At least, that's the way it's supposed to go.
Wearing a V-neck T-shirt, a rumpled cowboy hat and a few days' stubble, Matt Fraction stands in a darkened studio at 20th and Main, flanked by a camera crew, TV monitors and swivel-ready cameras attached to rails of track.
Two MTV representatives -- a creative director and a line producer, both looking more skate punk than network -- watch the action on a closed-circuit feed above. Fraction is filming a dream sequence, an imagining of the day record-company execs use special ops to bust teenagers who are downloading copyrighted tunes.
Originally from North Carolina, Fraction jumped around film and art schools before landing at the Kansas City Art Institute -- and then dropping out. A comic-book writer, he's finished a graphic novel titled Last of the Independents and a three-part comic collection called The Annotated Mantooth. Live-action scenes are drawn out on a page in front of him like panels in a cartoon. For this scene, Fraction has readied specific cues for the cameramen, grips and actors: Action. Go dolly. Lights. One. Two. Three. But for the past few takes, his cadence has been off. Once, a camera tracked too slowly to follow the action. Another time, the SWAT guy rappelling from the ceiling got stuck at the bottom and the kid got away. Later, the kid stopped at his mark with his hands up, but had to wait for the commandos to tackle him.
The premise of MTV's advertising campaign is that the world is filled with buzz kills like these music police. Patterned after old-school public-service announcements, each spot is to be an "Anti-Social Awareness Announcement" encouraging troublemakers to challenge established rules or beliefs. On the issue of music piracy, the commercial is supposed to show how getting caught would suck -- and then provide a list of songs to avoid because they're monitored for theft.
This isn't the first time Fraction and his crew have filmed an anti-establishment commercial. On April 12, inspired by the Federal Communications Commission's response to Janet Jackson's Super Bowl performance, Fraction invited Ken and Barbie knockoffs from local talent agencies and a few friends -- who came in realistic shapes and sizes -- to an auditorium-sized room to spout an exhaustive list of dirty but technically unregulated words for television. At one point, Jacob Corbin, a University of Missouri-Kansas City economics major who'd met Fraction 2 years earlier at a comic-book forum, stood beneath a boom mike in front of a white cloth backdrop as Fraction asked him to read a list of words. Corbin, a heavyset guy with short-cropped hair and round glasses, tells the Pitch how he faced the camera as Fraction directed from offstage:
OK, you can get pretty crazy when you're worked up. Give me some of that. Say "assmaster."
OK. Now make it angrier, dude.
"ASSSSSSMASTER!" Corbin yelled as spittle flew from his mouth.
Corbin worked his way down an alphabetical list of slang nuggets: bone stroker, bukkake, cocksmith, dick, dickweed, frack snacker, ho, jiz, klondike, knob jockey, laying pipe, MILF, MoFo, numbnuts, punani, rim job, rod knocker, snowplow, wank.
Live-action filming is new for Fraction and his friends -- Jed Carter, Tim Fisher, Shaun Hamontree and Ben Radatz -- in the company they call MK12. The five partners, most in their late twenties, have spent the past several years earning an international reputation as purveyors of computer-generated realities. In MK12's studio, computer terminals rest atop a string of hexagonal tables. A Pac-Man arcade game stands in one corner; in another there's a plush couch near a TV and an 8-bit Nintendo. While Fisher and Radatz are speaking at an international design conference in Australia, Fraction has spent two days converting the company's conference room (once cluttered with obscure posters, action figures and garage sale knickknacks) and its adjoining kitchen into sets depicting a car-rental business, a bachelor pad and a suburban kitchen.
Standing in the wings of the dark set, Fraction has given up on the finely orchestrated attack plan. When the sirens start spinning and the spotlights sweep for him, the kid should just run. And the SWAT guys should bring the blitz.
"You're going to be flat on the ground," Fraction tells the kid. "Just completely pancaked out. Just fucking splat.
"All right," Fraction says. "Everybody goes on lights. Go shithouse on lights."
MK12 banks on being able to capture a viewer's attention in 30 seconds or less. In this case, it'll be with a bone-crunching hit.
"Anytime there's three guys your size body-checking a kid that size, it's awesome," Fraction says. "I don't care if that makes me lowbrow. It's golden."
You've seen MK12's work. They're the computer jocks who created some of the newest sleight-of-hand moves on network television.
The Adidas ad in which Tracy McGrady jukes fast enough to leave a visual echo. The other Adidas ad, in which McGrady dunks against a black backdrop into an endless revolution of basketball hoops. The Best Buy commercial from this past spring in which a blue-and-yellow, computer-generated jogger listening to an MP3 player runs past a brownstone where more blue-and-yellow guys are watching a flat-screen TV. The black-and-white ad on department store television sets in which Levi's catchphrases such as "traditional fit" float in empty space before combining like a jigsaw puzzle to create a blue-jeans label. Tags for MTV's Total Request Live featuring silhouetted people dancing or a computer-generated hottie rocking with headphones on.
Three of MK12 are KCAI graduates. Radatz is a former mural painter from San Diego. Fisher spent his childhood collecting pulp magazines and raiding secondhand stores with his father, a freelance cartoon artist in Topeka. Carter is a computer whiz and sketch artist from a farm town outside Boise, Idaho. Like Fraction, the other one's a college dropout: Hamontree quit the University of Oklahoma, but not before receiving formal brass and opera training (an opera figure is tattooed on his chest); he plays in the Kansas City band American Catastrophe.
The group gained traction on the art-house scene in 2001, when they entered an independent short film at the San Francisco Untitled EXP film festival. Based on the concept of infinity, the short dealt with the infinite possibilities for viewing the space-time continuum.
In the film, two scientists try to find ways to measure a barren field dotted by satellite dishes. One seems modern, even though his slick suit looks vintage; the other, wearing a chemical-protection suit and equipped with a generic-looking rod-and-box counter, seems like a throwback as he simply picks up objects. As the story progresses, the panoramic image of the field distorts and reappears in shards -- a close-up of a satellite, a previously unseen bridge in the fields, the men examining rocks -- arranged like a constellation against an orange backdrop. On each shard, a dot connected to a line provides directions to unintelligible and ever-changing coordinates. Satellite beeps sound like dissonant dial tones. Some images have colors; some are black-and-white. At times, the men appear as cardboard cutouts on a three-dimensional landscape. Other times they remain still while the scene revolves around them. Each shard is a fragment of time and space.
"We were trying to deal with how something in a fourth dimension or a higher dimension would look at the third dimension," Fraction says. "The initial theory is that if you were to take all the dimensions that exist and try to map them, it would appear to be like a 27,000- sided snowflake. The idea was, what would happen if you drove a line straight though it? What would it look like?"
In a market flooded by flash, the 2-1/2-minute Untitled became MK12's calling card: a think piece that felt like an acid trip. The film festival's sponsor included Untitled in a mix tape shown across the country, and the response was overwhelming -- so many people tried to download Untitled from www.mk12.com that the site crashed and the group had to remove the film.
"It was sort of this ongoing trend that showed up in a number of pieces we did, where we take two distinct concepts that have nothing to do with each other and try our best to make a piece using those concepts," Carter says. After a trip to Guatemala, for example, Carter returned with two Spanish books, one about dream interpretation and the other on how to be a ninja. Together, the books became the basis of another film: In Ultralove Ninja, a ninja looks for love in suburbia, bouncing across tract-house rooftops, turning into smoke to sneak through sprinkler pipes and slicing up deer lawn ornaments.
MK12 programs such bizarre work ahead of the commercial stuff on the promotional reels it sends to potential clients -- a statement that the group values the intellectual challenge of a project more than the money.
"I think these days it's a perfectly valid form of expression to work in commercials," Fraction says. "But I think we like to think of ourselves as artists and figure out how to conform that to a commercial environment."
By mid-2003, MTV had contacted MK12 with a proposal that fit the quintet's business model. Offering a small wad of cash ("More than a dollar, less than $10,000," Fisher says) and complete creative freedom, MTV asked MK12 to create a short film to introduce the Best Rap Video segment of its annual Video Music Awards. Meeting over coffee and cigarettes at Muddy's on 39th Street, it took the group just 15 minutes to divine a scenario with the necessary shock value.
On August 28, 2003, they gathered at McCoy's in Westport to watch the Video Music Awards. Just before the Best Rap Video category was announced, Puff Daddy and the Reverend Run appeared onscreen to offer a moment of silence for fallen Run DMC member Jam Master Jay. A lone spotlight shone on an empty set of turntables, muting the rowdy crowd inside Radio City Music Hall. Then came the video.
Wearing knee socks, loafers, khaki shorts and a crested blazer, a British kid appeared onscreen. Behind him, another similarly dressed schoolboy bounced on modified hydraulics in a monster truck. In a prepubescent voice, the preppy in the foreground began to rap:
I rock mad rhymes, and I eat mad crumpets/And when I hear the bass, well you know I got to pump it/Fish and chips/And Guinness for flavor/I rock the UK in my mad Chuck Taylors.
Halfway through the song, he revealed a third arm behind his back. When the song ended, he put all three hands forward to reveal a 12-piece set of knuckle rings, spelling out B-E-S-T-R-A-P-V-I-D-E-O.
"I remember Puff Daddy making the worst face in the world," Hamontree says.
"It horrified people," Fraction adds. "We loved it. It was great. It was the best moment.... It was, like, wow -- the only thing better than having your work on MTV when millions of people are watching is to horribly embarrass people while they were watching it."
People remember the things they never expected to see. Now MK12's work was being discussed inside corporate suites around the world.
Not surprisingly, it was the group's second shot at forming a company. Funded by a private investor who worked at the Kansas City Board of Trade, Radatz had been developing Arcadianetwork.com, Web forum for artists and musicians to sell or showcase work and exchange ideas, in the echo of the dot-com boom in 1999. He recruited Fraction and Fisher from a local Internet service provider and Carter from Black & Veatch, where he was designing computer models of coal-fueled and nuclear power plants. The original MK12, minus Hamontree, worked out of a studio at 42nd and Pennsylvania and folded less than a year later, when the Internet bubble burst.
"One day we just kind of woke up and realized we didn't have jobs anymore," Fraction says. "It was literally a matter of the four or five of us sitting outside and smoking a lot of cigarettes and deciding we didn't want to polish our résumés or press our khakis to find a job in town."
They sketched a primitive business plan on a Chinese-restaurant menu, bought How to Start a Business for Dummies and took over Radatz's apartment, a 1,000-square-foot loft with low ceilings above Gilhouly's on 39th Street, outfitting the space with whatever they could carry from their studio. (Radatz then moved out.)
Hamontree, who had been working for a computer graphics team that designed animation for Sprint and Web pages for class reunions, knew most of the MK12ers from hanging out at Muddy's. Once, over coffee, he had shown some of the guys a client home page he'd designed featuring a man holding a sign that was prescient for the collapsing industry. It read: The end is near. A technophile with sound-mixing equipment, Hamontree joined the group a few months after he was let go.
They had one marketable commodity: a 7-minute film titled Man of Action, which they'd created during off-hours at the previous company. The film incorporated all the spy-movie prerequisites: a superspy, President Steve Elvis America; his sidekick, a robotic monkey named Robo-Bobo; the hero's dangerous love interest, Suki Kung Fu Go-Go Morningstar Perfect Assassin; an arch villain, Tha Mad Maniac Evil Misunderstood Professor Evil Maniac; a moon base; girls in go-go boots; and a futuristic game of high-stakes poker called Cosmo-Baccarat.
In an effort to build a reputation, in 2000, MK12 entered the short in major digital-film festivals, such as the Atlantic Film Festival in Nova Scotia, the Hollywood Film Festival, D:Film (a festival linked to Cannes) and the AntiMatter Festival in British Columbia. And it began racking up awards: Empire State Best Animated Video 2000, Adobe Cinema Festival Best Feature 2001. The group won the Kansas City Film Festival's Best Experimental Film award in 2001 and gained airtime on the Sci-Fi Channel's now-defunct Exposure series, which highlighted new filmmakers.
They were Dilberts gone AWOL, guys who not only created cool worlds but also left their screens and keyboards to have fun. Carter and Hamontree, both obsessed with pyrotechnics, built giant fireworks displays and then lit them outside the city. Hamontree and his band played smoky dives like the Brick. Fraction hit the annual comics convention in San Diego to fraternize among industry freaks. Fisher cruised town in a '64 Cutlass Supreme, hitting art openings and sketching his own abstract doodles. Radatz and his girlfriend took frequent unmapped road trips, pointing the car in one direction and not stopping until they'd decided this was where they wanted to go.
At first they only had one client, a New York lawyer who needed his Web site maintained. By 2000, they had won contracts to do rote graphics work for Kansas City-based advertising giant Barkley Evergreen & Partners and its clients, such as Powerball, Paramount Theatres and Sonic. Soon, ESPN wanted promos for its X-Games, so MK12 created a pitch that showed BMX biker Corey Nastazio pulling a stunt, then freezing in midair for a ghost-sketched diagram of his trick rotations. To promote a Dexter's Laboratory marathon called "Dexter Goes Global," MK12 designed spots for the Cartoon Network in which the world-saving kid recruits an army of followers equipped with Communist Party-like Dexter flags.
ESPN rejected MK12's idea outright. And post-9/11, the Cartoon Network chopped most of the promo about world domination. Still, both networks paid MK12 for the pitches and promos. It was enough to keep the guys afloat.
In 2002, the Faint, a punk band from Omaha, Nebraska, had seen an MK12 demo reel and asked the group to produce a video for the song "Agenda Suicide." In the video, a corporate drone awakens in his apartment and takes some unspecified pills. The story follows him through a series of boxes -- his apartment, a subway station, his office. At the end of each path, there is another cage -- an elevator, a subway car, a cubicle. As the drone's day repeats, it becomes more nightmarish: The subway network resembles a skeletal structure, there's a 13-hour clock at work, some fellow drones resemble monsters, and some explode at work. The protagonist watches as other drones jump in front of his commuter train.
MK12 shot the video in just a few days, filming the band in front of a bolt of fabric taped to a wall and importing the background later. Fisher played the protagonist, and other friends were cast as drones. Starring in a social commentary that pushed macabre ideas seemed fitting to Fisher. For most of his college term papers, he'd simply revamped a high school report he'd written on the comic-book industry's broad definition of -- and regulations against -- obscene material.
MTV execs objected to the pill popping, the train jumping, the blood, and the word suicide in the song's title and lyrics and banned the video, making it an instant cult classic. (Fraction notes that MK12's work got spiked around the same time Eminem released the video for "Without Me," in which Dick Cheney is electrocuted by a car battery.) After seeing the Faint's MK12 video, garage-glam rockers Hot Hot Heat called MK12 to produce the video for "No Not Now," in which a leather-clad she-spy steals the brain powering an amusement park and is subsequently chased by a militia of giant bunnies. This one made it past MTV's censors.
As its reputation grew, MK12 started receiving job offers instead of always having to hustle. The five moved to a loft in the Crossroads District and eventually hired more talented friends from the Art Institute: John Baker, John Dretzka, Maiko Kuzunishi and Chad Perry.
In late summer 2002, they shuffled the burden of invoicing and contracts to the Ebling Group, a Los Angeles production company. In addition to recruiting and billing clients, Ebling granted them creative freedom on all projects and encouraged them to keep making art films to enter in film festivals. A year later, they expanded their Crossroads space, filling a second loft with a conference room, a sound studio with enough amps to allow Hamontree and American Catastrophe to shake the walls, a kitchen, a sleeping loft for visiting clients, and a giant green screen.
When they went international, their client base tripled. Sears, Diesel, the Sci-Fi Channel, TNT, Haagen-Dazs, MTV Latin America. But brand-name clients don't always translate to big money or major exposure.
"We've done small work for huge companies and big work for small companies, too," Fraction says. "We're lucky if at the end of the month we can save a little. We're not starving artists, we're not millionaires, we're working middle class. The thing is, that can change in a minute."
In the animation industry, smaller firms often face Lotto-winner odds against being awarded contracts, yet the men of MK12 have been deciding who they want as clients and landing about a third of their pitches this year.
"Some companies make more on a single job than we do in a good year," Fraction says. "We're definitely pitching for higher profile work than we were before and we're getting some of it."
Contacted by AXN, a Spanish action network, to create a set of station identifications, the group designed three commercials that would use footage from classic '80s B-films such as Delta Force and Deep Blue, freezing scenes at key moments -- Chuck Norris firing a machine gun from the sliding door of a VW van, Rachel Hunter being threatened by a spurned villainess -- to use as textbook examples of action-movie staples: getaway cars, subvillains, hot women. In the first, blueprints appear to diagram the technical savvy behind the getaway car. In the second, extreme close-ups give clues to help viewers identify the subvillain (aviator shades, an unshaven face, nervous sweating, a fine Italian suit) while a power meter measures the lethality of his weapon. In the third, graphs chart the number of different stereotypes directors assign to hot women. Women are so often put in jeopardy, the narrator explains, that they frequently affect the hero's decision making. They are so essential to the action film. They are soft and pretty, and they smell like flowers. They provide a feminine balance that lives in harmony with masculine chaos. And if their tops don't come off in the first 40 minutes? You know you're in for a long, boring action film.
"Over the years, we've gotten a reputation of being the people to call when you want something completely non sequitur or anti-brand," Radatz says. "In the past, I think we've had difficulty conforming to the standards of brands because we are always looking to challenge things and do things differently. So we're not the people to call for those companies with rigid standards of how those brands are represented. Whenever we get called, people are automatically under the assumption that we're going to screw with their logo."
MK12's work raises questions. Industry peers want to know about the guys who create these skewed realities. Who are they? Where do they come up with such fresh material?
It's late January, and Carter, Hamontree, Fisher and Radatz are standing on a small platform in the central atrium at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, a Frank Gehry-designed limestone and titanium complex that spans the length of 32 football fields and generations of artistic icons.
MK12 is one of just three companies headlining the Guggenheim's first after-hours event. The group has been recruited by Waskman Studios, a Spanish artists' collective that has earned international attention for spotlighting cutting-edge artists in a variety of mediums. The four will curate a motion-graphics conference at the museum.
The event has drawn a mixture of pilgrims -- digital-media gurus who flock to industry shows and townies sporting Euro-chic mullets. More than a thousand people in semiformal attire line the catwalks of the three-story building.
Radatz wears a vintage, tan-tweed suit he picked up a few days earlier. Fisher, Hamontree and Carter, all freshly shaved, sport old suits or blazer-and-jeans ensembles.
Fraction is back in Kansas City, preparing to fly to Tokyo to represent the firm at another prestigious design conference. Like his partners in Bilbao, he will encounter an audience of similarly young trendsetters. Furthering their slacker-genius pretense, each guy carries a business card with a tongue-in-cheek title. Jed Carter, Tim Fisher, Matt Fraction, Shaun Hamontree and Ben Radatz: Junior Creativity Facilitator, GALAGA Champion, Cowboy Superpresident, Human ASSurance Producer and Art Wrangler, respectively.
The Bilbao contingent has a translator, but they dispense with nuanced explanations and rely solely on visuals. They project a slide show of their influences: covers for 1953 Galaxy science-fiction magazines, Soviet posters featuring blocky tanks and stars and soldiers, a Polish movie poster of Clint Eastwood, 1930s prints of existing buildings juxtaposed with futuristic architectural renderings, Bollywood movie scenes.
The images represent ideas inspired by junk.
MK12 collects them from the clutter at garage sales and buys them off Web sites or from hippie alcoves.
"We get lucky in our finds because we aren't looking for collectibles," Radatz says. "We're looking for quirks and anomalies that are so ugly or bizarre that others wouldn't think to buy them."
This is the philosophy of MK12: Inspiration can happen anywhere -- especially in Kansas City. Aside from the Chiefs, barbecue and The Wizard of Oz, the city has few cultural touchstones, Radatz says. The members of MK12 view the city around them as an open canvas where, unlike directors in Los Angeles and New York, they can mine unexamined objects and architecture and impose their own ideas.
"Back in art school, a few of us saw Kansas City as this large, urban palette, which we explored and exploited for video photography work," Carter says.
In stream-of-consciousness sessions, each new object becomes a jumping-off point as ideas begin to ricochet. This is how images from an old J.C. Penney catalog become the backdrop for an MTV promo for The Osbournes. A Japanese knitting magazine and Romper Room record found on a day trip through central Kansas become ingredients in a series of comedic spots for a design conference in Australia. The abandoned Kansas City water-treatment plant on the Missouri River becomes the perfect setting for a film about the concept of infinity.
"Kansas City kind of interests me because it's kind of a big landfill," Hamontree says. "A landfill of inspiration."