Our next guest, needs no introduction.
It’s truly an honor to be able to speak with Matthew Bannister, founding partner of DBOX, a constant inspiration for quality and innovation within the Architectural Visualization Industry.
I really enjoyed preparing this interview, as i discovered how a company of the caliber of DBOX evolves and reinvents itself, hand in hand with the industry.
I hope you enjoy it too.
1. DBOX was founded in 1996, where the actual concept of Arch Viz was hardly defined. Can you tell us a bit more of how it all started? And also, we’re dying to know, what is “beer marketing”?
DBOX was co-founded by myself, Charles D’Autremont, James Gibbs in 1996.
The name ‘DBOX’ derived from a class we had taught at the School of Architecture, Art & Planning at Cornell University. The class was actually called ‘dialog box’ and when we first started the business we were www.dialogboxnyc.com. We had to include the ‘nyc’ because the URL http://www.dialogbox.com was already taken!. Now that I have said this, someone will no doubt start a rendering company called dialogboxnyc. Don’t do it!, it’s an absolutely terrible name and everyone will laugh at you and hang up the phone.
The three of us rapidly went from being students to teachers, to not having a plan of what to do next. We instinctively knew that we didn’t want to work in a traditional architecture office yet at the same time we found ourselves thrilled and fascinated by the possibilities of 3D architecture. It was crystal clear that we didn’t have a business plan and DBOX has, from day one, always evolved organically. At the time, we were unaware of any other Arch Viz companies in the US, so while there was perhaps little competition, it was untested waters as to whether there would be a market. Once we got going, we learned that there were a few other companies attempting to do the same thing. Most of them in Europe. We also quickly learned that most architectural offices were being run by a generation who had a certain animosity to young upstarts (like us) using computers to make anything they were unfamiliar with. Our competition therefore was traditional water colourists, gouache/acrylic painters and various other hand techniques.
Breaking down that mindset was a considerable challenge. In some cases, we even made images that looked like watercolours to compete with the status quo.
Once we did have a few clients, many of the early jobs were done by manually measuring printouts with a ruler and then building the computer models from those measurements. The proprietary drawing tools that architects were using had next to no compatibility with the early versions of the 3D softwares we were using. Computers crashing and losing hours of work was a daily occurrence. We did a huge competition with one of the largest global architecture offices, where we were delivered a set of hand drawings (with written dimensions) to work from. This wasn’t for a simple structure either… it was an international airport!, absolute complete and utter torture. That particular job very nearly put us out of business before we were really a business.
Anyhow, the early days involved a lot of cold calling. This meant phoning one of large NYC architectural firms and trying to charm one’s way past the reception desk to get connected to a project lead. Just saying you were calling from a company called ‘dialog box’ usually resulted in immediate hang ups. If I didn’t have an English accent, I don’t think we would have made it past the first year.
The above sets the framework for your question about the ‘beer marketing’. Before I get into that, I need to do a temporary rewind. In 1990 I had spent the summer in California at my sister’s apartment. She worked in marketing for a giant pharma company and one of her jobs was educating the doctors at the hospitals on the latest pharmaceuticals. The doctors were impossible to get to because they were overbooked with appointments and had zero extra time available to meet with any reps. She identified this early on and developed a clever plan. Every morning we would get up early and make the most incredible Italian style sandwiches (hoagies). San Francisco sourdough baguettes filled with an assortment of meats, cheese, peppers you name it. My brother was also visiting that summer and we had a whole ‘sandwich factory’ routine down. Once the sandwiches were all made, my sister would head to the hospital around lunchtime and set up in a strategic hallway with a basket of these delicious sandwiches (and her presentation on the latest pharmaceuticals). Because the doctors had no time… they also had no time to get their own lunch, so she was able to capture their attention. They ate the sandwiches, watched her presentation and BINGO!, it converted into business.
Fast forward to the beginnings of DBOX when we were absolutely famished for clients. At the time, we had put a lot of the ‘business expenses’ (bagels and cigarettes) and even some of our ‘salaries’ on credit cards at incredibly high interest rates. We needed a plan fast. The cold calls were so difficult, after a few weeks you just ran out of offices to call… everyone had hung up on you or politely said ‘not interested’ at least twice. The potential clients had to ‘see it to believe it’, so converting a cold call into an actual meeting was a Sisyphean task. Taking my sisters marketing model I thought to myself…..”I am not making effing sandwiches for architects… but… perhaps I could just show up, uninvited, with beer? “. This was all before 9/11 when security in the corporate towers of Manhattan was next to nonexistent. One could easily slip in and get yourself in the elevator and up to the floor of a large corporate office like SOM (which was on 42nd Street back then).
With this plan in mind, we got one of those little push carts. I could stack a couple of cases of beer onto it…(which I would buy at the nearest deli)… perched on top of that was a small white 10” SONY television to which I could plug our Hi8 camera into and play our “reel”. As you can visualize, this just looks like a weird delivery of some sort……and the way I dressed back then further disguised my true agenda. The key was to arrive at their office at around 6:00pm on a Friday…and once up on the architects’ floor find a wall with an electrical outlet somewhere out of sight of the receptionist but also en route from the Architects office to their elevator/lift. Once set up… it was time to roll a long loop of the reel and crack a beer and wait for someone to walk past. Architects are mostly functioning alcoholics (I, of all people, say this with total affection and no disrespect) so the ‘bait and the fish’ connected beautifully. As soon as someone walked by, I would offer them a beer and start talking about what we were doing with 3D. Soon we had quite a crowd and it wasn’t long before we were officially invited to do a proper meeting to present our work. From there, we met a few project leads, which turned into a series of real projects. At the time Keith Bomely worked at SOM, he likes a beer or two…and, as you probably know, he is now a Senior Partner at DBOX and a mountain sized creative force behind our success. So in that respect, the beer marketing plan secured our future. The reel we showed back then can be seen here.
2. Can you tell us what are the key elements that have helped DBOX evolve and turn into a household name? How do you build such a strong brand?, and can you tell us if there have been any “happy accidents” that happened along the way?
Well, I really don’t think we are a ‘household name’. Not at all. I actually feel that many people working in the industry today are unaware of us, especially the younger crowd just entering the industry. I also get the sense that many that do know of us think we are perhaps a much larger firm than we are. The lack of knowledge is however entirely our fault, as we tend not attend many of conferences or enter competitions. We were also a bit late to social media.
We are slowly changing this. I really enjoyed speaking in Barcelona in 2017 at Aldo and Ciro’s 3DSymposium. There was a hell of a lot of positive energy at the event and so many great presentations. This year Keith and I attended D2 in Vienna. Three DBOXers from our London studio also attended. The conference was excellent. It was great to witness the unveiling of Beauty and the Bit’s ‘Landmark’ along with so many inspiring talks. I was proud to see (ex-DBOXer) Mike’s talk, and refreshed to listen to Tudor’s beautifully modest delivery of Panoptikon’s fine work. I find myself still occasionally chuckling thinking of Eric’s talk. It was absolutely superb and hilarious. The D2 guys, Fabio, Jason and Christian put on a hell of a show. We won the CGArchitect award for commissioned film too which made the event particularly rewarding for us, especially considering how fantastic all the other submissions were. I made a few new friends too, people I would love to see again. Our social media presence is starting to take shape. Our Instagram @dboxglobal is very active. I manage that myself, my brother manages @dboxphotography out of our London studio. So perhaps in time more people will know of us.
I believe our brand value (for our clients) is based around the consistency of a certain standard. We are only as good as our worst visual. The key is being able to manage and create a suite of 20-60 renderings for a single project and have them all sit cohesively as a body of work. To do this on the high stakes stage with many ‘clients’ around the table (developers, investors, sales & marketing, interior architects, architects, PR consultants, random extra consultants, random extra extra consultants, relatives, friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, various pets etc.) is NO EASY TASK!. There are many opinions and navigating this mine field for the duration of the project, (sometimes as long as a year) takes experience. For it to all have a consistent standard is a proper challenge. Yes, some images may not be as dynamic as others, but that should be because of the subject matter not how we are portraying it. In other words a powder room image is unlikely to be as powerful as a penthouse living room image, yet their visual sensibility, attention to detail, composition all need to be of equal standard.
The challenge of consistency is even greater when the studio philosophy is not to work ‘the pipeline’. We feel artists are always more fulfilled when they see their own work through, from modeling, concept sketch to final post. Of course, senior artists and Partners at DBOX advise and help and teach, but that is very different than the pipeline mass production approach, where work is handed off to a line of individuals each contributing an element/discipline. We have three studios (London, Miami and New York). None of which have more than fifteen CG artists. Our goal is always that our artists can see a project from concept to final delivery. We don’t have ‘junior modelers’ to ‘post’ people. Never have.
I think another key component to our longevity/success is that we actually have an easy-to-remember name. Returning to the story I didn’t finish in the previous question. A happy accident was changing our name from Dialog Box to DBOX. Imagine if we had never changed it?, how could we have a studio in London called “Dialog Box”?. It’s spelt ‘dialogue’ there!. If you are starting out spend a lot of time thinking about a name that is simple and timeless. Avoid names that are just about 3D. What happens if you want to expand your services into other fields?
“A dialog box is a box that pops up to enable communication between the computer and you, the user. Dialog boxes may ask you questions or give you information. Once the input has been made, the dialog box will generally disappear.” (duh)
3. You have said that a big turning point for DBOX has been acquiring the ownership of the copyright of the images it produces. How did you get your clients on board with this idea? And would you recommend this practice for general use in the industry?
It wasn’t really a turning point. We always instinctively knew that retaining the copyright of our work was what we needed to do. It was very clear that we couldn’t expect to receive credit in published articles if we didn’t ‘own’ the work. We also knew that if we didn’t own the work we would have to ask permission from our clients to use the work. I assume there are many studios out there that could be sent cease-and-desists to pull down their entire company website due to them not retaining the copyright of the work they originally created. The other key point is that if someone uses your work illegally or publishes it without credit, you have no right to stop them if you parted with the copyright when you signed the client’s contract. We are actually chasing up some big names for credit at this very minute as I write. We also have instances where a random studio in another part of the world will use our work and pretend they have created it. When that happens we need to be able to respond. One cannot do that if you have signed away the work to the client.
The copyright also goes hand in hand with ‘usage’ which describes how your work plays a role in the business chain. Being aware of that is important, not just for business but also artistically.
When we are hired to make a marketing rendering for a developer, the ‘usage’ relates to marketing/selling/leasing that property. We also extend the usage to the developer and their investors. Sometimes this will include a hotel brand. This allows them to use the images on their own websites to market their company. We also extend the usage to anyone/company on the project whose job is directly to market/sell/lease the property. This is usually the brokers/agents and the PR agency on the project. The images shouldn’t however extend to every third party that is associated with the project to market their own business. Remember, the usage was to market the property. For instance, if the engineering or construction firm wants to use the visuals for their own website then they need to license them. This can provide an additional source of revenue. Social media usage is fine for extended third parties but only if they credit and tag us appropriately in the first comment. To get a client onboard you need to explain to them that the usage you are providing them is all that they need to conduct the business they wish to conduct. As long as they understand that it doesn’t hinder their ability to sell or lease property they generally have no issue and see our perspective.
The most important component to holding the copyright is avoiding the ‘work for hire’ perception. To take a stance on the copyright immediately positions your company as a company that creates something of value. You aren’t making something to just give away. It positions your company as one that has brand value… a brand image… a serious concern. If you are working in a ‘work for hire’ capacity for the branding agency on the project then they are taking the position of value and power. Another consideration is that as a company you will need to do a lot less marketing if you are receiving credit wherever your work is published. This adds up over time.
You don’t really know if you have a real business until your first encounter with a significant drop in the market.
If the phone still rings when that happens, then you have a business.
There are rare instances when retaining the copyright is a deal breaker for a client. In these instances if we still wish to do the project then the client will need to pay an additional fee to buy/own the copyright. In these cases, you can agree to certain crediting but once it is out the door you can’t really chase it down and demand credit.
Some agencies, at some point in their business career, might want to publish a book of ‘their’ work. If they don’t have the copyright, then they will need to contact all of their past clients to get permission to use ‘their’ work. Their clients might choose to deny their request or charge them to use it!. The important thing is to have a clear and signed contract and have copyright and credit clearly stipulated. If you choose contractually to not retain the copyright, then you can’t be disappointed when someone else takes it.
This question has turned into a lot of business so for additional reading please visit the interview I gave at CG Architect. I talk extensively about some of the same issues there.
And, yes, I most definitely do recommend retaining copyright. It will strengthen your business and the industry as a whole.
4. DBOX has studios in New York, London and Miami, and you’re able to maintain the same level of quality in all your work. Can you tell us how do you manage the team? And also if it has to do with a specific company culture?
Good question. New York is our largest studio (35 total) and all of the other studios have been built around individuals who started their career in the NY studio. I think it would be very hard to build a new studio around someone who didn’t start her or his career in another DBOX location. One of the things we take pride in at DBOX is that we do our very best to make sure peoples’ careers evolve. For example, there was an employee in NY that we felt was ready for a big challenge. He had reached a stage where he was ready to lead projects, wanted more, but in the larger studio he was going to have a hard time getting around some of those more senior artists who had been with the company longer. We encouraged him to move to Miami and he is now a Partner leading his own team of CG artists on the beach. That team, under his guidance, is producing some beautiful work. If someone really wants it at DBOX we will do our best to make it happen. I have seen someone start as a CG artist and end up being a brand strategist. Conversely we also have a culture that doesn’t win many awards on the babysitting front. People that are very needy and not team oriented don’t tend to last. Some people need it all mapped out for them in advance and they wait for opportunity to be prescribed, instead of seeing a spot for themselves and grabbing it by showing and asking to do more.
Another advantage to having a number of studios is size of the CG team(s). We have noticed that quality and consistency tends to waive once you have a large CG department. Having a number of smaller ones tends to keep quality high. We also work hard to keep things consistent across all studios and there is a great sense of healthy competition between the studios. All the work is shared amongst ourselves on Slack. It’s exciting to see another studio do something that raises the game. We also have recently developed better ways to collaborate across the ocean. London has been doing some beautiful work on a NYC marketing account that Keith is heading. It will turn a few heads when it launches.
Los Angeles will be our next studio. We already have troops on the ground managing projects on the west coast. Soon enough we will be hiring.
5. Can you mention memorable projects or professional experiences that have impacted DBOX and maybe touched you on a personal level?
The one that comes to mind is obviously our work on what was formerly known as ground zero in NYC.
The devastation to NYC and the massive loss of life (9/11) really set a very somber tone to the city and we all felt utterly helpless at the time. It’s hard to put it into words. Nothing adequately describes what it was like to be a New Yorker during that time. Being invited to work on the master plan competition (with the New York team) and then being asked to represent two of the memorial finalists gave us a sense of purpose. It made us all feel like we were doing something to heal the scar. It enabled us to finally contribute and show the world the possibilities for how ‘we’, as a city and nation, would rebuild and respect the loss. Once the ‘competitions’ were over we continued to do a lot of work with Michael Arad on the memorial, and we were also chosen to create the visuals of the ‘Freedom Tower’ (now One World Trade Center) for the first global press release. Our renderings were the ones that graced the covers of every news paper across the globe.
To represent this ‘rebuilding’, this powerful cultural and positive drive to strive forwards and rise upwards felt like the the absolute antithesis to the terrorist destruction. It was very rewarding for us. It was also exciting to be working on a design which was so top secret. To be one of perhaps two dozen people in the world who knew what the plan actually was in advance of the public release.
Later we were hired to do a six part documentary called “Rising the rebuilding of Ground Zero”. The series was created in association with KPI, executive producer Steven Spielberg, Danny Forster and DreamWorks for the Discovery and Science channels. It embodied America’s response to the 9/11 attack. The project was incredibly challenging as we were tasked with not only a massive amount of diagrammatic story telling (construction process and building system diagrams) but also a ludicrous number of ‘realistic’ CG shots.
Budgets for documentaries are low and deadlines are drop dead, so balancing this work with a studio trying to keep head above water was another challenge. We were rewarded though with an Emmy in October 2012. We also created the identity and brand for the series which was a great turning point for the graphic design side of the studio. Winning the Emmy was not only a new high for us but also one for the entire Arch Viz industry. We hope other studios will follow and win one too.
Our work on this site was however far from over though. We went on to create all the marketing campaign visuals of the Calatrava transportation hub and an interactive presentation to lease all the retail spaces in the Hub. To round it all off we designed the official coffee table book sold in the observatory of One World Trade. It’s called “One World Trade – Biography of the building” written by Judith Dupré. The book features a ton of our renderings and photographs of the finished work. The whole book is also a great representation of our graphic design department which of course didn’t even exist when we started working on the site. So this project(s) has a very special place in my heart.
Our current studio is only a block away from the site. One can sit in one of our large windows and look at the Calatrava transportation hub and One World Trade.
We are currently working on another memorial project for Michael Arad at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Again, a response to a terrorist attack.
Last but by no means least, 432 Park Avenue was a very special project for me, personally. When creating the film we were only limited by our own imaginations and I was able to connect and draw from much of what I have admired in all my life. I hope one day we will release the film so the industry can see it.
6. DBOX has been one of the first Arch Viz studios that noticed the importance of communication, and has created a service creative agency around this view. Can you tell us how do you make this work with so many disciplines involved?
The idea of transforming into a full service agency was a twofold desire to control our visual work from sketch to print and to truly understand the bigger picture of why we were making the visual work in the first place. It’s very rewarding to start a project with nothing and then several years later you have a gallery you have designed that’s full of all your creative assets (renderings, films, interactives etc). It’s rewarding to see one’s advertisement in a magazine and know that not only did you create the visual, but you also created the identity and wrote the tagline. To be a team that creates a 360 degree sales experience is a very dynamic way to work. We position, strategize, name and brand.
This foundation informs all the ways we approach our visuals, to tell a compelling and cohesive story. It also allows us a greater voice at the client table. It means we are providing a full solution instead of a piece to a larger puzzle guided by another group that sits between us and the decision makers. However, this does come with some strain to say the least.
We have a lot of disciplines that all need to perform at the same level and the overall pressure and level of responsibility on a high profile project can be intense. Part of what makes it so exciting is that many of us operate across the entire project. One day we are directing a photo shoot the next we are designing a sales gallery.
We have developed teams to handle all the disciplines, but I do see a future where we collaborate more with other agencies for certain aspects of a project. I can see us collaborating with other Arch Viz houses on certain projects where we cannot handle all of the visuals. There also might be an instance when a certain style or sensibility that another studio has could work best for a project. As DBOX evolves our value lies in our experience and track record to guide and direct the big picture, the total project and not necessarily to create all the individual parts. In this case DBOX is a great environment for a CG Artist who wants to evolve their career, learn more about brand marketing and one day direct the whole campaing…..from branding, to film to exhibition and sales environments.
7. When hiring a DBOXer, what do you look for in an artist?, what do you think makes a good artist?
It’s largely down to personality. Of course we look for talent, but finding talent in someone who is team oriented, and is a potential ‘DBOXer’ is a much harder prospect. We have a low tolerance for arrogance at DBOX so that also plays into the equation. Additionally, it’s a lot more difficult these days to spot potential talent in a portfolio. We see so many PDFs full of interiors loaded up with Evermotion models. Because one can clearly see the work isn’t for clients, it’s hard to gauge whether the person has what it takes. It’s hard to tell if someone can even model. Producing a beautiful visual of say a penthouse living space when you have a deadline, for a full client team ( see previous answer) is a whole different ball game than creating a good looking one of an imaginary living room with just your parents adoration and no clock ticking away.
Another challenge is that most of the applications we receive are from abroad, which will require visas that can take a lot of time to secure. Post Brexit, we will have the same problem in the UK. In the past we could hire from all of Europe. Sadly it seems that the political climate in the US will only make it harder to hire talent from abroad. This could affect the amount of staff we have actually working in our physical studios. Instead we will need to work with groups of artists remotely, or open studios in locations that have a rich talent pool.
8. You have a musical work that can stand on its own. How do you find the balance between your multidimensional creative part, and running a company like DBOX?
I have always felt that it’s important to have a personal creative outlet. I encourage everyone in the industry to do something creative other than Arch Viz. Even if what you do for yourself is CG it should perhaps be very different than what you do professionally, Monday through Friday. Post college I never worked on CG at home. For me it was always music even at the beginning of DBOX, after work we would be off to the rehearsal studio to make some noise. This balance works for me. Perhaps for others, Arch Viz seven days a week is enough to keep them creatively satisfied.
I released an album a couple of years ago. Music is great medium to express a lot of emotions that would be hard to convey visually. The narrative can be both more complex and more abstract. The album received “top ten album of 2016” on one music blog. Not exactly an Emmy but a little recognition felt good. It’s nice when someone contacts me and says that my music just came on the speakers in their studio. Currently I am working on a much more ambitious and longer piece that I hope to release sometime in 2019. It is a handful of very long and connected songs that all add up to about 90 minutes of music.
Learning music production has also been an incredible challenge for me. While music is very spatial one cannot ‘look’ at it and instantly see how improve it. I know I can look at any visual and quickly see opportunity to improve or perhaps leave alone. Music is, in my opinion, far more complex. It doesn’t sit still. It’s something that really stretches my mind and forces me to grow creatively. It also has all the personal emotional drama of creating art. The process can be heartbreaking and exhilarating.
When you write a song, you can hear it in your head and imagine where it will go in the production process. That moment is like the initial sketch, but like a visual it takes on a life of its own as you start to develop and layer all the parts. Once it grows you start to hear natural opportunities and soon enough it starts to sound like you. What I mean by that is that we all have our own signature and music really exposes one’s individuality. That is if you are true to yourself. I think the piece I am currently working on is really me.
Just like a visual it sometimes starts to head in an undesirable direction and it can become incredible struggle to identify how to return it to your vision. It’s also exactly like a visual….in that it is never good enough.
How do I balance DBOX and my own music? I don’t have children, and my wife has her own creative projects, so early mornings and much of every weekend is devoted to recording and producing. I tend to get up very early and I discipline myself to do at least an hour every day before DBOX kicks off. Lastly, my music has no clients. Obviously! It’s okay if it doesn’t tick the boxes!. That’s important.
9. Where do you see DBOX in the following years?
The industry is changing a lot and there will be events and technology leaps that will shape our direction in Arch Viz. I don’t think we are far away from most architecture offices doing their own presentation images all in house. While this seems blatantly obvious, I doubt I would have said the same thing five years ago. The gap between rendering and designing will shorten and become the same thing. Another generation of architecture students, entering the architecture workforce, will always be more 3D-savvy than the previous and it will have an exponential knock on effect in architectural offices. Producing photorealistic imagery is becoming increasingly, for lack of a better word… ‘available’ in the design process. I doubt however that architects will want to get so involved in the details of marketing images. What an architect typically wants in an image very rarely aligns with what a marketing image needs to accomplish. Additionally I feel there will be an increasing demand for more marketing materials, films, VR etc. The market expects more information, quality information. We have experienced this in the last decade. It is not uncommon now for a project to require 50+ visuals. We are working on one that will require double that number. With this I feel that there will be a reshuffling of what a stand alone Arch Viz company works on. More marketing, less presentation.
As a company we are expanding slowly and the West Coast and Hong Kong are our next moves. We need to be in the world’s international market, operating where our target market invests in real estate. Knowledge of one market (say Hong Kong) informs the ways we approach projects in London, New York and LA. The longer we do what we have been doing the more niche and specialized we have become. This means any fundamental changes in direction are unlikely to happen. It means we will continue to specialize in 360 degree advertising and marketing campaigns for the most significant properties. I do see a future where we will hire and partner with other companies to help us on the larger projects where we can’t do everything in house. We always have more 3D work that we can accomplish, so it’s inevitable that there will be some changes.
Anyhow, thank you so much for the interview, we really appreciate it.
I hope you enjoyed this interview, if you are interested in learning more about the work of DBOX, you can visit the following links:
All images by DBOX.
¨The Beautiful Fear¨ album cover by Edie Sunday.
As always, I invite you to leave any comments or suggestions at the end of this page.