transparent layer
Tröllback+Company Logo
22.07.28 + Inspiration

Stealing Dreams: The Art of Pulling References

by Elliott Chaffer, Executive Creative Director 

[You can read a condensed version of this piece at Motionographer. We kept the full version here for you. Enjoy!]

References are my love language. When I meet someone I like, I have a habit of following up the next day with a huge list of links, references, and written ideas for them—oversharing to the point where I often don’t hear back for a few days. No doubt it is overwhelming at times for some people. Like, we only just met and now they have a whole playlist of videos and links from me!

"It’s not where you take things from - it’s where you take them to."

—Jean-Luc Godard

I have been called a lot of names. The King of Ref, Ref Chef, Refbeast, Refmeister, etc., and I humbly accept all of them because I use a lot of references in my work, speech, and life. Early in my career, I chose not to design or animate after I realized I can’t stand looking at what I executed on the computer. I come from a more photographic and cinematographic background, and during the years I should have been perfecting my design skills, I was running a creative shop. I intentionally moved “off the box” to free myself to think far and wide outside the box. Cut to a few years later and I am an ECD. How? Simple answer—pulling ref!

References help to quickly inspire and communicate a vision to clients and/or creative teams to get everyone’s juices flowing, keep everyone focused on the bigger picture, and the dialogue open and inspired. I enjoy being lost in the primordial stew of really inspiring work and having that “Eureka!” moment that hopefully leads to great creative. I love to upsell in presentations and great references really help with this. I like to find things I have no idea how to do, and then challenge us all to take a leap of faith. I recently discovered I have ADHD and now I really understand why I love this part of my job so much. We have a superpower of hyper-focusing on things we like, which unfortunately comes with complete abandonment of things we don’t. I think in images and I find words challenging. Maybe that’s why I get called those names. Lucky that images speak a thousand words, isn’t it? I’m good with it.

As part of our rebrand for FOX Entertainment, we were asked to make an internal brand film to promote the new strategy, tone of voice, and brand vision to internal stakeholders. Time was short but the scope was big and we were able to communicate a vision very quickly with ref, allowing us to get into fabrication and shooting at breakneck pace. All credit to Ian McRitchie and his amazing team who instantly got it and who were equally as excited as we were to push the brand language far beyond the brand package. Once the film was completed, I announced to the team “And now I can die happy after exhausting all my favorite refs in one piece.”

While I love to lead projects, I equally love being brought on to help pull references for other colleagues (and friends). It’s like a dream! I often joke with one of my producers when he is trying to speak to me about something and I say to him, “Leave me alone I’m trying to make art. When I get a brief that I’m inspired by I get an instant dopamine rush. My prefrontal cortex goes into overdrive and fully fleshed ideas come storming into my mind. It’s like when you start a sentence and the rest of it starts compiling ahead of your cursor, only for me it’s like the rest of the paragraph. My mind instantly jumps into gear—connecting a lot of dots and I’m hungry to find things that prove the idea has not been, could, or should be done.

"Every idea is a juxtaposition. That’s it. A juxtaposition of existing concepts."

—Steven Grant

Looking at other people’s work I admire gives me massive FOMO—I get so wound up that I had not thought of it, or that I wasn’t on that amazing XR stage (you know the feeling). When I’m pulling ref, I put on Kiasmos Looped, on loop. I’m listening to it now as I write this. Having a single song to go to is like my own personal frame of reference—like a rail I can jump on that keeps me going forward, deeper, further. On this journey. I get real satisfaction by clicking through multiple tabs, typing, and hitting the ‘save image’ button to the beat of the track. In the background, I have multiple video downloads all popping off at the same time. As my internal monolog kicks in, we have a chat. “It could be like this, or this or a bit of this and that. Wait, what's this? This plus that would be amazing”... etc. I try to shut out everything else during this time and allow myself to flow through the experience of the hunt, dream big, and look for things that are better than what I was thinking. To me, this is the art of pulling great references.

I have been accused a lot of referencing myself or getting high on my own supply. Is that a faux pas? Like how comedians shouldn’t laugh at their own jokes? Maybe in my next future job prospect, when they ask for references I’ll just provide a mammoth .zip folder of all my reference images for them to catalog for me. My file labeling is also so chaotic—I move so fast I often just run my fingers along the keyboard generating random strings of letters rather than methodically typing out a file name and putting it neatly in a folder. It’s like I’m trying to make it hard for myself to locate the file later—so I can see what else I stumble across along the way. It's way more exciting than going back to the same shelf every time, but it also drives me mad when I need to locate stuff I can’t find, so maybe I won’t provide a massive .zip folder of references in my next job prospect. … I’m referencing myself again, I’ll stop now.

"To spark my creativity…I often re-use pieces from my other works…basically collaging my own stuff…"

—Nate Williams

In the process, I definitely go down rabbit holes of tenuous links and find myself in vortexes of lateral thinking that only I understand. It is just like that scene in Being John Malkovich where he sees multiple versions of himself and goes around saying, “Malkovich, Malkovich”. See, I just couldn’t help dropping a Spike Jonze ref in there! In those moments I remember to look up and think, “wait, have I gone massively off track and out of scope here?” It’s very easy for me to do and I do it a lot!

I’ve talked a lot about the power of great ref and my personal process for pulling it. This is all well and good, but I give all the credit to our amazing staff and freelance talent worldwide who help bring these reference dreams into reality—I especially say thank you to our clients who take leaps of faith to do bold and exciting work with us, which we hope has a lasting impact on their audiences.

Ref also goes around + comes around. I once showed Alex Moulton a piece I did for MTV Dirty Sanchez back in the 90’s and when he saw it, he showed me a piece he had done for the VH1 Hip Hop Honors around the same time. And then it hit me—his piece had been one of the major references for mine, and then years later we ended up at the same company. So yeah, be careful who and how you reference. You never know when your paths will cross, but you should expect it because the industry is still a tiny village really.

"I absolutely believe my best work lies ahead of me, and lies in the work I’m absolutely on fire to steal from."

—Tom Hart


I have had the pleasure to meet some of my favorite people to reference. They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, but this was fun. I had the pleasure to meet Kyle Cooper and Garson Yu at the Motion Conference in Santa Fe that we were speaking at. As it turns out they both used to work at RG/A with our founder Jakob Trollbäck, back in the day at the dawn of the motion graphics world that we now call branding.

I have always been obsessed with David Carson’s anarchic but beautiful work and had the pleasure to meet him in the 90’s at his book signing and more recently at our old office. I tried to convince him to get some waves together while in NYC but he had to fly back to his personal point break in Tortola. Hero! As it turns out Jakob used to animate his designs back in the day too. I once met Michel Gondry at a screening of his work and noticed he fell asleep during the showing, and had to be nudged awake to get up and talk! Who knows what he was dreaming about, but they always turn into amazing realities on screen.

"Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known."

—Chuck Palahniuk, Invisible Monsters

"Don’t bother concealing your thievery - celebrate it if you feel like it."

-Jim Jarmusch

New business inquiries.

How can we help?

NYC 09:54

STK 03:54

LA 06:54

New York

88 Pine St, 18th Floor
NY, NY 10005

+1 212 529 1010


Fridhemsgatan 53
112 46 Stockholm

+46 733 889 915

Get our newsletter

Sign up for updates,

insights, and inspirations

from our studio.

2024 © Trollbäck+Company