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After a tumultuous year and unusual holiday season, resuming work this week felt a bit overwhelming. That’s not just my opinion; it’s also that of Aaron Augenblick, founder of Augenblick Studios, whose animation team is busy with new projects following a year of reformation to complete Netflix’s brand new series, Headspace: Guide to Meditation.
Augenblick took a moment of pause to reflect on his involvement as creative director and the mindfulness of the program.
“Look, there’s a reason why this happened so fast. Netflix is very aware of the world,” he explained. “They fast-tracked this show because they wanted us to be ready on New Year’s Day, 2021, because they got a whole world full of people that could really benefit from meditation.”
To facilitate this, four separate animation studios were brought under Vox Media’s art director Drew Takahashi, a legend in Augenblick’s eyes. “He founded a lot of the cool projects that were done at MTV, Liquid Television and the Unpluggeds, and a lot of those cool shows. So he’s really into animation, and edgy experimental animation, and they were fans of our work,” Augenblick prefaced his studio’s invitation to collaborate. “They wanted to do something a lot more experimental, a lot more artistic with it, and I think that’s the most exciting thing about it. When they came to us, it was such a great project because they came to us saying, ‘What can you bring to this that only Augenblick Studios can bring?’”
Strangely, the independent studio is most known for bringing irreverent or downright bizarre programming to the likes of MTV, Adult Swim, Comedy Central, and other eccentric clients of the comedy world.
“One of the first things that they said in our kickoff meeting; they were like, ‘We’re really excited to see what you bring to the table. But you also make us a little nervous,’” Augenblick laughed. He went on to express their perspective, “‘We love your animation, but not much of it feels meditative. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s extremely funny or extremely violent or extremely surreal; these are all things that would take you out of a meditative state.’”
In fact, Augenblick Studios are currently working on episodes for their upcoming Adult Swim series, Teenage Euthanasia, about a family running a funeral home after the apocalypse and starring a roster of comedians including Maria Bamford, Jo Firestone, and Tim Robinson.
“I think they came to us because they knew we were versatile and they liked our unique, a little bit more, I think, edgy approach to animation. Because we’re not very corporate. We’re not very mainstream. So I think they knew we were gonna do something new,” Augenblick clarified. Though the Headspace app has an established aesthetic, the studio was encouraged not to overlap with it too much, so it was only used for inspiration. “It was really more about evoking the mood and the kind of simplicity of it more than it was matching exact designs or character designs.”
The series only has one character for the viewer to engage with: Andy Puddicombe, the former Buddhist monk who co-founded Headspace to share his meditation training. But according to Augenblick, Vox’s one restriction for the studios was to not animate Andy or any identifiable characters.
“As soon as you remove the ability to have a main character it seems like it’s a limitation, but it actually frees you up. It actually says, ‘Okay, now we’re on a whole ‘nother playing field. Now we have to represent all the ideas as the ideas and content themselves, less so than the actual character, or a persona.’”
The animators focused less on being storytellers and more on being artists.
“What we were inspired by, for our episodes, was impressionist art like [Joan] Miró; things like that,” Augenblick revealed. “It was more like, ‘How do you represent happiness and not to do it in a corny way, like just showing the sun?’ So, a lot of that was creating pleasing shapes, pleasing colors. Representing things to invoke more of what they feel like more than what they actually are was sort of our approach.”
This approach was different than any show Augenblick had ever done, relying more on direct contribution from new artists.
“Honestly, a lot of this came from the artists. It came from Devin [Clark] and Greg [Kletsel] and Tim [Beckhardt]. It really is just thinking, trying to think more about a feeling than what it actually is. Which is interesting because it falls right in line with meditation. Part of the concept of meditation is to not get attached to distractions, and with this it’s almost the same thing. It’s allowing the ideas and thoughts to flow more like a stream of ideas than it is presenting an instructional manual, which no one wants to watch.”
Rather than the usual production process of designing characters and locations, they began with style frames, the full color visuals usually reserved as the last step before animating.
“They would create a bunch of artwork that was inspired by the dialogue that we’d heard and then that was given to our artists, and they would extract from that: scenes. And we would connect all the threads in the actual animation process. So it was a very experimental way to approach animation, which is really exciting for something as mainstream as Netflix. It’s not something you get to see very much.” He continued, “It reminded me of early experimental animation or, especially ‘60s, more psychedelic animation then it did, ya know, mainstream animated sitcoms, which is 99% of the industry.”
However, as in most of the industry, narrative stories still are part of the show. Puddicombe recounts observations and recites scientific data regarding meditation. Fortunately, Augenblick’s animation director Devin Clark had strong ties to psychology to help keep these presentations on the bigger picture. An example lies in a story of a man who had everything but felt purposeless.
“There’s a whole thing about him being a businessman and being unhappy. So there’s this unhappy businessman, what do you imagine? Okay, there’s a guy sitting at a desk in an office, right? But we never did that. Instead of that we created this Escher-esque maze of stairwells that never have an end. And it’s like he’s walking up the stairwell, the endless stairwell, and we just put this hovering square next to him rather than actually have him hold a briefcase. Do you know what I mean? So it’s like, anytime we can, just abstract the concept. But the most important thing is you always have to think of the viewer and think of ‘How will they respond to this?’”
Communicating feelings is where Augenblick Studios found its greatest strength.
“So much of our evolution has been just understanding how people process information, and being able to communicate with them efficiently. And typically it’s with comedy, sometimes it’s horror, sometimes it’s shock. Like, ‘How can I shock someone in the best way possible?’ On a show like Superjail!, a lot of that was, ‘Okay, how can I really wake people up in this moment?’ With Ugly Americans, ‘Okay, how can we make people laugh?’ With Losers it’s, ‘How can we create empathy for these people’s stories in the best way possible?’”
Augenblick applies his experience in the art of joke-telling to communicate anecdotes and ethereal concepts alike. However, there came a point when he was tasked with not communicating anything at all.
Augenblick admits, “The second half was almost the biggest challenge because they told us we’re gonna actually have a meditation inside of each episode. So, best case scenario, the viewer is going to close their eyes and not watch your animation.” He expounded, “However, this is Headspace. It’s Netflix. This is premium entertainment. You can’t just have a blank screen. So if someone does happen to peek, or maybe if they don’t feel like meditating and they just want to watch and relax, they need to be seeing something that’s effective or something that’s pleasing to the eye.”
The new challenge was to entertain without expectation from interested viewers.
“It’s almost like we were trying to create our version of an animated lava lamp: something that you like having in the room and it gives you a certain feeling, but that is not going to be distracting to you.” For this, the studio worked less in their traditional style of animation and more in motion graphics. “We hit on the idea of taking a simple abstract image that invokes the breath and breathing and thought and consciousness. You know, just a simple circle that has a movement, a color, that’s going to be pleasing to you. But the goal would be that it’s not going to be something you feel like you have to look at.”
Although this seems counterproductive for a growing animation studio, for Augenblick it falls in line with everything his studio has done. “I just try to go with my instincts, but the one thing I’ve learned is make sure that you’re aware of what our goal is for every different type of show. And with this one, like I said, it wasn’t to be funny, or shocking, or in some ways overly engaging. We just wanted to give people an opportunity to feel a sense of peace and calm, and to experience the ideas of meditation and consciousness, possibly for the first time. So that was just a really exciting opportunity.”
The Headspace mindset opened Augenblick Studios to other surprising changes.
“We totally reworked our system. We built an entirely new production model to allow for a new type of experimental free flowing animation and I found the entire process extremely thrilling and really, really enjoyable. This is the first production we did entirely in quarantine. We–our studio–converted to fully remote in March and our entire staff worked on this all separately from their own homes the entire production.”
Augenblick felt a hardship, being unable to foster the positive and creative work environment within his Brooklyn studio, but was fortunate to have the meditative art to see them through.
“I felt that this was the perfect project to work on for that situation because the project itself was just very meaningful. Like, you go to work every day illustrating conscious concepts about consciousness, mindfulness, and happiness.” He expressed his gratitude, “2020 was a terrifying year for everybody, and that includes my staff. I found it very meaningful that we were able to work on a project that felt this positive during the pandemic, during such a challenging time emotionally. So I’m very thankful to Headspace and to Vox and to Netflix for allowing us this opportunity to really have fun with animating what I think is a really important concept.”
In the final lesson, Andy Puddicombe states, “Creativity is having the capacity to produce work that is both original and useful.” Headspace: Guide to Meditation proves the power of meditation by inspiring Augenblick Studios to reinvent itself through a stressful time, and in turn they created brilliant works of art to help others do the same.
Headspace: Guide to Meditation is currently streaming on Netflix.
If you know someone who should take a moment to breathe, share this article with a friend. Tune in daily to AfterbuzzTV for articles, aftershows, and all the latest news on the world of entertainment.
Kevin Allen is an on-camera actor, AfterBuzz TV host, and occasionally a guest panelist in psychology and philosophy’s relation to popular culture.
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