Have You Seen These Kids?: A Pilsen production studio runs on youthful creativity

Have You Seen These Kids pose for a group photo (Catherine Lee)

“After he cuts the kid’s arm off and the blood spurts everywhere, then you’re gonna roar, oh and you–you roll around this way…and you–when they fall you’re just gonna twirl the baton on down to the ground…”

This is not usual office banter. This is not an ordinary office. This is not an ordinary workday. Have You Seen These Kids (HYSTK) is not an ordinary company.

The place is a circus. Literally–the floor is covered in hay, a bear is climbing a construction ladder, and there’s a man in a suit nearly seven feet tall handing a costumed woman her baton. The boy in the director’s chair can’t be over 12 years old, and the whole scene is enveloped in a dreamy haze of smoke–while only the hissing of the generator in the icy air outside the propped-open door gives the hint that this is not, in fact, a dream.
It’s just a HYSTK workday.

Have You Seen These Kids, a newly incorporated film production company in Pilsen, is shooting a prologue to a film reel to be released on the day the studio launches its new website (currently the site is hystk.com). The purpose of today’s project is to embody both what HYSTK has to offer and what it wants to accomplish–youth, innovation, collaboration, and chaos. The scene today at their office, a loft at 18th Street and Jefferson, does not miss a beat in communicating these concepts.

“The whole point of HYSTK is to bring the next generation of talent in Chicago together. Our main mission is to express our youth and get work done and make it cool,” says Anthony Esquivel, the 23-year-old motion designer for the company. Esquivel is one of the four main artists of HYSTK. Other members include his brother and creative director “G.L. Joe” Esquivel, 25, the director of photography Casey Borhnell, 22, and the managing director Michael Ferstle, 25.
While emphasizing their youth as a unique strength rather than a weakness so commonly complained about in resumes, HYSTK also inverts the connotations of wreaking havoc–in a professional capacity, of course. Instead of resisting chaos, HYSTK feeds it, writes it, and films it.

Today’s shoot, the studio launch video, features children 10 to 12 years old–dressed and scripted to represent the childhood versions of the HYSTK crew. The action that follows is a circus scene gone awry. “In the end the bear gets angry and eats someone and the whole set comes apart…Well, I don’t want to ruin it for you,” says Anthony.

The circus on the screen is only appropriate to represent the one taking place behind the scenes. With intermittent sounds of objects (and people) crashing down three separate staircases, the constant flow of children in and out of rooms, and the familiar lull of a PlayStation 3 from the tiny room on the fourth level of the loft space, the impression is less of a studio than of a 10-year-old boy’s birthday party (albeit one with a $5,000 budget).

Behind the scenes of Behind the Scenes with These Kids (Catherine Lee)

That impression of controlled chaos and unmitigated youth is precisely what puts HYSTK at the forefront of their field in Chicago. The company, which incorporated about two months ago and plans to launch officially in two or three weeks, is quickly gaining attention for their creative music and promotional videos. “We’ve got a few clients around Chicago…we work with our friends,” Ferstle says, listing off big Chicago names like boutique chain Akira and rap group the Cool Kids, and an upcoming pro bono project for Chicago Public Schools with Marc Moran of the RSVP gallery and Kanye West’s manager. HYSTK just finished producing a reel for a Haiti benefit at Reggie’s Rock Club that involved several other Chicago artists. Esquivel writes that HYSTK works in four directions, “silly or respectable commercial work that helps pay the bills ([promotions for] Uprise Skateshop and Solo Salon), our own personal crazy creative projects (ex. the circus video), didactic welfare projects (ex. the Haiti benefit), and lifestyle videos (skating, music, fashion, event coverage).”

Although much of their portfolio is currently composed of the members’ individual projects, G.L. Joe emphasizes that the collaborative effort is key for the company’s success. “We all have our parts and we all just came together…like Voltron.”
“We want to represent Chicago first and foremost, then the Midwest, then worldwide after that,” says Ferstle. All of the members of HYSTK are from Chicago or Minneapolis. “The history of HYSTK is that we’ve been skating together since we were all really young, always doing artistic things,” says Bohrnell. All of the production crew still skate–some professionally. “It got started basically because we were working together all the time, for free. We figured that we might as well get legit so that nobody could take advantage of us,” says Esquivel.

“My main goal is to keep all these artists from moving away from Chicago, and make the industry come to Chicago,” says G.L. Joe. “We can create such an impact here.” All of the “kids” of HYSTK see the path that their company is blazing as a sure-fire route to success. They’re ambitious without reservation, and confident that they have what it takes–the perks of having a whole company under the age of 26.

“Hold on–I just want to look at this for, like, five minutes,” says Bohrnell just before he skillfully shuts out surrounding distractions and zones in on the set during a break. This quality reappears in all of the company members throughout the day, giving the impression that although there might not be such a literal circus on a daily basis, it’s likely that the same level of intensity and activity can usually be found in the studio.

Bohrnell interrupts his thought to comment about the video, “This is just what happens when you think about it for two months over coffee and then it happens. They kept telling me things were just impossible or too dangerous.” The notes on the prologue begin with the assertion that the video will “display [HYSTK’s] twisted yet fashionable sensibilities to the world.”

The “twisted yet fashionable sensibilities” emanate from the scene unfolding as the rehearsal begins, somewhere in the course of a bear riding a bicycle, a girl twirling a baton, and a chorus of preteens playing their roles. It is suddenly not hard to imagine how four “kids” have gotten enough support to transform their talent into a collaborative, creative effort that looks a whole lot like success.

The entire shooting of “Behind The Scenes with These Kids” takes place with a playful yet dedicated air, maintaining that delicate balance between spontaneity and formality on which the company so depends. HYSTK is accustomed to toeing the line between child and adult. This phenomenon that is key to HYSTK’s success and uniqueness–how the company manages to fuse its ideas of work and play–is manifested when G.L. Joe shouts, “Everyone put down your fruit snacks! Let’s get back to work!”

With all the right ideas, enough talent to go around, and a large, dedicated support base, it’s easy to understand the confidence that these Chicago artists have in their ability to make it happen. It would be difficult to walk around the office on a normal day without being inspired by the assortment of photos, toys, and papers strewn about–vestiges of past and future projects. But especially on this day, when the company’s self-awareness and drive to complete a bizarre vision is at its peak, it demands the question, “Have you seen these kids?”