Back in the days of traditional animation, entire feature films had to be storyboarded, shot by shot, on paper, by hand, by dozens of artists working directly for the studios. The process was costly, time-consuming, and overall a huge pain. Even as CGI became bigger, though, the storyboarding process changed very little—until Toronto-based House of Cool Inc. began upending the industry a little more than a decade ago. The storytelling company’s early move toward digital approaches and decentralized creativity have helped it land work with the likes of Disney, Universal, and 20th Century Fox, which all have since noticed the company’s positive effect on their bottom line—though initially they needed a little convincing.
House of Cool began as the brainchild of cofounders Wesley Lui and Ricardo Curtis. Before they joined forces, though, Lui was working in finance at a bank, fine-tuning his business and corporate acumen, and his friend Curtis was in Los Angeles, building a reputation for creative storytelling by working at major studios such as Warner Bros., Dreamworks, and Pixar. On his off time, Lui would visit Curtis to ride the creative tailwinds of Hollywood’s artistic culture.
“The landscape [in LA], working directly with employees on their creative process, was an inspiration [for me],” Lui says. “It was an even mix of work, life, and play. I became fixated by the fact that I could own my own company someday, where I could watch employees grow and support them in whatever way possible.”
with Wesley Lui
What does innovation mean to your company?
Innovation is a continual change. It’s about never feeling comfortable with the way things are sitting and always trying to bend what traditional processes have been.
Where do you hope this innovation will lead you in five years?
We hope to not only continue to help our clients tell a better story; we also hope to help your everyday author, writer, or storyteller engage an audience through our story platform.
How do you cultivate innovation within your workforce?
We encourage our artists and staff to be, think, suggest, and share anything and everything innovative. Even small ideas can become a stepping-stone to larger, exciting, creative changes. We ourselves are constantly moving forward with eagerness and enthusiasm, setting the bar for the studio. Working together, we push each other to be our most creative.
How do you innovate on a day-to-day basis?
The story and production of a film can take many years. We don’t necessarily look to innovate each and every day but rather continually explore the creative-storytelling process and marry it with technologies that best fit with the desired outcome.
How can a company encourage innovation without breaking the bank?
As entrepreneurs, you’re risk takers by nature. From our perspective, if we’re not trying to find new ways to grow our business and reach more people, we’re not really encouraging anything. You don’t have to break the bank, but there is nothing wrong with laying it out on the line when the moment calls for it.
Lui began working on a business plan that could capitalize on the top creative talents in Canada while incorporating digital technologies to build an effective storytelling culture, and Curtis tapped into his contacts and established an artistic vision for what would become House of Cool.
Together they sought out financing and pitched their idea, which decentralizes the preproduction process and makes it linear while also moving it out of the studio—something that had yet to be seen in the filmmaking industry.
Investment funding was declining, so the two decided to use their own savings to start the company, believing their approach was different enough to sell itself. Unfortunately, others didn’t immediately see the benefits. “It was heart-wrenching those first six months,” Lui says. “We didn’t have any projects. … We wanted a digital process when the technology wasn’t really there yet. We were one of the first studios storyboarding on digital tablets rather than paper and pen.”
This notion was too new for the bigger studios, which had traditionally kept such processes in-house to protect scripts and directors’ visions for stories. Security for clients’ intellectual property was an unresolved hurdle, Lui says.
So he and Curtis “strapped on their boots” and flew around the United States, reestablishing contact with Curtis’s former creative and business connections to gain their trust. It took about seven years to get clients onboard, but once House of Cool was able to prove that decentralizing creativity was cost-effective, it caught its first big wave of customers.
Lui and Curtis continued to fly back and forth from Canada to the United States, assuring clients of the security of their property and maintaining the intimacy of filmmaking and storyboarding. “Through our face-to-face approach, we wanted to make the director feel absolutely comfortable, even though they would be working with artists 2,000 miles away,” Lui says.
House of Cool now mainly works on preproduction for feature films, and its top clients include Fox, Laika, Pixar, and Warner Bros., which have had the company work on such projects as Despicable Me (2010), Rio (2011), Ice Age: Continental Drift (2012), Epic (2013), and Rio 2 (2014).
Animation is intensive work, and feature films can include some 1,500 people on the back end, but House of Cool employs an average of just 35 employees, and its processes with small and large studios alike is the same, including holding multiple video conferences and pitches with clients to keep their experiences as personal as possible
To continue raising the bar, House of Cool is developing a new story platform that allows writers, authors, and, ultimately, brands more ability to interact with audiences and tell a better story.
“With the advent of mobile apps and new technologies like immersive screens,” Lui says, “we feel that we will be able to add that extra level of engagement where the audience actually feels like they are communicating with their favourite brands and characters.”