Creative Inspirations: Big Spaceship, Digital Creative Agency
Illustration by John Hersey

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Video: Interview with Lynda

(Music playing) Lynda Weinman: So, Michael, it's so wonderful to have you with us. Thank you so much for agreeing to let us profile Big Spaceship. Michael Lebowitz: Thanks for having us. We are really excited about it. Lynda: You must be a proud papa. Michael: I am. Yes, in multiple ways. A real papa and a papa to this thing, if that's what it is. Lynda: Exactly. Well, we were talking, kind of going all the way back to your childhood, and your parents, and their vocations, and I thought that was actually kind of interesting.
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Watch the Online Video Course Creative Inspirations: Big Spaceship, Digital Creative Agency
1h 11m Appropriate for all Aug 01, 2008

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Take a ride in the Big Spaceship with this intimate look at the inner workings of one of the web's most innovative firms. Since its founding in 2000, Big Spaceship has set about redefining what it means to be a digital agency—and has won countless awards in the process. True to its mission, Big Spaceship ensures that every aspect of the company reflects a fresh way of working, from the layout of office space to how clients are engaged. This installment of Creative Inspirations takes viewers inside the minds and methods behind this extraordinary company. Learn more about Big Spaceship by going to their website at Big Spaceship. To view examples of Big Spaceship's work visit Nike Air, Hungry Suitcase, HBO, Adobe and the Corona Beach.

Big Spaceship

Interview with Lynda

(Music playing) Lynda Weinman: So, Michael, it's so wonderful to have you with us. Thank you so much for agreeing to let us profile Big Spaceship. Michael Lebowitz: Thanks for having us. We are really excited about it. Lynda: You must be a proud papa. Michael: I am. Yes, in multiple ways. A real papa and a papa to this thing, if that's what it is. Lynda: Exactly. Well, we were talking, kind of going all the way back to your childhood, and your parents, and their vocations, and I thought that was actually kind of interesting.

Do you want to talk about that a bit? Michael: Sure, yeah. I thought it was interesting too, because I had never really put it in the same context that you spoke about it, but I definitely come from a background of writers, and storytellers. My father was an English professor and a novelist and taught fiction writing as well as American modernist fiction.

My mom was a poet, and does editing and manuscript development. The throughline is really storytelling and narrative. I translated that into film when I went to college and I did film there and then when this industry started to emerge, I became very quickly fascinated with it, and threw myself in and I think there is a lot of interesting overlaps there. Lynda: Well I think there is a huge transformation going on, because video is so much more approachable and accessible to so many more people, and so, in the past really the only way to tell stories was through writing.

And so this is the new media of storytelling and you are right at the forefront of it. Michael: I tell people on the team a lot when they get frustrated with the world not moving as quickly as they want to move that it's the price that you pay for getting to be out on the very edge of something brand-new. And you wouldn't have it any other way and that's what I have to keep telling myself. Sometimes I just want to move so fast, but we're getting to, in our own small way, help define something brand-new. Lynda: Oh, absolutely. That's tremendously exciting to be a part of.

Lynda: Definitely. So, you are now a business owner. That must be a very huge transition from being a film student, and I'd love to hear a little bit about that journey for you. Michael: It's a strange thing because I never expected to be here. I never, think I was probably entrepreneurial in some sense or another, but I didn't really know it or hadn't really tapped into it. But I think the transition from film into the world of digital 'stuff', the interactive world was - a lot of it was really just the necessity of not wanting to be a starving artist.

Film, at that time, I was the very last class that did all the production work in film without avid, without anything non-linear. So, I was chopping up 16mm reversal and searching for little two frames that I lost 17 hours ago in the editing bay, falling asleep. And I actually really enjoyed that. I loved it being so tactile, and also being very technical in a way.

But the reality was that in school I paid $100 a semester to shoot all the film I wanted, and it was this incredible luxury and then leaving, my options were to polish lenses for free, or hustle 98% of the time to maybe get to do what I really wanted to do 2% of the time. And I didn't really like the balance, for me. It wasn't effective and I don't think that I had the, I didn't have the necessary momentum behind film, specifically. So when I started to see this digital industry emerging and I was living on the West Coast for a year, and my friends were calling me and saying we are actually making really good money now, and I was like Oh! Well, I have been playing with Mac since the 512 came out.

I have always been incredibly comfortable. I played with desktop publishing applications just for my own fun and doing my resume and things like that, and I was, like, I can figure this stuff out. And I swallowed my pride, and I moved in with my mom, and took an unpaid internship, and learned absolutely everything I could. Lynda: Who did you have the internship with? Michael: With a funny little company in Boston called Stumpworld Systems.

The office was based in house where a bunch of the owners of the company lived. I would dutifully show up on time everyday, really, really happy to be there, and somebody would stroll down with a cigarette and a coffee in their robe and kind of put the coffee on top of their monitor and get ready to type. And I found them through a connection, but I didn't really seek out the right place to get the internship. It was like okay, I can get one near home and live for free for a little while, but they did entertainment work, strangely.

They did a lot of sites for major bands. They did and, and things like that. So, I got to start playing with that, and that's when I discovered Flash. I was learning the real basics, old school 2.0 and 3.0 browser, HTML, and basic graphic optimization. DeBabelizer was my friend back then. Lynda: Yeah, I remember DeBabelizer. [ Michael: Yeah, great, great application.

Lynda: Yeah it's still around, actually. Michael: The worst user interface I have ever seen and I loved it. I saw, actually, it was the power computing website, the horrible era where Mac tried to make, to license the OS, and power computing had a Flash intro. It's big words, shooting at you, 'fight back for the Mac.' Lynda: I remember that. Michael: And I saw it, and I was, like, "That is the coolest thing I've ever seen. Lynda: Mmhm. Michael: "How did they do it?" And I told everybody at work, I said, "I am going to figure out how to do that by "the end of the weekend." Lynda: So awesome. Michael: They had one license of Flash kicking around, or something.

Lynda: Right. Michael: And by the end of the weekend I came in, and I had done 'fight back for Mike' or something like that. Lynda: Right. Michael: And they were all like, "Wow, how did you do it?" And I just started playing, and that was Flash 2. I mean, that must have been the first version after FutureSplash, and that's sort of how it all Lynda: That's fantastic. Michael: formed. That's a really inspiring story. I think a lot of our members will be very inspired by that, because everybody has to get up with the digital age, and a lot of us are too old to have been born into it, right? [ Michael: Yeah, very much, including me. Lynda: Yeah, you know, yeah, that's all good.

We had a good conversation the other day. I was asked to write an article about kind of a complex subject about how advertising and marketing is shifting in the marketplace due to digital. So I wanted to just talk to, as I often do, just sort of talk to people in the team and just see what they thought. I realized, at one point, we were talking about sort of who was born digital and who wasn't? And I realized that in the room, we had somebody who I said -- I said to each person, how old were you when you first used a browser? And it was, I was, whatever, 20-21, and the next person in line, 17-18, and then we get to the last person and then, "Oh! I was five." Lynda: Yeah.

Michael: I was, like, there is a fundamental difference Lynda: Yeah. between that person and me. Even though we are all co-existing in this one environment. We are all producing the same work. There is a fundamental difference in the sort of native understanding of having that sort of that control over your information, over your environment, over your entertainment. Lynda: Well, this has been a recurring conversation that I've had with a lot of the people I have been interviewing in this series is just, what are the timeless principles that you learn in the film school? And you may have a different advantage over those who were born digital. Michael: Mmhm.

And I think there is this necessary merging of the two worlds that people can get so involved with just a straight technology and not think about the story, or the film grammar, or some of the really important types of principles that you would learn in film school. Michael: Yeah. That's exactly right. I mean one of the things I find myself saying over and over, year after year with teams is is not to always think of everything as a tween, that you don't have to always show how something gets from here to here to create a compelling story.

Look at editing techniques. You look at the really early pioneers of these things, where they're putting disparate footage together to create a story, and the juxtaposition of unrelated images to create meaning. I think that's actually something that digital still needs to adapt to a little bit more. We see a lot of - now we can put our films online and that's coming from one direction, and then from another direction you've got the sort of motion graphics world where everything can fly freely wherever you want it to go, but maybe a little less fundamentals and storytelling.

And I think where we sit or try to sit is that place in between where we really want to be able to tell a story, but be incredibly true and authentic to the medium we are telling it in. Lynda: You still seem so passionate and engaged. Do you ever see yourself transitioning out of what you're doing now, or what are your short-term and long-term goals? Michael: Well, I love to come to work everyday. The whole company is, it's not founded, as many companies are, with a huge profit motive.

I mean, it's great to make money, and I hope that we do and continue to do that. But I've been at places you just don't want to be, and I've seen the difference in the quality of output. If you are not sort of passionate about what you are doing, find something that you are passionate about doing and do it. Lynda: Are there some things that you haven't done that you want to do? Michael: I am getting to do a lot of things that I really am excited about. I get to go out and speak to people and that's really, really fun. Doing something like this is incredibly exciting for me, although a little weird, because I always fancied myself a behind-the- camera-person, and it's weird to sort of suddenly be in front.

But I got to teach a seminar for a few years, just a couple of days in Rome through a German Film School. It's all taught by visiting professionals, and they asked us to do sort of digital marketing for films, which is where we sort of grew up in this business, and I loved it. I did it for few years, and I haven't done it in a couple, and I miss it. I really enjoy the teaching side of it. So I think that that's something I maybe could transition into in the longer-term future.

But for now, I'm really, really happy with what we are doing. It's still a very exciting place to be. Lynda: It really is, and I'm so grateful to you for sharing yourself and letting us peak behind the scenes here, and also sharing some of the thoughtful ideas that you shared with us just now. I think they are going to be very meaningful to people, and it's just great. We applaud your generosity, and thank you for being part of this. Michael Lebowtiz: It's my absolute pleasure. Lynda: Thanks Michael.

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