Stimulated-Inc. founder and author Robb Wagner Shares His Take on the Creative Industry's Perspective on Hybrid Work

An exclusive dive into hybrid work, the creation of Stimulated-Inc., and more.

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

How can you live your best creative work-life by embracing a hybrid model? That’s the question innovator-turned author Robb Wagner answers in “The Stimulated Method,” a playbook boiling down 10 years of knowledge, insights, rules and counterintuitive mindset shifts gained through his own hybrid experience working on real-world, seven-figure creative projects.
 
He's also the founder of Stimulated-Inc., a leading source of experiential transformation for entertainment and hospitality. We recently spoke with Robb about what inspired the creation of Stimulated-Inc., the creative industry's perspective about hybrid work, and his own creative hybrid playbook. 
 

PH: You got your start in broadcast production. What inspired you to launch Stimulated-Inc.?

Robb Wagner: I launched Stimulated-Inc. in 2005 as a response to the explosion of LED screens at live TV award shows and music specials—and the lack of a clear direction for what to do with them. The year before, I had overseen the programming of 50 video screens at the 2004 MTV Video Music Awards and saw a lot of room for improvement in the way people thought about and utilized this new technology. There was a need for someone to take a lead role in figuring out this space, both technically and creatively. I seized on the opportunity and launched a new company to take the helm.

At the time, there was friction behind the scenes in broadcast production surrounding exactly what function LED screens should serve. Some thought they should be used as an extension of physical scenery. That didn’t make sense to me. Why not just have scenery instead? The same argument was made about using LED screens as an extension of lighting. I didn’t go along with that either. On the technical side, the only choices were media servers pushing mundane cut-and-paste content to the screens or broadcast technology that wasn’t designed to drive odd-sized surfaces larger than broadcast feeds.

My post-production storytelling instincts led me to believe LED screens should be used as an extension of the narrative story being told on the stage. My problem-solving instincts led me to believe that this would require the development of radical new technologies and workflows. I founded Stimulated-Inc. to bring those two beliefs to life in a tangible way.

PH: How has your vision for the company changed since then?

Robb Wagner: What’s changed about my vision for my studio is that we started with the idea of serving a single industry and evolved into serving multiple industries. Sixteen years ago, I never would have predicted that I would be part of the cruise line industry. I never would have thought that we’d be moving into retail, mixed-use commercial and movie theaters, but that’s where we’re headed next.

We started in broadcast, purely. That’s the sector I knew and loved since I got my start working as a production assistant for Marty Pasetta at the Academy Awards in the ‘80s. Then, when concerts started calling in 2006, followed by 3D feature films in 2007, I saw opportunities to leverage what we had learned or invented in broadcast and converge those ideas with ideas from other industries.

The results for our clients, including Disney, were revolutionary work and runaway box office success. This model became my renewed vision for the company, and this vision still drives us today. We take something that we’ve learned or invented from each industry we’ve worked in – broadcast, concerts, film, live, digital and now cruise lines – and merge them together in new and interesting ways. This is how we help new clients in new industries create new entertainment possibilities.

PH: If you had to choose, what has been your favorite project, and why?

Robb Wagner: If I had to choose a favorite project, it would be Michael Jackson’s This Is It. One day out of the blue in 2008, filmmaker/director Kenny Ortega summoned me to Center Staging in Burbank to meet Michael Jackson about his comeback tour. I’ll never forget how Michael described his vision: “I want the pre-show to be a film that tells the story of humanity: who we are, how we got here and where we’re going,” he said.

All I could think was, “Wow! This is before the concert even begins.”

After about an hour, I texted my wife Pam and told her that I couldn’t say who I was with, but I was going to be there for a while. That meeting lasted 12 hours. MJ articulated his vision like the creative genius he was, even dancing and singing hooks to illustrate his points. I left knowing exactly what needed to be done.

At the same time, there were problems brewing on the 3D production side of the project, and  Kenny Ortega ultimately asked me if I could handle the 3D filming too. I had recently helped Disney film its “Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert,” in 3D, so I agreed. That’s when Stimulated-Inc. became the production company for the project.

I called my colleague Bruce Jones, who worked as a second-unit VFX director in features and had just arrived home to Montana after two years of filming “The Italian Job.” When I told Bruce he needed to come down to LA immediately, he said he had literally just gotten home that day. After convincing him, together we had a second meeting with Kenny and MJ. That’s when things got really interesting.

For the next week, we turned my Burbank creative studio into a bunker. We were lucky that Hollywood was slow at the time. The industry was coming off of strikes, so a lot of people weren’t working yet. Over four solid days and nights, we walked every key creative we could find through the project and got their thoughts and ideas. The creative, schedule, and budget evolved very rapidly. A couple days later, I presented our plan and we got a green light. Stimulated-Inc. took over three sound stages at Culver Studios for the next six weeks, building out lush rainforests, decimated landscapes, a special-effects graveyard and towering structures for dancers and stunt people to climb on.

Our challenges were keeping hundreds of trees and plants alive in the heat, along with filming kids and animals in 3D, on three sound stages simultaneously. We had to work around the dancers’ rehearsal schedules and get them into special-effects makeup before filming. Somehow, we got the filming done. We were completing post and live concert rehearsals when our leader sadly passed away before the concerts could open.

After everyone had time to come to terms with losing Michael, Sony approached me about finishing our work for their feature film, which we did. The problem was that our LED screen was an ultra-wide aspect ratio, and Sony required a 16:9 deliverable. We had to set-extend every 3D shot, which was not an easy task. Giving Michael’s fans the chance to appreciate his vision made it all worthwhile and gave us closure.

The gift that Michael Jackson left me with was his openness and willingness to let creative people be creative. He would tell the team, “Please feel free to take my ideas and make them better.”

That didn’t mean he wasn’t the ultimate boss. It just meant he didn’t have an ego when it came to his work. If Michael Jackson didn’t have an ego, nobody should have an ego.

PH: Stimulated-Inc. was hybrid a decade ago. Did you ever face pushback in the early days?

Robb Wagner: Making my creative studio hybrid over 10 years ago didn’t cause any pushback at the time because people didn’t know what hybrid meant. Back then, most people viewed working with remote artists as a way to exploit cheap labor in faraway countries. This kind of thinking, which I still encounter even today, infuriates me because it threatens all artists’ livelihoods. So, as an artist advocate (something you’ll learn about me if you read my book or listen to the people I work with), it was never about that for me. Rather, being hybrid has always been about being connected with the right artists, in the right moment for the projects we were doing.

When I needed something I couldn’t find in LA artists, I invented a method and software that allowed me to work with artists anywhere in the world. The clients that knew about my hybrid model liked it  because it allowed me to say “yes” to just about any big, wild creative idea – hence, no pushback. It also let me come up with even bigger, wilder ideas on my own and pitch them.

The unexpected benefit of making my studio hybrid was getting my personal life back. After years of being overworked and exhausted, I implemented a method that let my studio and my team do better work with less effort, and I got to spend more time with my family as a result, which meant no pushback at home either.

My biggest frustration today is knowing all of the work-life benefits of a hybrid creative model at a time when we need it more than ever, and getting pushback NOW. I feel like I’m sitting on a secret and I want to share it with the world.

PH: How has the creative industry's perspective about hybrid work evolved since then?

Robb Wagner: I don’t feel the creative industry’s perspective about hybrid creative work has evolved enough. People were forced into hybrid work in 2020 instead of diving into it on their own like I did. It’s still something a lot of people are afraid of and don’t seem to want to understand. I’ve heard arguments made that hybrid work and great creativity are not compatible because there’s less collaboration. I disagree. The collaboration is simply different.

Instead of telling a designer, editor or animator to make something different in the middle of the project, which actually hurts the creative process, all of the collaboration and great creativity is hyper-packed into the beginning of the process. That’s where all of the radical creativity exists. From there, we do everything in our power to give artists exactly what they need to do their best work without micromanaging them. As a result, artists often give us work that exceeds our expectations. And if we see something that could be done differently to make a real improvement, we consult artists instead of telling them to make changes.

Fundamental mindset shifts like these are difficult to get people to buy into, which is why I believe the industry’s perspective on hybrid creative work isn’t evolving enough. If people would open their minds to new ideas, they would make new discoveries. For instance, one of our mottos is “Stop assigning work to artists.” This means that if you let artists choose the jobs they want to work on, you’ll get their best work. Why wouldn’t you want that?

PH: You recently published a playbook on adopting a hybrid creative work model. What is the single biggest takeaway, in your opinion?

Robb Wagner: I hope the single biggest takeaway from my hybrid creative playbook is that us creative industry workers make our work harder, longer and more exhausting than it has to be, and there’s a better way forward they should know about. For years, I was the creative studio owner who missed ball games and birthday parties. Then, almost overnight, my life changed. Before I took Stimulated-Inc. hybrid, my team and I were still mired in work (chasing artists, scheduling calls, checking schedules, negotiating, losing artists, finding more artists, etc.) long after the actual studio workday was done. This constant busywork ate into my life and happiness, but it all disappeared the moment we implemented my hybrid work method. 

With my book, I’m just trying to help creative people have a similar experience. Since my earliest days in broadcast, I have always strived to solve problems for creative people. In the ‘90s, I invented logging software to help television editors and directors find reality footage in the edit room. Since founding my company in 2005, I've consistently made investments into developing new technology and workflows that simplify complex processes for creative people. The closing page of my book says, “Live Your Best Creative Work-Life.” I wrote it with the sole purpose of helping people do that.

PH: When you look at the innovations and opportunities emerging for those working in production and post, what do you find most exciting?

Robb Wagner: When I look at the innovations and opportunities emerging for those working in production and post, what I find most exciting is how production and post have converged and will continue to converge. When I was in broadcast, production and post were mostly two separate worlds. We were friends and colleagues who collaborated and knew each other outside of work. But on a typical show, the post-production people would arrive with the playback sources in-hand, then stand in the back of the truck and watch the live production unfold. When the show wrapped, all of the live team would go home to their families. Meanwhile, the post team headed back to the edit facility with all of the media to start editing. That line between production and post is slowly being erased with post-production workflows like the Unreal Engine being used on-set. 

When I progressed from post into live production, going from the edit room to the control room was a rush. Being an AD in live-variety and having my headset live to the entire production (including the network and the stage) added to the adrenaline. When I started controlling huge screens, the sensation was even bigger. I’m a convergence freak. I’m excited any time people from different disciplines have the opportunity to put their ideas together and do something radically different for themselves – the client and, most importantly, the audience.

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