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Cracking the small time

Cracking the small time
Campbell Hooper and Joel Kefali’s design house Special Problems became a music video powerhouse quite by accident. But as they tell Duncan Greive, they’re counterintuitively resisting expanding their business

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Campbell Hooper and Joel Kefali’s design house Special Problems became a music video powerhouse quite by accident, attracting some very high-profile fans. But as they tell Duncan Greive, they’re counterintuitively resisting expanding their business

photographs by arno gasteiger

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read the blog post in its entirety. At first glance the irritation caused by the caps lock is mitigated by the fact that the author remembered the apostrophe. Otherwise there’s nothing to separate it from any other brief-but-enthusiastic piece of internet detritus. Nothing except the identity of its author, a musician by the name of Kanye West: the multiplatinum-selling, George Bush–denouncing, Taylor Swift–silencing hiphop megastar. When he calls something AMAZING, people everywhere pay attention.

The object of his affection was a music video by Australian artist Jonathan Boulet, who’s signed to the hip Sydney record label Modular that’s also home to New Yorkers Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Swedish pop singer Robyn. The video, for a single called ‘A Community Service Announcement’, is a surreal, aggressive piece conducted in a kind of reverse motion, with the line between digital animation and live action blurred until it barely exists at all.

Jonathan Boulet - A Community Service Announcement

Jonathan Boulet - A Community Service Announcement

So who, exactly, shot this video that flew round the world? Special Problems, of Ponsonby Road, Auckland. The company describes itself as “a multidisciplinary creative studio with a focus on video, print and web projects”, although a majority of its work to date has been on these increasingly strange and acclaimed music videos, with the remainder comprising design, video and brand work for everyone from women’s clothing store Max to the New Zealand Breakers basketball franchise.

Founders Joel Kefali and Campbell Hooper started Special Problems in 2007, after each had spent months being at first intrigued and then irritated by the number of mutual acquaintances who remarked, “You have to meet Joel/Cam.”

Eventually the pair did meet, and discovered that, for once, the crowd was wise. They had a lot in common in terms of philosophy, outlook and interest. Each had a background in fine arts, but had ended up working in a commercial realm—Kefali at motion graphics firm Brandspank, Hooper churning out album covers for bitter divorcees at Media Technologies—and each had made a music video for a friend (Hooper for Dimmer, Kefali for his then-flatmate’s band Robot Tigers).

They started Special Problems on a whim and a prayer and began to churn out music videos, because that was what they knew. Before long, there was a queue of musicians wanting their strange, skewed vision allied to their sound. They’ve since directed for a who’s-who of local artists, including The Mint Chicks and Gin Wigmore, as well as big international clients like 70s rock revivalists Wolfmother and Californian electronica boffin Flying Lotus.

For Hooper, their dedication to the form in and of itself was what set them apart from some of their more conventional competition.

“For us it’s about music videos,” he says over a jug at a bar near their headquarters. “It’s not like we want to be feature film directors and music videos are just a path to get there.

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“One of our biggest critiques of local music videos is these hideous narratives that are forced onto these tracks when there’s no good reason for them to be there.”

“We didn’t set out to use music videos as a stepping stone to TVCs,” adds the blond, bespectacled Kefali. “Which is what it’s mainly used for here.” Perversely, television commercials are exactly what they’ve found themselves doing lately, after the striking visual qualities of their work lead to more adventurous brands and agencies coming knocking. In the past year they’ve worked on television commercials for Yellow and Hallensteins and when I visit their office one evening they’re squeezing planning for a Vodafone spot around a particularly obtuse piece of post-production chicanery.

Three days earlier they had finished work on an animated video for a new Crowded House song, featuring a bear, a train and some northern European landscapes. Or rather, they thought they’d finished work on it. After delivering the finished product to Neil Finn and co in pristine hi-def, someone—no one can quite recall who—had the bright idea of projecting the footage onto the wall and re-shooting it using an old-fashioned film camera. Now it’s past nine on a Wednesday evening, and in a room lit only by Mac screens and the projector six people are hard at work on this so-nearly-signed-off project.

In one room, photographer Duncan Cole is massaging film into his own one-of-a-kind modified 70s Bolex camera, in a desktop lightproof tent. In the next room, the video plays over and over against a wall, while Il Buco pizza boxes and half-empty bottles of wine share desk space with graphics tablets and fashion magazines. Nina Simone sings ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ softly in the background through some ancient speakers, while a client laments with Kefali about their inability to locate a Burger King placemat that Special Problems designed for the Breakers.

The scene is an intoxicating blend of the obsolete and the cutting edge, the highly commercial and the hopelessly artistic, the logical and the whimsical. And it’s these seemingly contradictory impulses that have brought the company its successes while at times inhibiting its growth. For most businesses the idea of deliberately turning away opportunities and determinedly avoiding expansion would be rejected out of hand—it runs contrary to the boardroom mantra of relentless growth—but the duo estimates they reject around 80 percent of the pitches they receive. Their bloody-minded blending of commerce and art has served them well so far and, as Kefali explains, the company’s entire identity is bound up in the creative relationship between him and Hooper, and that’s how they like it.

“I feel like we’d lose a lot of what’s special to us if we took on that framework,” says Kefali on the idea of the pair managing a larger group. “I once read a piece by [Austrian designer] Stefan Sagmeister that basically said, ‘If you’re a designer, be a designer, if you’re a manager, be a manager.’ I think we’re designers, we’re makers.”

Another key philosophical influence is Maki Suzuki from the influential and anarchic UK design house Åbäke, whom they met when the latter came to New Zealand to speak at design-geek conference Semi- Permanent. The groups talked late into the night and became fast friends, and Åbäke’s fluxing status as a record label, art collective and design studio seeped into the nascent Special Problems’ DNA.

This means that despite the big global brands that have latched onto the Special Problems aesthetic, and the attendant lure of big commercial pay cheques, the duo’s next major project is to complete a lowbudget short film. Which goes to show that, despite the affections of multinational corporations, they’re unlikely to shake their habits any time soon. As Brendan Smyth, New Zealand music manager at NZ On Air and a vocal supporter of their work, points out, it’s those same habits that have produced some of their most striking images.

“The Naked and Famous clip ‘Young Blood’ has a near-perfect match of what the song’s about and the pictures,” he says admiringly of one of their most acclaimed pieces of work.

The Naked and Famous - Young Blood

The Naked and Famous - Young Blood

“These days, the music video is an important a part of a musician’s toolbox, more important even than in the MTV heyday, because of YouTube and the online opportunities. The music video is the musician’s business card.”

it’s a person’s inadequacies or weaknesses that provide their strengths. The way they’ve dealt with that problem has defined them

Despite the public sector’s vocal (and financial) support, Special Problems needed paying private customers to really thrive. In some ways it’s a miracle it has been able to make as much headway as it has in the often conservative, image-conscious world it’s been navigating of late.

When I first visit the offices there’s a near-empty bottle of Laphroaig single malt whisky on the coffee table, and the main workroom teeters on the border between dishevelled and plain messy. But three years ago, when they first moved in, you hear stories of far less salubrious situations.

To cite but one: they are located above hairdresser-tothe- stars Stephen Marr, and he and Lucy Marr function, says Hooper, as their patrons. Special Problems’ distinctive hand has provided much of Stephen Marr’s visual style for a number of years, although the Marrs might have had cause to question the arrangement when Kefali and Hooper’s (since extinguished) penchant for smoking inside had the hairstylist’s clientele complaining about the smell drifting down the stairs. Despite this, Lucy Marr has nothing but praise for them and their work, which includes brand design and moving images for web and salon.

“We’ve loved having them work alongside us—they bring a real energy, vitality and freshness to the place. For us as a brand we like to stay outside of the realms of the industry we work in, and their design work is really non-traditional, and very restrained, which I really appreciate.”

The relationship with Stephen Marr has been important in showcasing what Kefali and Hooper can do beyond music videos, but it’s only since they’ve taken on more commercial clients that they’ve been able to feel comfortable financially. It was solely due to the obsessive streak visible in every element of their business that they were able to eke out a living from their share of the hundreds of NZ on Air-funded $5,000 music videos that have for so long been a staple of this country’s music and film culture. They shaved a profit off such a thin wedge by defying a trend and insourcing production wherever possible.

“One of the biggest things that informs us is that we do everything on the video,” says Kefali. “Plenty of guys use big crews and outsource various parts, so they find it impossible to make a living off them. Whereas we do everything ourselves, so we’ve been able to make a living off them for two or three years.”

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For most of that time Special Problems were very much a two-man band. It was only until a year ago, when they found themselves inundated with offers from bands they adored, that they took a deep breath and hired help. Robert Wallace was taken on as a designer– animator to fill a hole and proved so useful that, having broken the dam, Kefali and Hooper found it hard to stop. A few months later they took on producer Amber Easby, erstwhile merchandise director of The White Stripes and proprietor of K Road’s DOC bar, where members of Special Problems are often found after (and occasionally during) work hours. And in the past few weeks director Brendon Davies-Patrick has joined as studio manager.

Despite the expansion and the swiftly changing shape of their workload (they say now that less than 50 percent of their time is spent on the music videos on which they built their reputation) Kefali and Hooper remain steadfastly opposed to becoming more like a traditional production house, preferring instead a quasi-design studio ethic—not the usual process in their industry but one in tune with their instincts.

“With the Yellow ad, say, it’s not like I did the character animation and Cam painted the background, then I worked on the grading while Cam worked on something else,” says Kefali by way of decoding their processes. “It was more like I did one scene and he did another. But when you put it together they all fit seamlessly. We just had ideas, and kept going back and forth. Which is kind of how design studios work, essentially. We direct like a design studio.”

The growth of Special Problems has, if anything, led to it becoming more idiosyncratic. Instead of using their newfound scale to work less, Hooper and Kefali instead feel it frees them up to do more of what they’re best at. Relieved of production duties, they’re able to do more hand-drawing, set-dressing and meticulous editing—which got them all the attention in the first place.

“You can’t tell someone else how to draw like you,” says Kefali.

“That’s a really good example,” Hooper adds. “Drawing is so personalised. Drawing has become such a strong aesthetic around Special Problems, with our animation sequences. You can’t tell someone how to do it—it’s instinctive, like sport or music. And we all know what albums sound like with session musicians.

“I think that’s the best metaphor to use. You can’t bring in a dude who’s the best drummer in the world, because it’s actually a person’s inadequacies or weaknesses that provide their strengths. The way they’ve dealt with that problem has defined them.” As we begin to wind up the interview, the bar’s stereo plays The Naked and Famous’ number-one single ‘Young Blood’, and it’s hard not to call to mind its Special Problems clip, a hazy live-action piece celebrating the peculiar and transitory glory of youth itself. Hooper, a charismatic and forceful speaker, smiles at the symmetry of the moment before launching into a trademark—and quite defining—off-the-cuff manifesto.

“We’re not long-term goal setters. We just do what’s in front of us. Totally the opposite of the way a business should be run,” he says. “But I think that’s been to our benefit, in that the thing that’s in front of us, while we’re working on it … it’s our whole world. We don’t look at anything as a stepping-stone to something else, because I think if you do that it degrades the thing you’re working on.”

Crowded House - Twice if You're Lucky

Crowded House - Twice if You're Lucky