“What was great was, as 26-year-olds, we already had 15 years of collaboration under our belt. I think that is definitely something that we owe a lot of our success to.”—Louis Fox
Louis Fox + Jonah Sachs: Co-Founders, Free Range Studios / Oakland, CA
“what was great was, as 26-year-olds, we already had 15 years of collaboration under our belt. i think that is definitely something that we owe a lot of our success to.”—louis fox
Interview with Louis Fox:
How did you and Jonah Sachs start working together?
We were friends as kids at a private school called the Woodstock Children’s Center in Woodstock, NY. This was in the ’80s, so most of our teachers had been at the original ’69 Woodstock Festival as teenagers. Let’s just say our teachers were interested in counterculture, and that infused our learning in a lot of areas. Jonah and I had a pretty progressive childhood, and that definitely influenced us later on.
At the time, the Cold War and nuclear annihilation were on everybody’s minds. So as kids, that was the main political issue that captured our imagination. It was so serious that Jonah and I were even thinking about it in third grade. It was terrifying. I remember going to a protest in DC against a missile program which I’m sure nobody even remembers now. The US wanted to make a missile carrier system, like a literal underground railroad. Missiles that could be transported below ground all over the country, then pop up and fire, from any number of spots in the country. The thought was that the enemy wouldn’t be able to target them. I remember our class took a field trip down to DC one day, and participated in the protest.
Jonah and I learned a lot about current events in third, fourth, and fifth grade. We had an activist teacher. We looked at some pretty heavy stuff about the Contras in Nicaragua. People would get the news from television, but we learned that was super subdued. Our teacher was honest about what the real stories were, despite us being so young. She was from California, and she told us that’s where the real activists were. She said Woodstock people were just nuts. Jonah and I got an inside look at activism and got involved.
I remember watching the movie WarGames with Jonah. It was about the potential for nuclear disaster and we were really inspired by that. We started coming up with a bunch of PSA ideas. That movie really set the tone for the type of work that we do now. It showed a lot of young people getting involved in international security on their computers. The hero was a kid who got them to disarm a major aspect of the military.
Original Free Range Films Logo
courtesy of free range studios
Politics, environmentalism, and human rights have always been in our sphere of conversation. As kids, we figured out what was right and what was wrong together. Some of the stuff we saw was very disturbing, so we gravitated towards one another. I’ve always felt very close to Jonah, even throughout adulthood. Our political beliefs are basically identical, and we still try to make sense of things together via our work.
How did that friendship become a politically-charged business?
Jonah went to Wesleyan University and I went to SUNY Purchase. Jonah majored in American Studies and also became Editor of the school newspaper. He picked up some actual print design skills. I went to film school. After school, Jonah moved to DC and started freelancing. He picked up some more design skills while doing some pretty low-level print work around DC. When I left film school, I became a Production Assistant for low-budget, independent films in New York City. I worked on a bunch of commercials. No surprise, I didn’t like doing this very much and had no interest in climbing the production ladder.
Jonah and I had a conversation. We had the idea to do a “free range” company. We had all of these creative projects and PSA videos that we had worked on as kids in the back of our minds. In retrospect, our very first Free Range-inspired work actually happened as kids. We were just doing it for fun. We saw an international campaign for Tibet. It was a really amazing design and I remember thinking that it would be cool to do design work, or even advertising, but for things that we actually believed in, instead of doing work for all of these corporations that were a big part of the problem. That’s when Free Range started as a print design studio.
In 1999, I moved to DC and lived on Jonah’s couch for several months. Jonah had a bunch of friends from Wesleyan and they all had entry-level jobs, too. We built our business by finding lots of freelance and spec work. This was the era when the dot com things started going crazy. I also think people just figured that Young People + Computers = Huge Success. So we rode that wave. People were really psyched about what we were doing and trusted us. Designers were attracted to working with us because they wanted to get involved politically or just make a difference.
Can you describe your collaborative process and working environment?
At first, our “office” was stationed in one tiny room in a basement apartment in DC. We figured, why take on anything extra? Jonah and I wanted to keep our overhead down and see if things would evolve organically. We built Free Range slowly over time. For a while, it was just two people in this one small room. We could just turn around in our chairs to talk to one another. We would also go out to lunch to discuss ideas. What was great was, as 26-year-olds, we already had 15 years of collaboration under our belt. I think that is definitely something that we owe a lot of our success to. We just had a lot of experience together and were comfortable working with one another. Jonah and I knew how to talk about pretty much everything. We were bound by similar politics, world views, and upbringing. Knowing someone that well is extremely helpful for collaboration.
We also have the ability to generate ideas together. At the same time, we can be critical. A big part of collaboration is knowing people—knowing when to push back and defend ideas you feel strongly about, but also knowing how to yield. People with big egos are the enemy of a collaborative effort. A certain amount of ego is necessary in supporting ideas, but for collaborators to do well, they have to strike a balance. Collaboration is not about trying to get your ideas accepted because you just want to see them win. It’s not about who gets credit or social capital. Collaborators have to both agree that ideas are the most important thing. When Jonah and I both feel strongly about an idea, sometimes we use the client as a tiebreaker. Trust comes with time and working on really important projects. Jonah and I have worked out a healthy creative competition. Collaborative trust is a hard point to get to. For example, it’s really hard for me to work with somebody who is incredibly established. To have a collaborator with some crazy pedigree, and not have egos get in the way of the relationship, is difficult.
courtesy of free range studios
Can you give an example of a collaborative project at Free Range?
In 2003, Jonah and I really wanted boost our studio’s reputation. We knew we wanted to make a Flash movie because, at the time, people were switching from video to animation. We also knew we wanted to do something for a client with socially aware content. We knew we wanted to do our best job ever. So we got a grant and we put out the word that Free Range was going to give away one of their Flash movies. We put up a request for proposals where people could apply and we got all of these potential clients. A few of them centered on the factory farming issue. Everyone agreed that it was utterly wrong on so many levels, from animal welfare to work safety to corporate consolidation. Then we had the idea to combine three clients into one project, and so that’s what we did. We divided the grant. We told all three clients that they would have to collaborate together. This actually worked to our benefit because it made a bigger launch list. We worked with the Global Resource Action Center for the Environment (GRACE), Farm Sanctuary, and People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). It was interesting because the politics between them were different flavors. PETA was like a vegan—their politics were no animals for any reason whatsoever. They were definitely against factory farms, but they also did not support meat of any kind. However, Jonah and I saw the overlap and were able to work with the politics amongst these different groups. Jonah and I wanted to design something that could be used by all of them. We ended up making The Meatrix, and it was a success. I think that forcing these groups to collaborate enabled the animation to become even more viral. To solve for variances in opinion, we gave it different endings. To a certain degree, it was like, “Look, we’re giving this to you for free.” So they were able to come together on certain issues.
How has hiring more people affected your collaborative dynamic?
Many people would say 25 people is still a small, boutique design studio, but because we originated with two people, I think it’s big. Having more people means that there is less busy work for everyone. It also means more overhead. Not that we ever lowered our standards to the point of taking anything that violated our politics, but we sometimes have to take less exciting jobs.
Having more people means that more can happen. With the increased capacity, we’ve been able to accept work that we didn’t necessarily know how to do before, and we can take work that was previously too big for the two of us. Now we can work on larger, more impactful projects. There’s a huge difference from being two guys in a basement, to being a company of 25 people with many different skills, and skills that go way beyond the things that we know. Either we have to figure out ways to involve the entire crew, or give everyone a bunch of smaller projects, which may be a downside of a bigger collaborative group. Spreading thin is not as ideal.
Having more people lessened the stress of running a business. Personally, I am able to do fewer, more impactful projects. I enjoy the freedom of hand-selecting clients I work for, and really diving into the detail. I like having passion projects to geek out on. A bigger studio means less of a strain on my enthusiasm to do work. I like to know everything that’s going on instead of having a ton of work and not actually knowing over half of the projects. It is a luxury to be in a situation where you can collaborate with your partner and not have to really worry about running the business. But that’s where Jonah and I diverged slightly. Jonah likes managing teams, and he wanted to see where Free Range would go as it grew. So he’s actually more involved in the business now than me. I’m not that interested in seeing a studio grow into a bigger company. We both followed our own bliss doing the work that we’re most drawn to. The challenge is to keep everybody coordinated. That is more Jonah’s skill set.
Have you ever had to choose between your friendship or the business?
Because we have such a long history, and because we are such good friends, we made a pact that if we ever came to a point in our business agreement where it starts negatively impacting our friendship, we would let the business go. We never wrote it down but we’ve talked about it. There were several points along the way where we said, “Maybe we should try something else. Is this really heading where we want it to?” It took two whole years for it to even gain any kind of momentum. As business partners, we would totally sacrifice that relationship, if it came to it. Our friendship comes first, and we have been able to live by that. I definitely think it helps knowing that, which is why I did pull back a little bit from the company. I’m still involved on certain collaborative projects with Jonah, but as a partner, I kind of stepped out to a degree.
How do you spend downtime together?
We have dinner together with our families. But for a long time there wasn’t a whole lot of chill time, because we spent so much time working together, so when we got together to hang out, we would end up talking about work. Work was just so close to downtime anyway. Our work was, and still is, fun. That’s just how Jonah and I have always connected. We mull over ideas and crack jokes. Humor is built into our jobs. Sometimes there is a humorous aspect about the content. Our work is our social life. We collaborate well because the work is really fun and it’s something that we both really care about. So, what else is there to do?