JULY 19, 2021
Robb Wagner is an experiential artist at Stimulated-Inc., a creative studio specializing in experiential transformation. “At the highest level, that means we help global companies to transform their existing assets into something that people have never experienced before — like a Disney TV movie that becomes a concert tour or a live event that becomes digital music videos for artists like Lady Gaga or Eminem on a global platform like YouTube.
“We also help companies transform their creative processes with our creative workflow solutions. Stimulated.Works is our proprietary creative workflow solution for automating digital asset creation at scale. The process lets us do high-level, high-volume work like animation, motion, development and design using fewer resources and less effort overall.”
Let’s find out more from Wagner …
What does being an experiential artist entail?
Developing and executing radical creative ideas to help global brands achieve an outcome. This work has to be done using a counterintuitive approach because we’re always doing something that has never been done before. I call it working backward, but Steve Jobs said it best: “You have to start with the customer experience then work backward to the technology.”
For example, there are no existing paths to the first-ever 3D concert tour or live-cinema music videos or converged reality. So every creative experience has to start with an outcome. How do we want people to feel? How can we truly resonate with individuals, at scale? Then we reverse-engineer a bespoke creative workflow solution to achieve that outcome.
Our creative development and workflows most often involve people and technologies from disparate industries like broadcast, film, concerts, and live and experiential entertainment. I’ve been fortunate to work on some really unusual projects across all of these entertainment verticals, and bringing these elements together in unique ways keeps my work interesting. I’m never doing the same thing twice with the same set of people or technologies. It’s always something new and interesting for me, the teams that we bring together and our clientele.
What would surprise people the most about what falls under that title?
I think what would surprise people is that I am extremely business-focused. I am interested in business and understanding how my work fits into the business goals of my clientele. The deeper I dig into the value that I can create for my clientele, the better the outcome I can help them create.
For instance, a casino called us recently and told us they wanted us to create content for a new, high-resolution LED screen they were installing. When I asked why they were installing the screen, they couldn’t tell me. No matter how hard I drilled down, the people I was speaking with couldn’t describe what success looked like. They couldn’t describe the successful business outcome that they expected from their investment. I want to help create business success with my work. To do that, I need to know what success looks like in order to measure, optimize and improve performance.
By contrast, I’m doing some consulting work with a company that’s developing a new virtual production facility. I asked the CFO how we could measure success, and she told me that starting production on time every day was a measurable benchmark of success. I always want that benchmark to work against.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
My favorite part of the job is helping other people live their best creative work lives. From my earliest days in television post production, I’ve always looked for ways to develop new creative workflows that help people do their best work and make their jobs better. For instance, when reality television first exploded onto the scene in the late 1990s, I noticed that editors’ and directors’ jobs were miserable because they couldn’t find their footage.
They spent all their time searching for footage instead of doing what they love. That led me to invent a logging solution called Footage File that used timecode and keywords to help editors and directors instantly find, digitize and edit their footage instead of wasting all their time searching. Editors could enter a keyword and the system would generate a list of videotapes and timecodes where all of the relevant footage was located. Then the system would automatically generate a digitizing list for the assistant editors. This enabled editors and directors to do their best storytelling work using fewer resources and less effort overall. The system was a standard back then, and it was used to edit hundreds of hours of early reality television, including the AFI 100 Years 100 Movies series for CBS, the Motown 40 documentary for ABC, weekly Disney Channel programming, and primetime reality shows for Fox.
What is your least favorite?
My least favorite part of the job is trying to find more people like me who want to be radical and take chances. Most people are scared of change. I live for change. It is hard for me to find other people that share my passion for diving headfirst into the unknown.
For example, a network broadcast executive recently got excited about some of the interactive work that I had been doing between media design and live performance. She connected me with a best-in-class broadcast production company to work with on developing a primetime network project, but the production company didn’t embrace my radical ideas. They only wanted to do things the old way … the safe ways. As a result, we didn’t get to work together, which I believe was a missed opportunity for the network. The project got done, but it didn’t make the splash that the network had hoped for. That was disappointing because I know what that project could have been.
What is your most productive time of the day?
My most productive part of the day is the early morning. I usually wake up with a head full of new ideas that need to be offloaded. I do my big-brain offload from about 6am to 7:30am. Once I’ve organized my thoughts in writing, I head off to a high-intensity exercise class from 8am to 9am. After that, I hop back onto my laptop while I cool off and get another 15 or 20 minutes of thinking done. By 10am, I’m in my car, where I can get a quick call out of the way. I arrive at my studio and flip on my ring light by 10:30am.
The first thing I do every day is what we call a “super-session,” wherein my lead creative producer in Europe walks me through everything I need to review on Stimulated.Works. This is a highly efficient session where we use our system to review all of the work in progress and quickly give feedback to our global team of artists using our system communication threads. We do not talk with our global artists. That would take too much time. Our entire hybrid creative workforce is trained to use our automation system, so all of our time is used very efficiently. After the morning super-session is finished, I’m free to deal with the day’s agenda, which is divided between client work and internal development with my creative, marketing and business teams. This is the best routine I have ever had, and it is adaptable to being on the road.
How has the COVID shutdown affected the way your studio has been working?
The COVID shutdown has not affected my creative studio as much as it has affected the way our clients and partners have been working. That’s because I had already decentralized my creative studio and became hybrid nine years ago. Because of this, we didn’t have to make any major adjustments to our way of working for COVID. We already had a creative workflow solution in place that was designed to let us navigate paradigm shifts and keep up with the shifting needs of our clients and the world. So COVID affected our partners and clients more than us.
If you didn’t have this job, what would you be doing instead?
If I didn’t have this job I’d be doing work that helps others in some way.
How early on did you know this would be your path?
I’ve always known I wanted to be an artist. As a child, I spent a lot of my time drawing. My childhood dream was to attend design school and become a graphic designer, but when I started doing that work it wasn’t what I thought it would be. Still, I knew I wanted to work in the creative industries and I kept on a path of chasing interesting creative work.
Finally, I found my calling in 2004 when the MTV Video Music Awards decided to put 50 video screens on a 360-degree stage for a three-hour live broadcast event. Nothing like this had ever been done before, and I took on the role as the creative producer overseeing this new genre blending technology, media, content and performance. We used a lot of “canned” content, which I thought was lackluster, but I saw possibilities to do more in this new space, like use LED technology for narrative storytelling, not just eye candy. That’s when I founded my creative studio, Stimulated-Inc.
Can you name some recent projects you have worked on?
We just delivered a music video screens project for Foo Fighters, one of our longtime clients. We also recently delivered an animated music video for 300 Entertainment, which is the label of artists like Megan Thee Stallion and Young Thug. We’re not allowed to talk specifics about the video because it has not been released yet, but it was our first fully animated music video.
Also, we’ve been working with Carnival Cruise Line to help them roll out their biggest, newest build, the Mardi Gras. We work with Carnival to transform the entertainment experiences for each new ship they build, and we always develop a new creative workflow for each ship. We’ve developed about 24 entertainment experiences with Carnival, involving media on LED displays that are interactive with live performance.
For instance, a dancer commands a virtual body of water with his movements … or 12 dancers throw virtual fire around the stage. We have even prefilmed dancers that are dressed and lit exactly like the live performers on board the ships. This allows us to make performers do supernatural things in the high-resolution LED screens, like multiply or fly up into the air or walk on walls. The fun part is that we do it in a way that erases the line between fantasy and reality for the audience. To the guests, it’s all one big picture; they don’t know what’s real and what’s virtual, and they don’t care.
For a more recent Carnival build, we implemented Unreal Engine to take audiences on seamless fly-throughs of fantasy worlds on high-resolution LED displays. Think of the point of view of a bumblebee flying through the gardens of the four seasons of Vivaldi, set to symphonic rock, all mixed in with interactive live performance.
What is the project that you are most proud of?
That’s hard. One of the achievements I’m most proud of is helping Disney film the Hannah Montana 3D concert film live in a single night. We had to create a moviegoing experience that was as exciting as attending the concert for millions of girls who couldn’t get tickets to the concert. We achieved that result.
I’m also proud of helping Michael Jackson create his This Is It 3D concert tour. Being trusted by the world’s most prolific music video artist to help him achieve his biggest creative vision ever was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I learned so much from working with Michael, including giving artists the room to deliver more than what we ask for. If Michael Jackson did it, then we can all do it. I was also proud to help Sony create the film that cemented Michael’s legacy as the King of Pop.
Another proud moment was helping Spike Jonze create Live Cinema music videos live in real time for the first-ever YouTube Music Awards. People said it couldn’t be done and we proved that it could. I’m proud of all of the projects that I get to work on, because they are all daring in their own way.
Name three pieces of technology you can’t live without.
MacBook Pro, Stimulated.Works and connectivity. If I really wanted to pare down, that’s all I would need to run my creative studio.
What social media channels do you follow?
I follow LinkedIn to keep up with business, Instagram to keep up with creativity and culture, and Twitter to keep up with the reality of the world we live in.
Having two young-adult children, naturally I am concerned about the future. I’m not one to sit back or put my head in the sand. Twitter is a place where I’m constantly reminded that we have problems to address and solve. I want to be reminded so I stay inspired to take action on the things that I care about.
We have a handful of passion projects at Stimulated-Inc. One helps eliminate single-use plastic at events. Another helps nonprofits raise awareness and funds with zero marketing cost. A third inspires young people to vote. I want to use my resources and collaborate to help change the world wherever I can. Twitter fans my flames for working with purpose, which is something that I have become more serious about lately.
Do you listen to music while you work?
Almost everything I do in my work involves music, whether it’s a digital spot or an experience, so I have to listen to all kinds of music at work. My guilty pleasure is falling in love with the music that I’m working with, even when it’s something that I wouldn’t otherwise like. I’ve grown attached to music that I never would have connected with on Spotify.
What do you do to de-stress from it all?
When it comes to hard deadlines, I have an innate live-entertainment discipline that says 8:00 doesn’t mean 8:01, and Tuesday doesn’t mean Wednesday. That stems from all of my experience in live broadcast. When push comes to shove, I know how to meet a deadline by constantly looking ahead and kicking potential problems out of the way before they can impact the project. A lot of our deadlines are soft. But when deadlines are hard, I go into live mode, turn up the urgency and make sure everyone on the project feels it. In terms of client expectations, I have learned how to manage that by choosing the right clients. I’ll just leave that right there.
Then there’s stress. I’ve become mindful of managing stress because I believe stress is really bad for us. I try to find what I call my “zen” whenever I can. It often means connecting with the outdoors in some way, even if it is just being outdoors for 30 minutes, or an hour. Anything that is pleasurable and relaxing does the trick for me.
These days, I have found an inherent ability to sense my own blood pressure, and I try to keep it at a low level — not literally where I measure my blood pressure with a device, but where I just know whether I feel relaxed or not. If I’m not feeling relaxed, then I try to find a Zen moment to bring things down and find the balance. That’s when I’m at my best.
Even at full throttle, when we’re not sleeping because we’re in the thick of a project, I believe creative work shouldn’t be stressful. It should be exciting, inspiring and fulfilling for everyone involved. That’s what I mean when I say, “live your best creative work-life.”
Republished from postPerspective