Today I had the pleasure of interviewing James Razzall, North America’s President of Advertising at Oscar-winning creative studio, Framestore. Having started with the company in London, the last 20 years have seen him play a significant role in its growth as part of the management team that founded the New York studio in 2004, Los Angeles in 2013 and most recently Chicago in 2017. Whilst working across all of the US offices, Razzall is now permanently based in LA.
He has since helped to grow the West Coast operation to nearly 150 full-time staff, encompassing Framestore’s globally celebrated visual effects for any screen as well as innovation in the digital space through immersive entertainment, dark rides, and AR/VR/MR installations for brands, agencies, game developers, and studios.
Razzall sits on the West Coast board of AICP and the AICP Post council.
Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Istudied graphic design at school and was always very interested in art, however I didn’t have a clear idea of what career to pursue. Growing up in London in the 80s and 90s, the West End always had a certain allure. When I got the opportunity to work as a runner in Soho, I was hooked. Back then the only real way into postproduction was through an entry level position, which meant making tea and running tapes around town, and it was actually a lot of fun. This was a ‘work hard, play hard’ environment and seemed so much more exciting to me than the suit and tie world of corporate life. I was amazed by the technology and it was wonderful to watch how the senior staff enjoyed passing on their knowledge. You’d be surprised how many of my peers from that time are now running companies around the globe.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
Being tasked with leading the U.S. operation of a British company certainly threw up some challenges. We didn’t want to lose our culture and English roots, but there is a major difference when it comes to operating in markets like New York and Los Angeles. We wanted to convey our enthusiasm but remain sincere and self-deprecating. We hit the ground running with great work from the very start, but for a company with some of that residual British sensibility, we weren’t making it a priority to seek out accolades or publicize our successes. We soon realized that our competitors didn’t operate the same way and that we needed to adopt a new mentality of showcasing what we were capable of.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
I’ve always focused on the team. Creative businesses like Framestore are really nothing without the talent, so I have always tried to treat everyone with equal respect.
We work in a high-pressure environment where team morale is everything. The quality of work and artists is unquestionable and our success rides on having a team of people who a) like and respect each other and b) have some fun while they work. If an office has a thriving and positive culture then clients want to be there, and inevitably the good work and critical reward soon follows.
Framestore has always put creativity before commerce. I am lucky enough to work with a group of very talented individuals who believe in and are inspired by creative challenges. Taking on risky projects that might not have made the most financial sense has partly led to our world-class reputation. Many of our competitors were swallowed up by huge corporations long ago, which resulted in a slow draining of the creative energy. Now it’s our chance to reap the rewards.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became President”?
Go with your gut.
There are many occasions that come to mind when I’ve second-guessed an initially negative gut reaction. If I had gone on my first instincts when agreeing to take on certain projects, or hire certain people, there is a good chance we could have saved a lot of time and money.
Everything will work out in the end.
On occasion, you come up against a project that seems impossible to get over the finish line. The odds are stacked against the team and everything feels disastrous. Ironically, those most challenging projects are usually the ones that win the awards. And popping champagne corks has an uncanny way of removing any bad memories, so try to remind yourself of that anytime you don’t see an end in sight.
Don’t let the bastards grind you down.
In every industry there are people who are so unpleasant to work with that they make you wonder how they ever got to where they are. The types who blame everyone around them without taking time for self-reflection. In those scenarios I choose to adopt excessive friendliness and channel positivity their way. It’s important to keep in mind that their inner happiness (or lack thereof) isn’t a direct reflection on you.
Remember to breathe.
I took a meditation course a few years ago and still practice transcendental meditation when I can. I am amazed at how simple breathing exercises can remove stress and help you focus on a task. Very Californian, I know, but wow…
Surround yourself with people that are better than you.
If you are going to be successful it is imperative that the people you work with are going to push you forward and raise the bar. There is no point in wasting time worrying about internal competition. In my experience, bringing your team up to surpass you is one of life’s greatest feelings.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My mentor, Jon Collins. He was my boss for a long period of my career and gave me the opportunity to move to the U.S. I have him to thank for pushing me as a partner in the business, as well as the many insights he shared about how to run a successful shop. He had a football (soccer) analogy for everything that happened at Framestore, and most of the time they were spot on.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
Professionally, I want to see the VFX industry truly recognized for their contribution to the creative arts. As a relatively new industry we are often overlooked when it comes to crediting our work. That is changing with every year as technology evolves to help us to do more and more amazing things. I continue to campaign within the industry for artists to be rewarded for their talents and not treated like another part of the computer.
Personally, I want to raise my son to be a confident and kind human being. I’m equally nervous and excited for the world he is entering, but being the first American-born Razzall means he doesn’t have to be emotionally repressed like us Brits!
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
I would like people to always remember me smiling. Life is way too short to worry about the little things.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
I would like to create a movement that ended voter apathy. I believe if voter turnout was mandatory and more accessible for all, the political landscape would look incredibly different in the U.S. I question how social media seems to be a key influence on our politics, yet there still isn’t a way to create an online voting system that is totally secure and easy to use.
This may sound cheesy, but wouldn’t it be groundbreaking to foster an environment where different sides of the debate, be they religious, political or racial, could somehow interact in a less partisan way? The algorithms of social media are creating a fractured world and I think many agree that we’re going down a questionable path. We are all just humans, no matter where we are from, and I truly believe that sitting down for a cup of tea or a pint together without the endless echo chamber of opinion could lead to some great friendships, and solutions.