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Studio News

Leaving Slough: Oz Smith

Nov 27, 2019

If you’ve walked past a television or seen a meme any time in the past 20 years, you probably know the English town of Slough (rhymes with ‘cow’) as the dreary suburban backdrop to BBC cult classic The Office.

It’s actually a real town with a real population, and they’ve had mixed reactions to the infamy that comes with being the butt of the world’s jokes.

But dive a little deeper and you’ll find the reputation perpetuated by the TV series is … justified.

At least, that was the case in the 1990s when Jumbla Creative Director Oz Smith called it home.

“Slough literally means ‘shit runoff from a field’. You only had a couple of options there - you could set things on fire or you could get stoned. On a good night you could do both,” he said.

“There was also a big sewage works in Slough. Whenever I went on holiday I’d drive back along the motorway, and when I started smelling shit I’d say ‘we’re nearly home!’”.

Off to art school

After high school, Oz took the first opportunity to broaden his horizons by moving 200km north to study performance art in Nottingham.

He’d always enjoyed art and music, so it seemed like a no-brainer. But early on, he found it wasn’t quite what he’d envisioned.

“I realised pretty quickly that we had to perform every single thing in front of like 250 people,” he said.

“I did one performance where I got too scared to go on stage after seeing the size of the audience. So I got them to put a spotlight on my guitar - I just left it on stage, walked off and played some crazy, loud music through the speakers.

“After awhile, I went back on stage and grabbed my guitar. I ended up getting a really good mark for it and it was horrendous. That was the point I knew it was time to get the hell out of there.”

The future is … DVD

Fast forward three years and Oz had landed his first creative job as an interactive designer - hired, ostensibly, to produce DVD menus.

“Motion graphics didn’t really exist then,” Oz said. “It was the dawn of websites and I was really interested in DVD menus and CD-ROMs because they were obviously the future.

“I also liked the interactive element of it, that you could control it and make it do what you wanted rather than passively watching.”

After approximately 25 minutes designing menus, Oz found himself developing the graphics suite used across all sports on the Eurosport network.

He excelled in the role, networked like a demon, and built a solid knowledge-base that helped him land a gig in broadcast design when his company was bought out.

Oz spent the next year working under old-school BBC creatives, learning the importance of thinking slowly and taking a deliberate approach to the creative process.

“I found it really valuable. Back in the 60s, when my bosses were at the BBC, things were much slower, the budgets were bigger and ideas had to be sold to a board of people before you could hit ‘go’,” he said.

“Today, things are more immediate and we can just bang concepts out really quickly. But people seem to skip past the thinking bit at the beginning, and that’s where there’s tonnes of work.

“It’s so important to spend time thinking about things if you want to be memorable, if you want to hook people and if you want to create something interesting.”

Greener pastures

It was a few years before Oz found himself peering over the fence into the lush, green pastures of freelance life.

Being pigeonholed as a ‘junior’ and lacking opportunities to expand his skillset in-house was about to ignite a decade-long stint as a solo operator.

“It’s really hard when you’re a junior and everyone knows you as a junior. You kind of have to start somewhere new for people to change their impressions,” he said.

“I used to see that at post-production places where they’d have runners. It’s hard for runners to move up because everyone would be like ‘Oh, you just make the tea, don’t you?’ Well, no.

“But when you’re a freelancer you can walk into a room and be whoever you say you are … ‘look at my showreel’ kind of thing.”

Just wing it, mate

Oz’s early breakthroughs in the freelance world propelled him from in-house dogsbody to broadcast designer for the UK’s largest morning show (at the time), and soon after, for Eurovision.

It was 2011 and he was pitching for the latter project against behemoth production houses like The Mill - without knowing how to design in 3D (a key requirement of the gig).

Ever the improviser, Oz tapped a friend to help create a deck of 3D concepts and won the job over his brand-name competitors.

Then he had to learn 3D.

“It was a bit of an ‘oh shit’ moment,” he said.

“So my mate explained to me what he did and how to do it. I rocked up pretending like I knew what I was doing and spent the next few weeks learning 3D while doing all the graphics and titles for Eurovision.

“It was like a two-month job, so I had some time to sneakily learn stuff.”

A (welcome) spanner in the works

Oz parlayed his early freelance success into a book of reliable, quality work. The projects were fun, he was loving London life, and things were peachy.

Then he became a father.

“I didn’t want to raise a kid in London, it’s too full on - they have to be streetwise too soon,” he said.

“Even where I grew up as a kid, in Slough, it’s a hostile place. Kids used to shoot fireworks at you, try to beat you up, mug you … that was a day-to-day thing.

“My wife is Australian and we came back down one year when our daughter was six-months-old. It was just so alien compared to our life in London, but it was the change we needed.”

Not long after, the Smiths moved their growing family to Melbourne, where Oz toiled as a freelancer for a year before finding in-house work and re-starting the process of building his reputation.

Jumbla’s Head of Production Steve Bradshaw took note when Oz hit town, spending months luring him from a rival studio. It took a series of meetings at Jumbla HQ to seal the deal before Oz came on board as the studio’s second creative director.

“I really liked Jumbla and their approach - they give back and mentor people. That really helped me make up my mind. I hadn’t seen anywhere, in all my freelance travels, where that [mentoring] was a thing,” he said.

“Most people in this industry seem to be out for themselves, and if I didn’t get an opportunity to learn in the early days I wouldn’t be here.”

From freelancer to 'the big chair'

The shift from freelancer to creative director hasn’t been without its challenges. Oz says the most difficult aspect of his new role was learning to watch others execute his ideas.

“Not having total control over a project from start to finish was difficult initially. I really like it now,” he said.

“Knowing there’s no ‘one way’ to treat a project, that different people will have a hand in it, and getting to know people as individuals has been a great change.

“Having worked for a lot of creative directors myself - and occasionally finding it quite a frustrating experience - I can see why the guys might sometimes feel that way because now I’m that annoying person. It’s ironic.”

Today, Oz oversees Jumbla’s growing 3D team, and when on the tools, spends most of his time compositing.

“I like having control over all the bits, which is why I think I like compositing,” he said.

Some of Oz’s favourite projects for Jumbla include Pokies Parasite, Julius Marlow and Blackstone.

Connect with Oz on LinkedIn and Instagram.

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