Feature – MK12 on Telephoneme

If you’re involved with motion design, or any creative industry for that matter, you’re probably familiar with the work of MK12. They’re responsible for some of the most recognized work in the motion graphics world – from feature film titles to music videos and TV spots. However, outside of their commercial work they consistently raise the bar with their self-initiated short films. Giant Child had the opportunity to speak with Ben Radatz, one of the founding partners of MK12, about the studio, their films, and the process behind last years film Telephoneme.

Giant Child: First thing; Tell us about MK12. I realized that as long as I’ve know about you, I really don’t know anything about you. MK12 has always had a sort of mysterious/secretive thing about it. When did you form? Who started the company? How many people work at MK12?

MK12: We’d love to say that the mystery’s all intentional, but it’s probably due as much to our lack of self-promotion as it is to our late arrival to social media, which we’re only now getting our heads around. At the same time, though, we do like to keep our heads down and just put out work when it’s ready. And, we always credit the studio, not individuals – we’ve always just done it that way.

We got our start in ’99, right after graduating from the Kansas City Art Institute, where we four original partners (myself, Jed Carter, Tim Fisher, Matt Fraction) met while in the Photo/Video department, which at the time was sort of a catch-all major for anyone interested in modern imaging. We were some of the few animators there, and we’d collaborate often on short films and other oddball experiments. We came back together after we graduated to work on a big film project we’d been planning, and that accidentally morphed into MK12.

We got our start designing web sites and other random paraphernalia by day, and at night we’d work on our short films and personal projects. We didn’t think we’d be able to make a living at it, but our films started doing well on the festival circuit and online, and we started getting calls from scouts and producers. It just kind of grew from there.

We are five partners now – swapping out Fraction (who left to pursue comic writing) for Shaun Hamontree and Chad Perry. We’re also privileged to work with some really talented folk: Heather Brantman from KU, Shawn Burns from SCAD, and Teddy Dibble and James Ramirez from KCAI.

GC: What’s it like being a motion design group based in Kansas City. Are you missing anything that might be found in LA, Chicago, or NY?

MK12: It actually seems to work out in our favor most of the time. We got heckled a bit at the beginning – even by a few of our own clients! – but after a year or two, that stopped being an issue. I’m sure we miss out on jobs now and then by virtue of isolation, but the payoff to being in the midwest is that our cost of living is low, so we don’t have to jump on every job that comes in. Being here is probably the biggest reason why we’re able to produce as much in-house work as we do.

And, contrary to popular belief, Kansas City is a fairly cosmopolitan town, with a great core of artists and musicians and a lot of texture. Small enough not to get lost in, but big enough to matter.

GC: Have personal lifestyles or other things played a role in the MK12 style and brand. For those who started MK12, what sort of things inspired your aesthetic and attitude?

MK12: We probably wouldn’t be here if we didn’t drag our personal interests into work with us. For example, the midwest is a great resource for found material, and we’ll often roadtrip and come back with boxes of books, LPs and all manner of odd ephemera, and that inevitably makes it’s way into the work. Actually, some of our best films are a result of dueling personal interests here smashing together to make something else entirely.

GC: I think the first time I remember seeing your work was the video you did for the Faint, and then later the Stranger Than Fiction titles. What sort of work was MK12 doing at the start? What project(s) really launched MK12?

MK12: There were two big projects early on that really set the tone of the studio. The first was a short film we made called Man of Action!, which was a rapid-fire James Bond / Flint parody set in outer space. That piece did really well on the festival circuit, especially ResFest, who we then developed a relationship with. That led to us doing the opening titles to their ’00 world tour, which exposed our work to a much wider audience. Combined, those two gave us the boost we needed, but it also showed us that there was some interest out there in our brand of filmmaking, and that we didn’t just need to relegate it to off-hours.

GC: It seems like MK12 always comes out in full force when releasing one of it’s own short films. When did the idea for doing internal projects start?

MK12: It’s just in our DNA – we’ve always seen MK12 as a place where we can actually realize some of the crazy ideas we’ve scribbled down over the years. That’s not to say that we don’t give our commercial work the same kind of love – the two make up a kind of a symbiotic ecosystem here. But the day we’re no longer making films for enjoyment is the day we lose our bearing.

GC: Was there a point when you realized you wanted to make it a goal to do more short films? Is there a future goal with these films? I think of a design studio like Coudal, who at some point decided they’d rather make their own work and products rather than relying on client work. Has something like that ever crossed your mind?

MK12: The hardliner in me would say that every day spent making our own work is a good day, but that wouldn’t acknowledge all the great collaborations we’ve had over the years. We do like working with other artists and directors – we can only learn so much in isolation.

What matters most to us is that we put out work that we’re proud of and had fun making. Commerce isn’t a dirty word here – it’s just a different medium with it’s own set of challenges. But I do think we’re more in our element when we’re able to tell longer stories.

GC: Being as busy as you are with commercial work, how do you set aside time and resources for these internal projects?

MK12: Nights and weekends, mostly. We do try to be stubborn about keeping a schedule, even if it does all happen off the clock. Of course, they’re the first on the backburner when things get busy, but we just keep chipping away at them when we can.

GC: So how did the idea for Telephoneme come about?

MK12: We had actually written a script for a type-based short film called AGENT Y, which was sort of an experimental early-warning video about coded messages discovered in everyday words and phrases. In doing some research on the project, we came across a film called The Alphabet Conspiracy, which was a Bell Labs-funded educational film from the 60’s. In it, a young girl gets frustrated with her homework and travels to an Alice-in-Wonderland-esque world where she conspires with a Mad Hatter-type to destroy the english language, thereby saving her from doing her work. Their plot is foiled by a kindhearted linguistic scientist named Dr. Research, who explains the value of language to them and inspires her to return and finish her homework.

Content-wise, the Alphabet Conspiracy was so close to what we’d already written that we decided to just appropriate the audio and remix it into a slightly darker version of itself.

GC: How much truth is behind the VRL and Alphabet Conspiracy scenario? Did you do much research on the subject outside of studying the film?

MK12: The Voice Research Lab is a real place, and their job really is to analyze speech patterns, phonemes, dialects, that sort of thing. And certain words and phonetic combinations can be designed to evoke involuntary emotional reactions in people – think of poetry, politics, hypnosis, even con artistry. Whether language can be used as a trojan horse for subversive content is a different thing entirely, but the conspiracy theorists don’t think it too far-fetched – there’s probably as much writing about coded messages found in the bible as there are words in the bible itself.

GC: What was the process behind design, were there other visual ideas that didn’t make the cut? How many designers worked on initial look and feel?

MK12: There were just a few of us working on it initially, mostly reacting to and building off of each other’s designs. We’d recently been experimenting with separating red, green and blue channels in animation and having each of them do their own thing, then recombining them to form a full image again. With Telephoneme being about the language as a double agent, we thought it appropriate to use this technique, though we never used it to it’s full potential. We were also really inspired by the simplified animations and ginned-up premises of educational films from the 60’s – the Bell Labs series in particular – and we thought it appropriate to work that into our designs.

As with commercial jobs, we create a lot of conceptual designs for our internal projects, and even though we had a ballpark idea of what we wanted the film to look like going in, it still took us a while to come up with something we thought would be sustainable.


GC: How do you rough a piece like this out, it’s a heavy mix of 2d, 3d and video. Did you do any sketched storyboards? Or was it straight to the computer?

MK12: There’s really no right way to go about it – at least not that we found. We just start working on a couple of different angles and skim off the good stuff, then repeat the process until we’re happy.

The voiceover was really the foundation, so we spent a good amount of time on the mix and played the visuals off that. We tend not to storyboard on experimental projects, as we rely so much on happy accidents and meandering trains of thought, so instead we’ll set up a couple of milestones in the film – where we know a certain thing needs to happen at a certain time – and then build around those. It doesn’t always work as advertised, but it’s a good place to start.

GC: So the audio was re-mixed from the original Alphabet Conspiracy sound? Did you work with a sound designer, or is that something you did in-house? Where there any copyright or licensing issues you had to work out?

MK12: With a few exceptions, we do all of our own sound design on internal projects – it’s just a way for us to keep more control over the final piece, and they’re usually so abstract that it would be difficult for us to communicate our thoughts to an outsider. We do appropriate audio from time to time – not always legally, but since we don’t profit from our films, we generally don’t have copyright issues. We’ve gotten smarter about that over the years though, as appropriated audio really does limit how and where you can show the work. Fortunately, the Alphabet Conspiracy (and all other Bell Labs films) is in public domain, compliments of archive.org.

GC: For animating (on this piece and just in general) what is your software of choice?

MK12: Our software library is pretty straightforward – the CS suite, Maya and C4D, ProTools and Logic for audio. We do have more specialized software for tracking, particle simulations, that sort of thing, but we don’t pull these out very often.

GC: Did you shoot and create all of the human photo/video elements from scratch?

MK12: On Telephoneme, it’s a mix. We did shoot all of the live action that isn’t obviously archive-quality, but we did borrow a healthy amount of public-domain footage for the montage sequence of the film, towards the end.

GC: Do you have a full production team at MK12 that can handle filming, or do you typically work with outside vendors if a project requires a lot of live action?

MK12: We do have our own proper greenscreen stage at the studio and do shoot a lot of our own live action, but on commercial shoots we’ll almost always work with outside crews. We know what we’re looking for, but stage tech is admittedly over our heads, and we’d sooner let the pros do what they do best. We also like collaborating with live action DP’s, as a good craftsman behind the camera is just as important as what we do in post.

GC: What was the production time on this piece? And, how many people in total worked on it?

MK12: We worked on Telephoneme for about four months, most of it off the clock, or when we had holes in our schedule. Ultimately, all of us here touched it at some point, but I don’t think there was ever more than two people working on it at any given time.

GC: Did you run into any technical challenges that needed to be solved?

MK12: There are always technical problems with integrating live action into a graphic animated piece, as we have to consider the overall aesthetic and shoot accordingly, and live action rarely goes as planned, so it can gum up our timings. But, so it goes.

GC: You also offer a download of the typeface from the film. Was designing the typeface a secondary thing, or was the film a promo for the typeface?

MK12: The typeface is actually one of the first things we came up with – It’s a story about the alphabet, so of course typography played a very big role. We set out to make a theoretically-perfect typeface, in that all of the measurements and widths are proportionate and relative to each other. We imagined this as a “root font”, from which all other typefaces could grow.

Aesthetics were a secondary concern, even though the final typeface influenced the character of the entire film. It was important for us to design it that way for two reasons: 1) we knew we’d be doing a lot of typographic animation, and so we needed a predictable font that was designed specifically for pivoting and overlaying. 2) it seemed appropriate to the subject matter to use a typeface that was both mechanical and visually streamlined.

We like to design our own fonts whenever possible, and if they’re robust enough to use outside of their immediate context, we’ll share them. There’s no ulterior motive in doing that, other than the satisfaction gained from seeing it used well in other people’s work.

GC: Whenever MK12 releases a new film, you usually include an entire branded package with it – websites, stickers, posters and other merchandise. Is everything done in-house?

MK12: Admittedly, we love self-promotion when it comes to our films. It’s a professional tactic, to be sure, but more importantly, we like to create worlds for our designs to live in. A solid concept should be sustainable across a number of media – motion, web, print, other collateral – so producing all of that is a fun way for us to explore that world.

We like to design experiences, not just one-off pieces. If an audience knows that you believe in what you make – to the extent that it can exist with consistency across all of those platforms – you’re one step closer to earning their trust.

GC: Any other notes worth mentioning about Telephoneme?

MK12: Frank C. Baxter, aka Dr. Research, was a real-life professor at UC Berkley who had a genuine love for teaching, and he became a staple in American classrooms for his contributions to the Bell Labs film series, from the late 50’s on up to the 80’s. He really is the Mr. Rogers of science, and something of a hero here at MK12. (also, it upsets us to no end that we didn’t come up with the name “Dr. Research” first…)

Fun fact: “NEVER KILL A SNAKE WITH YOUR BARE HANDS” is a phonetically-balanced phrase. From an oral history of Haskins Laboratories (they’re a phonetic research facility at Yale):

“We took these 12 Harvard phonetically balanced sentences or whatever they were called, you know, “the birch canoe slid on the smooth planks”, “never kill a snake with your bare hands”, and so on. And we just simply copied them and simplified and went back and forth by trial and error until we had simplified spectrograms that when converted into sound were reasonably intelligible and then we asked the question what have we done.”

GC: Thanks again Ben & MK12, keep inspiring!