Workday Infinite: Talking to Ash Thorp, Director and Designer

Designer, creative director, illustrator, filmmaker: Ash Thorp is a storytelling polymath. In addition to contributing to Hollywood’s most ambitious sci-fi films in recent years, he’s also known for his “year of complete potential,” enduring a daily seven-hour commute from San Diego to Los Angeles studio Prologue to learn from the industry’s best. Between juggling several ongoing projects and speaking events, he discusses his notorious work ethic, his affection and exasperation with the technology that connects us, and the growing appetite for introspection in this new generation of creatives.

The most striking thing about FITC — the yearly interactive media conference about “future, innovation, technology, creativity” that brings together the best of digital creatives and technologists with their community of admirers — is the relationship between the known and the anonymous. The latter could’ve combed through the former’s portfolios, responded to a frustrated Tweet, commiserated with their podcasted woes while readying for bed. But despite this perceived familiarity, you have no idea what they look like, or who they even are. In the bluish glow of the Hilton mezzanine, backpack-touting design school graduates are squinting very hard at name badges. Overheard in the entryway to the men’s bathroom is an awkward “sorry man, I’m not him.” A man — also tall, also bearded — who looks a lot like Ash Thorp emerges.

The real Ash Thorp is standing by one of the conference rooms exchanging high-fives and clapping backs like a returning counselor on the first day of camp despite his jet lag. He’d flown in the night before from San Diego, where he works out of his home studio, composing the motion graphical elements in some of the most visually astounding cinematic sequences of past years: facilitating extraterrestrial communication in Prometheus, orchestrating the staccato prompts of dystopian warfare in Ender’s Game, the mutating unravel of our species in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Experiencing Thorp’s work shrinks you into a cell at the mercy of a future as interconnected, perfectly designed, and volatile as our own bodies. It’s earned him recognition from both ends of the nitpicking spectrum: from Hollywood powers-that-be to diehard comic and video game fans.

ENDER’S GAME – MOTION GRAPHICS REEL from Ash Thorp on Vimeo.

He is now 32 and a few years removed from what was likely the hardest period of his entire career — so far, anyway. Seven to eight hours on America’s most congested freeway, bookending ten to eleven hours in the studio: Someone who’d done this once could probably commit like that again, probably to even more unbelievable extents. Touchingly, he recalls his family of illustrators, in particular his mother who serves as a major source of inspiration. “I was always personally very afraid of having to make a living out of doing art, because I knew how difficult it was. My mom wasn’t able to do it, so she ended up being a bartender. But the moment I realized I had a chance to do it…” he pauses. “That’s why I’ve sacrificed a lot. I’ve worked really hard to make it work.”

A latchkey upbringing in Hawaii shaped his coming-to-be as an artist, which he describes casually as “rocking out as a little kid, listening to Metallica, having fun, building worlds, and looking into my imagination.” It’s easy to imagine his younger self to not at all be intimidated, confused, or disappointed by his current pursuits. That quality lends itself to his work: boundless and charmingly absent of cultural or generational ennui.

Thorp describes himself as a “nobody freelancer doing whatever” when he got the chance opportunity to work on the remake of Total Recall, a turning point that ensued a frenzy of rewatching the original and script-reading. Transitioning from fan to artist has since recurred in his creative process, though the roles themselves become irrelevant in the pursuit of quality. “In the beginning, definitely I’m a fan, but I merge that with the artist and the businessperson [in order] to get this stuff done. If I perceive it to be great, then it will be great. If I perceive it to be crappy, then it will be crappy. I try to keep that romantic happiness, that purity, that joy in the beginning. That’s what fuels me until the end.”

TOTAL RECALL HUD + GUI REEL / ASH THORP from Ash Thorp on Vimeo.

How Thorp remains humble is a question he’s often asked, which could very well be answered by the fact that it’s a question he often asks others on his podcast, The Collective. Each episode features an unstructured yet in-depth conversation around a guest’s creative trajectory — the majority of whom are also masters of behind-the-scenes, like fellow design directors Bradley “Gmunk” Munkowitz (of Tron) and Patrick Clair (of True Detective), and illustrator Ghostshrimp (of Adventure Time).

A recurring subject in The Collective is work-life balance, analogous to that of client and personal projects. While the topic is often posed as a matter of sanity (just how many hours can one work?), it also reflects a more complex undercurrents of self-awareness, ego, and curiosity. Although attempts to demystify the creative process aren’t new, hearing two industry equals discuss their shortcomings and triumphs with one another is inherently more interesting than if they were to try explaining it to an outsider: a task Thorp describes as impossible. Because creativity is a life lived — not a job done — what seems initially arbitrary can speak volumes. When asked when his creative process begins and stops, Thorp doesn’t hesitate. “When I die,” he responds, laughing. “Even when I take my daughter to an arcade, I’m just looking at the logos and the cinematography of the game, and wondering why they picked that color. I’m trying to imagine the scenario of that board meeting, where they have these graphic swatches.” Not even terrible fonts on restaurant menus are safe from critique.

Accommodating as Thorp is to his listeners, being in the company of The Collective doesn’t feel as much like listening as it does eavesdropping. With the design and filmmaking communities toeing such a fine line between commerce and creativity, navigating its politics is especially tricky — and makes the candor of The Collective especially interesting, spanning taxes, psychedelics, and the pitfalls of the Californian drought. The rise of the freelancer and the understanding of “self as brand” inevitably brings questions surrounding the authentic expression of one’s digital self. How professionally can you portray your honest “self” — perhaps obscene, lazy, or insecure — in a medium as informal and permitting as the internet?

Social media can be a gift for expression. But it’s also a tool of judgement, sometimes mattering enough to alter creative process, or intent, even identity — much to Thorp’s frustration. “People aren’t allowed to be their true authentic selves if they’re going to get shit for it in any way. There’s so much public shame. And I feel that to be very hard and counterproductive to what we are and what we’ve built up,” he says.  “It’s given me a really good perspective as far as aspects like public perception and what you can or cannot say publicly. Communication does break down.”

Measuring up to strangers’ expectations and perceptions has always been a given for anyone who creates for a living. The subjectivity of taste is paralyzing; the vitriol of the envious or bored worse. With the advent of verified social media accounts and other means of direct interaction, today’s audience no longer needs to romanticize the artist as the authority of experience. Everyone’s an agent, manager, or critic — with approaches varying from the earnest and eloquent (Medium, a blogging platform founded by Twitter’s co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams) to a violent barrage of acronyms (YouTube, Twitter). Any creative can attest to the fear of your own ability cannibalizing itself from the inside out by your consciousness’ own divergence.

Thorp is a natural optimist, but he wears it on his sleeve: “The whole process of doing this… I feel a bit scattered, and very self-conscious and aware of it being horrible.” Despite being an iterative creator, he is staunch about remaining entirely open about his work. You can find his sketches in various states of completion uploaded onto his Tumblr; listen and watch his screen in real time as he finishes a Photoshop illustration on YouTube. It’s a far cry from the myth of the artistic untouchable who demands to create in isolation.

The enabled vulnerability of these digital platforms have nurtured a more humanized generation of creatives — albeit alongside a curiosity that is becoming increasingly rabid. (Some might call it entitlement.) We want to know how the idea came to be, what failures were endured; we’re suspicious of shortcuts and influences. Pinterest allows us to rifle through a rolodex of muses. We expect to see documentation on Instagram. And each interview is a vehicle for tells: If the infamously high-strung tech entrepreneur unabashedly asked for a triple-shot Americano, or went decaf. Where the Michelin-starred wunderkind goes after-hours.

Arguably, our indiscriminate fascination with the creative process stems from skepticism. With the 10,000-hour rule browbeaten into us, and the tools and sources of inspiration now democratized by technology, what separates the tastemakers from the herd? We live in an age of the life hack, so what’s the magic app, program, or algorithm that’ll make that dichotomy obsolete?

Years ago, the answer to that would be pretty black-and-white: There is none. But the motions graphics and filmmaking communities are about as technologically progressed as any creative industry can get, with virtual reality, 3D projection mapping, and an ever-growing disposal of hardware and software. There is no discounting variables such as talent and commitment, but the technological savvy of the tools erases virtually all barriers to entry, proven by the incredible crop of newcomers on Vimeo, Behance, and Dribbble. Finding fans, idols, and collaborators has never been easier; a plus considering the multidisciplinary scope and entrepreneurial necessity of these projects. Calling it a glimpse into the future of work might sound grandiose, but the recent addition of a motion design category at this year’s Emmys is a reminder of how expansive and storied the form is. In the context of information ages, what words were to the printed page, motion graphics will be to our various screens as the primary medium of communication.

The emerging complexities of the process has colored the narrative of how something gets made to be as compelling as the end-product itself. Thorp defines one of his most memorable projects, the title sequence for FITC Tokyo, as a kind of logistical romance. Spanning nine people including designers, animators, and programmers across three time zones, it is an animated typographic short that serves as an homage to Tokyo. Reflective in the reel is a hypnotizing layeredness, demanding the tensions that define the city’s idiosyncratic appeal to be discerned — between a respect for tradition and the technology, within the tranquility contextualized by utter chaos. And abstractions aside, its technical finesse can’t help but demand the question: What did it take to make this? It piques a different mode of appreciation.

FITC Tokyo 2015 Titles from FITC on Vimeo.

When discussing how the project came together, Thorp sounds almost revering: “I think there’s something very beautiful about two people from different parts of the world, or different backgrounds, for them to come together and create this thing that we call art. It’s like cross-pollination, you know? It’s what our words cannot say.” It’s an oddly poignant way of considering applications such as Basecamp and Skype, but when you’re this invested with what you do, and presented with the opportunity to work alongside like minds, cynicism seems rather fruitless — even anachronistic. As does the notion of creating privately, be that out of fear or preciousness. “Whether it’s the work, or how they create the work, the most prolific people I know are sharing it with everybody. You leave yourself open for scrutiny, but by releasing what you know to people, you realize that you can continually move on. Whereas if you hold onto your little secrets, those could actually end up controlling you. And your work.”

A born leader, Thorp has plans to direct. His palpable excitement implies that it’ll happen soon rather than eventually. Among his impressive body of client work are distinctly personal projects: There is the intricate and analogue (Lost Boy, a world inspired by his childhood influences meant to unfurl via books, toys, and other tangibles) and the hauntingly futuristic (FITC Tokyo and Project 2501: Homage to Ghost in the Shell, a tribute that spanned more than 30 artists around the globe). Including the client-commissioned comic adaptations and modernized remakes, his career thus far has been an incredible allowance for his fandom. Now, he has the opportunity to manifest his own imagination — coming to full circle.

PROJECT 2501 : HOMAGE TO GHOST IN THE SHELL from Ash Thorp on Vimeo.

Expect this imminent chapter of his journey to be just as arduous. “Sometimes I fantasize about what it’d be like to come home from a 9-5, play some XBox, eat some Pizza Hut, and go to sleep,” he says half-wistfully, the way only somebody who truly appreciates the alternative might. “Like… what is that.”

Click here to see more of Ash’s work. 

the author

Caroline Leung