Digit talks to digital media agency unit9 about its award-winning Web sites and Flash animations, and it plans for future growth.

Since opening its doors for business seven years ago, unit9 has grown into a creative agency of 15 people, with a client list that includes Sony CEE, Eidos, Namco, Eurostar, TBWA/ London, Virgin.com and The Sunday Times.

The majority of unit9’s work for clients focuses on digital advertising, marketing and entertainment industries with commissions to create Web sites, microsites, online games, animations and motion graphics.

The name unit9 is a reference to the film production world, explains Mark Iremonger, managing director. “Like a second unit on a film shoot – a trusted team that covers important aspects of filming – unit9 is a team that can respond to a specific brief or problem… guns for hire if you like,” he states. “This is why we offer services from strategy through design and development, all the way to hosting and tracking.”

“We work with agencies across their clients roster, as well as with brands directly, depending on the scope of the project,” says Mark. “For example, we work with Eidos to support its PC game Championship Manager online, while working with advertising agencies such as McCann Erickson and Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R to integrate digital work with their above-the-line campaigns.”

Totally Gorgeous

The company has received a Design & Art Direction (D&AD) Yellow Pencil (2003) for its work on www.gorgeous.co.uk, along with Creative Circle Honours and various BIMA nominations, and New Media Age Effectiveness Awards. Unit9 has also been featured in onedotzero, and been awarded Gold awards at OFFF and the New York Flash Forward Festival.

“It's a great feeling knowing that other people in the industry enjoy something that you've put a lot of hard work into," says Tony Volpe, developer at unit9. The D&AD award night was great fun, recalls unit9’s Mark Iremonger. “We pushed the boat out and took the whole company out. When we won, the entire Gorgeous team went onstage which was hilarious, but it also underlined how many people are actually involved in making a great Web site. We’re delighted D&AD take digital media seriously — it’s great for the industry,” he says.

Forming the bedrock of unit9’s projects is the company’s CommonDesktop – its CMS backend that’s the engine for its Web sites and the extranet, which it uses to stay in touch with clients. “It’s the unsung hero – a flexible, mature backend that we rely on every day,” says Iremonger. One of the first sites that featured the CommonDesktop was for animation production company Passion Pictures. This site, created in 2001 and awarded two BIMA nominations the following year, was designed to showcase Passion’s animation productions.

It combines a fluid Flash interface with a database-driven backend, allowing Passion to upload new work and edit content via an online browser.

Flash MX skills

unit9’s site for animation and design company Nexus Productions, completed in 2002, showed the team pushing their Flash skills even further. “The abilities of Flash MX, new at the time, enabled us to come up with creative solutions and put together a slick site,” says Iremonger. The site went on to win several awards including a FWA ONE Award in 2003. Yet the company’s most successful Web project of that year – both in terms of awards and a response measured in site traffic – was www.gorgeous.co.uk.

TV production company Gorgeous approached unit9 for a memorable site that would showcase its directors’ work, raise its profile among agencies and create a home for its brand online – while at the same time make visitors smile.

“The main challenge was to visually capture the spirit of our client and find a tone of voice that would communicate their personality,” recalls Katharina Leuzinger, art director at unit9.

“The directors at Gorgeous had an anti-tech attitude and disliked over-indulgent Web sites with unnecessary Flash-gimmicks so we had to create a site that didn’t ‘feel’ like a Web site. We decided to adopt a picture-book approach, so simple it could be used intuitively by absolutely anyone while being technically complex in the background.

“One way to achieve this was to work with texture rather than vector graphics,” she adds. “So we decided to make it a fully photographic site.”

The choice of kittens as subjects for the site was obvious, says Leuzinger, since a kitten portrait served as Gorgeous’ identity. Adding the right type of voice to each of the kittens was, however, the key to capturing the essence of who Gorgeous are, she explains. Sound is often an overlooked aspect of online development, adds Iremonger. “It took a huge amount of effort to get the sounds right for Gorgeous.”

Several recordings were made by Gorgeous using voiceover artists, but in the end unit9 recorded voices at its own studio – including some of its staff who feature on the final version of the site.

Such was unit9’s passion for this project, the office was split into two camps: those who love cats and those who didn’t, says unit9 developer Tony Volpe. “As the project progressed each group was pushed further to the extreme.

At one point, Yates [David Yates Buckley, unit9’s TD] actually believed he was a cat. It was frightening!” laughs Volpe.

As a result of working on this site, the company decided to add hosting to its list of services. “When we host sites, it makes it simpler to develop and places responsibility firmly on us for the stability and availability of the site,” explains Iremonger. “This means our clients are not left hanging between an ISP and their agency if things go wrong.”

During its first month, Gorgeous served up nearly 300GB of data to visitors from 95 different countries, says Iremonger.

unit9 has gained a reputation for its Flash animations with notable projects such as Full Moon Safari and the Mint Royale and Clinic music videos. The former (fullmoonsafari.com) is an 80-second animation that featured in onedotzero in 2002, which tells the story of a werewolf hunting down a lorry driver. Designed to showcase the team’s Flash skills, the animation was made to be scalable in output from viral distribution via a 56k modem, or projected on the side of a building or broadcast in its native Flash format, says Iremonger. “This project opened up new doors in the emerging world of motion graphics and animation because of its cinematic, 3D feel,” he says.

An animated promo for Clinic’s track The Second Line was unit9’s first foray into the world of music videos. “At the time, animation content on the Web was very poor, and compressed videos were impossible to view or download,” says Ben Hibon, creative director of unit9.

Full-motion graphics

“The whole idea of Clinic revolved around that one idea; how to make a video that would live both on the Web and on the box,” says Hibon. “Flash was the answer, allowing us to create graphics and animation reusable for both media, and still keep the two different concepts.”

An online game was designed before the video, which allowed the team to use elements from the game in the video for a closer synergy. “We’re still doing that today, animating and drawing directly in Flash, and then outputting to different media. Flash lets us speed up the animation process. When you draw directly in the program, you obviously get a cleaner frame to work with than if you draw on paper, scan, clean, and so on.

“Sharing files, making changes is eased because of the vector quality, which makes it very practical for teamwork on larger scale production,” he says.

“One weakness of the program is not having enough animation tools such as rotating stage to draw at an angle, selecting lines/fills over an entire timeline, and so on, but Flash is still sold as a Web-design software, so those additions would probably be changing the nature of the program itself!”

Hang loose

Although over the years unit9 has narrowed its focus to the creative and entertainment sectors, it avoids a textbook solution to handling projects. Instead, the team prefers to approach projects in a deliberately unrestricted and loose manner explains Leuzinger.

Ideas need to be able to grow freely among all team members until they’re eventually filtered and refined, she says. “Every Friday is unit9’s pizza day. You might have been taught to cut yours into eight neat wedges or to work it from the right to the left with your knife and fork, but there are many ways of eating a pizza... nibbling off the toppings first, eating from the inside out leaving a ring of dough, folding it, rolling it or saving the cheese for later. Sticking to instructions and rules restricts the intuitive creativity that naturally occurs in all of us.

“We need space and freedom to express our preferences, personality and individuality. Usually this happens intuitively. We don’t normally have a concept of the way we customize our pizza eating, but it fits each individual situation perfectly. unit9’s way of doing things is to look and listen, to tune and tap into our clients’ (eating) habits and to provide them with a customized solution that feels intuitively right for them,” she says.

unit9 is optimistic for the future of the UK new media industry and its growing role among digital agencies. Yet the challenge facing every agency is maintaining quality of work while sustaining growth, says Iremonger. “With this in mind, our strategy is based on organic growth which is limited by our capacity to do work we’re proud of,” he says. “The majority of digital media production is still boutique based. The challenge is to maintain a boutique feel and service while being big enough to allow investment and renewal.”