Jamie Caliri is a director whose recent animated films have garnered an Emmy and three Annie awards, among others. In 2015, he directed the stop-motion sequences in The Little Prince. In the late 90’s he jumped from animation to live action and took on music videos including Marcy Playground’s “Sex and Candy” and Morphine’s “Early To Bed,” which earned him a Grammy nomination for best music video. In 2008, he and his brother Dyami founded DZED Systems. They produce Dragonframe animation software, which is used to shoot such films as Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs.

In This Episode

Jamie Caliri has a unique background working in the film industry, specifically in stop motion film. Through word-of-mouth marketing, Jamie and his brother Dyami created a software that is now industry standard. He followed his passion, found his niche, and met with great success. In this episode, Jamie shares how Dragonframe came out of his personal need for these specific tools and how they happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Topic Timeline:

0:54 Keep It Rolling

Running multiple companies, Jamie and Dyami work together to keep all the pieces moving.

1:37 Organic Growth

Dragonframe is now a decade in and has become the go-to software for stop-motion films and animation – all done by word-of-mouth marketing.

2:12 How It Works

Jamie shares the details of the software, how it works, and how it links together to make it easy for all the people involved in the same project.

3:57 The Entrepreneurial Journey

Now, halfway through their business journey, Jamie and Dyami’s software has become the industry standard.

5:34 Working Remotely With a Team

The Dragonframe team all work remotely. With multiple offices and people all working on different pieces of the businesses, it’s now at a place where it runs itself.

5:58 Combining Expertise and a Niche

What has them stand out?  Jamie ensured that his software served both the animators and the cinematographers, meeting a need for a hyper-focused niche.

6:23 It’s Not Just About a Great Product

Jamie and his brother went straight to the top and created their software for the professionals in the industry. Jamie’s background helped; he knew what they needed and made software to reflect that.

7:47 The Right Place at the Right Time

The software started out as a need for Jamie’s projects. Its progression happened as the technology for films improved and, over time, it evolved into what it is today.

8:57 How to Stay Relevant

The key is to keep the product relevant and priced right. With copycat software, it’s vital for them to have the best customer service and the best product.

11:38 There’s More Story to Tell

Looking back, Jamie has had a full career of making films and developing this software. Looking forward he sees a future with more film projects and storytelling.

12:18 The Internet Made It Possible

Jamie and Dyami were on the fence about putting their product in retail stores. Leveraging the internet they were able to build a business that reaches their ideal customer.

14:37 Don’t Lose Perspective

When working on projects that take years, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. Choosing smaller projects with a shorter end goal in mind might be the best choice.

When a pro opened up our software, they would think, “Oh, this is made for me. This has the tools that I need.”

– Jamie Caliri

Show Transcript:

LR: Welcome to Modern Ontrapreneur. I’m Landon and this is Jamie Caliri. He is a director, whose recent animated films have garnered an Emmy and three Annie awards, among others. In 2015, he directed the stop-motion sequences in The Little Prince. Jumping between animation to live action, he took on music videos in the late 90s, including Marcy Playground’s “Sex and Candy” and “Morphine’s “Early To Bed,” which earned him a Grammy nomination for best music video. In 2008, he and his brother …

JC: Dyami.

LR: Dyami founded DZED Systems. They produce Dragonframe animation software, which is used to shoot such films as Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, which is a pretty weird and cool film. Thanks for being here.

JC: Hey, thank you. Thanks for having me.

LR: So cool. So, tell me what you’re up to these days.

JC: Well these days, keeping the software going with my brother. We keep it rolling, keep it updated and make sure that professionals out there are getting the tools they need. I also have a company that makes, motion control systems to move cameras through miniature sets, so that’s another adventure of mine.

LR: Miniature sets.

JC: Well, like stop-motion sets.

LR: Stop-motion sets, yeah.

JC: It’s a robotic system that moves the camera and synchronizes with the shooting.

LR: These are two going businesses that you manage?

JC: Dragonframe is very well established. The other company which is called Arc Motion Control is sort of an up and coming company.

LR: Cool. And so you run those on a day to day basis, and you’re selling that stuff to studios and supporting it and getting people on board, very interesting. You’ve been at this for a while, sounds like?

JC: Yes, we’ve been doing Dragonframe for about 10 years now. My brother and I started it very simply. And we just let it slowly kinda grow organically. It’s used for … nowadays most of the time if you see a music video, or a commercial, or a title sequence, or a movie that is stop-motion, chances are it’s shot with our software.

LR: Stop-motion it’s …?

JC: So stop-motion is aided with miniatures and it’s animation that’s camera based. So if you have a camera, you’re filming something, you’re moving things around. That would be stop-motion.

LR: And then your software kinda puts all those frames together and manages how that all works.

JC: It does a few different things. For the animator, it gives them a workspace to kinda, as they’re animating, to see the progress as they’re going. And it keeps all the sound synchronized so that they can hear the sound in sync with what they’re doing. Also, animators will bring in a lot of video reference and they can put that on the screen as they’re working and see, maybe they made a little film of themselves acting something out and they can reference that as they’re going. And then it also has other workspaces that really unify the stage and setting. So once you start shooting stop-motion, let’s say you got lights that are changing or are fading in and out, in Dragonframe you can program the lighting in there and then that keeps it synchronized with the shooting. And then, it can also control motion control, so through the software, you can control robotic arms that can be moving the camera through so everything is kept locked into the frame. So if the animator is going along and they go, “Oh, I made a mistake.” They can back up and delete a couple of frames, and everything will move back and synchronize.

LR: Crazy.

JC: And there’s a workspace for the cinematographers, so they can really get their alignment and their lighting right, and take time to maybe look at what they’re shooting now versus what was shot on another stage, but has to match up, and they can get all the lighting set up that way. So, it’s actually got four or five workstations within it but, once you start shooting, it all kind of locks together.

LR: Yeah, awesome. Speaking about your own entrepreneurial journey, because that’s what we’re focused on here at Ontraport, you started this business in what year?

JC: 2008.

LR: 2008, so it’s a decade. Sounds like it’s basically industry standard.

JC: It is now yeah, it’s exciting. You can say that now.

LR: How long have you been able to say that, you think?

JC: Probably about five years.

LR: Halfway through, amazing. So if you could go back in time and give your startup self a bit of advice that would’ve made your paths way smoother, what would have it been?

JC: When we started, my brother does the coding, he’s the lead engineer, and I do the user interface work, and I am in Ojai, California, and he’s in San Diego. Over the first year and a half we did our talking over the phone, and if I could go back I would say for us to move on to a visual thing like a Skype or something with video. Because once we did that, it made our conversations a lot easier. For some reason, with the two of us, when there would be awkward silences we would think, “Oh, the other guy’s mad at me,” or, “He doesn’t like this idea.” And once we started actually looking at each other, then it just went much better. So that would be the main advice I guess I’d give.

LR: Because you have a lot of conflict of some kind at the beginning or it was just uncomfortable?

JC: Well, it’s just sometimes you wonder. We weren’t used to working with each other in that way; we’re used to kind of batting ideas back and forth until we sort it out.

LR: And is your company remote?

JC: Yeah, so I have my setup in my art studio. Dyami has his setup in his home. And then we have an office that is in my town in Ojai and that’s where the customer support and the shipping takes place and neither of us are there. So that is run by another person, and that pretty much takes care of itself over there.

LR: Awesome. What do you feel like your unique skill set is?

JC: Yeah, that’s very particular to this software because I studied animation and really kind of nerded out on stop-motion cinematography and the camera side of things, so I do a lot of photography. So I really made sure that the software wasn’t just an animator tool but really worked with the cinematographers as well… and made sure that was part of it.

LR: Do you think that your success is primarily based on having the best product? There are a lot of companies out there that have great products that don’t end up becoming the industry leaders. What do you think had you be successful and actually taking over an industry?

JC: In this niche, competitors were trying to split the difference between trying to make something for kids and maybe for elementary schools, and they were trying to get that market. At the same time, they were trying to get the pro market. And so it kind of put them in an awkward position where we just went right for the professional market which meant that the … when a pro opened up our software they would think, “Oh, this is made for me. This has the tools that I need.” And it was kind of a no brainer for them at that point.

So we did a lot of little things right away that just sent signals to someone who’d already been in the industry that maybe was used to shooting on film and used to the older tools that when they looked at our stuff that we weren’t just making software that they had to learn how to use. We were making software that worked with how they already use tools in similar ways, similar architecture and where things were laid out. So I would say that in our case it was because we made good software, I think that’s why.

LR: You were able to do that, you think because you’re naturally a great software designer or because you were building basically the thing that you would’ve wanted?

JC: Well that’s how it started. We didn’t decide to make the software to sell, we made it from my personal work. And that’s something that I’ll be talking about in my talk today, is how it actually evolved and it was really just my tool. And then there was a moment where the technology of the cameras, like the DSLRs, the canons and the Nikons, they hit a point where they became perfect for shooting stop-motion and we already had a version of our software that I was using and so we decided to jump on it and put the two things together and put it to market so it was the right place, right time.

LR: Right time, because your stuff is all designed to work with the DSLRs.

JC: Yeah, for the most part. You can use HD cameras, and you can use webcams, and so we make it so that if you are more of a hobbyist and you’re really into the software, you can use it. But all the movies and most of the commercials and music videos you see are shot with Canon and Nikon DSLRs.

LR: So what do you feel like is your kind of personal cutting edge right now? What are you learning next? What do you feel like is the most important next set for you in your business?

JC: That’s a great question because that’s a really good question. I don’t know what that is. Sometimes I get the feeling that I really better keep on top of the camera, the ever-changing evolving camera situations because they go through phases. Like right now, there is a push to go with more mirror-less because there are less mechanical things that could go wrong. So, as a company, we do keep on top of all that.

Personally, I’m still doing stop-motion, so I’m someone that likes the old school ways of doing things and hands-on so, I don’t really know technologically where I’m headed. I’m not sure. I’m more of a storyteller, and I like filmmaking, and I like lighting. And then it was actually a bit rough for me to go from film to digital. It was kind of a big decision. I wasn’t that excited about it, but it worked out on this one project that turned out to be kind of high profile, and I thought there’s a lot of advantages to the digital stills, particularly for stop-motion. Yeah, I don’t know, I don’t know what the next thing is. I’m not sure.

LR: What about the next hurdle for the business. Do you think there is another industry that you’re gonna take over or is there more to get in terms of the industry that’s already out there?

JC: I don’t know if there’s any market left for us, but I think the key would be to keep the product relevant and priced correctly so that we can keep other competitors away. I think that that’s gonna be the key and we already are seeing that there are competitors coming out and basically copying our layout and everything and selling for much less. So we try to make sure our customer support is really top-notch and that we’re really responsive to any kind of issues. If you’re on a set and you go, “Oh my gosh, we’re having this problem,” and someone calls and we make sure it goes right to either Dyami or myself. So I think just keeping it on top of the camera technologies is sort of our biggest active thing we have to keep doing.

LR: Yeah, interesting. Most of the people I interview are not basically titans of their industries. They haven’t won the game. They’re all trying to figure out how to get a toehold, and it’s an interestingly different perspective.

Jamie Caliri: It’s a small game. It’s a small game.

LR: But when you think about your career as a whole, and maybe whatever, 20, 30 years from now and looking back, what do you imagine you’d like your legacy to have been?

JC: That’s a really good question for me right now because I’ve had time to make little films and work on different projects, I don’t know. I think I’d like to have more films, so make more films, and I don’t know if they’ll be animated or not, but I like to think of myself as a filmmaker so I guess, doing some great storytelling and interesting filmmaking that’s, I guess, a thing left for me at this point.

LR: Cool. And so we call this thing Modern Ontrapreneur and try and figure out through the perspectives of a bunch of entrepreneurs what’s unique about doing business in this time.

JC: Well, definitely, without saying, the internet made our business possible, you know we didn’t go into retail and that’s what we thought we might do, and that’s the thing I’ll talk about today in the lectures, how we’re on the fence about putting our boxes into retail. So taking full advantage of the internet and being able to reach as many people as possible, I guess. That’s the big thing, probably has been for a while but, yeah, making sure that people can find us I suppose. We’re really lucky with stop-motion is very kind of obsessive. The people that do it, they really fuss over their tools and they talk to each other about the tools. We’ve really had that advantage that it’s already a word of mouth kind of …

LR: Hyper word of mouth, yeah. What do you think about this? Today has got to be, and I don’t know anything about the movie industry, except for that I watch them, but I would think that today has got to be different from the perspective of a movie maker about how you get attention on a project. How is it different today than it was five years ago?

JC: That is an area that I cannot say I know anything about. I’ve worked on movies, but I’ve never worked on that side of it, on the promotion side. I’ve always been more on the technical side, getting it done, focusing on trying to make a good product. I don’t know anything about marketing. It does seem like it gets so much more competitive, there are more films being made. There’s definitely more animated films being made, and I think it’s hard to find money, I think it’s hard to get these things off the ground. Plenty of friends who have had scripts that get years into development and then end up that the projects fall apart, so that’s the scariest. I personally would probably never make an animated feature film because they are long and …

LR: Years of your life.

JC: Yeah, it’s very difficult, and even when I was working on The Little Prince, and we only had to do about 20 minutes of the movie. And even about halfway through that, I was kind of getting a little to the breaking point.

LR: Questioning your life choices.

JC: I’m amazed at the directors like Mark Osborne who directed the entire The Little Prince. I would see his project and I was just amazed at his ability to, just weather the storms for so long.

LR: How many years?

JC: I think he must’ve been three or four years into the making on that, from all the script and development and finally going into production and …

LR: Yeah.

JC: And then you did the sound, it’s …

LR: It’s long.

JC: And one of the problems with that, I feel, is that it goes so long, it’s easy to lose your perspective, right. You wanna add more bells and whistles because you’re bored. You’ve been looking at the same script for so many years. That’s one problem, and then the other side says a temptation as a director, but then you have a lot of cooks in the kitchen and you might have producers coming in and out and they have different ideas and they might say, “Oh, I want you to pull this part out and put this in,” so you can have parts that you would fall in love with and then Disney says, “Oh no, this is gonna come out,” or whatever. And because it’s so long to look at it, not like a live action, maybe an indie live action film, you shoot for a couple months, and then you edit, and you don’t have time and money to keep reshooting things.

LR: Right, just get it done.

JC: So I would probably steer clear of that world. It seems pretty intense; it’s a little much for me, I’ll design the software and make some little films.

LR: Awesome, well Jamie, I appreciate you coming.

JC: Hey thanks so much for having me here.

LR: Really fun to have you. Would you sign our wall.

JC: Absolutely, thanks.

Want more MODERN ONTRAPRENEUR Podcast?

Check out the previous episode featuring Rachel Miller of Moolah Marketing.