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Sugar Skull Creative and Sapphire: Design In Motion

Sugar Skull Creative’s co-founders, Alejandro Brubaker and Steve Strickland became fast friends when they first met. The Virginia Beach-based duo bonded over work lunches, the idea of achieving a work-life balance, and tequila. Now their award-winning motion design studio works on projects for the likes of ESPN, FOX, NBC Sports, JC Penney, and Commonwealth Brewery – while also occasionally becoming an after-school homework haven and play area for their kids.

“We were tired of companies running us to death and doing work we weren’t necessarily proud of,” says Brubaker, who runs the animation wing of the company. “We thought we could do better.” After a successful year of individually freelancing, the team started Sugar Skull Creative, whose namesake pays homage to Brubaker’s heritage as well as the team’s family first and work-life balance commitment. With the help of a grant from Virginia Beach’s Chamber of Commerce, Sugar Skull secured an office location and they’ve been working ever since.

“What Alex and I are striving for is making location irrelevant as far as what’s around for clients,” notes Strickland, whose role is both director and editor. “We’re focusing more on national work now whereas a lot of people in our area are looking for local jobs.” To help reach their creative goals (and save precious time), Sugar Skull relies on Sapphire’s plug-ins together with Adobe After Effects and Premiere Pro along with Boris FX sister products, Mocha Pro for tracking needs, and Continuum for FCPX projects.

To keep their minds clear and creativity sharp, the team purposely keeps its workload light, choosing to focus on 4 to 6 projects per month. “We use Sapphire on almost every job from small blurs to larger effects that dominate the scene, primarily in After Effects when compositing video or motion graphics,” notes Brubaker. “When I’m creating storyboards for a pitch or for development, I use After Effects instead of Photoshop to remove one step from the process. With this workflow, it’s imperative that I have a good set of tools for lighting, color adjustment, and distortion – all of which Sapphire excels at.”

“I feel like I’m solving a different puzzle with each project. I always use Sapphire’s built-in presets as a jumping-off point or to see what’s possible,” continues Brubaker. “The best way I can describe how Sapphire helps our workflow is that the plug-ins just work. We don’t have to worry about the hassle of making sure they work, making sure there is no banding or if they are compatible with our systems.”

Brubaker’s love of animation – and experimentation – combines perfectly in Sugar Skull’s recent social media campaign work for Commonwealth Brewing Co, a craft brewery. “Each can label had its own unique design and our challenge was to bring it to life in a unique manner,” states Brubaker. “Almost every one of these animations was done with Sapphire. We used Sapphire Blur, Distort, InfiniteZoom, and WarpWaves.”

Sugar Skull turned again to Sapphire blurs and colour grading effects for a few animations on LG’s holiday campaign to help blend 3D renders with backplates in After Effects.

To maintain the quality Brubaker and Strickland demand of themselves and compete against larger studios for national brands, the team scales their business as needed, which allows them to not only hire top talent for a few weeks at a time, but it also helps maintain the work-balance life they desire since they aren’t racing to beat deadlines as a two-person team. “As an adult, you can manage your own time. And that’s what we’re trying to do. If you need to do something, go do it,” ends Brubaker. “We want to be all-in but we also want to be rounded human beings because that’s going to affect the creative in the end. You know what I mean?”

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