A chat with Hilton Tennant of Tennant McKay

A chat with Hilton Tennant of Tennant McKay

A few weeks ago we featured Tennant Mckay’s incredible body of work shown as a snippet on their reel. Being such excellent individuals I was curious to find out more about them and got a great chance to catch up with Creative Director Hilton Tennant. Tennant is a small studio but has huge dreams and exceptional work. Being from South Africa which is a mecca design city within the African content, Tennant is not only a small giant, but is represented by The Ebeling Group (NYC/LA), allowing them access to clients in North America. Here is the Interview.

(Kind thanks to Robyn Jephson – Executive Producer  & Partner at Tennant for making this possible.)

Tell us a little bit about you and your role at TM.

I am the Creative Director of Tennant McKay, which involves overseeing the design, conceptual development and execution of a variety of briefs, which range from Commercials, Channel Branding, to Post Production oriented projects.

What are the backgrounds of the principles of Tennant McKay and where did they get started and initiate the studio?

My original partner and I both have honors degrees in Information Design from the University of Pretoria, a course with strong conceptual and theoretical focus on design, business and marketing. I started my career at Delapse, where I had the opportunity to design and direct title sequences for a variety of South African television shows, this led to my role as Design Director on a series of channel rebrands for South Africa’s National broadcaster. After five years experience gained from working with some of the most talented people I still know today in the South African industry, we formed TM.

To clarify the relationship between TM and Tennant is relatively simple, TM is the local Production,
Design, and Post Production company which facilitates the work for Tennant, which is my Director handle for International projects. This came about after directing the African component of the Coke M5 project in 2006, after which I partnered with The Ebeling Group who represent me in the American market which has provided access to numerous clients and projects I would not have previously had access too.

How many people work on day to day basis at Tennant McKay and how often do you involve freelancers on projects?

We currently have a small yet multi-talented team of six permanent staff who handle everything from concept development, illustration and design, to animation and post production. We tend to scale our team up according to the size and skills required for a particular project much like most commercial production companies do. We have developed relationships with a number of preferred freelancers, many of whom used to be former staffers, which makes their integration into our projects and process relatively seamless. That being said, we are always on the look out for new talent to work with. We understand the value of working with well orchestrated teams rather than relying on any single individual’s brilliance – but that is obviously welcomed too.

Your work often seems to have lively and loveable characters. Do agencies come to you for
character driven projects?

I believe good characters have the ability to transcend specific demographics, leaving a much wider audience susceptible to a particular message or story than, say, a purely live action approach may have. You are able to transport your audience to a fictional space where they can leave their cynicism and reality based judgment systems behind for long enough to absorb the concept, feeling, or idea you are trying to communicate. Even a cliché-riddled animated character has more chance of being forgiven for his existence than just about any middle-of-the-line blue-collar actor does these days. I guess what I am getting at is that entertainment has always been the best way to leave an audience with a particular idea or message, especially nowadays, and people love good animated stories. You just have to look at the billings for any Pixar movie to know that is true.

Somehow I have managed to miss answering your question. Briefly-stated it is a yes and no answer. Not all the projects we have used animated characters in were scripted that way. Often we will write them into our treatments as a direction we believe is correct for the project where as other times anagency might have seen something we have done previously and want something similar.

One of my favourite projects from TM is the YTV Channel Idents. Your execution of this project was amazing. What were some special moments you can share about the project and also challenges you faced?

This was a very challenging and enjoyable project to work on for several reasons. One of the most enjoyable aspects of this project was the opportunity to develop these spots from concept, to scripting with the client, to final execution. We were briefed to create 5 second branding idents for the Canadian children’s channel, YTV. Traditionally, a channel ident’s primary purpose is to build brand recognition for the viewer to know which channel they are watching. Our approach was slightly different to the average ident though; we decided to capture the spirit and energy of their audiences’ imaginations within short stories, and then integrate the channel logo into the story-line. Hence they act more like branded entertainment pieces than a traditional logo ident.

Having written close to 20 scripts, developing character designs and their personalities concurrently, the client settled on 12 stories for final execution, and the production process started. One of the biggest challenges was making sure the stories would fit into 5 seconds while still leaving enough time for the viewer to see the channel logo. Every frame in the edit counted so we had to continuously refine the performance and cut as the project developed so that only the essential actions and emotions necessary to tell the story were left. One of the most frustrating facts of the production is the amount of energy and dedication necessary to pull these 5 second spots off was equivalent to creating 12 thirty second spots. As anybody who has experience with 3D character animation knows, once you have modeled, rigged and textured your characters properly, the animation can often flow pretty quickly in the correct hands. That being said, I also truly believe a lot of these pieces’ charm comes from how immediate the storytelling is, and they definitely allow for boredom-free repeat viewing to fully absorb the detail we built into the spots.

Who are your favourite musicians or bands you listen to and really like.

We are quite an eclectic bunch, so we like to have a variety of music playing in the studio every month. But generally we lean more towards lesser-known indie rock outfits. Some of our current favourites are Mumford & Sons, Chairlift, The Drums, Generationals, Riceboy Sleeps (Jonsi & Alex), and The Panics. Mixed in with a few classics, like Michael Jackson, The Traveling Wilburys, and I don’t think anyone’s music collection is complete without a bit of Bruce Springsteen.

Do you get to kick back, throw some darts or what do you do as a studio as personal interests to keep inspired?

We all have our individual means to escape the monitor, whether it is getting out of the city on a hike, playing a not so friendly game of poker, baking cupcakes, going on road trip adventures, or working on a personal art projects. Oh, and we do have families and partners who like to spend time with us too once in a while.

Any word of advice for motion designers & animators from Africa?

My advice would be to create as many beautiful, meaningful and unique pieces of work as you can and get them seen by as many eyes as possible. Entertaining stories and unique design will get you noticed. It is also better to focus on executing shorter, simpler ideas well rather than being over ambitious and ending up with an epic poo. Lastly. you have to be passionate about this career, it is definitely not a 9 to 5 job.

Wow!!! Many thanks Hilton and Robyn. What a pleasure! Kind thanks for your time.


Leave a comment
  1. Money Man

    May 13, 2010 at 1:58 am

    Very interesting. A scientific approach to success in network marketing

  2. Ofili

    August 8, 2013 at 1:35 am

    Their stuff is impressive! Love it especially the SHAW advert.

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