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Introducing the transatlantic Emmy winning dream weavers | #CompanySpotlight

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This week, we shine our company spotlight on a rather unique, LA and Amsterdam-based outfit that specialises in virtual installations and experiences.

Active Theory is a “tightly integrated team of designers and developers” that recently added an actual Emmy award to their vast trophy cabinet. Their work is extensive and diverse (to say the least) and we could wax lyrical all day about it without much encouragement. 

But to dig a little deeper, we reached out to company Co-Founder and Creative Director, Andy Thelander, to see what makes them tick.

How was your company born and where are you based?

Active Theory was founded in 2012 by Michael Anthony, Nick Mountford, and I. We all met in LA while working in the same studio and quickly became friends. We were exchanging ideas and collaborating so frequently that we soon realised there was a similar vision there. Long story short, we took the leap and a decade later here we are

We’re still based out of Los Angeles but we’ve expanded and now have a talented European team based in Amsterdam as well.

What was the biggest challenge to the growth of your company?

People who experiment in their own time with new technologies and mediums inevitably have passion and the biggest challenge we’ve faced is finding those unique people. We know they’re out there because Active Theory wouldn’t be what it is without them but connecting with the right artists or developers can be tough.

Which was the first huge success that you can remember?

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Our first success was fortunately our first project, Clouds Over Cuba, an interactive documentary and website about the Cuban missile crisis. This collaborative project with the talented Ben Tricklebank, created for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, was awarded an Emmy at the annual News and Documentary Emmy Awards

Awards make us blush and popularity contests aren’t our thing but an honour as big as an Emmy was a reassuring sign that we were on the right track.

What’s the biggest opportunity for you and your company in the next year?

It’s hard to say without ruining any surprises… but I will say that we’re working with some of our favourite brands and creators out there right now. From reimagining fast-casual dining websites to pushing the traditional art gallery experience in new directions, we’ve been very busy lately as the world continues to embrace the possibilities of the internet and digital spaces.

Can you explain your team’s creative process? What makes it unique?

Our creative process comes after identifying and prioritising our clients’ needs. We gather references and have daily collaborative sessions where we brainstorm, experiment, and critique. Once we’re all aligned on a vision for the project, we move the assets into a development pipeline based on Hydra.

Hydra is a powerful creatively-focused JavaScript framework for building WebGL websites, games, and installations. It was developed in-house at Active Theory and is used to build everything we make. Hydra is always growing and improving as developers continue to add functionality. More recently, we've added tools to give artists more control over building 3D scenes directly in their browser.

How does your team remain inspired and motivated?

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It’s a little different for everyone on our team but I think getting away from the computer is important to staying inspired and motivated. Whether it be snowboarding, checking out some live music, or jumping into a new book, I think all of us need to step away from our screens long enough to reset. 

How has COVID-19 affected your company?

Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve seen an increased interest in virtual events and this has allowed us to really utilise one of the biggest achievements at Active Theory, our Dreamwave platform

We use Dreamwave to build custom, digital environments where brands host virtual experiences that connect, educate, and entertain. During a time when live events were on hold worldwide, we were able to deliver interactive, online events to an international audience. 

One of our favourites was Secret Sky 2021. The virtual festival, presented by musician Porter Robinson, ran for 10+ hours and featured 16 artists. Over the course of the festival, 160k attendees from 163 countries explored the festival’s four unique environments and connected with each other across mobile, desktop, and VR devices.

Which agencies do you gain inspiration from? Do you have any heroes in the industry?

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I’ve really enjoyed large-scale installation work by the likes of Ouchhh and teamLab. Studios like ManvsMachine really set the bar high for visual 3D work. I’m also a fan of basically anything by Non-Format.

What is one tip that you would give to other agencies looking to grow?

Don’t prioritise growing for the sake of growth. Whether you’re working with a team of 100 people or a team of ten, the priority should always be on the quality of the work and the compatibility of the team. Start small, stay true to yourself, and build up from there.

How do you go about finding new clients/business? (Pitching, work with retainers, etc.)

We’ve worked really hard over the past decade to produce the best work we can and I think that’s the main reason we’ve been able to steadily connect with so many new clients.

When your values align while collaborating on a project it becomes a really fun process where everyone is working towards making the best project possible within the constraints we’re given. Simply, do great work and great work comes in.

What’s your one big hope for the future of the industry?

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I hope the future of our particular industry continues to see the adoption of the web as a creative platform to tell stories and connect people all around the world. Being able to instantly jump into an experience with someone on the other side of the world will always be a powerful technology within which we can continue to create and innovate.

Do you have any websites, books or resources that you would recommend?

You can usually find me browsing sites like Reddit, Pinterest, Behance, Dribbble, and Art Station. Most of the time I’m collecting and sorting reference material into buckets for projects; they are great sources of inspiration.

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