UPPERFIRST is a Swedish video production and motion graphics studio. Co-Founder and Executive Producer, Erik Arheden talks to us about lifting the quality of film, why the script is always their blueprint and his hallelujah moment with Hightail.
We wanted to lift the quality of film in Sweden
UPPERFIRST was started about seven years ago. I had met two guys working at a production company in Sweden and they knew two others working at a gaming company and someone at a visual effects studio in Copenhagen. Most of us had worked internationally and noticed that we weren’t seeing any of the latest motion design trends in Swedish-produced videos. We thought we could change that together.
Our name merges our creative and technical sides
We wanted to be geographically unbound because we had a romantic idea that we could work from anywhere in the world. But we also wanted it to feel like we belonged to New York because so much of our inspiration came from there. Someone suggested “Upper Field First”, which is a technical term from television and video production. We dropped “field” to make UPPERFIRST, which we thought sounded like a place in New York. Discovering that Upper First Avenue didn’t actually exist was even better because it didn’t bind us to a specific place.
A couple of years in we got noticed internationally
We built up momentum in Sweden with work for Sony Mobile and Georg Jensen and then got picked up by Blacklist in New York, Friend in London and other international agencies. For a lot of this work, we act as directors, not producers. When we worked on a Kit-Kat commercial for the British market, Friend produced it and we came in to direct it and do post-production. We’ve worked with brands like H&M, CBS Sports, Rdio and MTV and in countries like China, Mexico, Hungary and France.
You lose creativity once you go beyond 10 people
UPPERFIRST is a small company. Right now we just have four of the founders and three employees. We always said that we don’t want to grow because we want to protect our creative process. When the productions get really big or we have a lot on, we staff up with freelance teams, including contractors in Brazil, Macedonia and other places.
No story should be told from a technical perspective
I studied at UCLA and did internships at Sony, Columbia and Diane Keaton’s production company. As an intern in Hollywood you get to read a lot of scripts and that time influenced how we work at UPPERFIRST. We’re interested in the story and what we’re communicating rather than the technical approach we’ll use. The script is the blueprint and if it’s not on the page, it can’t be on the screen.
Each of the founders brings a different approach
One of our strong points is that we’re not confined to using any specific technique. We can look at the story we want to tell and the client’s budget and decide whether it’s best served by motion design, 3D or live action. It gives us credibility when we don’t lean towards one technique all the time and means our work covers a wide variety of styles.
We have open sky meetings to work out concepts
Our entire creative team gets together to develop ideas and spin them around a few times. We like walk’n’talks as well. We used to present lots of concepts to clients and let them pick one. But we’ve since learned that it’s better to focus on creating one well developed treatment, especially if you’re working with a client that has a clear brief. If we’re dealing with clients who are newer to filmmaking, we’ll give them two or three rough concepts and see which one they’re most comfortable with.
Getting feedback used to involve a lot of administration
We’d send a PDF presentation or video and go over it on a conference call. We spent a lot of time making sure we were discussing the same thing, telling the client to “scroll to this second” and waiting for them to find the right clip. We were talking about what we were supposed to talking about rather than talking about the creative.
Spaces was a hallelujah moment for us
I’d used Hightail for file transfer and when I saw Spaces, I thought I’d check it out. It’s so easy to use and share with the client, as it uploads and convert the file so quickly. The major thing is the ability to leave a comment by marking the exact frame of a video, which allows our clients to be very specific with their feedback. I also like that you can customize the Space with your own images and that I can add an access code to a Space when I’m working on projects where I’ve signed an NDA.
What used to take four days is now done in just one
We have one client who is really picky and it was a big effort to deal with all of his comments. You had to go back through your emails to find everything he said and it was hard to keep track of every little detail. Now he leaves all his comments in one Space, which cuts days off our turnaround times.
We’re going to use Hightail for a long time
Hightail’s Spaces feature brings so many benefits that we quickly started using it on almost every project we had. It fits into our process really neatly and is super easy to interact with. We had previously looked at a similar media collaboration service, but it was a heavy process and expensive. Hightail has made everything so much easier. Our creative director says it’s his favorite app of all time. He’s been waiting for something like this to come along.