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Unite Berlin 2018: Interview with Neth Nom, Director of Sonder

Sonder is a short film created within Unity, that explores the intensity and range of emotions following the end of a relationship. The film centres on the emotional journey that comes after a breakup, touching on our vulnerability, but also the chance to grow from the experience.

Sonder premiered at Unite Berlin 2018 last month, and we had the pleasure of sitting down with Neth Nom, Director of Sonder, the morning after the premiere. Naturally, we just had to ask Neth how he was feeling after the landmark event.

“Pretty damn excited, that’s one of the reasons why I slept really late because I was still fuelled with so much energy. It was exciting because it was the first time premiering in front of an audience. We just finished the film a month ago, and we’ve only shown it to our crew members, as well as some personal friends and artists, but this was the first time in front of an audience, AND it’s in a different country. We were nervous about how well the story would be received in a different country, but the response has been great so far.”

Sonder was premiered to a broad demographic of nationalities, thanks to the international appeal of Unite Berlin 2018. The consensus across the event was that everyone absolutely loved the film, ourselves included. Sonder is a beautiful film, and it’s truly exciting seeing as Sonder is the first film to be created within the Unity engine, and Neth and his team have managed to create such a success out of what is very much a pioneering project.

“it feels like it’s in a box, and I want to break out of that.”

Sonder has led to Unity beginning to add features to the engine to aid creators wishing to follow the route Neth and the team behind Sonder have taken, as we found out talking to Adam Myhill, Head of Cinematics Cinemachine at Unite Berlin 2018. We spoke with Neth about his relationship with the team behind unity, and his plans to stay with the engine for projects following the life cycle of Sonder.

“Oh definitely, one of the reasons why is that I love when people like Unity, and they don’t pay me to say that! But working with Unity, and working with the people behind Unity, has really been a lot of fun, they are all super kind and helpful. The other reason why I want to keep using Unity, is because I still think there’s still a lot of room to really push the engine forward.

“It still has somewhat of a stigma as to what an engine is. If you’re using an engine what it should look like, what should come out of it, because it’s still being widely used for video games and for VR. When you do that it comes out with a certain look, I’m not saying it’s a bad look, it’s good but it feels like it’s in a box, and I want to break out of that.”

Unite Berlin 2018: Interview with Neth Nom, Director of Sonder - n3rdabl3

Sonder was created by a team of 144 people, fueled by their passion, working in their free time, and sometimes from their bedrooms, to be a part of the effort. The film was created with next to no budget, only that of Neth’s personal savings, yet it comes across as something that had thousands pumped into it by a studio and investors. This was a goal for Neth and the team, to create studio quality work without the studio budget, and they have achieved that and then some.

“When we first started we were approached by people wanting to invest, and actually turned it down. A lot of people think I’m crazy, but I knew that we shouldn’t go that route, just because if were trying something new, with a new engine; a new pipeline; a new invention; a new way of working, if we have investment, I think it would put us in cuffs you know?

“We want room to play, we want room to fill, and I think by creating something new, or by doing pipeline, artists love hearing that. They want to be a part of something different, it’s kind of pride thing. I think once you take on a big task, you take on a big adventure, I think that you will attract a lot of great artists.”

By not having investors to be accountable to, and not having them dictating their workflow or deadlines, the team were able to work through the struggles of creating a film within Unity without any additional pressure, and have come out of it with both greater knowledge, and a stunning production.

“We learned that the more that we take the time to inform them, the more knowledge we give them, the more that they will contribute to the project.”

If you ask any artist, the work they love the most is the work they create for themselves. It’s the sense of pride, and doing something new, that helped Neth build the 144 strong team behind Sonder.

“I would say it’s that and also a combination of creating a healthy work environment. A lot of times when you’re working at a big studio you end up feeling like you’re a cog in the machine, and when you work out of a small start-up, it makes it feel empowering, because you’re often being used in different places. I’ve worked at really big companies, small companies, and medium-sized, so I try to take everything that I’ve learned, and put it into Sonder. 

“Trying to figure out ways to make the artists feel empowered, and to challenge them, so that it’s just not their talent, but also putting them into different areas for them to succeed, and nurture that talent. That’s what I would say is one of the secret ingredients to the success of this film.”

Unite Berlin 2018: Interview with Neth Nom, Director of Sonder - n3rdabl3

The team behind Sonder are spread across 9 different time zones, with a chunk of the team centred within the San Francisco Bay area, the logistics of keeping a team of such a size together proved to be a challenge, but it was one that Neth was more than ready for.

“It was tough, because the majority of our artists are in San Francisco, around the Bay area, but we don’t have a central house. We do all meet online, and one of the things that we do is keep people informed, and keep people inspired throughout the world. It’s important to do little stuff, like leads and sync-ups, that’s what we call them. So we would sync-up once a month, where all the leaders of the team would gather for maybe 2 hours, and give updates. It is then their job to keep their departments informed.

“Then every 2-3 months we would do an all-crew meeting, where we would rent out a place in San Francisco, in the Bay area, then we’ll have everyone from all over the world join in on that meeting to keep them informed. We learned that the more that we take the time to inform them, the more knowledge we give them, the more that they will contribute to the project. If you just say ‘hey Joe Shmoe, do this, I want it done by tomorrow’ you’re not gonna get much out of them, but the more that you can give them, the more that the assignment that they’re working on can feel like its purpose is for a bigger goal, that’s the key thing. We take a lot of time not just assigning work, but talking to them and meeting up with them. When we talk to artists, sometimes we would set up meetings where we just hang out, and not actually assign anything, we’re just like ‘hey how are you doing?’ talking about the weather, just normal things. It does take extra time, but it goes a long way.”

Neth really understands that you get out of your team what you put into your team, and the success of Sonder is a testament to just how much time and effort he put into every single one of the 144 strong team, and the effort they gave in return.

“we all really care about people and management, it’s something that we all study.”

We delved more into the logistics of managing such a large and widespread team, and bringing them together and working towards the same goal. Neth delved deeper into how they divided the team down into departments.

“This was all organic, the leadership that’s in place, we all really care about people and management, it’s something that we all study. When we first started Sonder, we didn’t have any department managers, we didn’t have a lot of supervisors. When we first started there were around 20 people, and there was not really much supervision at all. You don’t need it, because you want to create an open space for people to cross between departments and challenge themselves. Once it grew to around 30-40 people we realised that we need production assistants, coordinators and few supervisors, and once that grew into around 70-80, close to 90 people, we said alright we need department managers. One for creative, one for technical, and one for unity, so we have 3 department managers. They oversaw their departments, and sometimes within their departments there were around 20-30 people.”

Going forward, the team plan to tour Sonder around as many film festivals as humanly possible, and we expect the film to get the same ovation it was given at Unite Berlin 2018 around the world.

Unite Berlin 2018: Interview with Neth Nom, Director of Sonder - n3rdabl3

With the premiere done and dusted, the team aim to hit their new goals, including a shot at an Oscar run with Sonder. Neth notes how game changing it could be for Sonder, a film created within Unity, to even be nominated, let alone win on one of the grandest stages of them all.

“We hope for it to travel all across the world, like to Sundance; Tribeca; all across hollywood; all across japan; europe. We were just in Annecy last week to do a talk there, and we hope to premiere there next year. We’re crossing our fingers, one of our biggest goals is to get nominated for an Oscar, we want to do an Oscar run, submission is this year, in a few months.

“This would be big for the engine world, for Unity, and it would be a game changer. Even if we just get nominated!”

Sondertakes the technology used to create some of the most gorgeous games available today, games that come with trailers that look as though they’ve been cut from a feature film, to create just that. It almost makes you question why someone hasn’t done this before.

“why tell a funny story that’s only going to be funny once? let’s make it impactful, something that could last for a long time”

Neth based the story of Sonder around some of his own experiences with relationships and breakups. We discussed the struggles of creating a story so close to home, and just why Neth chose to base Sonder around such a subject.

“I didn’t find it too difficult at all. Maybe it’s because of my background in animation, working in the industry and having worked at studios like Pixar and Disney. That has always kind of been their goal, making films to tell personal stories.

“When I created Sonder I was like ‘If I’m going to tell a story, why tell a funny story that’s only going to be funny once? let’s make it impactful, something that could last for a long time and maybe it could change someones life’ I think to me, that’s worth it. So then I started to think about what was the hardest time in my life, and it sounds cheesy, but usually it revolves around a relationship story. I thought what’s a clever way to tell a break up story, but make it visually stunning and visually exciting.”

That clever way of telling a relationship story is Sonder.The film doesn’t resort to clichés, it takes visual metaphor, and runs with it. It really does have to be seen to be believed. It’s easy to pass off any film that touches on relationships as nothing more than the drab fodder you find on daytime television, but Sonder really is more than that. It’s genuinely clever.

Unite Berlin 2018: Interview with Neth Nom, Director of Sonder - n3rdabl3

Coming to a close we spoke to Neth about the teams emotions as the project came to its completion, and it’s great to see that the team are all still so enthusiastic and proud of what they’ve created. The team showcased a video, containing a vast majority of the team members who worked on Sonder after the premiere, and there was not a dry eye in the room witnessing the passion and pride behind the film.

“It was a lot of joy and a lot of fun, the crew video is a good summary of people who, even though we’re finished, are so excited. Saying things like don’t delete the slack channel! People really, really enjoyed it. What’s great to see is that even thought this was a passion project, and people were working on it evenings and weekends, they were choosing to work on Sonder for 3 years with us, and some people don’t even last 3 years in a relationship, so for them to last 3 years on a project, is pretty special.

“I think it says a lot to the community that we’ve built, to the culture, and I think that’s what is really important for creating and nurturing artists. We don’t see that a lot nowadays.

“We tried as much as we could, so that when people were looking for work, we’d help people to get jobs. We’ve seen people find jobs because of this project, people who have become a lead or a supervisor because of Sonder. That’s amazing to see, that people who have worked on our films are already changing their lives.”

Neth wanted Sonder to potentially change someones life. Well it seems as though that’s already happened, on more than one occasion, with the project itself. The story behind the story.

“I hope that if anybody watches this film that they can be inspired.”

We asked Neth to leave us with one last thing about Sonder.

“I would say, I hope that if anybody watches this film that they can be inspired. The goal of making this film is for anyone that has gone through a tough time, or is going through one, just know that you’re not alone. The person closest to you or nearest to you, they care about you too. Hopefully this film can create a dialogue, because I truly believe that the more we share our vulnerabilities, the faster we heal.”

Sonder really is one to look out for at film festivals across the globe in the coming months. A huge thank you to Unity for inviting us along to Unite Berlin 2018, and an even bigger thank you to Neth Nom for taking the time to talk to us at the event.

You can view the gorgeous teaser for Sonder below, and to find out more, check out their website.

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