25 Lessons from 25 Years of Outdaring Gravity at Elevation
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Elevation. Founded in 1996 by Stephen Cocks, the company started as a small VFX studio called Big Mouth Post. The world was very different when we opened our doors. There was no Google, no smartphones, and not a single USB port could be found in the studio. As much as the landscape and technology have changed, we've also grown and learned a lot over the countless projects and coffee-fueled nights.
To mark the big occasion, our team is sharing 25 lessons, reflections, and memories from the past two and a half decades of Outdaring Gravity.
1) It's all about people
"In the last 25 years, the thing that sticks out to me the most is not the projects or the work process. It's the people I get to work with," said Stephen. "The amazingly talented people at Elevation and our creative clients, they are what makes this all worthwhile. To succeed in this industry, or any industry, I think it's vital to see the value in people, not processes."
2) Relationships are a major key to success
Some of Elevation's earliest clients remain clients to this day. How do you foster repeat business like that?
"I've learned that it's all about relationships," said Stephen. "In our field we are only as good as our last job, being able to deliver and exceed what a client is asking for. Combining great work with great service has helped us to have very long customer relationships, some almost 20 years of partnering."
3) The right collaborators will bring out your best
"Our best work has always been with clients who appreciate that the end result they see is only 10% of the work that went into making their project. I'm very grateful that we've been able to collaborate with so many great people who appreciate the creative process," recalled Stephen.
4) It's extremely challenging to boil down 25 years into 95 seconds.
While assembling a short reel highlighting the last 25 years of work, Stephen found it to be a unique challenge. “If it were just up to me, the reel would be hours long,” he joked. “I remember all the effort that went into each shot, and it’s surprising how emotionally attached I am to all of it." Creative Director David Hendrix jumped in to help push the 25th anniversary reel across the finish line.
5) Never stop improving
Elevation's motto Outdare Gravity is a call to push beyond limitations. The mission statement applies to more than just the work, but the company's ethos. Employees are encouraged to expand their creativity and pursue passion projects, in an overall mission to grow as artists.
"As a company, we continue to advance the level of our work and value we bring to our clients. I've grown exponentially as an artist and as a person. Design, animation, editorial and direction have all improved," said David.
6) Limitations are an opportunity to get creative
During the early years of Elevation, render times were glacial, and that's being kind. "We would easily be dealing with 12+ hour renders," remembers Artistic Director Dianne Frisbee. “We would quite literally start rendering on a Friday afternoon and come in Monday morning with fingers crossed that something got done," said Director of Strategy Brett Rakestraw. "We couldn't monitor progress online. So, if it was really important, someone would just have to stop by the office multiple times over the weekend to check things."
When life (and technology) gives you limitations, the best thing you can do is get creative and work within them. "Renders used to take forever! We did a lot of tricks and fake lighting to get things rendered faster," said Stephen.
7) When it comes to technology, change can be a very good thing
Considering the extremely slow render times, it makes sense that our team's favorite advancements in technology over the past 25 years are related to speed. Stephen is most thankful for going tapeless and being able to deliver work digitally, Brett now can't imagine life without high-speed broadband internet, and David's work life has been drastically improved by fast SSDs.
8) Communication is key
Beyond huge advancements in render times and resolution size, technology has completely revolutionized how we work and communicate as a team. Both Dianne and Executive Producer Stephanie Carson listed Slack as their favorite tech innovation from the past 25 years. It has enabled new ways for our artists to collaborate, and has kept our team tight knit as we moved to a hybrid working model last year.
“Remote working is now viable with faster internet speeds and tools like slack, dropbox, frame.io, for easier communication and sharing of files," said Dianne.
9) A thorough knowledge of postal systems was once a requirement
"When I started with the company, everything had to be laid to tape and couriered or shipped out. So, if a spot needed to be on air on Friday, it probably needed to be shipped on Wednesday," recalled Brett. "It was several years before full digital delivery over the internet became the norm."
"I can personally recall many occasions when I waited by the big CNN sign for a producer to come down and meet me," remembered Stephanie. "For clients requiring a mailed tape, the UPS pick-up times around town were crucial to know. The last resort was always the one closest to the airport."
10) Sometimes you need to change your name...
Our first name, Big Mouth, was loud, in-your-face, and very 90s. But as our company's capabilities broadened beyond just VFX, the name didn't match our mission.
“As we moved more into creative development and design, we had outgrown the old name and needed something that spoke more to our ‘make every project better’ philosophy,” said Stephen. “We were no longer connecting to the loud, in-your-face attitude of Big Mouth,” said Dianne, who joined the company right before the name change. “Elevation was chosen because the goal was always to elevate our clients and challenge ourselves.”
11) ...as well as your career path
Our Director of Strategy Brett started as an artist when he joined Elevation, but he found a new calling while working with the company. "I learned a ton as an artist at Elevation, but more so, I learned that I wasn't meant to be an artist professionally. When I moved into a producer role, I realized I was a better fit for that type of role. I guess I'm more of a people pusher than a pixel pusher."
12) Define the why of your company
"The mission of your company should never be overwhelmed by the daily grind of getting the job done. Keep reminding yourself why you do it. Without purpose, it’s just work. There has to be more to it," said Stephen.
13) Company culture should be part of your company's mission
"I think we started out to be one of the best VFX companies we could be. I think that mission has evolved to being a lot more about quality of life and creating an environment in which creatives can thrive," said Stephen. This mission is reflected in Elevation's company culture, which promotes collaboration, respect, and personal artistic growth.
14) Take time to savor the wins
With our team consistently tackling multiple pieces, it can feel like we are on a constantly moving carousel of projects. That's why it's especially important to take time to appreciate a job well done and savor the victories. "I think the best feeling is when a client gets excited over the work we are doing and expresses that," said Stephen.
15) Get involved in the community
Elevation has been located near the heart of Atlanta since it opened. The city and entertainment industry in Atlanta has changed quite a bit in the meantime. "The original location on Bernina Avenue was in the back of an old, brick, sewing machine factory," recalled Dianne. "Our area of Inman Park has completely transformed with live/work space, residential, and trendy restaurants and businesses lining the street."
“We used to call Atlanta ‘fly over country’ when it came to our industry. There were big network names here, but overall when people thought of production / post production, they immediately thought of LA or New York,” said Stephanie. “There’s no doubt that tax credits have drastically changed the production world in Georgia, but even in the post and animation world, if you throw a stone in Atlanta, you’ll likely hit a creative agency. There is now a wonderful community of creatives and an environment that really embraces art. It’s a colorful, quirky city that’s constantly evolving.”
We love the city that we live in, and we cherish whenever we have the opportunity to be involved in Atlanta's artistic community.
16) Foster the future
In 2020, Elevation launched its passion project that represents the full expression of our Outdare Gravity mission: Designed with LOVE. The project aims to amplify underrepresented voices and promote diversity in the arts through a collaboration that benefits an Endowed Scholarship for Black Students at SCAD. (More about Designed with LOVE can be found here: https://designedwithloveproject.com)
17) Longevity is a competitive advantage for a team
"Elevation has always had a way of nurturing talent and giving people a reason to stay around for a long time. About half the team has been at Elevation for at least 7-8 years. I think that's a strength of the company," said Brett.
"Quite a few members on the team were at Elevation when I started in 2012," remembered Stephanie. "We've had years to grow together, challenge each other and become stronger creatives, managers and artists. A lot of us have moved up in our rolls, gotten married, or started families. We’re all more seasoned professionally and personally. The luxury of being able to do that as a team, which I think is unique in our industry, is that we’ve all really rallied behind education and training the next generation, and keeping ourselves fresh and open to the constantly changing landscape of our field and art. I think we appreciate it a little more and have come to crave that excitement. It takes living through change to accept it as natural and necessary. We’ve welcomed new faces along the way and each one has brought something new and amazing to our tribe and it makes us, collectively, a heck of a lot stronger."
18) Storytelling forms will keep changing...
The media landscape has been constantly evolving since Elevation started. The only thing that will remain consistent is how much it will keep changing. "When I started, TV was king. But now there are many more pieces to the pie," said David. “Social media requests were not a thing when I started in 2012,” said Stephanie. “Now, it’s a standard. Much like that, it will become the norm to play in interactive, virtual spaces through AR and VR.”
19) ...so will audiences
Audience taste has shifted, and what a consumer demands of a brand today is vastly different than even five years ago. "The next generation of consumers (Gen Z) have already demonstrated strong affiliations based on brand missions, quality and personality. To me, all of this points to a really exciting world for creative companies like ours," said Stephanie. "Those are all things we’re obsessed with and appreciate too. I, personally, can’t wait to see what Generation Q (the Pandemic generation) brings to the table as well. Whatever it is, we’ll be ready for them."
20) Make plans
Stephen’s biggest advice to young entrepreneurs: Make a plan.
"Make a plan, but then break it down into smaller actionable steps," advised Stephen. "Ask yourself on every decision: Does this get me closer to my goal?"
21) Be flexible
While Stephen knows the value of making a plan, setting priorities, and putting a timeframe to them, he also knows the value of flexibility.
"The unexpected happens in business all the time," says Stephen. "You have to be flexible enough to roll with the punches and make accommodations for the unforeseen."
22) Dream big
"Aim higher than you expect. Never being satisfied with where you land keeps you dreaming," said Stephen.
23) Try to anticipate what's next
In an industry full of so much change, anticipating what's next and adapting to the upcoming trends is a crucial part of longevity. Our team is already focused on what breakthroughs in technology will mean for us as designers, communicators, and storytellers.
"We’ve always embraced technology as a way to unlock new avenues of creativity,” said Brett. “Big advancements in VR and AR will open all kinds of new creative possibilities. We are extremely excited about what’s on the horizon, from NFTs to Web3 and the Metaverse.”
“These new technologies are going to have a profound impact on our industry. Just as we grew from a VFX post-production house into a creative company leading concept and design for our clients, I’m looking forward to seeing how this next generation of tech can allow us to push our creativity even higher,” said Stephen.
24) Remember the big picture
Even as we look ahead to future technologies and exciting new frontiers, it's important to keep the big picture always in focus. "There has to be something in what we do that is for us, not just payment for services, but personal growth and dreams of growing and reaching new goals. There has to be personal fulfillment at the very core of what we do."
25) Always wear your hiking pants
Our final lesson might be the most profound and most important thing we've learned, and it comes from an early moment in the company's history.
"I was using a 'State of the Art' Flame VFX system to track a helicopter shot of a mountain flyover," said Stephen. "There was a specific shot the client insisted on using. The only problem was there was a guy standing on top of the mountain naked. I had to track his rear end and put shorts on him - definitely a career-high point."
Always wear your hiking pants. You never know when an artist will have to paint them onto you digitally.
Here's to 25 years (and beyond) of Outdaring Gravity.