Jonathan Lacocque: the cowboy of post-production
Charlie: How did you come into starting coat of arms? Jonathan: S o, as I was working in freelancing - and I should say…www.movidiam.com
Hi there. My name is Charlie from Movidiam. And in this episode of the podcast, I got to speak with Jonathan Lacocque . Jonathan is the co-founder of post-production studio Coat of Arms. He’s worked with some amazing brands, such as PBS, Verizon, Nickelodeon, Google, AOL and Warner Brother Records, to name a few.
In this episode, we spoke about some of his current projects including crowdvoting for the creation of “Good Intentions” his live action short. https://theaudienceawards.com/films/good-inte… , the challenges of freelancing versus starting your own studio, as well as the future of the industry. Hope you enjoy it.
Jonathan, great to have you on our Movidiam podcast.
Hey, it’s nice to be here. I’ve listened to podcasts before through Movidiam and it’s an exciting opportunity. Thanks for having me, Charlie.
Cool, well we’re really happy to have you. Why don’t you start with telling me exactly how you got into Coat of Arms, and what your whole process was at the start?
Sure. So, I mean, going to near the beginning, let’s say, I had several friends where I grew up, in a town called Oak Park Illinois, which is just west of Chicago. I had several friends that were really into film, and they had a camera, and I think they had Pinnacle Pro as an editing system, and so we would always just mess around and re-enact film scenes like from Pulp Fiction or whatever. Totally embarrassing stuff, you know? And Long story short, it was always for fun and when I went to college, I went to Carleton College, a liberal arts college, and didn’t do anything with film for the first couple years and had no idea you could be a creative artist and survive. I was on a track to be a psychologist or counselor, which would have been cool, don’t get me wrong, but I love film and so basically about midway point through college I was like man, who am I to be a counselor and tell people about their problems, we all have our own. And just having this passion to tell stories, and to see if I could make it doing films and telling stories essentially for a living.
So, second half of the year, I kind of focused on that. And so, after graduating, that same friend of mine, his name was John Severson, he and I started a wedding videography company actually right out of college. It’s called “Smiling Toad Productions.”
Where does Smiling Toad come from?
Honestly, it was us sitting on his front porch and just trying to think of names that were memorable and had enough of a, let’s say “quirk” that would represent us in some way. Something memorable in that it might make people smile a little bit. So anyway, that’s kind of where things started and I wanna give us some credit, I suppose, for starting a business and working incredibly hard for the first couple years to get it off the ground. But we didn’t know what we were doing entirely at first, so it was a long first couple of years of lots of hard work and sweat. And eventually it ended up working out really well. But in the meantime, while that was going, being the overly ambitious person I am, I was also freelancing on the side. So, I would be a production assistant on a film in Chicago. I would be assistant producer for local directors and producers to do spec projects, small commercial projects and that sort of thing. So while my friend John and I were building this company that could hopefully in the long-term be fruitful for us, both financially and in the sense that we can filter some of those funds into personal projects, I was cutting my teeth from the ground up. Essentially, I think that was really fantastic for me because I was able to kinda bring some experiences back to the company and find a balance between these two worlds that have some similarities. Long story short, from there I worked my way up and became a producer. And as a producer, I’ve found I was able to save money if I hired myself as an editor. So I started doing a lot of editing. In college I did take some classes in media studies. Several of them were post focused, and I found that I particularly loved editing. So I kinda had that in the back of my mind as I was producing.
That you could add on the side as well.
Yes, exactly. Find a way to integrate that if I could. And so, as the producer, it was a perfect opportunity, not just to save money, but to see if I enjoy doing this and to see if I can make it work. So, that evolved over several years. I worked at an agency, a post studio just north of Pittsburg and I worked for Tribune Broadcasting as a producer and editor. And all through that entire time I was always freelancing. The freelancing would be literally just about anything I could get my hands on, you know from producing or production managing, to editing or trying to do color correction and things of that nature.
And when you are freelancing at that stage how are you getting work, what was the main source of work for you?
I used things like Craigslist and Mandy and the equivalent to that, so that was at least at the inception of making connections. Just like now, back then once you make relationships and prove to people that you show up on time, you do a good job or if you don’t, you’re willing to learn and be passionate. I think that certainly helped and so PA’ing on my first job led to PA’ing on my second job. And I PA’ed for various people based on just meeting other PAs who were like hey I’m going onto this show, I know they need more people. And kind of working that way and just word of mouth and the connections, which again, like I said, I think that’s just as relevant now as it was then for anyone.
How did you come into starting coat of arms?
So, as I was working in freelancing — and I should say my wife and I, as she was actually my business partner, Clara, which makes us unique in some ways. But we did move around a little bit. I was born and raised in Chicago and did a lot of work there. But maybe the first four or five years after college, we ended up moving to West Virginia. A town called Fairmount West Virginia, just south of Morgantown, cause she was gonna go to law school. While there, I was just like ‘hey, we’re going to West Virginia’. I didn’t know very much about West Virginia… So anyway, I was headed there thinking like ‘okay, I guess I need to fall back on psychology. I don’t know that I’m gonna be able to find a job’. But I did find work in Pittsburgh, like I said, just north of it, and so I would drive from Fairmont about an hour 40, hour 45 each way to work. And that’s where I was working. At that post company. So, yeah… As I have amassed let’s say these connections, from Chicago, West Virginia, New York, the east coast, and traveling to LA for work when I was working at the post-studio or agency, just keeping those connections allowed me to then, let’s say, rely on them to some degree when we started Coat of Arms.
And regarding Coat of Arms, I didn’t know that’s what it would be called, but I think just given my and Clara’s personality, we’re very passionate people, we’re ambitious, and I think entrepreneurial to some degree. We’ve always wanted to have a business that we could hire people and respect artists for their work and, you know, create a model that is beneficial to everybody involved. Clara, after law school, ended up doing a lot of work with me, when we went back to Chicago and was producing, she often would come and help, and when I was at the agency she did a lot of copywriting for the agency. So we just sort of found the whole ‘Man, can we do this together? We really love it’. So anyway, it was definitely a goal of ours to do something where we had control, and kind of counteracted the agency model. Because both of us saw like ‘Hey, you lose McDonald’s. there’s 50 people out of a job’, or you don’t have as much control over let’s say the mission of the company. Or there’s a little bit, but it isn’t everywhere, so I don’t wanna speak negatively whatsoever. I mean, my time with the agency was awesome. I loved it. And it’s just a different level.
It’s a different way of doing things.
Yeah. Exactly. So about six years ago we said ‘let’s start a company. It’ll be just the two of us. And we can expand and contract as we need’. Each project will kinda be a small to middle size option for clients where if you’re spending money, the money’s going much, much more toward the art and the people than brick and mortar, or the swanky offices and chefs, and the extras. The extras- which there’s a place for that, right? I think that’s not necessarily going away entirely but I do think there has been a shift and we were lucky, let’s say, to jump in at a point where that was starting.
Absolutely. Well I think things are changing so much now and things are moving so quickly as well. And I think what’s really important is being nimble.
And being able to adapt as quickly as you can. And it sounds like that what you guys have done. On your website it says, you’re the true cowboys of post production. Is there a story behind that?
I think that’s a great question. When we were starting Coats of Arms we spent a lot of time trying to find a voice for ourselves and the company itself. Kind of the brand that, you know, could be memorable again, or recognized easily. And so in those early discussions, we wanted to find a balance or a way to integrate both Clara and myself. I’m a guy from Chicago, but my mother was an immigrant from Cuba. My father was an immigrant from Belgium. Clara always grew up in the south. So West Virginia, which is in deep South. So, finding a way to pair all those things together was important to us. So when we were creating the logo for example, we used elements from like the Belgian horse. For example there is elements from the Cuban coat of arms, which is like the key and those diagonal stripes. So kind of integrating all of those things as the brand, and then in terms of the voice, we’ve always been really interested in these sort of heraldic times, the time of the knights and the moral codes. Finding a way to pair that with the southern grittiness of the cowboy. Cause to us the cowboy is like the knight.
It’s the American knight.
It’s the American knight. So just finding a way to integrate all those things. But yeah, I mean, you’ll find in our blogs or anytime we’re writing something let’s say personal for the company, we try to find that voice of ‘cowboy meets heraldic times’, like the moral codes of the hero, and that sort of thing.
You work with some amazing brands, Jonathan. I mean, PBF, Verizon, Nickelodeon, Jaguar, Land Rover, just to name a few. What kind of creative freedom do you get when you’re working with brands like that?
Sure. As it’s likely the case for many, there are a variety of freedoms, let’s say. I think with larger corporations, there’s always a heavy need to remain true to brand, to brand voice, to standards, and that sort of thing. So for something like Google, we spend a lot of time ensuring that we are representing Google very, very closely to how they want to be represented. I mean, when you see a Google video, you know it’s Google from the colors to the style to even the animation in many ways. So, for a large company like Google, there’s still creative freedom from a story standpoint. We just did a video for Google Big Query, for example, and we helped to write the script — we kind of helped to come up with the story, thinking about interesting things that we could do.
So there is still creative freedom within the limitations that you might have, let’s say, from a brand standard perspective. But yeah, most of our big clients like Jaguar, Land Rover or AOL — any of those it’s the same. Like we’re working within a sandbox, but that doesn’t mean there’s not tons of options and opportunities within that box. We do a lot of work for small businesses or other size corporations, and generally speaking will get a little bit more general freedom from those types of projects. And then, of course, every year we try to do at least one or two pro-bono or personal projects, where we can kind of flex our creative muscle or experiment, or that sort of thing. Or just do something where we feel we’re giving back to the world, and not just, you know, spending and making money based off of marketing and that type of thing.
Yeah, and it’s also important to kind of structure yourself and do things that you wouldn’t normally do, I guess in order to learn and to grow. There’s kind of experimental periods, very valuable.
Coat of arms does lots of different types of films from live action to animated explainer videos, and then hybrid videos as well. So what’s the process? Is it different regarding different styles? How does it work?
Well that’s a good question. I think generally our process is about the same, no matter what we’re working on. We spent a lot of time at the initial stages of putting the company together to have a process and workflow that we could easily share with our clients and our artists, and have everybody be on the same page. So yeah, regardless of whether it is live action, there’s a production element that maybe a animated video doesn’t have, but either way you have that pre-production stage where we’re working with contracts and making sure the scope is set, and working on scripting and style frames or storyboards, and all that sort of thing. Regardless, again, live action or animation.
And then from there the process, again, tends to be rather similar. Whether it’s that we’re waiting for feedback on an edit or an animatic, and that sort of thing. So yeah, I think the process is the same. We always had a processed document where we would send to clients when we’re, let’s say, signing a contract. So they could see they get two rounds of revisions at every stage. We don’t move forward until there’s sign-off and those types of things. So we just updated that, which is kind of fun. I think it is good.
It’s so massively important as a process. It’s key.
Absolutely. I mean for us, as artists, or creative companies, it’s kind of our job to bring along our clients. To educate them in some respect and still to be open, of course, to building that relationship in its uniqueness. But I think we definitely spend a lot of time trying to make sure our clients have a voice and are totally clear on what is in the process.
Obviously working with big brands like Google, and Jaguar or Land Rover, it’s a different type of client to making an explainer video for a new business or a new company that wants to market themselves in a new way. I mean, that must be quite difficult, educating people who haven’t really made a film before, what the process is. I mean, is that something you find difficult?
We love what we do, so there are some things that are certainly a challenge, but for the most part I don’t know that our challenges or our bigger challenges have been in this realm. Obviously, for larger brands, again you mentioned, I do think they tend to have a way that they like to operate. Obviously Google, we use Google for work, we use Docs, we use that sort of thing. So we are able to jump in to their process a little bit. But for the most part, at those initial stages of a project where we’re done finding a scope, we’re also saying ‘hey, we use whatever the software is’, and whatever that process is, we try to make sure that there is a clarity there, just so that there aren’t any surprises.
So you are sort of flexible in your size as well. You are able to expand when you got a big project and then reduce time when you got a small one. How do you sort of hire freelancers nowadays. What’s your kind of process in that?
Sure. Well I think, again, after having worked in many places, I already had a some what, let’s say, of a Rolodex of people that we really loved working with. But obviously every year we are expanding that. And honestly, a lot of that comes from places like where we’re on there. We’re seeing new work, like in the Community section we might see something that you guys have posted, and been like ‘Hey, this is really beautiful, let’s contact this illustrator’. Or ‘This director has been doing great work. We need a director for something’. I think we’re somewhat, let’s say, selective with the people we work with. And by that I mean, of course, we wanna work with the best of the best, but we also try to find people that fit with our style of communicating, with having similar goals artistically and, really, just being good people. We love to work with people who are easy to communicate with, that are nice, that, let’s say, have some courage at times to deal with some of the things that we all deal with when it comes to clients, or hard timelines and that sort of thing. So a lot of our freelancers come from other freelancers as well, so we might work with one person who’s not available and they’ll say ‘hey, try talking to these friends of mine’, and that tends to do well for us also because they know what we’re looking for and how we work, and it works really well.
But I will say, we work now more than ever with people from everywhere. It’s amazing how the world has just sort of connected. Even more so for us within at least our work, where we use one artist from Colombia quite a bit and an artist from Portugal quite a bit. And then I think our home base tends to still be very Chicago, Midwest and East Coast oriented.
Well, I mean, it is amazing what the Internet has now done. It’s not only you’re able to connect with people from any part of the globe, but you’re able to work together remotely through the Internet. And I think that’s what Cloud Computing has really done, it’s really changed the way we collaborate together, when we work together. Movidiam is that tool that enables that to happen because, at the end of the day, you’re still working with a person.
Yet still with the same process, it’s the tool you need to get out the way, it’s the human interaction and that’s the most important thing. I mean, you’ve been in the industry a long time now. What’s the biggest change you’ve seen so far?
That’s a good question. I think you can go about it in various ways. I mean, you can look at the technologies, the technology from production to post, to pre production, to the way we communicate everything, has changed to some degree. And a lot of it has been almost the democratization of equipments and software, which has been really incredible because you can have people coming out to college or later in life who wanted to get involved and get a laptop and get software, or get a camera and go tell stories, and that’s been really interesting to see. From the DSLR sort of revelation to DaVinci and Adobe kind of streamlining things, going to the cloud or being free and having a Lite version.
All those have been really huge. I think, virtual reality, there was the 3D sort of phase. I think all of those things are, from a story telling standpoint, things that we can use as we try and tell stories, but I think no matter what, telling a good story is paramount regardless of that. And then, yeah, I think, kinda how I mentioned, in the world we’re all getting a little bit closer in terms of communication and being able to work with people from around the US, around the world. I think that has been a huge factor, at least for us in terms of our ability to expand and contract.
At the initial part of our company, like a lot of it would be the Chicago community because that’s where we started. Who’s available, meeting with designers or animators or writers or whatever it is that we need, and it tended to be a little closer to home. And that still exists, but now, it is far more easy to say ‘okay, these folks are not available.’ We now have a depth to our Rolodex that is particularly powerful, you know? Like there’s less of a fear that we won’t have someone available, because there are so many people that are talented and we can easily communicate with. So I think that’s been huge for us and I’d imagine it’s been pretty big for clients. And I think that that’s why the agency world and the large client world, has adjusted as much as it has in the sense that people are expanding and contracting even on a larger scale.
Sure. I mean, it’s a very liquid time right now, where we’re able to move around a lot easier, and we’re able to change jobs and work on new projects together, no matter where you’re based.
I do think that at least from our experience, there’s a bit of a more positive philosophy to things. Like we ourselves try really hard to shed any sort of competitive element to our business strategy, the way we communicate. I think that the way the world is now, it just doesn’t make sense to be a big shop that’s competing with another big shop, and their divisions may. I think things like you said are a little bit more fluid, where if you embrace that there’s a a really positive thing that happens, where similar people can work for similar places, and the companies that may have been competing far more -sure they’re still competitors in a traditional sense — it’s still good to look at each other and see what you’re doing, and be inspired, and want to push each other.
What’s in the horizon for you, what are you working on at the moment?
We always have several things going on and I think that’s what has kept us so integrated into kind of arms and happier. Before that, I would have a 3 year itch. Everywhere I’ve gone it’s like 3 years here then 3 years there, so it’s been nice to be the director of my future a little bit. And to work on varying things. So, as an example, right now we are working with a very good friend of ours who’s a writer, director on something for the TED women’s conference. So basically a video about time, just historically how we’ve looked at time and perceived time, and that sort of thing. Both a psychological/philosophical side, as well as the scientific side. So that’s kind of something that we’re working on now, and then we’re doing a campaign of videos for an agency that’s working with the healthcare system, or the hospital system, I should say, which is all sort of mini doc oriented content.
And then we’re also working on several fully animated videos, you know, that I guess you could call explainers. I mean I feel like right now there’s such a backlash to the word explainer cause it’s been so, I don’t know if this is the word, but like corporate type, you know. But we are working on a mix of things and we always try to do, like I said, those problems on a personal project. So right now we are working on a full length feature documentary about this small town that we’re in, in West Virginia. I think we talked about this offline but we have a location in Chicago, Illinois, and then a location in a town called West Virginia, which is rather unique I think, and our clients always find it interesting to hear about.
Helvetia’s a Swiss settled town in the mountains of West Virginia. So like when you’re here you feel like you’re in Switzerland. You know, like in the Alps or something. And surrounded by nature, cell service doesn’t work here, it’s an experience. And perhaps a topic of conversation in another time, there are many reasons as to why we try to have the both and find a balance. So being here in Helvetia has been a particularly interesting experience for us. And, I mean, it’s a very inspiring place that we were kinda inspired to do something to tell the story of this place.
And specifically the film that we’re working on it’s called ‘Born in a Ballroom’. And it follows the story of my wife Clara’s grandmother, who was called Mutter, which is mother I guess in Swiss-Deutsche, and her sort of journey here to this town and then creating this restaurant. And she kind of lived essentially from this restaurant and this restaurant is like the heart of the town. So we kinda go into her journey, and the journey of this restaurant as a place that is particularly important to this very interesting, unique town. So anyway, that’s one project that we’re working on, and then obviously we’re working on a few other things.
Like we’re also doing film festival titles and then ‘Good Intentions’, which is a live action short that we’re in pre-production on now. We’ve been — and I’m sure many artist maybe go through this- like ‘Do we do a Kickstarter? Do we just beg for money from our colleagues, clients, friends and family without doing that?’ It’s less public, and we’ve had investors come in and leave, and the normal story. But anyway, yeah, ‘Good Intentions’ is a live action dark comedy short that we’re doing with a good friend of ours, Zach, who’s the writer and director. We just created this pitch video — there’s a website called Audience Awards, where you can essentially win money or connections; they do different things for different competitions. But in this particular one, we entered the pre-production competition and put together this pitch video to see if we can garner enough votes to potentially win some funding.
I actually checked it that myself Jonathan. I quite like the video as well, it’s got a bit of humor to it, and it gets the story across. Worth checking out for sure. Have you used the Movidiam project management system at all, yet?
So if I’m honest, we have not integrated the project management side of it into our process yet. It is something early on, right when I think you guys were in beta You know we found you and we’re interested in bringing you in. I just think it’s one of those things where it’s like anything, can be a challenging bringing in new software, new processes inside. But with that said, I mean we have used it to communicate with artists. We have used it to find artists and actually, you know, we recently saw that you guys integrated pay, being able to pay artists, which is really exciting, I mean we’re really excited. It is, and that makes a difference. I can tell you for us, sure we sometimes pay our artists the net 30, but I would say 99% of the time, we try really hard to pay very very quickly and as you can imagine, working with people across the US, across the world, that can be quite a process. And you’re either using Western Union or PayPal or bank to bank transfers or cheques and all these different things that take time or have fees.
So, I mean that’s why we built the payment system. It is so confusing out there. There are so may different types of ways people pay. We just wanted one simple process. That is safe as well. That was the most important thing.
Yeah you see, that’s great. And specially for artists, there’s no greater thing I think in some respects within a contract phase or relationship, to be paid well, to be paid on-time.
Well, ultimately it’s the artists that make the film.
Yeah, of course, absolutely.
Well you’re coming from the experience of being a freelance, which is very useful.
Sure, yeah, well it’s funny, cause I think when we were talking before, like, what should we talk about?
I don’t know if swearing is allowed on the podcast, but one of the things I said was like, maybe we talk about how not to be an asshole. And part of what I meant by that is that I think there is a opportunity for all of us to be good people, both from a corporate side to a freelancer side, to any part in the process. But particularly for me, being a business man or knowing other business owners. It’s important to respect. Because listen, we would be nowhere without our artists. The work we do, when you look at our site, Clara, or myself — we’re involved in everything. But without all the hundreds of people that we work with, that work with us in a way where they have ownership and pride and a passion, we couldn’t do it. We couldn’t do it without them.
Absolutely. And the more pride and ownership, there is the better workers, really, at the end of the day.
For sure. And especially with what we were talking about, as well as the Internet in the way becoming more liquid and people working with more and more new people. It’s more and more important I think.
Yeah, absolutely. Jonathan, you have a animated blog on your website where you talk about various parts of filmmaking. How important do you think blogging is nowadays in the internet space?
That’s a good question. I think blogging is really important if you wanna take the time to be sincere and authentic in your blogging if that makes sense. I think blogging is something that you can very easily slap onto a web page or a web site and kind of Force-feed content to the world, you know? And I do think it is important just generally, even in that respect, that even can help in search engine optimization in terms of being found, in terms of becoming thought leaders, and in your industry, and that sort of thing. I mean, for us, I can say our blog, even though we had those things in mind, it started much more as a every project is different, we’re still learning, sort of a humble. hopefully, way to have discourse with the community relatively easily, where we can write something up. This is what we did, this was the process, people can take from that and learn, and say ‘hey, you guys are doing this wrong’, etc.
For us the blog, I have to say, does meander in some ways, which is what we love about it. It’s like a wanderlust blog but for our industry, where sometimes we’re talking about personal things like trying to find balance between your life and work, and personal life. Or how to be a good freelancer or a good artist, that kind of thing. Sometimes we’re posting behind the scenes, like for our short deaf folks life, we did a really in depth blog about the entire process from concept to creating the style, the illustration, the animation, everything. Just for those that are out there that maybe want to do this and don’t know the process or, like I said before, people who do this and can see ‘this is how we did it, but man, maybe you guys should try something a little different here and save some time, or do a better job’.
Well I think it’s great as well, and we’re seeing that a lot on Movidiam. And actually, you said earlier that the most important thing is to be authentic, it’s not just to kind of force-feed people information. Just to try and drive traffic over to you, you have to be real. And what we’re finding is that a lot of freelancers on Movidiam, the ones that are being really authentic and really posting some really interesting content, they’re getting work from it.
Great, that’s great. Yeah, totally. I mean, don’t get me wrong, even for us when we’re picking a blog, it’s totally selfish. Like we’re ‘hey, I wanna talk about this or we’re seeing what’s going on and let’s put this up and see how people respond’. There’s always that element, but you’re right. I think being authentic is important and that authenticity can be more of a sincerity in terms of what you’ve done and an openness to the dialogue that can come from it.
Exactly, exactly. Because I think if you’re not authentic, it’s so obvious, you know? People can see it immediately.
Absolutely. Yeah, and I will say one thing a few people have said about some of ours is that they’ve appreciated, which we love to hear, that the sincerity and openness too. Cause we fail, like anybody. That’s been interesting to see. There was one we wrote about an agency pitch that we won and it went through but in the end the project went away. And kinda talking about whether you should pitch, and what happens when you lose the pitch, and all that sort of thing. So yeah, it’s great. It’s great to get that stuff out so that people can learn, and so that we can learn. You’re always learning, and if you’re not, I don’t know, you have to keep active to some degree
Well listen, it’s been great to talk to you Jonathan, and I don’t wanna steal too much of your time away because I know how busy you are at the moment. Thank you so much for being on the podcast.
Thank you so much for having me.
That was Jonathan Lacocque. I highly recommend that you head on to his Movidiam profile, Coat of Arms, and check out some of the work they’ve done there. It’s really amazing stuff. I’m really looking forward to seeing what they’re doing next. If you haven’t heard our previous episodes with Jonathan Harris and Simon Rowling, you can find them both on iTunes or the Movidiam Blog.
Find Jonathan online:
Jonathan Lacocque founded post-production studio, Coat of Arms and serves as its Creative Director and Producer…www.movidiam.com