For our next installment of our Webby Connect series, we spoke to LA creative director Seen Robinson to find out how elephants, landmines, and a filmmaker hooked him into the world of social good.
Seen has worked on a broad variety of brands for companies such as The Walt Disney Company, Warner Bros., WalMart, and Lamps Plus. It was his experience, and expertise, that led producer Tim VandeSteeg to bring him in to do the creative on his award-winning documentary film The Eyes of Thailand.
We interviewed Seen in his office at SeenDesigns in Santa Monica, CA.
Can you tell us what The Eyes of Thailand about?
What makes the film so interesting is that it brings you in on one storyline and then pulls you into another, broader narrative that's both riveting and heartbreaking.
The film begins in Thailand, with a woman named Soraida Salwala, who created a hospital to help elephants who have had their limbs blown off by landmines. Thailand, it turns out, has a very contradictory way of dealing with elephants. On one hand, elephants are considered sacred, almost like cows are in India. But what’s so inconsistent is that if someone grabs one makes it into a work animal, all that reverence is gone. Once that happens, Thailand can’t do anything to help an elephant.
So Soraida, decided she was going to try to help the elephants in any way she could. She reached out to people all over the country and enlisted the help of an orthopedic doctor (Dr. Therdchai Jivacate) who’d never worked on animals before. Together the doctor and she made a pact that they were going to make prostheses for these injured elephants.
So the first part of the film follows Soraida and two injured elephants, Motala and Mosha, and their journey over a 10-year period to get them prostheses. The story turn comes when you begin to understand just how often this sort of thing happens, because of all the landmines laid throughout Thailand. And not just Thailand, but the surrounding countries as well: Myanmar, Burma, Cambodia...
Landmines are actually an enormous problem. You begin to understand how many tens of thousands of people have been maimed from them. So even though the film begins with the elephants and Soraia, it’s a bigger story about landmines and how they affect everyone in these countries. It’s really an international call for a landmine ban treaty.
But don’t get me wrong - it’s an uplifting story. You won’t leave the movie depressed!
How did you get involved with this project?
I had worked on a film with the producer Tim VandeSteeg from Indiewood Pictures on another project, an amazing documentary about Terry Hitchcock, a guy who ran 75 different marathons in 75 consecutive days. Just a crazy story. Tim and I talk regularly. He said he and The Eyes of Thailand director and producer Windy Borman would really like to talk to me about their project. They told me about the story, then sent me a couple different trailers, a snippet of the movie and the synopsis. I was hooked. I mean, you watch the trailer and it’s so moving. It’s impossible not to get sucked into it.
What creative are you handling for the project?
They brought me in fairly early, right as they were doing the film festivals. They had some original artwork from a local artist who worked with Windy, so I took that art and created all of their posters, printed collateral, website, marketing materials, Facebook page... you name it. Right now we’re working to get ready for the DVD release of the movie on February 26th.
Is the film being well-received?
Amazingly well. They’ve gotten ten significant awards already, one of which is the Humane Society Ace Grant Award - which is a huge deal for everyone involved.
What’s the difference in your approach to a project like this, as opposed to say, a Disney product?
I wouldn’t say my attitude is different in terms of how I approach it. Because with both Disney and The Eyes of Thailand I’m trying to make an emotional connection with someone. The end result, of course, is different. With Disney, the person buys the product. For the film, the end result is multilayered. Obviously, we want people to buy the DVD so that we can continue to create more exposure to this issue. But one of the most important points is that we get this movie out to people, so that they can see it and actually be prompted to help create a ban on landmines.
Windy, the director and producer, showed the film to UN in Geneva a few months ago and it’s really getting a lot of international support. There’s an International Day for Mine Awareness happening on April 4th, so she is actually dovetailing the movie into this bigger cause. We want people to know just what's happening, not just to elephants, but to people all over the world, and to do something about it.
From that perspective, what I’m trying to do is different than what I do with a product-driven company. Here I’m trying to move people with the creative. I realize that I’m not making the content, but I’m trying to deliver that content in a way that is very accessible for people. And that means doing everything from making sure the user interface is easy on the website to ensuring all the imagery makes sense for our message.
Have you ever worked project like this before, that is, one for social good?
Not independently. I’ve done pro-bono work for agencies. When I was working for DDB in Chicago, I did layouts for this huge pro bono campaign. But it’s not the same, because I was getting paid. My work on the film was done out of a desire to do anything I could to help the cause.
Do you work with other causes or volunteer organizations?
My wife, Amy, and I do a lot of work with a local non-profit, no-kill animal shelter called the Lange Foundation. For the last few years we’ve been spending three hours each weekend at the shelter, socializing and interacting with the animals there - mainly cats - but dogs as well.
How did you end up getting involved in that?
My wife did it for a week and she asked me to come. I didn’t want to do it because I thought it’d be heartbreaking, right? But she convinced me to go, and sure enough the first time I went I was hooked. Yeah, it’s a commitment, it’s a lot of hours, but it’s totally worth it.
We both decided the people running the shelter needed help with the animal adoptions, so we started making videos of some of the animals, so we’d take video, write up a story, and Amy would make a video and do a voice-over, so we’ve probably done something like six to eight of those.
We also reach out through a blog and through social media, YouTube and Facebook. We interact on Facebook from time to time with other no-kill shelters, No-Kill Los Angeles, The Cat House on the Kings, and Best Friends Animal Society in Utah. When we find stories that we like, we push that out. We send them stories from time to time.
So in the end even though we say we "just volunteer for three hours," it tends to be a lot more than that.
But you love doing it?
We wanted to thank Seen for his time and wish him, and The Eyes of Thailand film, the best of luck on their DVD release.
Be sure to check out the film's site to see the amazing work they’re doing!