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Interview with Jason White
I recently sat down with artist Jason White at his studio, Leviathan, in the West Loop. I had initially discovered him through his work as a fine artist, and later learned about his role in building Leviathan, a conceptual design company that creates narrative content for brands and entertainers worldwide. Some examples of their work include designing and implementing interactive experiences on Disney cruises, creating the opening credits for “The Red Road” on Sundance TV, and developing film and interactive installations at The Museum of Science and Industry. These are just a few examples of their portfolio of work and does little justice to their extensive capabilities. Ultimately what makes their work so unique is that though Leviathan is highly technical, the creative direction is all about artistic expression and creating an experience that highlights true creativity.
As the co-founder and executive creative director of one of the most innovative design studios in the city, I was more than a little intimidated about meeting Jason White. But at his core he is an artist that is eager to talk about his craft and is an inspiring individual to speak to because of his passion and desire to create art.
TURNER: “What was your concept in creating Leviathan? What did you hope to build with this studio that was different from other studios?”
WHITE: “In 2010 I founded the studio with two of my partners, and our goal was to take a broadcast level of animation that we were building for major campaigns and incorporate real time 3D and interactive visuals.
Around 2008 I had become heavily interested in this new interactive technology, and the shifting point for me was actually going to the Nine Inch Nails “Lights in the Sky” Tour. It was incredible, and for many of us it was an amazing example of live, interactive concert visuals..
I decided that I needed to do this, and I needed to get into this, but only if I could take the highest level of animation content and put it in places like that…. the sides of buildings, on sculptures, and as art. That was the rule. When I met my two partners, my then friends, they were totally into the idea, too because no one was really doing that. It was a novel and adventurous idea, to say the least, because it’s expensive, and you’re talking about large scale projects. So when we founded the studio, we promoted our idea about our focus on art, and on projecting our work in new places, and right off the bat we got clients asking for just that.”
TURNER: “Tell me a little bit about your work as an artist in conjunction with your work at Leviathan.”
WHITE: “I’m kind of an anomaly in the art and creative industry, because I kind of do both. I think that my involvement in the art shows and the fine art world… people are kind of shocked that I have time for that. But, my art is really just an expression of the things I think about and the way I feel about the world. It’s so important. It’s incredibly important to make time for art, and it also keeps me grounded, because I come from a fine arts background and the further I get into the technology and the new design experiences it is important that I keep paper and pencil as my medium.”
TURNER: “So you came from a fine art background? What is your background?”
WHITE: “My background is actually, my first major in college, which was intaglio etching and printmaking…I wanted to be Michelangelo. That was in the 90’s and I was introduced to film and 3d animation around the time that “Toy Story” came out. I was so on fire for that. So my inspiration actually was to make my paintings move in a new way, so I went back to school and learned 3d animation.
I always attribute all my work to art, no matter what I do or how technical things get, it’s all about art.”
TURNER: “You are from Seattle originally, how long have you been in Chicago?”
WHITE: “16 years. Finishing school in Chicago and then getting into the Chicago art scene and culture was paramount for me. I had to do it. I had this feeling that if you can make it in Chicago and you can eventually build a studio in Chicago, it’s the place to do it. This is the city where you build stuff. You roll up your sleeves and you build industry. I knew when I graduated that I wanted to build a studio. That was my goal.”
TURNER: “Tell me a bit about Leviathan’s workflow and the process behind creating the content you build.”
WHITE: “Out on the main floor where everyone works, everyone is purposely sitting next to each other. So there is a cross pollination between engineering, editing, design, animation, producing…and all of it is cross pollinating everyday and this creates this new sort of hybrid of work that you’re seeing come out in our portfolio.
And that my friend, is a return to art school. That was the thing that I wanted to build… that art school vibe. Do you remember, when you were sitting there, cutting paper together, and making things, and you remember that hum, and chatter? And just that incredible feeling you have? That is exactly what I wanted to recreate out there. And I believe we have that every day.”
TURNER: “How does your work as a fine artist differ from your work at the studio? What is it like creating work for clients?”
WHITE: “It’s a new level of making art, when you make a studio, it’s creativity on a whole different level. You’re making a product for your clients, but also, you’re creating an experience for the people who are making it.
Creating opportunities for artists, for me, is actually one of the most gratifying things, because you’re creating an environment where they can grow.”
“Every person you meet knows something you don’t; learn from them.”
Interview: Zach Kaplan
Inventables describes itself as a “Hardware Store for Designers,” but it is so much more than that. Started in 2002 by Zach Kaplan, Inventables began with a focus on material research for fortune 500 companies. Kaplan says that in 2009, they “flipped the model and made all of that research free and turned it into a hardware store for designers.”
An online hardware store for designers. Yes. That is just as cool as it sounds. Shipping from our very own Chicago, Illinois, Inventables is a fascinating and unique company that is (nearly hidden) amongst the anonymous warehouse buildings in Greektown.
But Inventables goes far beyond your typical hardware store. They don’t just sell the materials for creating design, they offer everything necessary to take your 3D design from idea to reality, including selling 3D carving machines (Carvey and X-Carve), and offering free and easy to use software called “Easel” for creatives to design their products. The company has been growing by leaps and bounds since 2009, and is showing no signs of slowing. According to Kaplan, “in 2012 we launched the first machine. It was part of an open source project that was a kickstarter and then in 2013 we launched Easel and in 2014 we launched Carvey. In 2015 we launched X-Carve.”
As a designer and someone who is borderline obsessed with start ups and unique Chicago finds, I admit that I was shocked to discover that such a cool company had managed to avoid my radar for my two years of living here. This is why one of my first questions when I met with CEO Zach Kaplan was…
“How do people find out about you?”
His answer was simple.
Though he went on to say,
“A lot of word of mouth, a lot of youtube, google.”
It is especially incredible to me that I had never heard of Inventables because I pass by one of their enormous contributions to the city of Chicago at least weekly when I am on the third floor of Harold Washington Library which houses the “Maker Lab,” Chicago’s first free and publicly accessible makerspace. The “Maker Lab” features workshops and open shop time to people interested in learning new design software, including how to use 3D printers, laser cutters, 3D carving machines and vinyl cutters. Many of the machines within the space were purchased from Inventables and they worked alongside the library in creating the space. Kaplan remarked, “Harold Washington’s Maker Space started as a popup, but it was so popular that the city couldn’t shut it down.”
Inventables support of the creative community has gone far beyond Chicago, though. He concluded our interview with this fantastic story.
“So we ran this program last year, called the “Fifty States Program,” in response to the President’s “Nation of Makers” Initiative, and so the head of the Office of Science and Technology and Policy invited me to the White House, and they asked for commitments to the initiative.
Specifically, there was a professor that stood up and said, “What can be done to bridge the gap between these really complicated expensive machines, and students?”
And I stood up next and said “I’m Zach from Inventables, and we will commit to giving away a desktop 3d carving machine to a school in every state. And I got a very big round of applause for that.”
Well earned, good sir.