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Special Coverage Technology

Bringing a Message to Life

From left, Kathryn Taccone, Karen Webb, and Will Colón discuss a project.

From left, Kathryn Taccone, Karen Webb, and Will Colón discuss a project.

Will Colón, Kathryn Taccone, and Karen Webb all took different paths to a career in animation, but when the opportunity arose to launch their own company, they were certainly of one mind. That’s because they’re believers not only in the potential of animation in the business and nonprofit worlds, but that it’s still an underused tool, with plenty of room to grow. Four years after its inception, Open Pixel Studios is proving their conviction to be true.

Remote work might be all the rage right now, but it’s nothing new to the three partners at Open Pixel Studios.

“The future of work is working remotely, having the systems to do that, working with multiple people across different disciplines across the same project — all in a remote environment,” said Will Colón, co-owner of the animation studio he, Kathryn Taccone, and Karen Webb opened in 2017. These days, they work with freelancers across the U.S. to create content for business and nonprofit clients.

“We were doing the remote thing for quite a while before the pandemic hit,” Colón added. “The pandemic really raised the stakes on whether we were doing this correctly — it put us to the test a little bit. But there was almost no shift; our business did not waver at all.”

In some ways, COVID-19 actually provided more opportunity.

“What ended up happening was more people asked us for more work,” he went on. “Normally, a production requires filming and video and people in a studio or on a production set. Those roles diminished overnight, and everyone said, ‘what else can we do? Instead of having people on a screen, or talking heads, let’s do animation instead.’ It was a really big boost to our company.”

And it’s not all remote, even during the pandemic, Taccone was quick to note. “We pride ourselves on being able to communicate with clients in a way that’s comfortable for them. Sometimes clients prefer to be in person, and sometimes it’s totally fine sending e-mails. We try to match how the project is managed, and the way we communicate, to their personalities, so everyone is comfortable.”

Using animation for marketing and messaging is nothing new, Colón said, citing the well-known example of Walt Disney producing animated shorts for every branch of the U.S. military during World War II, putting beloved characters to work rallying support for the war effort.

“I don’t think the things we’re doing are much different than Walt Disney creating content during World War II. Those were ‘explainer videos,’ talking through the points the military wanted to talk about. So this isn’t new technology. What’s new is the application.”

Meaning, while animation has been a mainstay during the internet age — as part of websites, mobile games, and in movies and television — it remains underused by businesses. Colón, Taccone, and Webb are hoping to change that.

At one of Open Pixel’s production stations, well-communicated concepts become animation.

At one of Open Pixel’s production stations, well-communicated concepts become animation.

“A lot of businesses haven’t realized they can do amazing things,” Colón said. “Our job as a studio is to introduce businesses to animation for the first time.”

And do it, for the most part, remotely.

“We have 20 freelancers across the country, and I’ve met only a few in person,” he noted. “We’ve always been remote, always done Zoom calls, always done projects managed through cloud-based solutions. It’s been a breeze, and that’s a testament to our process. We were one of the first ‘pandemic industries’ pre-pandemic. We were ready for it.”

Now, they’re ready to move the needle even further when it comes to the power of animation in the business world.

 

Crossing Paths

Colón’s journey to the world of animation began at Hampshire College, where, during his first year in 2009, he tried to get into an advanced computer animation class, but was rejected by the instructor, Chris Perry, because he had no experience.

But after Colón excelled at an introductory course in the field, Perry — a Pixar veteran who served as a technical director on A Bug’s Life and Finding Nemo — accepted him into the advanced course.

“As I moved from the basics to more advanced stuff, I didn’t know how much I would love it, that I’d lose myself in the work, forget about time, and really enjoy the process more than the results,” Colón recalled. “I knew this was something I could go into.”

After college, he returned to the Boston area and worked at special-effects company Zero VFX, but desired a move back into animation, and landed a job at Anzovin Studio in Florence in 2013.

Characters created for a piece on Behavioral Health Network’s Crisis Healthline.

A project for Amherst College’s bicentennial

Animated messaging advocating for changes in tobacco laws

Webb, who had attended the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan and worked for a time in Los Angeles and San Diego, eventually moved to Western Mass. to work at Perry’s independent studio, Bit Films — and later started working at Anzovin Studio, where she met Colón.

Their company took shape after Anzovin decided to shift his business model into animation tools, while the production team, where Colón and Webb worked, was spun off into a separate entity. The pair then decided to go in a different direction, by launching their own studio.

Taccone’s passion for animation was sparked by a high-school trip to Pixar Animation Studios in California. She later studied animation at UMass Amherst and met Colón while taking class at Hampshire, where he was the teaching assistant. After a stint at HitPoint Studios, she worked at Anzovin from 2014 to 2016, then moved to California to work in the games industry, for EA and Toys for Bob. But in 2017, she returned to Western Mass. to help Colón and Webb launch Open Pixel.

“We decided to go into a different realm, building something new that was going to be ours,” Colón said. “Kathryn came back from California, and that was the beginning of our journey.”

Speaking of journeys, hearing Taccone describe the process of moving a concept to a finished product, it’s striking how much work happens before the actual animation begins.

“A client will come to us with an idea of the message they’re trying to send; typically they’ll have a call to action associated with that message,” she explained. “We take this from the initial script phase — whether we write it ourselves or the client provides it — and bring it into an audio-visual script, which allows us all to be on the same page with what will happen with the story.”

This all happens before visuals are actually created, she added. In other words, clear communication is key — not just with the target audience, but between all the players in creating the animation, and at every stage.

“We make a choice at the concept stage whether or not something should be represented through iconography, text, characters, or just backgrounds,” she added, noting that just using animated words can often be as powerful as talking characters. “Often we’ll use a blend of those things.”

Once the concepts are established, next comes discussion of style, tone, and other elements. Then storyboards are created, laying out the content from start to finish — again, so everyone involved can envision the final piece and make changes before the actual animation begins.

“When we do the animation,” Taccone said, “we hire voice-over artists, we do music and sound effects — again, depending on the client’s needs, but all serving the purpose of matching the tone and style and direction to the story we’re trying to tell.”

While many corporate clients rely on Open Pixel’s work in their employee training videos and modules as well as marketing, a particularly feel-good part of the team’s mission is working with nonprofits on messaging that will draw more attention and support. Nonprofit leaders aren’t always natural salespeople, Colón noted, and he and his team can help them hone their message and educate the public.

“They’re trying to make the world a better place; that’s their mission,” he said. “We’re helping them close the gap between the audience and their mission. We use animation to explain what they’re doing.”

In the end, Taccone said, even the most eye-catching animation isn’t a success if it doesn’t meet the client’s needs. “In a way, the communication is sometimes more important than the art. We’re trying to make sure everyone is on the same page.”

 

Mission Accomplished

For Colón, such work is especially gratifying considering that, early in his career, he never thought about running a business. But his former employer, Raf Anzovin, encouraged that growth — and, in fact, encouraged him and Webb to branch out on their own.

“I feel like the people I met along the way influenced me in continuing this work. If those people weren’t there, we wouldn’t be around,” Colón said.

Achieving the studio’s goals in Western Mass. — a region that has been steadily growing its reputation for innovation and technology — is especially satisfying, he said. Clients run the gamut from large corporations to small outfits, and the remote nature of the work allows Open Pixel to take on projects from Boston to the West Coast.

He’s also particularly proud that the company is certified as a majority women-owned business. Noting that the history of animation has not always been a friendly one for women, he hopes Open Pixel inspires other women to pursue this field.

Through it all, he, Taccone, and Webb hope to continue to expand the work they do, but also become a destination to start a career.

“In the future, we want to be a jumping-off point for folks getting out of college,” he said, noting that it’s natural for talented graduates to depart the Five Colleges and look for jobs in New York, Los Angeles, or Boston. To encourage them to start their careers closer to home, Open Pixel has developed a pipeline of interns from Amherst College and Hampshire College. “Not only can you learn the tools here, this can be an entry point into the field.”

As for those tools, they’re much more affordable and accessible than they once were,” Colón said. “You can get a license and run a studio from your home office. But what makes us special is our process and our back end, our ability to push animation further than where it currently is right now.

“So much of it is in entertainment — games and movies,” he went on, “but we’re seeing a shift toward companies creating advertising campaigns utilizing animation because it’s so limitless. You can create anything you like. That’s what we see — unlimited creative expression.”

And always in the service of the client, Taccone added.

“We pride ourselves on being a studio that takes time to understand the balance between the client’s needs and our artistic identity. That way, we all enjoy the process as we go through it.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Special Coverage Technology

Making Connections

After a chaotic start, the pandemic has proven to be good for business in the IT world, where professionals were deluged with requests from clients to set up remote networks for their employees, not to mention a flood of new clients seeking network services for the first time. More than perhaps anyone, these IT pros have seen first-hand how COVID-19 has changed the way companies are doing business. And some of the changes, they say, may be here for the long term.

 

By Mark Morris

As the world begins to emerge from the pandemic, many businesses that survived are trying to understand what the new landscape will look like.

Right now, many business owners are trying to figure out when and if their employees should return to the office or continue to work from home. Either way, access to technology plays an increasing role in getting the job done.

For example, said Delcie Bean, CEO of Paragus Strategic IT, before the pandemic, many businesses were getting by with outdated communication and collaborative tools and depended on e-mail and phones to support their working environment.

“When the pandemic hit, they had to suddenly adopt new technologies like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or other virtual platforms to keep doing business. Almost overnight, we had to set up about 4,000 people to work remotely who weren’t previously set up to do so.”

“When the pandemic hit, they had to suddenly adopt new technologies like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or other virtual platforms to keep doing business,” Bean said, noting that, as employees in many industries were sent home to work remotely, local IT firms saw a huge influx of work. “Almost overnight, we had to set up about 4,000 people to work remotely who weren’t previously set up to do so.”

Delcie Bean

Delcie Bean

Sean Hogan, president of Hogan Communications, said the last time businesses experienced this much disruption was October 2011, when a surprise snowstorm knocked out power for thousands across the region. This time, the disruption has had a more profound and lasting impact.

“The pandemic woke up a lot of people and forced them to understand they’ve got to change the way they do business,” Hogan said, explaining that, while the pre-Halloween storm a decade ago encouraged investments in backup generators, the pandemic has shown many the importance of storing data in a remote data center, commonly known as the ‘cloud.’

In Bean’s estimation, the idea of a business keeping a server at its facility to host its network is already a legacy model that was on its way to being phased out in the next five years.

“COVID dumped gasoline on that timetable and made converting to the cloud a much higher priority,” he said. With cloud-based technology, employees can more easily access their company’s network from multiple locations and devices.

Resistance to change comes natural to New England business owners as many prefer to keep their data on a server in their office. Hogan often explains to these reluctant clients that cloud-based data centers have spent millions of dollars to make sure there is a disaster recovery set up, as well as backup systems for power, internet and HVAC.

“The average business owner couldn’t afford to make that type of investment to keep their data safe,” Hogan said. “So when people say they don’t trust the cloud we point out how much more reliable it is compared to their office.”

BusinessWest spoke with a number of local IT providers about what several of them called the ‘roller-coaster year’ we’ve just had and what’s on the horizon. As business owners themselves, they, like their clients, have had to figure out how to keep things running during a pandemic and anticipate what that means in the long term.

“I’m looking at the service tickets we’re completing while working remote, and they are right on par with where they were when we were in the office. In fact, we might be a little more efficient.”

As an IT-services vendor, Bean believes firms like his should be a little ahead of the curve so they can test new technologies before they recommend them to clients. For example, Paragus employees have been on the cloud and set up to work from anywhere since June 2019.

“So when the pandemic struck, moving our staff remotely was pretty seamless,” Bean said. “About 80% of our people work remotely, and 15% to 20% come into the office on any given day.”

Jeremiah Beaudry, owner of Bloo Solutions, said his employees are working so well from home, it’s not necessary to come into the office. He noted that productivity has not suffered, and employees have less stress.

Jeremiah Beaudry

Jeremiah Beaudry

“I’m looking at the service tickets we’re completing while working remote, and they are right on par with where they were when we were in the office,” Beaudry said. “In fact, we might be a little more efficient.”

One important thing businesses have learned from the pandemic, according to Charlie Christianson, president of CMD Solutions, is that it’s OK to work from home.

“We can do a lot more than we thought we could outside of the office,” he said. “People are far more open to remote work, and there’s no mystery to it anymore.”

 

Change of Scenery

While some of Hogan’s employees have always worked remotely, the percentage has grown, and their efficiency allows them to escape the daily commute. “They don’t need to be behind a windshield for an hour and a half each day just getting to and from work,” he said.

When companies first sent workers home, IT providers spent most of their time helping clients integrate employees into their respective networks. While they suddenly had a huge amount of work, IT professionals did not see much revenue because many clients had contracts to cover this extra work. Increased revenue soon followed, however, as many new clients sought these services.

“We signed more new customers in 2020 than the previous two years combined,” Bean said, adding that much of the new business came from companies that found their dependence on technology had suddenly increased and their IT capabilities couldn’t meet these new demands.

In addition to new clients coming on board, Christianson explained that many of his current clients, who at first only wanted a “down-and-dirty” setup for remote access, were now looking for a more permanent solution for their network.

“We can do a lot more than we thought we could outside of the office. People are far more open to remote work, and there’s no mystery to it anymore.”

“Those of us in the IT industry are very fortunate,” he said. “We have done well during this time and were not hit hard like so many other industries were.”

With the end of COVID in sight, businesses have begun looking at what comes next. Those we spoke with agree on one thing: it will not be business like it was before or even during the pandemic.

“Most of our clients want some hybrid between those two options, where there is more in-person interaction than during the pandemic, but probably not as much as there was before,” Bean said. Once people started learning videoconferencing and Microsoft 365, he noted, they saw how helpful these tools can be even when everyone is in the office.

As IT providers continue to transition their clients from premise-based servers to the data cloud, they also predict other big shifts on the horizon. For example, with so many companies using smartphones and laptop computers to make calls, the company phone system may soon be a thing of the past.

“A few years from now, the idea of having both a computer and a phone on your desk at work is going to be a very strange concept,” Bean said, especially when companies consider the economics of supporting two systems that make phone calls.

While the demise of the office phone seems inevitable, office space itself could be in for a big reduction, Christianson added. “We’ve seen a lot of instances where people are moving from bigger spaces to smaller ones. They are making the calculation that some people are not coming back.”

Charlie Christianson

Charlie Christianson

Even if it’s in a smaller space, Hogan asserted that an office presence is still vital. “I don’t think we’ll go back to the way it was before, but many people still want to return to their offices, even if only for collaboration and camaraderie.”

Because Zoom and other virtual platforms make it easy to meet with people anywhere, companies have begun to look more closely at their business travel budgets, too. CEO clients have told Beaudry they will not eliminate business travel, but will look to reduce it to only what is necessary.

“One CEO who used to travel 40% of the year said he plans to move most of his meetings to virtual platforms,” he said. “He figures to be 10 times more efficient and save his energy from traveling all over the country.”

As much as Bean would like to see some of the fatigue and expense of travel go away, he also admits that important interactions happen in person that just don’t occur in a virtual setting. He gave an example of logging on to hear a keynote speaker versus attending the event in-person.

“Oftentimes, the person sitting at my table is more valuable to me than the keynote speaker,” he said. “That person might lead to a great networking opportunity where they need my services, or maybe they have a service I need.”

 

Safe at Home

While working at home can provide many benefits for employees and their companies, IT providers say it comes with a whole new array of challenges. Looking at a business with 30 employees, Beaudry gave an example of how quickly technology issues change when working remotely.

“If half the employees work from home,” he said, “the company has gone from managing one network to dealing with the struggles of 15 home networks.”

Common issues when working at home include internet signal strength and the different types and capacities of home modems. Topping all those concerns, however, is the increased vulnerability to a company network getting hacked.

All it takes is one employee to click an attachment in a suspicious e-mail, and the whole network can be damaged by a cyberattack. When working from home, Beaudry said, employees are less likely to ask the simple questions when they confront something that looks suspect.

“You don’t have someone turning to their co-worker, saying, ‘hey, did you get this e-mail? It looks weird,’” he said, adding that he encourages his clients to call whenever they see anything suspicious. “If you take 30 seconds to call and ask, it can save you a week of losing your computer.”

Christianson said cybersecurity is a never-ending battle. “Hackers are always looking for ways into your network. They only have to be right once; we have to be right all the time.”

That’s where IT service providers come in. While today’s technology tools are better than ever, Bean said IT pros can set up a company’s system to make it work best for its needs and stay current on all the security threats.

Beaudry compares his work to that of a plumber. “People need computers for business just like they need water in their home and business,” he said.

And, just like plumbing, if security on a computer network isn’t handled properly, you can have a real mess on your hands.

Opinion

Editorial

Nearly five months into the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the biggest issues — and questions — to emerge involves remote work and its future.

Indeed, while many people have returned to the office over the past several weeks, large numbers of employees continue to work from home. And the longer they do that — with generally positive results when it comes to productivity and overall satisfaction among managers and workers alike — the more people ask the $64,000 question: is this the future of work?

The answer right now is, by and large, ‘we don’t know — but we’re certainly looking at it.’ And the reasons for this are obvious. Having large numbers of people working at home could save companies considerable amounts of money on real estate, office design and accommodations, and other expenses. And from some of the early reports, they can do this while making employees happier — most of them enjoy working from home and not commuting — and perhaps more productive, partly because, again, they’re happier and they’re not commuting.

But this goes well beyond real estate, and that’s why this issue deserves the attention it is now getting. Remote work has the potential — the potential, mind you — to perhaps level the playing field when it comes to urban and rural areas, and also perhaps change the landscape when it comes to downtowns dominated by office buildings — and the businesses that serve the workers in those buildings.

That’s perhaps. We’re getting a little ahead of ourselves, but not really. These are the kinds of questions — and scenarios — that are already being talked about.

As that talk goes on, so does the discussion about remote work itself. As noted earlier, most of the early returns are positive. Companies do talk about how they miss the in-person interactions and a loss of the some of the collaborative spirit that comes with having everyone working in the same space.

But generally, they also talk about how productivity has not been impacted by people working at home, and how much employees appreciate these new arrangements. Some companies, like Google, have already told employees (most of them, anyway) they can and will work at home until roughly this time next year.

Whether these arrangements are being made, tolerated, and even applauded purely because of the pandemic remains to be seen. Maybe, when there’s a vaccine, everyone will return to the office and things will be as they were in February 2020.

But that now seems unlikely. COVID has, in many ways, shown the world that working from home is a viable option, one that could bring benefits for employers and employees alike. And this opens up a number of possibilities.

Indeed, individuals now living in Boston won’t have to live in that area to work for companies located there. They can live in Western Mass., where the living is cheaper, the air is cleaner, and the roads are less clogged (for now). Speaking of roads, do we have to worry about them being clogged again?

Meanwhile, people living in Western Mass. won’t have to work for companies located in Western Mass. Some of them don’t anyway, but now more can enjoy that option.

And what about high-speed rail? Will we still need it if far fewer people will need to travel across the state to work? Seems like the playing field may be leveled without it.

While in some respects these seem like questions for another day, they are appropriate to ask right now. And if the pandemic lingers and people continue to work from home successfully and productively into next year, these questions will be asked more and more — and the answer might well become obvious, if it isn’t already.

There have been many stories to emerge from this pandemic, but remote working may be the biggest of them all. There are many questions still to be answered and research to be done, but this may just be the future of work — or a very big part of it. And the impact could be enormous.