Interview with PostPanic, the creative team behind ‘Sundays’

When people tell you that it can’t be done, just sit there and figure out how it can be done.

– Ania Markham, PostPanic

How does a creative team specialised in hybrid film company explain to the world their vision and execution of truly unique creative work? We invited PostPanic, the award-winning studio behind the amazing project ‘Sundays’ and hosts of our first masterclass on video editing, for a more in-depth interview where we discussed why creative vision precedes technique, what it’s like to be a refugee camp for creatives and the power of community.

Thank you both for your time. Looking at ‘Sundays’, it seems like a clear representation of how the hybrid nature of your work produces amazing results. How does your process change depending on whether you’re developing that type of conceptual work or a more commercial movie?

Ania Markham (AM): Well, it doesn’t really change. The reason why we’re a hybrid company is that over these last 17 years we developed our own strange approach to how we execute ideas, and what’s really important to explain is that the creative vision leads and the techniques follow.

A director such as (PostPanic co-founder) Mischa, for example, has a very, very clear and defined vision of a world he wants to create and a visual direction he wants to achieve, and then it’s up to us to figure out how we make it happen, as opposed to saying ‘this is going to be a technique-determined piece of work’.

Over time, we just kind of organically brought the two worlds together, blurring the lines between live action and visual effects. We’re not a live action company that then goes to be a post-production company; it’s a very organic process. In that sense there isn’t a clear difference between commercial and conceptual work. Our commercial work over the years allowed us to refine certain techniques, so ‘Sundays’ is the culmination of 17 years of learning and refining our craft.

Ivor Goldberg (IG): We’ve had the luck to pick the kind of commercial work we do, so we aim to pick the ones that are challenging from every point of view and motivate us to invest lots of love in them. So actually, if we’re working on our own movies they feel the same, we approach them the same way. There isn’t a distinction because in our conceptual work we are the clients for that job, it’s our baby.

AM: We’re a relatively small company and we want to stay small. There are 18 of us in Amsterdam and we’ve worked together for years. Ivor’s team, for instance, has a very instinctive way of working, so it’s not a factory kind of setup here. We might take three or four projects at a time but those are chosen carefully and they’ve got to be worth our while. It sounds very idealistic but somehow it works for us.

Someone has described us as a refugee camp for creatives because we come from different countries and we found each other in Amsterdam. As a creative team, all our motivations are beyond getting rich and making money; we really just want to work on nice stuff and that’s been the defining decision for the projects we take on, whether it’s commercial or conceptual work.

What were the main advantages and challenges in involving Kickstarter to produce ‘Sundays’?

AM: The motivation to go to Kickstarter was ‘control freak behaviour’ on our part. We knew that if we wanted to make this project, we wanted to retain as much creative control over it. We’re used to working with clients, but often a client will dictate the creative and logistic parameters of a project. For us it was really interesting to see, after setting the boundaries, what would happen creatively.

We already had a name in the creative community, where makers, designers and creatives already followed our work. Ultimately, our motivation was to make a film we’d want to see and we thought that people in that community would also want to go and see it. That was the confidence we had in this amazing community that’s supported us over the years.

What was really nice was that initially you approach Kickstarter from a financial point of view and you’re expecting people to give small amounts like $10, but actually some people were giving ridiculous amounts like $5,000. Secondly, you suddenly have this whole community standing behind you and supporting you, which brings a sense of responsibility towards them, you have to create something on the standard that they deserve. Thirdly, what we hadn’t expected was that this community would also generate incredible volunteers for Ivor.

IG: We’ve approached a lot of people directly, but at some point we had established artists wanting to be a part of it too, which was a really great sense of community.

AM: Having this group of people supporting us and spreading the word was a really humbling experience. The $50,000 that we made through Kickstarter paid for the shoot in Mexico City and I don’t think that we could have gone and done that otherwise, it would have been with so many strings attached. We’re really grateful on many different levels to the Kickstarter community.

IG: There’s hope out there. (both laugh)

What were the most challenging special effects to produce whilst making ‘Sundays’?

IG: It touches a bit on what we were talking before. All that help and support we got through Kickstarter was an amazing blessing, but at the same time this was a production and we were relying on all these people to invest their spare time. So one of the biggest challenges was actually trying to juggle people and deadlines!

If it were a paid job, you’d give them deadlines for assets and shots but you can’t do that here so you’re at the mercy of these amazing people who gave their time to work on these shots. And especially because people still have to do their commercial work and pay their bills, this was purely for love. Our main challenge was then to make sure that we moved on with the production without letting it stagnate.

When it comes to special effects, because we’ve been waiting so long to do this, any of the other challenges was a joy. One of the hardest things was how we’d recreate the sun, because when you first look at the flare you think ‘yeah I can make it’, but then the more you look at it the more you scratch your head due to its levels of complexity. This was the biggest of hills to climb from a technical point of view, but with our workflow and our philosophy we do a lot of fudging and cheating and trying things together, using whatever means necessary to get there.

When we create the first layer, we used 3D displacements based on real granulation of the sun and then we started adding images, stock footage, smoke and lava effects, anything that would give us a more natural feel within those infinite levels of complexity.

Then there were smaller challenges. When we went on the shoot, there was only so much we could plan for, so the challenge there was making sure we had everything we needed to capture what we wanted. For example, we had a desert shot but once we got there it was clear that some elements really weren’t going to work, so Mischa had to radically change the construction of some of the shots in the moment. But at the same time, we’ve learned so much from the journey and it was just a joy to work on these challenges. It was fun, not ‘what the hell are we going to do here?’.

AM: There was also the frustration of doing this and trying to function as a production company at the same time. Some people commented on the length of time we invested in post-production, but the truth is we were doing this in-between commercial projects. We didn’t have the luxury to get everybody dedicated to Sundays at all times because it had to fit around our day job. That was all for the love, it’s just like Stardust. People have asked us to put a price on Stardust but there are things you can’t put a price on.

What are the most interesting new filmmaking techniques you’ve seen or experimented with in your work?

IG: It’s nothing new or fancy amazing state of the art stuff that’s getting us through. One thing that’s key is having all these artists around, you can spend so much time in 3D but we follow our own process. By the fact that so many of us can draw and we use matte painting embellishments, we can create these 3D elements and then use camera projections and other techniques to project them and make them realistic, the type of thing that would normally take a lot of time just using 3D.

Matte embellishment is something that really works for us, but we also like taking other software and breaking it a little bit to create more complex things, like solar flare and fluid simulated stuff. It’s not about ground breaking stuff but instead using all the tools at our disposal and getting everything we can out of them, twisting them and not playing by the book.

AM: When people tell you that it can’t be done, just sit there and figure out how it can be done. We don’t worry about the techniques to get there, it’s the end product that works for us and we just do whatever’s possible to get it done that way. It’s also all about attention to details. It can elevate something creatively as long as you pay attention in the right places.

Panic Room has been around since 2009. What’s been changing in terms of the most frequent discussions around creativity in the video industry? What, using your own words, ‘makes extraordinary creatives tick’ the most?

AM: We started Panic Room basically because we’re a very curious bunch. We found that it was really difficult to explain to people what PostPanic was about, so the easiest way was to share the things and people we were into. We started inviting them to come over and the brief was: you can’t do a showcase of your own work, but during 30 minutes share the things that inspire you.

Over the years, we’ve learned that it’s not so much what they share that matters – we’ve had bizarre stuff like psychedelic, bad sci-fi, bad muppet show clips, ermahgerd jokes. What does unify them is the fact that they are sharing in a proactive and collaborative way, they don’t feel threatened by their peers. This willingness everyone now has to share what makes them tick didn’t happen when I started in this industry. Maybe it came with the internet and all the tools you now have, but that collaborative sharing generation of creatives, that’s what Panic Room is all about.

IG: That and plying them with alcohol. (both laugh)

AM: Also, because it’s so informal, it’s not about who’s got the best portfolio; it’s about the international community that PostPanic is a part of. Sometimes we’re competitors with people in the community, sometimes we’re friends, sometimes both, and that’s the amazing thing: it’s ever changing, we’re just picking out people and we want to know what’s going on in their head. You guys definitely need to come along.

We’d like to thank Ania Markham and Ivor Goldberg, respectively co-producer and VFX supervisor of ‘Sundays’ and British partners at PostPanic, for their availability and incredible world view. This interview has been edited for clarity.