MoreFrames Animation: world-class animation studio brings Erie to life
For a little while, I was an exclusive member of the Erie Pa. Rob & Nino club.
Not the actual club, mind you. I didn’t sign up for an email newsletter or customized texts, but I did get to sit on a couch with the MoreFrames Animation crew and watch their latest project, the music video for Swedish dance-pop duo Rob & Nino’s latest single “I Just Wanna,” before anyone else.
It was like I was privy to a wonderful secret, at least as much of a secret as one can be part of when millions of people have experienced it, albeit unknowingly. Before having run into a couple of members of the MoreFrames crew at the Erie Art Museum a few months before, I had no idea who they were or what they did, yet people from across the world have seen the fruits of their labor.
Just who are these low-profile animation rock stars? You can call them artists, dreamers, or even fools, if you’re inclined to think in such a pessimistic way, but they’re just regular people like you and me. They just happen to have their own animation studio in Erie.
It’s not often that you see disembodied 8-bit heads floating on a screen affixed above a stage, but that’s what was in front of me. Below the pixilated heads there’s a rating for strength, speed, and intelligence, with special abilities ranging from “Gangam Style” to “Donuts.” Eventually, four people matching the blocky faces took their places in the chairs situated beneath. From left to right, Jordan Held, Gus Trauth, Adam Calfee, and Ron Levellie, the brains behind the animated brawn of MoreFrames, sat in front of a packed crowd.
We were at the Erie Art Museum, where I had first met some of the members a few months before. The crowd was there for the kick-off party for FILM, a weekly film series celebrating the social and cultural experience of cinema, with the draw-daddies being the special guests. The room was abuzz with the voices of trendily-dressed guests with drinks in hand, all packed into the theater area. My once-exclusive membership to the animated wonders of MoreFrames, including my special sneak peak at the Rob & Nino music video, had been extended to about a hundred new people when a half-hour featurette of their work was shown on the main screen right before the quartet took the stage.
The group hadn’t made too many efforts to make their collective presence known. The kick-off party made for a good introduction, as the crowd was wowed by the various music videos, motion comics, bumpers, and other impressive snippets that the crew has pumped out of their humble studio on Peach Street across from the King’s Rook.
In fact, for a rather anonymous company located in Erie, MoreFrames has been bringing in widely recognizable clients, such as the Halo video game franchise (yes, the massively popular one with Master Chief) and popular metal band Lamb of God. It’s even more impressive when you take the fact that MoreFrames is only a few years old.
While the company was made official around the end of 2009, the beginning of MoreFrames starts with a school project near and dear to the hearts of the animators – “Moonboy.”
Adam’s senior project at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania brought the team together for the first time. While Adam was in his fourth year, Ron was a year ahead of him, Jordan and Gus the grade below. In addition to the future MoreFrames crew, several students from the animation department came together for the project, helping to fuel Adam’s visions of a career after Edinboro.
“I always had the idea to start something after graduation rather than try to get a job,” Adam said. “I was always trying to gather everybody that I thought would be good to do that and tried to push on ‘Hey, after graduation we’re going to start a studio, yeah, yeah?’”
While the idea of a new animation studio appealed to many, the plan was left by the wayside after Adam moved to Mississippi, where his parents had relocated while he was in college, to live with them after graduating from Edinboro. “Moonboy,” however, started picking up steam.
“It got featured, like ‘video of the day’ and then ‘staff pick of the day’ [on Vimeo], so that got a crap-ton of views,” Jordan said. “Then we got into the First Annual Vimeo Festival with Moonboy in the animated shorts category. We went to New York, and it was great.”
Eventually, potential clients began to take notice of the young animators.
“Six months after being down [in Mississippi], because of Moonboy’s popularity and this little contest I did on a website, this Aniboom contest, we started just getting contacted, like ‘Hey, you want to do a music video for us?’ which is kind of our whole career so far, which is people just contacting us with ‘Hey, you want to do a music video for us?’”
One of the people contacting the group was a Brooklyn, N.Y. hardcore rapper by the name of Ill Bill, who has been a big fan of the crew, contracting them to make eight music videos. With the influx of projects coming in, the group needed to move from working together over Skype while Adam was in Mississippi and the others remained in Pennsylvania to a central location.
With Gus and Jordan living together in Cambridge Springs and the affordable cost of living in Erie, Adam made the voyage back to The Flagship City, where MoreFrames started becoming a reality.
“MoreFrames was kind of in the air for a while, and it really came out with ‘War is My Destiny,’ the second music video we did for Ill Bill,” Gus said. “We even came up, at the Empty Keg [in Edinboro], with the name MoreFrames.”
Soon, the jobs started getting bigger and better. A representative from 343 Industries, a video game development company, contacted the group about having MoreFrames animate a motion comic for the Halo franchise, an offer that the crew eagerly accepted. They spent over a year developing that project, which can be found on the XBox network. Through their work with Ill Bill, the group was contacted by the metal band Lamb of God to create a music video for their song “Ghost Walking.”
With all the projects coming out of MoreFrames, one would almost expect to see numerous designers and animators walking in and out of their confines, but the four main players – Adam, Gus, Jordan, and Ron – make up the majority of the company’s output. Sure, a few interns and the occasional freelancer will swing through and help, but the quartet handles the large workload mostly by themselves.
However, even though MoreFrames is a small animation studio located outside a major city, the combination of talent, drive, and the World Wide Web make for a busy company.
“The Internet has just changed things so much,” said Steve Carpenter, a computer animation professor at Edinboro, who taught all of the MoreFrames crew. “You can put things up on YouTube or wherever, so they’re just taking advantage of the situation, really. They are able to compete, price-wise, with anybody.
“They are still a young company, but I see huge potential. I know that Erie is constantly trying to get more businesses to come to town, and I think that having an entertainment component of the whole business makeup adds a different flavor to things.”