Studio Visit

Matt and Sahr Willis of yelldesign

Yelldesign tout themselves as  ‘Australia’s first fully dedicated, short-form content studio’. 

Today, we chat to Matt and Sahr Willis, the husband-and-wife duo behind this impressive Melbourne studio, who share their insights on the importance of investing in staff, how to offer something fresh in this era of info-overload, and battling the six-sec attention span!

Elle Murrell

Matt Willis, Creative Director of yelldesign. Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

Papercraft props used by the short-form content studio. Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

Matt at work in yelldesign’s Fitzroy office. Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

Matt quit his consulting role and started yelldesign full-time five years ago. Today the studio employees eight creatives.Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

A horrific crash lead Matt to change career tack and start making Vines. Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

I think a couple of key things have influenced our style along the way,’ tells Matt. ‘A few years ago, I managed to convince Magda Ksiezak, a local papercraft and illustrator extraordinaire to join us as senior designer!’ Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

Husband-and-wife duo, Matt and Sahr Willis of yelldesign. Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

Elle Murrell
21st of July 2017

How many sides on a rombicube? Faces of a icosahedron? Angles in a dodecahedron? For many creatives, that’s probably a maths fail. But not for Matt Willis… though he will admit that these too-many-syllable-words are probably the most challenging shapes to papercraft.

Today we’re chronicling the course of yelldesign, in conversation with the content studio’s Creative Director Matt, and Director Sahr Willis.

What did you study and what path led you to what you are doing today?

Matt Willis: I grew up in Warrnambool on the South West coast of Victoria. Moving to Melbourne at 19, I did a bunch of different jobs to support a career in music. Later on, I went back to school to study a Masters in Communication Design at RMIT. I started working as a graphic designer in a marketing team, and eventually moved into digital design: web design and interfaces.

In my final job as design consultant, I spent a lot of time educating senior executives on the importance of using good design when making business designs. This commercial focus was on one hand tedious and laborious, but on the other a critical learning period for what was to come in the next few years.

One weekend, cycling in Kinglake with some mates, I rounded a corner and collided with an oncoming truck. The impact was estimated at 85 kilometres per hour, and I suffered a range of serious injuries, including four spinal fractures, a fractured eye socket, broken nose, shoulder blade and collarbone. These required three months off work, and during this time a friend recommended I try out a new app called Vine.

Using Vine to pass the time, I began making short, stop motion videos. I quickly gained a large following, and shortly after, brands were emailing me to have videos made for them. Eight months later, I quit my consulting role and started yelldesign full-time. That was five years ago, and now we have eight employees working for the company.

Sahr Willis: I came to yelldesign in a roundabout way. I studied a Bachelor of Arts at Melbourne Uni, and then a Grad Dip in Visual and Performing Arts at RMIT, but for most of my working life I have been a HR professional. I went freelance after our son Manning was born, and when we started to have HR needs at yelldesign, I took on the pays, admin and other bits and pieces. At the start of this year we decided that it was time for me to make the jump over to yelldesign full time.

Yell Design is ‘Australia’s first fully dedicated, short-form content studio’. How would you elaborate on your studio’s output, and what influences your style?

MW: We are known for creating clean, colourful and quirky work. Most of our content features coloured paper, food or technology – these are the things we all love in the studio. We also have a strong musical background, both in live performance and theatre, so there’s always an element of putting on a show. We’ve recently started a live series on Facebook, a weekly show that has interactive elements and lots of behind-the-scenes, featuring our studio and its processes.

I think a couple of key things have influenced our style along the way. A few years ago, I managed to convince Magda Ksiezak, a local papercraft and illustrator extraordinaire to join us as senior designer! At the same time we installed a commercial laser cutter in the studio. This new supercharged capability, coupled with a strong design sense and well-rehearsed animation team, has really carved out a distinctive niche for us to work in.

SW: We’re all pretty keen to have a good time at work, but without compromising on quality. One of the things that we pride ourselves on is working FAST. We can turn around videos in a couple of days, which is pretty amazing for stop-motion. We also like to incorporate humour in to our work – short-form content works best when it’s sharable and ‘relatable’, which generally means fun! We spend a lot of our time trawling the internet for references (and cat videos).

Tell us a little bit about your studio’s creative process; how do you generate your ideas and then go about creating a project to a final cut?

MW: We are generally flowing as a group, everyone busy with their own tasks. So the creative process can fluctuate quite a lot. We always try and get input from the whole group for each new project, but sometimes this not possible due to time constraints.

Our own internal projects, like ‘Papermeal’, go through a slightly different process. We often discuss these over lunch, where we can really flesh out concepts in a relaxed way, but we all know that at the finish of the meal we need to have everything agreed! Another technique we use is six-word pitching – this is great! Our work is usually used in social media for five to 15 sec ads, so if you can’t pitch the concept in six words, then it’s likely too complicated! An example of this would be the pitch for ‘Papermeal’: 1)Cooking 2)Show 3)Made 4)Entirely 5)From 6)Paper!

SW: The way the team works has evolved over the years, but we generally start with a loose brief (like, we want to make a series of videos about food made from paper) and then expand ideas by chatting about our ideas in the group. We might take a bit from one concept, and marry it with another. We have a bit of a motto of: “You can do anything you want, as long as it’s not shit”. Which might sound a bit harsh, but actually works really well. We’re not limiting anything; we just have to really think it’s great.

In what way has the ENDLESS development of the online content world impacted what you do?

MW: We wouldn’t exist if Vine didn’t show up! After the initial period of everyone scrambling to figure out how to make engaging six sec clips, the market exploded. Instagram offered 15 secs, then up to 60 secs, Facebook put video everywhere, Twitter rolled out its own video platform, Youtube reconfigured its mobile app to make it quicker and more social, Snapchat arrived, and even GIFs made a comeback! So the landscape has really moved a lot in the last five years.

Today when a client asks for a piece of content like a ‘GIF’ they often just mean a video that they can put on Instagram. We used to make everything square for Vine and Instagram, but now it’s a mix of landscape, portrait, square, looping, non-looping… So the output stack can vary significantly. As a studio, we now need to work closer with agencies and producers to figure out how the content is being used up-front, to avoid issues when the it goes live!

SW: We’re often surprised when we speak with other agencies, or traditional advertisers, to find they don’t have experience of online content. It’s so new, though, that we’re constantly learning and trying new things, and it’s sometimes difficult to predict what will be popular and what won’t.

We loved the ‘Papermeal’ series, can you tell us some more about this?

SW: ‘Papermeal’ was Matt’s idea and really showcases his particular style. I admit to being a bit sceptical when he originally pitched the idea – mainly because we were so busy with commercial work, and he ended up filming most of the first series after hours. We love the idea of using something unexpected in our work, so making penne out of manila folders, and Ramen noodles with a woodworking plane made some kind of sense to us! We also love a pun – mashing the ‘p’ key of a computer to get ‘mushy peas’, and inserting a computer ‘chip’ for Fish and Chips made us laugh out loud.

I think with ‘Papermeal’, we really extended our creativity, and Matt was very clear that he wanted the papercraft to be absolutely spot on. Everyone worked really hard to make it look amazing, and we’ve had lots of great feedback, so I think my initial scepticism was a bit misled!

We’re curious; with papercraft animation, what’s the hardest element to create?

MW: We have found the more fluid elements like liquid, transparent glass and smoke are the most challenging. However, we don’t avoid them, quite the opposite! In our second series of ‘Papermeal’, we deliberately chose cocktails as the theme, to explore this.

Some of the hardest physical shapes to make are rombicubes, icosahedrons and dodecahedrons. These are all aided by lasercut templates, but they still need to be assembled by hand, and the maths involved is very challenging!

We saw yelldesign’s video ‘The Dating Game’ was shown at Tedx Sydney. Can you tell us a little more about this one?

SW: This one was such a surprise for us. Sinead McDevitt, TEDx Sydney’s Film Curator, contacted us out of the blue earlier in the year and asked if we’d be interested in providing a piece for TEDx. She’d seen our ‘Papermeal’ stuff and liked the quirky style. We were super chuffed to be asked – we had never really considered ourselves to be filmmakers.

The TEDx process was quite different to how we normally work. In our commercial work, we’ll provide a concept and a detailed storyboard, but a lot of the magic happens when we’re shooting – the transitions are ‘made up’ in a sense. Matt has an idea of what things will look like, but will adjust throughout the shooting process based on what looks good. With TEDx we were asked to submit a treatment, and then a storyboard, and also a SCRIPT! We’d never written a script before, so we did some pretty speedy Googling to make it look like we knew what we were doing!

The brief for the film was ‘unconventional’, so we took the team out for lunch and pushed around some ideas. We wanted to use this as an opportunity to get out of our papercraft comfort zone, and show that we could use real things in weird ways too! We hit upon the idea of using a Hungry Hungry Hippo as a stapler, and the idea evolved from there: a Connect 4 board as a fax machine, Boggle as a mobile phone, Guess Who as a laptop – an alternative universe fashioned from old-style board games!

I suppose we wanted to reflect a bit on the way the digital world has changed the way we interact, from the games we play, to the way we meet other people. Not to mention that we thought it was a good pun!

‘The Dating Game’ was a great challenge for us. It’s the longest piece of stop-motion content we have produced (1 minute 45 seconds), which makes us really appreciate what Aardman Studios are up against when they produce feature-length films… It took way longer to film than any of our other stuff. Partly because we needed to source real games, rather than making them, but also because we had to film ‘on location’ (our house!). This threw up all sorts of challenges that we can control in the studio, but had to make allowance for when we were filming, like uneven lighting, different equipment, and our cat.

You must hear, ‘Whoa, that would have taken forever,’ a lot! How do you all stay motivated on these epicly labour-intensive projects?

MW: Stop-motion is not a spectator sport! It can be excruciatingly boring for a client to sit in on a shoot. On a complex shoot, it generally takes one hour per second of footage shot. I’ve heard the best high-end animation studios work to two seconds per animator per day. We aren’t making feature films, so we can work a little quicker than that. Motivation is relatively easy, as we want a great result – that is always the focus, it’s energising. However, when you’re close to finishing a long shoot and it’s 4am, and everyone is in bed, sure – get me outta here!

Most of the work these days actually goes into prep, build and then set-up and lighting. The shoot can happen quite quickly once we’ve nailed everything down! 

Which other Australian designers, artists or creative people are you both loving at the moment?

1. We can’t hide it, we’re huge fans of Kate Banazi. So much so we asked her to design a mural for our house! Look out for it in Fitzroy. Her work is amazing.

2. We love the work of Creative Director (and all round legend) Dave Ladd. Dave manages to weave finely tuned design with good, clean absurdity!   

3. We’re also listening to Alice Ivy right now. Annika is our local barista that was unearthed by Triple J last year and she is an absolute superstar on stage. Do yourself a favour…

What are your top resources that you turn to when you’re in a need of creative inspiration?

1. Books! We have a collection of various design books that always get pulled out when a creative block arises. Check out this contemporary food staging and photography book by Gestalten ;)

2. My Modern Met – always something there to inspire.

3. The Inspiration Grid always has a good overview of trending, good quality design.

4. Instagram! With such a huge user-base you can always find something to lift you up.   

5. Food and Music – It’s true, we talk a LOT about both topics in the studio, and most of the discussions end up in an idea for an animation.

What have been your proudest career achievements to date?

MW: Our proudest achievement was winning Tribeca Film Festival #6SECFILMS – Animation in 2014. Such a well-established film festival with quality competition. It was a complete thrill!

What would be yelldesign’s dream creative project?

MW: Something massive! We’d love to do something super large-scale with a huge team, mainly because we’ve never done anything like that. We’d also need lots of heavy-duty equipment and hundreds of expensive cameras… that sounds ideal!

What’s next for you guys?

MW: We’re constantly experimenting with new ways to tell stories. For example, we’ve been experimenting recently using Instagram Stories in a more engaging way. Adding loads of animation frames for people to tap through, in effect creating their own stop motion in real time. We’ve blown up balloons, created a virtual fist punch and even had our audience ‘cook’ a pizza by tapping through the stories. We’re also doing live video, which is a new platform for everyone. We’ve been waiting until the software has enabled a higher quality broadcast, which we can now deliver. Find out more here.

Yelldesign animator, Jesse Fitzmaurice, Matt and Magda in the office. Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

Melbourne Questions

Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?

MW: Fitzroy, of course! Felt at home immediately when I first arrived over 20 years ago and I miss it when I’m not here.

Operating a family business in Fitzroy, our position as engaged residents and community members is important! For this, and many other reasons, yelldesign has recently partnered with the Fitzroy Primary School to help reconnect it with the broader community. Last month we took the crew down and made this promotional video to highlight some of the school’s amazing features. You can find this, and more of our recent work on our NEW WEBSITE, built by the legends at Icelab in Collingwood.

SW: I love the eclectic design and amazing sense of community here. I also love the diversity of culture in Fitzroy.

What and where was the best meal you recently had in Melbourne?

MW: We’re suckers for the Korean Fried Chicken at Rice Queen. Paired with a Dark Negroni (made with XO Rum instead of gin) – happy days!

SW: It’s been a while since we went out after dark, but Ezard is a personal fave. We go there whenever we have something special to celebrate.

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

MW: At Rustica Sourdough with the kids, then over to the studio to build jetpacks or some other contraption made out of cardboard!

SW: Boxing in Jones Park with mates!

Melbourne’s best kept secret?

MW: The $5 flourless choc cake at Grossi Florentino Cellar Bar.

SW: Grub Food Van on Moor Street in Fitzroy. Incredible setting, and amazing people running the loveliest café you could imagine.

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