News 02.06.22

MEET DAVE



THE TEAM AT DAVE ENTERPRISES ARE AS TALENTED AND INTERESTING AS THEY ARE HUMBLE AND HARD-WORKING, AUSFILM SAT DOWN WITH THE ARTICULATE AND INNOVATIVE FUN-BUNCH, FOR A TASTE OF WHAT’S GOING ON INSIDE THIS CREATIVE HIVE

Ausfilm caught up with some of this talented crew to discover what makes their studio so unique and refreshing. Meet Senior Line Producer, Stuart Cunningham; Creative Director, Steve Cooper and Production Manager, Erin Black of DAVE.

Feature image: L-R, Top: Steve Cooper – Creative Director, Erin Black – Production Manager, Stuart Cunningham – Senior Line Producer.
Bottom: Mary Hutson – Editor, Michael Pattison – Head of Production, Mandy Clotworthy – Episodic Director.

HOW DID DAVE ENTERPRISES GET STARTED? 

Stuart: We were all working for different companies at the time. Fortunately, a mate of mine had heard that DreamWorks was looking to outsource some work, so I reached out to the key people and took a few calls. In order to gauge the talent available in Sydney, DreamWorks offered a test at first, which is pretty standard. But then in another stroke of luck, Kevin Wotton, Marc Wasik and Simon O’Leary – all amazing artists – were available to help with the test that DreamWorks sent. Steve was working at another studio at the time but pitched in to help with the test and the talent combo blew DreamWorks away. We were immediately offered a gig on our first DreamWorks show and it kind of snowballed from there with a lot of help from a bunch of talented folks.

Steve: With us all working in different spaces and places, Stu, Sean Aspinall and myself had to pull together quickly to wrangle the DreamWorks connection and the timing couldn’t have been better. At the time we were all working on this and that, small gigs or directing at other studios. It was in these other studios we had been aware of the yawning age gap in talent between established story artists and new crew. Nobody seemed to be training which created a vacuum that was screaming to be filled. Worldwide demand for talent was growing exponentially so we needed to act quickly. 

The connection to DreamWorks had been established so it was time to build on that connection. We flew to LA and met with the executive team who asked, “How many artists do you have?”, to which we said, “Well, how many do you want?”. And, as Stu has said, it snowballed from there.
Time to recruit!

WHO IS DAVE, WHAT DO YOU DO AND WHAT DOES YOUR TEAM STAND FOR?

Stuart: DAVE is a collective. A cooperative enterprise that consists of talented Digital Animation and Video Edit specialists who are looking for a better way to do things. The DAVE team stands for continual, fair work and fair pay in an inclusive environment rather than temporary ‘Gig Economy’ labour. We believe that if you look after your crew the creative outcomes are better for everyone.

Steve: We all want that security in the workplace and, in our opinion, the gig economy is not a solid foundation for growth or loyalty. We want our teams to be able to plan and grow, learn and share, and have the ability to forge a career with us. We also want to provide equal opportunity regardless of age, gender or ethnicity. It’s the work ethic and skill that we value as our currency and we strive to offer the conditions for those to shine. We stand for professional growth, equality, diversity, mentorship, sharing, and a strong sense of work/life balance and stability.

Erin: After Disney shut down its Australian studio about 20 years ago, the local animation industry was devastated in a very real sense. It’s where many people started their careers, and it was a major employer. Storyboard artists went from good-paying jobs to scrounging for any company that needed their talents. When DAVE started, we brought in people who had been doing house painting, making surfboards and graphic design jobs – all worthwhile pursuits, but neither what they’d necessarily set out to do nor where their passion lay. That’s why DAVE prioritises job security. We know good work comes from being able to focus on what you’re best at.

Our artists don’t feel financially precarious, and they know that we have their back. We believe in continual employment, even when a show finishes and the next series hasn’t dropped yet. For example, in quiet periods we have our junior borders jump in and assist more senior artists with their workload. This has the added advantage of giving them valuable experience and mentorships.

WHAT IS UNIQUE ABOUT DAVE?

Stuart: As we mentioned, it’s in our DNA to avoid ‘Gig Economy’ exploitation. One of our greatest advantages is that our entire executive team have previously worked hard for other studios, at all levels and departments of animation production: sometimes in less-than-ideal conditions.

“We’ve amassed a huge amount of practical experience that enables us to focus on what works well for creative teams and discard what doesn’t. The resulting crew-focussed philosophy sets our teams up for success and allows them more freedom to be creative.”

Stuart Cunningham, Senior Line Producer

The other unique aspect of DAVE is that we are, to date, the first story-focused studio in the country and we are certainly the largest. “

Steve Cooper, Creative Director

Stuart: And being story-focused, new recruits are provided access to a career path which often leads to the position of Episodic Director. Because storyboarding is all about the language of Direction, we’ve had crew join as Junior Board Artists and eventually graduate as Episodic Directors. We have also had Editors become Episodic Directors because everything we do is literally awash with the language of Direction and our teams can’t help but soak that knowledge up. So in a weird way, DAVE is kind of a creative gymnasium that takes in juniors with good drafting skills and at the other end, produces great animation Directors. What we do is more than ‘skilling-up’, we’re literally minting new Australian Directors and it’s something we can be very proud of.

HOW MANY DO YOU HAVE IN YOUR TEAM? 

Stuart: Currently we have a team of roughly 60-ish to 70-ish depending on who is travelling or taking a break.

WHAT PROJECTS HAVE YOU RECENTLY WORKED ON AND WHAT CREATIVE PROBLEM WERE YOU ABLE TO SOLVE FOR THE PRODUCER AND DIRECTOR?

Steve: We’re currently engaged on several very exciting projects which are, unfortunately, under wraps for now – but we have also completed so many other productions. Boss Baby: Back in Business, The Epic Tales of Captain Underpants, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Bob’s Burgers, Spirit: Riding Free, Doug Unplugs, Archibald’s Next Big Thing, Gabby’s Doll House (currently NETFLIX’s #2 rating children’s series) Kung-Fu Panda, The Croods: Family Tree, a new Dragons series set in the future, and a Netflix feature film Back to the Outback among a plethora of others. 

The best thing about being involved with the story aspect of production is that we are able to solve so many creative conundrums quickly and efficiently as the teams are comparatively small. This effectively saves so much time and money on trying to wrangle those issues among much larger crews down the line.

WHAT WOULD YOU TELL INTERNATIONAL EXECUTIVES ABOUT WORKING WITH AUSTRALIAN ANIMATORS? 

Stuart: Expect high quality and no BS. 

Steve: I can attest to that! We take our work very seriously as reputation is everything in this industry. One of our mantras is “Notes are good!”. Clients and producers take time to provide feedback on deliveries which we approach constructively rather than negatively. You can learn a lot from this process.

WHAT ARE YOU LOVING IN THE AUSTRALIAN ANIMATION INDUSTRY RIGHT NOW?

Stuart: I’m really loving the level of talent blooming in all corners of the country and the chances being taken at the Executive level on different shows. There’s a lot of variety right now. I also have young kids, so I love watching Bluey with them!

Steve: I’m really enjoying the ever-growing demand for content. With streamers now a rising force in driving content there are so many more opportunities for local studios and for graduates looking to enter the industry. We really want the local industry to thrive as it is good for us all. Through sharing we all grow together.

Erin: In a word – diversity. If you look at the more creative senior people in this industry, while they’ve done so much to lead the way, they are mostly white men, and women occupy higher roles in production. But when you look at our new recruits and those filling our junior board artist positions – a lot of them are women, and they’ve got all sorts of different backgrounds. It’s not just junior positions, we’ve got women in higher production roles, in directorial roles and as editors.
It’s not a competition of course. I’ve been so impressed by the spirit of collaboration, and I’ve been blown away by the respect I’ve seen – both for the wisdom of the older hands and the drive of the young.

The demand for content is there and with that comes jobs. So it’s also exciting to see the next generation stepping into the roles opening up in our industry. DAVE offers paid internships to successful applicants, which means we have a direct pipeline of talent that prioritises learning the craft and offers a realistic transition from revisionist to junior board artist and beyond. 
For senior storyboard artists, we’ve also made sure they can advance, and get the opportunity to become Directors.

WHAT ARE THE LATEST INNOVATIONS OR TECHNOLOGY THAT YOU ARE EXCITED ABOUT IN THE ANIMATION INDUSTRY?

Stuart: I like the experimentation with game creation engines that is occurring for both film and television production and I’m excited about the AR / VR space and what it will bring (not necessarily the META version of AR / VR though, it must be said).

Steve: Like Stu, I think the AR space is an exciting aspect to watch. We’re always looking for ways to try and weave this stuff into something we’re developing. Watch this space!

I also think that the tools being written around toon shading, such as in the Marvel: “What If?” series, and tools written around procedural texturing, such as we see in “League of Legends, Arcane”, have opened up avenues to better link traditional and CGI animation than we’ve ever seen. These innovations make for a much richer palate.

HOW DO YOU SEE THE INDUSTRY CHANGING IN THE FUTURE? WHAT DO YOU THINK CLIENTS SHOULD BE CONSIDERING?  

Stuart: Well I think the various work-from-home possibilities have been a welcome relief for a lot of people and I think it will be the norm for quite some time yet, so clients need to ensure they have good connections for those Zoom calls! ☺

Steve: I think the landscape will broaden significantly as demand for content grows over the next several years. With that, DAVE will also look to grow and offer more opportunities for employees and clients alike. Clients should also be considering the altered landscape created by the pandemic and that international borders seem less relevant in a way. And, yes, I think the Zoom calls might be part of our industry for some time to come.

Erin: In terms of future changes, there is so much content out there now that you’re not just competing against other animation or television shows, you’re competing against the whole internet for people’s attention. To stand out, you need to be different and your work needs to be superb. Clients should be aware of that, and they should also know that’s what we strive to offer them – a different perspective, finely crafted.

Also, I’d say to make sure our industry survives, we need the fresh eyes of the next generation coupled with the previous generations’ formidable foundation of knowledge. DAVE is an active part of replenishing our industry with new exciting talent who stand on the shoulders of giants!

Erin Black, Production Manager

WE HEARD YOU WORKED ON A PROJECT THAT WAS ENTIRELY FEMALE-DRIVEN, CAN YOU TELL US MORE ABOUT THAT?

Erin: One of my favourite series to work on to date at DAVE has been She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. That’s not just because it was a reboot of a series I knew as a child, but because it was a female-focused animation series made by women. Our series Directors, our Editor, most of the board artist team, as well as the production staff (including me) were mostly female. That’s a representation and that matters.  

Steve: In 2017 DreamWorks were developing their new series, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. The series revolves around Adora, an orphan on the planet of Etheria, who transforms into the superhero, She-Ra to lead a charge against the evil Horde in a fight to save the planet. This was a groundbreaking LGBTQI inclusive series for DreamWorks that we were thrilled to get a chance to work on. 

So, we started to build our team for the job. Our first Director on the series was Lianne Hughes who launched the show with a bang. Her prior experience as team lead at Walt Disney TV Animation really helped the crew nail the vibe of the series. Then as Lianne handed off we promoted first-time Director, Mandy Clotworthy, into the role. Mandy took some convincing but we had faith could stand up to the task, and with some mentoring became a superhero herself. 

Along with the story team and editor, Mandy hit home run after home run on the show and became something of a favourite with the execs in LA. The mantra of inclusivity of the production is mirrored within DAVE, as we had an all-female team leading the way, which we believe may be a first for the local industry in Australia. Mandy led a team of eight with herself, the production manager, Erin Black, editor Mary-Elizabeth Hutson (who has since become a Director in her own right), three board artists, and two revisionists. 

This crew grew organically and based on merit. Proof that our ideal of equality and inclusivity could exist given the right culture and environment

“Working on She-Ra and the Princesses of Power was the opportunity of a lifetime, and I’ll never forget it. The scripts were great, the message of inclusivity important, and the style of animation right up my alley. However, what will stick with me the most is all we achieved as a team – nobody’s efforts were anything less than critical. I couldn’t have been the director I was without the help of Mary and Erin and, of course, no director can achieve anything without their board artists and revisionists, they bought something unique to every episode.”

Mandy Clotworthy, Director on She-Ra series

WHAT IS SOMETHING PEOPLE WOULDN’T REALISE ABOUT DAVE?

Stuart: We’re seeking to improve our Green credentials in any way we can. Right down to Erin’s loo-paper suggestions. I think it’s important that DAVE is part of a creative sector and not an extractive one, but we can’t stop there. If we can refine our processes further for energy savings or a net carbon reduction then it’s important to do so.

“Becoming a carbon-neutral company gets thrown around a lot, but here at DAVE we are eager to take the first steps with the goal of becoming officially certified.”

Erin

It’s a journey – as any company that’s working towards that status will tell you – but it’s an important step in our company’s future. We only have one planet, after all. Erin adds

Steve: We’re a studio that is very creatively focused. The environment caters for our team’s creative needs over a set and forget mentality followed by deadline monitoring. As such, we look to provide as much autonomy to the creative leads and their crew as possible. We find that this creates a shared vision for each show and is critical in order for team building, trust and growth to flourish.

Erin: I mentioned briefly before, the paid internships that DAVE offer to successful applicants mean that we are able to cultivate a direct pipeline of talent, prioritising learning the craft and offering realistic transitions from revisionist to junior board artist and onward.