Chasing Unicorns
Karen Moltenbrey
November 1, 2017

Chasing Unicorns

Not long ago I was asked to attend THU, which stands for Trojan Horse Was a Unicorn. A strange name for a conference, but I had heard the name before (it definitely sticks with you). I checked out the Website to learn more, but honestly, I was just as light on the details afterward as I was prior to my search.

It was a gathering for artists and animators. It also touted some excellent speakers and relevant topics. There were big-name sponsors listed on the site. And, it was in Portugal, on what appeared to be a tiny peninsula. That much was clear. The haziness came with the various descriptions. First, the name. What was the meaning behind it? Then came the comparison: a cross between Burning Man and a TED Talk. What? Another confusing element was the list of so-called “knights,” along with mention of “warriors” and “the tribe.” Was this some kind of fantasy role-playing game? 

When I inquired about more details, I was met with responses along the line of “It’s hard to explain. You have to experience it for yourself. But, you will love it and be inspired.” I admit, I was intrigued. Enough so that I was in. (The location, Portugal, helped seal the deal.)

Now I get it, and I understand the vague and confusing words. It’s sort of a conference, but one unlike any I have attended before. It was more of an experience than anything else, set up so that each individual walked away with something unique to that person. That is the intention of THU’s founder, Andre Luis. It is also meant to inspire a person to evaluate their professional and personal lives, affirming their direction in life.

Seriously, this is not me regurgitating marketing rhetoric. I am speaking from the heart. The weeklong event was transformative, renewing my passion for the industry and my place in it. 

The experience centers on the tribe – a diverse group of people with similar interests, and everything about THU is meant to improve the digital entertainment industry and create better, more prepared professionals for this job market. I know realize “tribe” is a perfect word to describe those attending, or experiencing, THU. We are all creatives of some sort, drawn to the event by our passion for the industry – from students, to artists, to entrepreneurs. And THU shows that each of us has an important role to play within the industry.

From my perspective, THU tries to emulate a utopian society, where each person is an important contributor within the tribe, and all are created equal. There are no egos here. Sure, there are students hoping to make connections and obtain jobs. Yes, the warrior attendees are there to learn and make connections. And, the knights are sharing their knowledge and experience with others. But here, all the groups interact on a level playing field. The tiny peninsula, reached by ferry, ensures this. No one has special seating or privileges. Everyone is treated equally; some just have more experience than others. And everyone is encouraged to interact with one another. 

And it does happen. You just never know who you are sitting next to in a presentation, or who you are chatting with over a drink in the Oasis, where THU-goers gather for sustenance, inspiration, the sharing of art and ideas, camaraderie, and fun. There is no judgment. Everyone is encouraged to be themselves, let their guard down, and be open and accepting of others. There are not many rules, but one is to make sure no one is alone (the other: don’t be an asshole). Everyone should be welcomed into a group. It took me only a few hours after arrival to learn this. I walked down to the Oasis for lunch and I didn’t get more than a few steps from the food counter before someone started up a conversation and invited me to her table. 

The bottom line is that this unlike any industry event. And whether you are new to the industry or at the top of your game, it will recharge you and re-ignite your passion and commitment professionally and personally. It’s definitely something worth experiencing, especially if you want to be inspired.

An Inside Look at THU

Andre Luis started the first THU five years ago, where digital media executive Scott Ross was asked to present, which he did, and then committed to working with Luis to make THU a true global event. Lenovo under the hand of Greyson Davis, senior manager of Lenovo’s Worldwide Workstation marketing team, became a sponsor in 2015, and expanded its role thereafter.

Following are some thoughts and hopes for THU from those three collaborators who continue to champion the event. Here they discuss what THU is, how they would like to see it evolve, and more.

Warriors and knights taking a break at the Oasis

Andre Luis

Andre Luis is co-founder and director of THU – basically, the father of the event. This came after he founded the first CG school in Portugal. After running the school for five years, he opened a studio with some of the best students, created a show reel, and waited for calls from clients. None came. “No one knew us over here in Portugal,” he says. Luis struggled to determine the next step that would secure jobs for the students and help his country. “I decided to create an event that would bring people to Portugal. It started as a way to market the students and their talents.”

Luis always wanted to work in the creative industry. “As a kid, I wanted to work at Disney, like everyone else did,” he says. He has a degree in industrial design and a master’s in marketing management, and during this period, he fell in love with branding, human behavior, and business management, and later became experienced in 3D, compositing, Web design, and more. His diverse background, education, skills, and passion laid the groundwork for a project he called “Trojan Horse Was a Unicorn.” 

In 2017, THU was a six-day experience with inspirational talks where knights shared their life experience and stories; co-labs where attendees had the opportunity to participate in simulated real-world creative work environments with the task of bringing ideas for a project (movie, game, animation) to life as a team, under the guidance of a knight; a recruitment area with companies looking to hire and experts making suggestions on fine-tuning artist portfolios through one-on-one meetings; fine art workshops and live demos; master classes on various techniques; mentorships offering advice; career guidance curated by Gnomon; B-Sides for those artists interested in developing their own IPs and projects; and tribe building to foster stronger ties among the members.

“THU for a lot of people is that one week where they can stop and reflect on the next steps in their career, and this extends to those just starting out as well,” Luis says. “All of them have one thing in common: to come together to move forward. They will meet and connect here with people who have similar goals and interests. You cannot say that about other conferences for artists.”

This is where the concept of “tribe” comes in. At THU, attendees make friends and connections – they know they are not alone in their journey and that others do care. The schedule is set up to break down barriers and personal walls – there are no repeated activities from year to year (for instance, the 2017 popular karaoke night will never occur again at THU), the schedule varies day to day, and the presentations last until midnight and beyond. And, it does break down comfort levels.

“THU is different every year,” Luis points out. “Everything is always new – attendees never know what to expect at THU, and they like that.”

Looking at year five, it is easy to call THU a success. But it did not happen overnight. In 2013, very few attended the four-day event, which featured 25 speakers. “We lost lots of money, and I was panicked,” Luis says. The reason? “People had a hard time understanding the concept.” However, the first edition was magical. The reaction of the original attendees was amazing, and their postings online changed people’s perceptions of the event. After that, everything changed.” For the better, obviously.

In 2014, attendance blossomed to 500 from across 45 countries; there were 35 speakers. In 2015, there were 600 attendees from 59 countries and 45 speakers. The event expanded to five days. And, it continued to grow and sold out within 24 hours of tickets going on sale.

For a while, Luis had difficulty finding sponsors. No doubt the name was confusing to some, and it was hard to explain exactly what THU is, since it means something different to everyone. And, it’s not quite a conference, definitely not a trade show, sort of an event…. Similarly, Luis was cognizant of the artists’ feelings toward the commercial sector. After all, the Life of Pi wounds were still fresh, and across the industry artists were giving their blood, sweat, and tears to projects one day only to find themselves out of work the next. They were wary, even mistrustful, of corporations.

This is when Scott Ross, former owner of Oscar-winning studio Digital Domain, stepped in and brought one of the first sponsors, Lenovo, onboard in 2015. “That third year was the beginning of the end. I spent almost two hours crying on stage, as was the audience. It was the only option, really,” Luis recalls. He points out that potential sponsors wanted big numbers and couldn’t see the difference between THU and SIGGRAPH, for instance. “Marketing-wise, more people connect here. There are just a handful of brands at THU and the attendees connect with them; you are not competing with 200 other brands and your competitor,” notes Luis. 

Moreover, there are no sponsorship packages – THU tells “partners” what they need, and the companies decide what aspect of those needs they want to support. 

Lenovo stepped up in a big way after that third year, and additional sponsors signed on. This past event, there were 11 partners that supported the event financially and logistically (Lenovo, Artstation, Wacom, Tourism Portugal, the municipal of Setubal, the municipal of Grandola, Troia Resort, Nvidia, Oculus Medium, Oculus, Unity).

Since the first edition, THU has been evolving in a number of ways. This past year, the board closed the circle by bringing business and marketing segments into the mix. “That was something we were trying to achieve in the past two years, and the only way to create jobs and business is to have the whole community in one place,” says Luis. “We are the only ones with this kind of ecosystem that connects suits with developers and artists, where they talk the same language. It’s pretty unique.” The next step, he notes, is to create jobs with scholarships and funding through a THU foundation to help the community and get projects off the ground.

So, what does Luis hope attendees will take away from THU? “A need to change and be better, understand the next step of their life, and have the energy and courage to do that,” he says. “The experience is different for everyone; it’s about what you are looking for internally. And here, the feedback is honest. There is no bullshit. That is the only way this is going to work. Everyone has to be real and honest.”

He continues: “We are the new generation of content creators. We are the influencers and moneymakers. It’s not the technical guys anymore or the apps; it’s about content, and we are the content creators.”

Before I go on, I need to address the white elephant in the room, or in this case, the unicorn. What is the meaning and origin of the name Trojan Horse Was a Unicorn? I asked Luis and expected some complex explanation and exercise in connecting the dots to various concepts. Instead, I received an honest reply. “I knew it had to be something stupid and non-corporate, so I asked a friend for something crazy. After the third round, Trojan Horse Was a Unicorn was written down. I thought, this is it!” says Luis.

He admits that in the beginning a lot of people did not like the moniker. “And after the first edition, I wondered if it was too different. Was that the reason for the low attendance? But now everyone likes it,” Luis says. “There is no meaning behind the name, I just needed a stupid name and this came out.”

Andre Luis and Scott Ross

Scott Ross

Most people in the industry have heard of Scott Ross, former GM of ILM and co-founder of Digital Domain – two powerhouse VFX facilities. He was asked to speak at the first THU in 2013, and became associated with the event the following year. That is when he discussed things with Luis and offered to help make it a global and impactful event. He became the event’s godfather, so to speak, working closely with Luis.

“That first year was similar to what you see here today – it looked incredibly professional and art directed, hip, and fun, and Andre’s attitude about what the conference should be is one where there are no barriers to discussion between the attendees and the speakers – very different from all the other conferences I had been to,” says Ross. “I was immediately taken by it, and I said to him, listen, if you want it to be an international affair, you need someone with outreach to the community on an international level, and I believe I can help you with that. So I became an ambassador and did outreach to speakers, and really got involved. That was during episode 2, and here we are at episode 5.”

At this latest episode, there were nearly 900 people representing close to 70 countries. “Andre’s concept is to make it better and change it every year. And there’s no formula, really. His formula basically is making sure everyone talks to one another and is in an environment that allows them to do that and build a community,” Ross says.

In the early days, Ross says, he and Luis asked themselves what the artist community was lacking. “There were a lot of disenfranchised artists, men and women who sit in closed cubicles and travel around like digital gypsies but who have a lot more in common with digital artists from India, for instance, than with their own countrymen,” he says. “It was almost like a separate culture that had arisen around the world, and we wanted to bring that culture together at THU so none of us felt alone or isolated, hat we had compatriots, that there is a tribe of us, an international tribe of us, around the world. And I think we have continued to augment that, and that is the main ethos of what THU is all about.”

Prior to this year’s event, THU centered on illustrators, graphic artists, and concept artists, and then the organizers realized other disciplines should be included, such as those using digital arts and animation in their business but not necessarily while working on a Toy Story. “The early tribe comprised digital artists and concept artists, and those are our pioneers – we wanted them to feel like they belonged to a group that looked at the world in the same way as they did and have similar issues and ideas sociologically, spiritually, and financially as they do,” Ross explains. “But like any good tribe, we needed to expand.” As a result, episode 5 saw inclusion of topics pertinent to architectural visualization, VR, and business development.

Ross agrees with Luis that THU gives attendees something they cannot get at other conferences, including SIGGRAPH and FMX, which he points out are two great industry events. However, the opportunity for social engagement between the average attendee and the presenters, these world-class artists, is just not available. “SIGGRAPH is the technical people’s conference, FMX is the business people’s conference, and THU is the creative people’s conference,” says Ross.

What other changes does Ross see in the near future for THU? “Given my background, I was always considered myself the suit, but I never saw myself as an executive, but as part of the artists. So I always thought of business as being incredibly creative – I do not draw, but I draw with words,” he says. “This year we are embracing business, and in the future, we will see the further embracing of creative technology – anywhere there is the need to create digital imagery in any kind of environment, which is really the future. That is where the jobs will be; not everyone will be working for Disney or Pixar.” The key, he maintains, is to not separate the groups, as the sum of the parts is greater than each segment on its own.

In regard to venue, Ross believes Troia has been ideal. “Like Burning Man, you do not leave the area,” he says. “And, it’s an oasis, with sandy beaches and wonderful weather.” Alas, as the conference grows, it will outgrow this ideal infrastructure and locale with its limited accommodations and presentation space. “We are a victim of our own success,” he adds. “We need to grow on lots of different levels – it is socially correct and financially important to do so. So, we are looking at various alternatives, but it will have to be like Troia where geography maintains the vital intimacy.”

While it may sound contradictory to have a larger tribe without losing the valued intimacy, Ross maintains it is possible. “If the sensibility of what we are offering is attractive to a certain type of person, you end up getting that type of person attending. Curatorship is critical, content is critical, and experience is critical. That is what defines your tribe, not size.”

Of course, Ross and Luis have big dreams for THU in terms of content and more. And then there is the thought that if only there was a way to harness the talent of the attendees in such a way to be able to make their own content, similar to what United Artists tried to do back in the day. “Do we really need an infrastructure of a studio in today’s environment, or can we put together a collective of incredible artists and curate that and create our own intellectual property in which the artists get paid, the environment is saved, the sensibility of making cool stuff is great and not misogynistic, sexist, or involves simply blowing shit up, but instead it uses creativity for the power of living and creating a better world? That is the ultimate dream,” Ross says.

A scene from the co-labs

Greyson Davis

Greyson Davis the senior manager of the Lenovo Worldwide Workstation Industry marketing team. This year at THU, he was introduced by Luis as the event’s white knight for helping to save Trojan Horse Was a Unicorn.

First, it’s important to understand the THU tribe. They are artists who have felt exploited over the years and for that reason are wary of business types. Initially, THU did not have sponsors but needed them to help defray costs. Recognizing this, Ross drew in Lenovo as one of two sponsors for the 2015 edition. At the time, Lenovo was trying to secure a presence in the M&E space. 

“We had to be different. We couldn’t do it the way our competitors were doing it because frankly we did not have the resources. So we said let’s focus on the artists and the people who are going to use [our products]. We wanted to be authentic, genuine, and credible,” says Davis.

Davis was introduced to Ross, well known throughout the VFX industry, and when Davis told Ross about Lenovo’s intended strategy within the M&E space, Ross told him that since Lenovo did not have the resources to go big at every industry trade show everywhere, the company should look at a THU sponsorship instead. 

Lenovo signed on. “The investment was worth the risk at the time,” Davis says of the company’s initial sponsorship. 

“We came here not really knowing how this event works. We were used to trade shows where you show up and get a certain amount of real estate on an exhibition floor, that kind of thing. This was different,” says Davis. “I had to keep unlearning what I knew and had to build a new idea of what this was, which didn’t happen until after I got here that first year. And this is important for all the sponsors that decide to take this on. THU can only hand-deliver you so much. When you get here, you need to just jump in. That is what we did. There’s an agenda, and there’s a lot going on. Andre goes out of his way to make introductions, but it’s up to you to make the most of it.”

According to Davis, his group began to see that not only was there phenomenal content scheduled, but they had access to the so-called knights, those working on the biggest projects at that time and from the best companies. “And we had zero way to reach them before. We had no sales relationship with these companies prior to THU. And Andre made introductions for us.”

Davis continues: “We saw so many benefits – not just access to the knights, but also the opportunity to learn what this industry is all about and how that applies to our solutions. All the systems here are ours. [The sponsorship] gave us the chance to be different and have something exclusive in this market. We had some of the top VFX people and artists using our equipment, many for the first time.” 

Indeed, there are no typical corporate sponsorship packages at THU like one would expect as part of a marketing deal. Instead, the association is more subtle for attendees, who do not respond well to having corporate branding pushed on them. Moreover, here there is no VIP status – everyone is treated equally, from sponsors, to warriors, to knights. “If you are concerned about having a VIP status here, then THU is not for you,” Davis points out. Also, sponsorships are not given to competitors, and products are used at the various venues, giving knights and warriors a chance to use them (and like them). For instance, Unity sponsored a co-lab, where attendees used the Unity engine while working on a VR project, with a product manager from the company standing by to assist with any technical question. 

As a major international sponsor in 2017, Lenovo had its logo on the lanyards and had its name attached to one of the few conference halls, in addition to supplying all the workstations used on site, including those used by the knights (who used the Lenovo computers as opposed to their own devices). They were also included in signage on site and on the THU Website.

Davis was duly impressed with the event that first year and excited, only to learn during Luis’ farewell address that this was in all likelihood the last THU due to finances – hosting an event that reflected Luis’ vision was very expensive – yet offering something of less quality was out of the question. “I could tell we were making great relationships and were getting conversations with potential customers we could’t have dreamed of having before, and they were all open to meeting with us. The way Andre [Luis] talks about the sponsors, they become accepted at a level that is unique here. They are instantly accepted because the tribe is so appreciate of their contributions.” 

After careful consideration, Davis contacted Luis and asked him to be totally transparent about the situation. “Luckily, we found a way for us to increase our investment in a way that also made sense for us from a business standpoint,” says Davis. “We weren’t in a position where we could be [monetarily] foolish, but we could keep THU alive. The chance to save it was a great opportunity for us and accelerated everything for us since in terms of our relationships.” 

Davis’s decision was reaffirmed not long after Lenovo’s first appearance, when he began receiving calls from potential customers with whom he had no prior relationship, asking for a system to evaluate. “In every case, we won the business,” he adds. He attributes that to the quality of the product but also believes he has been able to build a level of trust and forge a relationship with customers, attributing that initial contact to THU. 

“That first year, a lot of people asked us, what does Lenovo do? And, that’s OK. The next year, no one asked. So, from a marketing standpoint, we accomplished brand awareness in a year,” Davis says. “This experience has changed the way we market to other verticals in terms of customer intimacy.” But will the strategy succeed in other industries? “There are a lot of reasons to wonder if that could happen. We will see. One thing is certain, you have to find that common thread where you can build this type of intimate relationship.”

THU is all about transformation, and it hit home with Davis. THU was a transformative experience for him, as it is for attendees. “I am not an artist, and this is clearly a tribe; that first year I felt l needed to tread lightly, and that was of my own doing. But by the end of that week, those feelings were going away. Then to have the chance to step in and save the conference, that helped a lot, and Andre promoted that message. We now feel part of the tribe. As a marketer, I know this is right. Everyone wants to achieve customer intimacy, but you can’t just say it over and over to make it true. You got to invest in that goal, and we are doing that.”

“THU redefined what I wanted my career to be. I have seen how some of the key buzzwords, like customer intimacy, really work and what they really look like, and it has made me motivated in my career. I truly didn’t understand marketing until that happened. For me, I felt like THU has allowed me to justify bringing a lot more heart and emotion into my job,” says Davis. “It has also been an incredible tool for me as a father. This is one thing I do professionally that my children understand, and they know why I am here – I meet with people who make movies, books, cartoons. THU connects us with the things they love to do and that we share.”

And while Davis is quick to list all the advantages THU has offered Lenovo – and him personally – the one he values dearly is the close friendship he has forged with Luis. And that bond was clearly visible to everyone during the welcome address. 

At this point, I asked Davis how he would describe THU. “It’s where those who provide inspiration to the world come to get inspired,” he says. “One of the things you see here a lot is many brilliant artists, but there is also a lot of insecurity. Some are just drained. They need to be recharged and re-inspired. For many of the knights, THU reminds them of why they do this.”

Cassidy Lammers, Lenovo worldwide workstation marketing manager, who was sitting nearby, summed it up well: “They are here to recharge their soul.”

However, finding the right time to inform the tribe of Lenovo’s white knight role was difficult, after all, this is a corporate-wary group. But 2017 was the year they were told how a corporation in fact helped breathe life back into this beloved event. And this came from Luis himself in a heartfelt presentation to the attendees. And, the warriors responded with resounding appreciation.

Without question, Lenovo and Davis are part of the tribe.