“It all started with two computers and a coworking desk in 2014.” Isn’t that the perfect way to start anything? The Latvian animation studio, Panic began humbly before things took off quite rapidly. Within a year, the coworking desk had grown into a four-person company in its own space that was expanding to become one of the most hardworking animation studios in the country.
The animation industry has grown rapidly in recent years, especially in relation to communication, and it’s no secret that good studios aren’t hard to stumble upon. However, there aren’t that many in Riga, Latvia - just a few serious ones, according to the team at Panic.
But, why exactly ‘Panic’? Rita Alika Šteimane, the CEO of the studio, explains that the name came from the collective feeling at the time the company came into existence. “We were leaping into the unknown,” she explains. “Especially with the huge ambition that our art director Gints had for Panic. The ultimate goal was to go international and become the top animation studio worldwide.” The senior animator and animation director Gints Gutmanis was the one who, with his ambition and passion, gave the headstart to the studio.
“Gints left a well-paying job at a digital agency to pursue his undying passion and work exclusively on his animation projects,” says Rita. And the market was ripe for somebody exactly like him. At the time, Latvia had only one dedicated animation studio in the advertising field. According to Rita, although illustration and animated feature films are in the Latvian DNA, and the country has had a strong illustration community with Latvian animators often getting into festivals worldwide, there was an evident gap to be filled in the commercial space.
“While the artistic part of the industry was well covered, animation was rarely used in advertising,” she says. “People were hung up on the stereotype that animated things are for kids only.” But how wrong that stereotype was. Panic quickly set a trend of using animation more in the communications field in the country and, with time, more animation studios followed suit and blossomed across Latvia. “But now, eight years down the line, it appears that only about one (or at least one serious one) is left standing!”
Although Panic’s roots are in Latvia, the studio’s team, as well as their mentality, are definitelt international. “As Latvians, we have always been known for working hard to achieve results, so this trait may have been one we have taken with us from our heritage,” says Rita. In 2014, there wasn’t a particularly good industry role model in Latvia for Panic to look up to, especially one who had gotten out of the mother market and left a mark on the international stage. “So, we did what we do best - we imagined how things ought to be.” She continues, “We would even say we used our experience in Latvia as a blueprint of what not to do and were moving away from the Latvian mentality. We saw how some companies had been struggling because they are from our country, one that most of the world doesn’t even know about, and unfortunately doesn’t care about.”
What skyrocketed Panic’s chances of reaching the desired international stage was an infatuation with what Rita calls ‘the start-up culture’, a mentality that makes you move fast, learn fast, and… ultimately, fail fast - but always get up and start over again, as fast as you can.
“Our goal was to break into the advertising market in the States, where animation was most popular as a communication medium. As we didn’t know how the advertising industry worked there, we needed to learn a lot and experiment to get to the next level. Every project and interaction with creatives from US agencies provided an opportunity for us to learn more,” Rita says. So here comes the fusion of East and West - an unlikely tale, but one as old as time, when it comes to business models and success rates. Learning from its clients, Panic applied an American working culture within the company.
“We at Panic are a generation already influenced heavily by globalisation. No matter our Latvian heritage, we as Latvians do the same things Americans do - listen to the news on our Alexa in the morning, watch the same trending TV shows on Netflix, HBO and Amazon Prime, and exist in the same informational space.” Rita says that due to the intense and demanding nature of the production space, everyone works at full capacity, especially when it comes to tight project timelines - that’s precisely why speaking the same language and adopting a similar work culture as clients is crucial for a studio like Panic, no matter the location. "We learn from both Latvians and Americans alike, taking the best sides from both worlds."
Because the company grew from a two-person studio to a mature team of people, the house style had to be adaptable, which led to a few different ‘phases’ of animation that Panic went through, nailing each one on the way. “It all started with explainers,” says Rita. “At the beginning, it was an era of videos explaining things. Every startup was looking to make 90-second promotional videos. Animation was booming, and we got on that ride.”
Almost ten years later, the new kid on the block is, unsurprisingly for most, NFTs. “They might be all over the place now, but do you remember GIFs? When they were the golden standard? Everybody was making them, including us. Our GIFs
were top viewed on Dribbble weekly. It was an era of relatively simple ways to get noticed. Now, I believe it is more complicated for a new studio to get themselves that kind of attention.”
Then followed what Rita calls ‘a phase of impossible timelines and briefs’. At the time, agencies knew very well that they could get more from new studios, hungry for opportunities to prove themselves. Although it was tough, during this period, Panic produced a McDonald’s campaign video in just two weeks, from script to the finished result.
However, hindsight is a terrific thing, so when Rita looks back over all the eras of Panic, she knows one thing to be true: the story is king. “Trends come and go. Visual styles change. We didn’t want to be locked in any particular one, but rather evolve with the industry’s needs and technology, and stay relevant through the storytelling at the particular time.”
She adds, “As one producer challenged us - there are at least 30 other studios in a radius of a mile around these major clients. So why choose us? Well, craft is just the beginning. We identified that combining head-turning storytelling, exceptional craft and outstanding client service are our three pillars.”
These pillars are reflected in Panic’s team - most of its directors coming from a filmmaking background, combined with founder Gints’ excellence in craft, art direction and animation, alongside Rita’s client service and business background. She explains, “This story comes together in our tagline: Loud stories. Exceptional craft.”
Those words seep through the work ethic of the team at Panic as well. “We are truly a group of dedicated and hard-working enthusiasts of the profession, and we would do anything in our power to reach the best outcome every time. No matter the challenges and limitations,” says Rita. According to her, she has never seen a team as determined as the one at the studio, who, after years working at the company, still push the boundaries of every project, look for creative challenges and get inspired by them all over again.
The CEO continues, “Being in such a saturated industry where production excellence is a must, we are also very demanding of our teammates. We strive for healthy self-criticism and always keep an open mind about what could be done even better in the next challenge. Everyone is responsible for their contributions and there are no free-riders - that is the only way to grow. We share the same sense of humour, we work hard, but we never forget the fun part of it.”
And although the witty sense of humour has stayed, Rita admits that over the years, the culture at Panic has matured immensely - progress that led to the creation of pivotal projects with clients such as airBaltic
, and Netflix
. “From the teenage rebel boy we’ve gone through shit, and have gained experience through it,” she says. But, besides experience, the team gained confidence and, most importantly, understanding of the worldwide industry. “We now know what boundaries we’d like to keep, what relationships we’d like to build and what projects fulfil our hearts.”
After years of soul-searching and changing, Rita says that the path ahead is even more exciting. "Just recently, we went through our own re-branding and website redesign. This is such a soul-searching exercise. It demonstrated how much we had changed over the previous eight years and where we are now. We've passed the stage; let's take anything and do anything to get us moving. And I believe this is an important shift in the way we think. We are not hungry for anything. But the ambition is still there; we are on our way. The journey is just beginning. "
And that journey is what will lead Panic to 2023, a year that is just around the corner with new and exciting challenges. In March, Panic will be speaking at OFFF Barcelona, a goal for the studio since its conception which they consider a milestone and a green flag that they are indeed on the right track to leaving a permanent footprint on the animation industry.
“For us, 2023 is an important time to create a passion project, and we are working on one of those right now, to launch next year. We don’t want to spoil it before it’s released but watch this space… all we can say is ‘stay tuned’.” In its eight-year-long journey, immense changes, hunger for growth, and shifts through changing times has brought Panic closer to what the initial two-person team wanted it to become in the first place. Rita’s parting thoughts shine with hope: “We are a different studio every two years. So, we look forward to seeing what 2023 will bring - and what next milestone we will add to our story.”