being able to ‘hide behind a mask’ so to speak, helped me a lot when we shot this. The second segment was done by an artist who’s a skier and I wanted to do a fun transition from the snowboarding world into the skiing world by literally jumping into it. I think it was a really good transition.

EM:  Do you find that doing projects like The Exquisite Corpse Project – passion projects – influences the work that you do in your ‘day job’?

MW: Totally. For me, the stuff that I see out there, I want to do but that style is not right for the brand I’m working on whether it’s Nickelodeon, TV Land or Nick at Night. It lets me experiment with things. Sometimes we do super cheap shoots and other times we’ll spend a couple hundred thousand dollars. When we’re spending a ton of money I may not want to try something because if it doesn’t work, we’re going to be in bad shape. Passion projects like The Exquisite Corpse Project give me the opportunity to try new things and play around with the live action component. It lets me do things I normally wouldn’t do and gives me the opportunity to push myself creatively.

I’ve always hated being in front of the camera – but this has put me in front of the camera. So I’m figuring out ways to make it look like I’m not as awkward as I feel. It’s fun to get out of your comfort zone every once in awhile. That’s what it’s done for me. It lets me try different styles of design and colors that I wouldn’t normally do. It’s been a fun challenge.

EM: This year is motion‘s 10th birthday and you’re creating a special edition of The Exquisite Corpse Project. Can you tell us a little bit about this without giving it all away?

MW: Besides the fact that it’s going to be fantastic and another Vimeo Staff Pick in the making… (chuckles) – it’s been good. It’s a little different because we know we have to tie it into motion – that’s a new angle to this. One I’m still trying to figure out. 

The team we have this year has a bunch of past speakers, which is really awesome since they know what it’s about – and they’re super talented. There’s also a couple of straight live action people doing stop-motion. New techniques are being incorporated.

The biggest difficulty this year is keeping people down to 3-5 seconds. “You gotta beg them to do 3, then they beg you afterwards to do 12”. 

The loose theme of ‘The 10th Year’ – the number 10 has been fun to play with. Some are doing it literal and some more abstract. It’s been fun and we’re doing well this year. My biggest challenge is finding the time to work on the project. It’s been tough because I’ve been traveling all over the globe as much as possible in my new position here at Nickelodeon, TV Land, and Nick at Night. It’s been great and it’s been a lot of fun and I can’t wait to unveil it. 

EM: I have no doubt that it’s going to be fantastic – and a Vimeo Staff Pick! I’m extremely appreciative of all the effort you and the other artists have put into it. Absolutely amazing. Can’t wait to see it!

The Exquisite Corpse Project 2 received a lot of attention and publicity. Rarely do creatives from competing studios work together on a creative project. After you spoke at motion, I heard from a variety of attendees who decided to collaborate – either with co-workers, or with colleagues they met at motion – to create their own ECP. Since then, I’ve seen quite a few other versions of collaborative motion graphics projects popping-up online. Were you the first to lead such a collaborative endeavor in the realm of motion design?

MW: I don’t know. We contributed to a similar project a couple of years ago with Brad Dougherty on a project called “Pass It Along”. It was a couple of sets of three artists. They were mini pieces. I don’t know anybody who’s done it at the scale we’ve been doing it at the past two years – a couple minute long piece with 16+ artists.

I swear this year I’ve heard of four separate situations of Exquisite Corpse ‘like’ projects. Being collaborative is definitely a bigger thing we’re doing more and more in this business now. They’ve definitely been popping up. It’s been great. I’ve seen a couple try to get started but not make it. The first Exquisite Corpse we did at TV Land was done on paper and it never got finished. So when we decided to do the video version, everyone thought I was crazy.

So yeah, I think people are starting it and trying to do it. I’ve heard rumors. I haven’t seen a lot. But I’ve definitely heard a lot of talk about people doing things that were inspired by ECP type projects.

EM: I have no doubt your project influenced this trend – particularly with the visibility it got on Vimeo. We’ve seen other projects where motion designers are doing similar collaborative work. Some are even calling it The Exquisite Corpse Project. So kudos to you for being a pioneer in this realm. 

You’re a mentor to many in the industry. You take pride in teaching young people and have taught motion graphics in the Masters program at Parsons The New School for Design.

What value do passion projects bring to both new creatives in the industry as well as veterans?

MW: One thing I tell my students about their projects is not to look at it as something you have to do, but as an opportunity for you to do something you’re really interested in.

For me, you should definitely be doing art for yourself because art and design is not a job, it’s a way of life. It’s how I get dressed in the morning. It’s where and how I live. It’s all part of the artistic life we’ve developed. When it comes to making artistic decisions at your job, it’s second nature – because you don’t need to think about it. It’s what you are and how you think and how you react and emote.

Passion projects are those moments that allow me to step aside. I’m going to do it this way. People can love it. People can hate it. If it’s good in my eyes, then I’m straight and hopefully other people will like it. If they don’t like it, that’s cool. They have the opportunity to do their thing and improve upon it.

That’s why it’s exciting to hear about other people starting to do these projects. It’s hard to find time to do passion projects, but when you can, you should do it because it’s always good to test yourself

EM: Where can people find out more about you online?

MW: You can find me at tvartboy.com and on all the social networks @tvartboy – I’m a little bit all over the place.

EM: Michael, thanks once again for taking time out of your busy day to spend your time with us. I look forward to seeing you in June!

Micheal Waldron will be speaking at motion 2016 June 9-11 in Santa Fe. His topic? You guessed it…The Exquisite Corpse Project Xmotion 2016 takes place June 9-11, 2016 in Santa Fe, NM. Tickets are available online.

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