We recently sat down with the founders of MOUTHWASH Studio: Abraham Campillo, Mackenzie Freemire, and Alex Tan, to discuss the value of unique online experiences for filmmakers. From the pitfalls of templated sites, to inspirations you can use while building your own system, MOUTHWASH Studio states their case as to why custom digital experiences may be the way of the future for the film industry.
Tell us about how you discovered the value of unique web experiences.
Freemire: The thing that got us most excited about working on filmmaker’s sites was seeing amazing films made by our favorite directors. We’d see these works end up on templated sites that were so generic that there was a real disconnect. There was a desire to match the experience of the site with the quality of their work.
Tan: Platforms show up like Vimeo or Youtube, and really do an amazing job at removing barriers for people to showcase their work. I think that’s an amazing thing that we need to have. But at the same time, when it’s so easy to upload to the channels, people stop questioning the process. Just because it’s available and easy doesn’t mean it’s the best experience. So when platforms like those become the standard, we needed to ask ‘how can we continue to push and challenge ourselves?’. A unique digital experience for a filmmaker was the answer that made sense to all of us.
You’re saying templated sites aren’t the best way to show a body of work?
Campillo: Like Alex said, platforms like Vimeo and Youtube are great. But I think they’re limited in how they showcase a body of work. Oftentimes you’d go to a director’s website and feel sort of let down. This amazing work is being bucketed by a system that wasn’t really made for it. And we kept seeing this pattern over years: either no one cared, or nobody had the access to stand out amongst the crowd when it came to the presentation of their work.
Tan: The last 20 years of the internet has been a huge wave of centralizing people on social platforms. For us it was Instagram, for a lot of filmmakers it was Vimeo. But over the last few years I think people are starting to realize that the internet is becoming overly-populated. It’s harder to get domain names, social handles, all that stuff. There’s a real need and desire to start to separate from the centralized structures. The ability as a creative individual to make something that has a very memorable experience has a lot of value right now.
I think it’s important to note that there’s nothing wrong with having a templated site. For some, that’s all they really need. But, there is a lot of room for innovation in having a custom website. It really is a platform that allows your personality to show through the presentation of your work. A filmmaker’s work is an extension of their personal brand, and we find the same to be true of their site. What font families you lean towards, how you layout information, and how you choose to have others view your work. Those are all nuances that end up building your digital presence.
Freemire: Sometimes a filmmaker’s personal brand gets lost on their site when the primary focus of the template is the work being showcased. You need to look at what makes you unique as a filmmaker. Ask yourself how that can influence the experience of the site. Having that cohesive brand takes your body of work to a totally new level.
Have you found filmmakers catch on to web design theory quickly?
Campillo: Most of the filmmakers we end up working with get it. There is some explaining for those who don’t have a firm understanding of what goes into making a website. It’s a good education process. But they have a good understanding of the inherent value of being able to stand out through a custom site.
Tan: One of the biggest hurdles we’ve had is learning how to collaborate with people who are so good at making creative decisions in their own field. Working with some of the best directors and colorists in the industry. These people are the shot callers. Trying to maneuver that power dynamic can be uncomfortable. But it’s the tradeoff you make when you want to keep them close on the process. It ultimately is to the benefit of all of us. Trying to hit the sweet spot for these filmmakers, having interactions and hover states and font pairings that match their personal style and make sense within the site is an interesting challenge for us.
You recently developed a digital experience for Salomon Ligthelm. What did it look like to build a site for someone like him?
Freemire: Something we find really interesting is landing on a site and not only seeing a body of work, but also a peek into a filmmaker’s process. And that can be accomplished in both large, elaborate ways, and in the smaller details. For someone like Salomon, a deeply introspective and reflective human, finding a solution for this Ethos portion of his site was incredibly important. It’s set up as an Easter Egg so you’ll only find it if you’re looking for it. Interacting with these seemingly abstract symbols reveals a second layer to the site filled with quotes that inspire and live within Salomon. It all feels really personal and only makes sense for someone like him.
Landing on a templated site and seeing all of Salomon’s work in front of you, it’s easy to tell he’s an amazing director. But it’s not really going to inform you of who he really is. From a client perspective, you have to ask the question: “Why would I hire this filmmaker?” Obviously having good work is a must. But for them to clearly understand where the director is coming from, and how they might approach a brief, before even talking to them, there’s unprecedented value in that.
Campillo: Another element we considered was a strong typographic system. You want to build a world for your work to live in, and create something that’s able to evolve with time without being too specific or limiting. For Salomon, we explored a lot of posters, for example. And you’ll notice that we use the same fonts, the use of asymmetrical negative space is consistent. Everything is intentional and lives under one roof, even though it’s crossing over multiple mediums.
How should filmmakers navigate this balance between platforms like Vimeo or YouTube and a personal site?
Tan: Platforms like Vimeo and Instagram and Youtube are going to do what they’re going to do. It allows the best work to rise to the top, and people will swarm to that. And there’s no real changing that dynamic. Something to consider is that a producer or commissioner might be deciding between five directors. The digital experience they have on a site will really help them understand the filmmaker’s process or flair. It’s the extra added variable in the equation. The added value to having an amazing website is the perception and experience that others walk away with.
Campillo: And I think ‘value’ is a really important word in that. When you land on someone’s site that is extremely templated, it cheapens the product’s experience. There’s that Steve Jobs quote that says “God is in the details” and that stands true across mediums. Putting in the time and effort to make a unique website that is cohesive really sets you apart from the pack.
Where do you pull inspiration from as you’re creating?
Freemire: For us, the conversations we have in the beginning with a filmmaker really inform where and what we choose to be inspired by. Salomon, for example, we pulled a lot of inspiration from older Orthodox Christian iconography and typography. For someone like Jacob McKee though, we focused on archival systems. How things are gridded, modularity, through different mediums.
Campillo: Someone like Gordon Von Steiner, we’re heavily influenced by schools of fashion. It just depends on what that filmmaker brings to the table. Even though people like Salomon, Jacob, or Gordon are all rooted in film, you are inspired by mediums outside of their practice.
Tan: And when you focus on themes at hand, it opens up the conversation for personal narrative. Exploring the idea of Orthodox Christianity for Salomon allowed us to study their use of typography, iconography, and how they layout information. You’d lose all of that if you only looked at Salomon as a filmmaker.
How do you know when a site is complete?
Freemire: If you can move through the site seamlessly and not come across any questions. If nothing’s holding you up, then that’s a successful site. If everything fits, it’s hard to argue against it.
Tan: I think the most common misconception is that you can’t wonder and be pragmatic at the same time. And that to me feels like the epitome of web design. How can you create something that is fun and exciting and experiential, that is also useful to the audience. It’s a huge intersection that you can’t miss. There’s a real art form to knowing when something is done. But at a certain point, you understand things can be tweaked infinitely. It’s a better use of your time putting energy towards looking forward.