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Boss-ness, Creativity, and Being Real with Michelle Higa Fox

Keeping creative and the being real

There are many challenges that we face every day in our creative professions. Some of those involve our actual work, maybe software/design/hardware, some of them are more essential to our being, such as trying to stay motivated/creative, and other challenges may just occur because of who we are as people. Our topics today seem a bit spread out compared to the other AMA pieces I did, but I needed to ask our special guest today a lot of different questions purely because she is totally unique and I wanted to get as much of her insight as possible.

Michelle Higa Fox is an artist and filmmaker who combines code-based visuals with hand-made animation. Many in the community might know her by her unique art styles and aesthetics (my favorite part of her work), you might know her from her entrepreneurial presence on the scene (and in particular in New York), or you might know her from one of the many motion graphic or animation awards she’s won with her work at Slanted Studios. The list keeps going from there, so not enough can be said about Michelle’s accomplishments and she’s still pushing forward and doing even more tremendous things. You can see her work and learn more about her by checking out her personal website, her twitter, and the website of her studio – Slanted Studios.

Something slightly different with this AMA is that there are some questions I don’t answer because I don’t have an appropriate answer, so I elaborate on the question. Without further ado, here is the one and only Michelle Higa Fox.

1) Can you tell us a bit about your background, where you came from, and how you got involved with TouchDesigner and experiential work?

Elburz: Everyone knows my background I think by this point so you can read about it in any one of the other AMA pieces I’ve done.

Michelle: I grew up in Northern California, the child of a computer programmer (mom) and engineer (dad), who immigrated to the US from Lima, Peru in the 1970s. My parents were always excited about technology – my Dad has pretty wild stories of visiting the Homebrew Computer Club back in the day and they laugh about how they saved up money and then used it to buy a giant dot matrix printer that lived in the garage instead getting a couch for the family room. I’m really proud of both of them – my Dad went from ESL and vocational training at night to eventually getting poached by IBM to lead fiber optics installations and my mom was one of the only women in her engineering university and learned to program in the punch card era.

My focus at university was a now-defunct major called Art: Semiotics. Half of the classes were heavy media theory (Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, etc.) and half were production classes where we were making DVD-ROM art and installations using Macromedia Director and Max/MSP/Jitter 1.0. I had no illusions that I would be able to pursue it as a career, but I figured I might be able to use Final Cut/Photoshop to get a job and leave the art as a personal pursuit. In my final years as an undergraduate, I was fortunate to work as an assistant to Camille Utterback, who unquestionably shaped my approach to artmaking and faith in its feasibility.

When I graduated, many of my classmates and I moved to New York and we were all scrapping around trying to find any type of work we could that could pay rent while creating on a computer. There was a lot of Craigslist ads answered for creating DVD menus and keying stock footage. I ended up detouring heavily into animation and left behind coding for almost a decade. The motion graphics industry in New York is incredibly robust and experiencing it from 2005-2015 felt like riding a huge wave, similar to the exponential growth in the community and opportunities of the current TouchDesigner landscape.

I was introduced to TouchDesigner in 2011 by Barry Threw while working on a commission for the Sacramento Airport with Camille Utterback. That project eventually inspired me to leave my career as an animation director, return to experiential work, and start Slanted Studios. Coming from a Max/Jitter background, I was thrilled by the node-based environment, and saw the promise in TouchDesigner that it could bring interactive to motion graphics artists the way that Cinema4D had broken the 3D barrier for many After Effects users.

Some uber dorky old videos from my earliest TouchDesigner days here – geeking out on OSC and my first network (why did I name it fishballs? I wish I could tell you. It probably had something to do with metaballs).

2) Why did you start your own company? What made you think to yourself that it was the right call vs getting a job or being a freelancer?

Elburz: I have a real problem with authority, that’s number one. But somehow I’ve still yet to escape that, but “being my own boss” has some benefits in terms of when I choose to work and allowing me to choose a bit less of a traditional lifestyle, in that I’m constantly traveling and keep weird sleep schedules. At the time, as well, there wasn’t really a huge scene about 7 years ago, so there weren’t really that many jobs and I didn’t even know it was a field, I just decided I was going to do this thing and I’d make a company to manage the payables and deal with clients and such. It kind of snowballed from there and I’ve enjoyed it.

Michelle: Slanted Studios was originally started out of mundane, legal necessity. Many of the companies I freelanced for required you to get paid through a business entity, rather than putting you on payroll. The unforeseen benefit was that as my work evolved from 90% freelance / 10% project-based to 10% freelance / 90% project-based, the name and all of the operational infrastructure remained the same.

I always knew I needed to have a space to create these types of projects, but I also didn’t have any expectations that it would be my primary, sole source of income. I knew that being able to support myself solely off of experiential art would take time, and possibly never even happen, and I was ok with that. It was more important to me to be able to do the types of art projects I had in mind. So, if that meant I freelanced doing something completely different for a year in order to save up the money to take time off and create a piece, I was ok with that.

3) Can you tell us about mixed-media animation and experiential animation and what it means to you?

Elburz: I ask because it’s a new term for me and an interesting space that seems to exist between the newer technology-arts and a “traditional art.” Coming from a music background, I think electronic music has always been right there beside new technology arts, so the music/interactive combination seems to have always been there and natural for most people. We see this in the number of musicians that start to mess around with TouchDesigner. But I haven’t seen a lot of people come over from animation specifically, that could also just be a blind spot for me, though.

Michelle: I love the aesthetic of frame-by-frame hand-drawn animation and stop-motion animation. It’s not uncommon for us to, say, photograph a real toy car, draw some cel animation speed lines on top of that to give it life, and then composite the entire thing over a 3D CG background. There’s a great satisfaction that comes from collaging clearly different source material so they can inhabit the same frame.

Experiential animation is the easiest catch-all term for creating visuals that are not a predetermined, linear experience on a 16:9 screen. To describe it more practically, it’s not a video that you’re hitting “play” on, on your TV/computer and sitting back and watching. Experiential might mean the content is generating uniquely on the fly, or interacting with the audience, or designed to cover an entire building, or all three at the same time!

4) How do you fine the relationship between animation and experiential work? Do you find it more complimentary or clashing? Is there an element of it that is particular fulfilling for you?

Michelle: Complimentary! Game design and UI design are both great examples of how animation/motion graphics is increasingly experienced dynamically. A lot of prepping traditional animation for experiential is all about getting in the headspace of sprites, layers, materials and system design and figuring out when and how to break up pieces. That’s my favorite part of the process.

Once you can understand the architecture of what you’re building, you are much freer in terms of the aesthetic you can use. If I can bring in any image sequence, that means I’m not limited to working only with 3D modelers/animators and real-time artists. I can work with an illustrator who has a wildly different style than what people usually think of when they hear interactive art.

5) Are there different satisfactions you find on the different kinds of the projects you’re doing? Or is the bouncing a response to client demands at any given time?

Elburz: For nVoid / ZERO11ZERO, it may be a boring answer, but it’s generally just client demands. We get clients asking us for allllll kinds of (crazy) things, sometimes things in our regular wheelhouse and sometimes things completely out of left field, and usually things they can’t afford. On the personal side of things though, I do find I need to vary my activities to keep all of my parts/psyche “satisfied.” Which is why I’ve always done a lot of teaching and even more so blogging/writing. I find those activities help round out my mental state and keep me feeling a bit fresh because I’m approaching things from different angles for each activity. Michelle – It seems like you’re bouncing between a lot of different types of projects, ranging from purely animation/motion graphics, interactive/digital types of work, works involving practical stages/real-life elements, and I’m barely scratching the surface on what you’ve worked on.

Michelle: We’re also driven by the market. Two years ago VR/360 started expanding like crazy, so we ended up doing a 360 film as a fun, internal pipeline experiment. Last year it was AR and AR filters. Now it seems to be machine learning/AI/deep fakes. I see it all as the same body of work – taking polished motion graphics and executing it on whatever platform the project needs.

6) Do you find awards and accolades have been impactful on your work/career?

Elburz: Oddly enough, I can’t really comment on this, I don’t think I’ve ever won anything. I have a suspicion our clients may have won some awards on projects we worked on, but glory never really trickles down, so I’m not sure. I know a few of our projects have had good media success, that’s why I have a suspicion that they probably got something. We just do our work really well and charge a lot of money, so our system works for us! You seem really accomplished in this sense, so I’d love to know about your take/experience on awards in general. I noticed you have quite a number of awards and recognition for you works, so to further elaborate on the question for you as well: Are they more-so confirming that you’ve been doing great work but don’t really extend much beyond that? Are they helpful in getting clients? Would you recommend young folks go out and try to get awards (if that is a thing they can do?) and how might they go about doing that?

Michelle: To be honest, this was a hard question to answer. I would like to say that it’s not something I’ve spent a lot of time on, but the truth of the matter is submitting your work to film festivals and awards shows is both time-consuming and expensive. We’ve burned a not insignificant amount of our annual budget and resources prepping materials for submission.

At this point, we’re much more judicious about the process. If we really love a piece we’ve made and think it has a good shot, we’ll push to enter it, but many of the awards exist at the agency/brand level, rather than the production company/vendor level, so it’s often not even appropriate for us to submit. I will say the submission process helped us a lot with honing how disciplined we are about photo/video documentation and illuminating what to shoot/prep for press kit-style materials that help us efficiently share a piece with the world once its wrapped.

In my experience, awards function similarly to degrees from prestige undergraduate/masters programs. When you’re looking at multiple cold call emails, accolades can sub in as a vote of confidence or differentiator from the pack. But it’s really more like you get one more roll of the dice, not a guarantee of anything. Seasoned vets can usually tell by looking at a portfolio and an interview if someone is good to work with – it doesn’t matter where they went to school. And if someone comes as a personal recommend from a colleague they trust, that’s 50x more valuable than any award or degree.

7) How do you stay creative overall? Do you have practices within the industry or hobbies outside the industry that help?

Elburz: This is a hard one for me, as I very much feel detached from the arts side of our work. I know lots of times when I’m traveling and I’m somewhere and someone says “Hey! There’s some really new amazing exhibition or work or interactive piece by so-and-so, let’s go see it!” and my first and deepest response is “Hell no, that’s work.” I don’t have a real solution on this as I’m trying to figure that out now, but I would advise people in the industry take lots of breaks. It’s easy to go hard for a long time and think you’re loving it, and when the time comes when you need a break badly, it’s probably already a little too late. I’ve particularly gone pretty hard and got a huge amount of things done in a short amount of years, so I’m a bit desensitized to everything at this point from not having ever really stepped back. So taking breaks and pacing yourself is probably a good thing to do. Having good friends in the industry you can hang out with in non-work fashions is also a great pick me up and very therapeutic when you vent your work frustrations!

Michelle: I used to find inspiration primarily from within the industry – going to events, browsing Motionographer, Wine After Coffee, Creative Applications, the TD FB Group, talking shop with friends, unexpected client briefs, the latest hardware or software releases – all of those would trigger new ideas and were incredibly motivating. Now I feel like most of my inspiration comes from outside work. The more time I have where I’m not looking at a screen, the more space is there for ideas to percolate.

At the start of a project, I usually brainstorm in two phases. The first is doing as much research as possible about the specifics of a project – what is the place, what’s its history and can any of that inform what we’re making, who is going to experience it and how, what are possible color palettes and techniques we want to use, pulling visual references and moodboards. The second step is synthesizing everything away from the computer – taking all the research and mulling it over via handwritten notebooks and index cards/sharpies before going back to the box.

Once we’re in production, there’s inevitably constant pivoting as we discover new details – a certain piece of hardware isn’t going to work out, a transition that made sense at the storyboard phase isn’t hitting the mark now that we’re animating it, the dates of an event get moved, we lost the availability of a team member – whenever that happens, I try not to think of our next steps as fixing something that’s wrong as much as clarifying and further defining the thing we’re going to make – what are the most appropriate decisions to create a great piece given the entirety of the situation we are in at this moment.

8) Was there someone before you or any peers you look/looked up to or gave you guidance? Who are they and what did they tell you?

Elburz: This one is tough, so many people have helped me and given me guidance over the years. One particular one that has always stuck with me over the years and given me a bit of motivation whenever encountering something hard is a small chat I had with Malcolm Bechard at Derivative years ago. I asked him what was the hardest thing he was/had worked on when building TouchDesigner and he said “Things are only hard until you understand them, then they’re easy.” (Sorry for my poor paraphrasing, Malcolm!) That’s what someone who is incredibly smart says and such a good outlook to have when approaching any problem or technical challenge, knowing that it’s only hard until you understand it, and once you understand it you move on to the next thing. That might as well be a full-on mantra!

Michelle: Same! So many people have helped me through the years. I think of the many colleagues and collaborators we have at Slanted Studios as family. We’re all trying to help each other succeed. To reference something you said in an an earlier post – the rising tide raises all boats.

Roger Mayer, my mentor at Brown, taught me the value of listening and that if there’s even a single, miniscule, aspect within a piece of art that sparks an idea in you, it’s worth experiencing. For reference, he was describing a movie that he thought was largely terrible, but the final shot of the film thrilled him so much that he was glad he sat through the previous two hours.

Camille Utterback taught me innumerable lessons and turned the idea of a professional art career creating interactive installations from a hypothetical, esoteric mystery into a tangible life that I had the honor of watching put into practice day after day.

My partner Stuart once told me a good companion to Malcolm’s great advice. In response to something being hard, he just said “Yes, it’s hard. But we can do things that are hard.”

9) How has your experience been in the industry as a woman? Have you had any situations, either positive or negative that have stuck with you?

Elburz: I wanted to change gears here and talk to you about your perspective in the industry as a woman. Tech fields seem to have more men than women involved in general. I ask also knowing you, in that you’re outspoken, have a lot of leadership qualities, and are very entrepreneurial. Were these elements of your personality that have always been there or were they responses to different environment?

Michelle: Thankfully, I’ve found both the motion graphics and experiential installation industries to be incredibly supportive and filled with talented, smart, generous souls who want to share their knowledge and love of the work enthusiastically. At this point in my career, I’m often getting brought in as a specialist and get a seat at the table as a result of my position. I try to use any authority I have to make sure individuals who may not have the same access as me get their message amplified.

As positive as my experiences have been, I’ve also been in more than a couple meetings where people in positions of power have made inappropriate comments to myself or colleagues of mine and it’s infuriating and unfortunate. These are industries filled with people who are passionate about their work and it makes no sense to me why any manager would allow behavior that prevents them from allowing their team to function at their absolute best.

It’s funny, I don’t really think of myself as a leader or outspoken ?. I come from a big family, so I think I grew up at ease with order rising from chaos. My Mom ran a catering business on the side, so I also got used to understanding event/project management from the weeds at a young age. It’s still not uncommon when I visit home for there to be some event that will result in our entire family working in an assembly line to get hundreds of empanadas and thousands of wontons out the door. To your and Malcolm’s earlier point about things only being hard until you understand them, I think catering gave me confidence in trusting that if you’re organized and everyone on the team buckles down and executes the tasks at hand, something that seems impossible can be completed.

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10) What advice would you give young women that are in school or just starting out in the industry of experiential media?

Elburz: I’ll let Michelle speak directly to young women, but my advice for young people in general is to keep your eyes wide open and be hungry. Don’t wait for things to come to you, just go out and get things you want. There are opportunities everywhere just waiting to be taken. Much of the time people need help or have things that need doing but they’re too busy or distracted to ask or put out job offers, and if you just show up and ask if I need help, I’d be like “sure, and I can pay you ___ for your time, how’s that?” Boom you just got a job.

Michelle: In a similar vein, I’d say don’t hesitate because you’re waiting until you’re ready or things are perfect. There’s no perfect time to start a business. You just have to do it. There’s no perfect time to grow your family. You just have to make the leap. If you see an opportunity, apply for it. Regardless of your qualifications or the outcome, you will learn something from the process of applying and not be as precious the next time. Follow up after and see if the contact has bandwidth to give you feedback and what did/didn’t work in your proposal/application so you can make it stronger next time.

For Slanted, I generally recommend that students/recent grads focus on multiple, small, doable projects, rather than one monster behemoth thesis. It gives me a better idea of your approach to work, aesthetic/taste and proves that you’ve can take something from concept through execution. Ten five-second GIFs are just as useful, and possibly even more useful, as a twenty-minute animated opus.

Wrap up

I can’t thank Michelle enough for her time. We coordinated this interview while in the midst of her extensive work and personal schedule and over the generally-chaotic holiday season, so I can only preemptively thank her from all the community and readers for her continued work, leadership, and openness in chatting with me. As I was reading her responses to my question, I felt like I needed to print a copy out and go through with a highlighter and highlight all the insight she had written down.

Michelle Higa Fox combines hand-crafted animation with emerging technology. You can see her work, learn more about her, and contact her by checking out her personal website, her twitter, and the website of her studio – Slanted Studios. As always, a gallery of all kinds of views from Michelle, her family, and her dog Merlin.