"At Passion, what I've always tried to avoid is getting stale," explains executive producer Andrew Ruhemann, who founded the company with co-producer Alan Dewhurst and animators Uli Meyer and Chuck Gammage (all of whom have moved on to other gigs) after the four worked at Richard Williams Studio on Roger Rabbit." I've always been in horror of the word 'conventional' or 'establishment,' " he notes. "Certainly in the commercials and music video world, that's absolute death. When you've been going as long as us, there's always that danger."
Ruhemann has managed to avoid jeopardy, thanks to his dogged pursuit of fresh talent and diverse projects. "There's an organic process of bringing new talent in and nurturing them," he says. That's what has led to some of the groundbreaking, now classic work on the shop's reel. Case in point: Levi's "Clayman," out of BBH, which features a stop-motion stud who rescues a putty damsel as he slides across a clothesline on his sturdy denims. The spot is directed by Mike Mort and Deniol Morris, formerly known as Aargh!; Ruhemann discovered the recent grads practically fresh out of college after he saw early work on their BBC animated series about a dysfunctional prehistoric family, The Gogs. Ruhemann's eye has now eagerly turned toward the French animation scene, currently home to some of the best CG artists. "They've always been computer literate and have moved more quickly than the rest of Europe, which means they already have a heritage of mature CG animators," he says. Passion is now affiliated with the French team known as soandseau, who crafted bizarre 3-D creatures for a French gum called Kiss Kool and a British snack called Munchsters, and Pierre Coffin, the artist behind Flora margarine's "Jack Spratt," which made appearances at this year's Siggraph and the Ottawa International Animation Festival.
Although 70 percent of Passion's output is commercials animation, the shop bills itself as an independent film company and also features a long-form division. Run by executive producer John Battsek, it's already earned an Oscar and an Emmy for the non-animated documentary One Day In September. In just the last two years, Passion has busted out as a pacesetter in the music video scene as well, thanks to directors like Tim Hope and Pete Candeland. Hope, whose stunning mixed-media short The Wolfman took home the top award at the Edinburgh Festival and was then adapted into a celebrated spot for the Sony PS2, has stormed the MTV universe with clips for Coldplay and Jimmy Eat World. At this year's Video Music Awards his surreal video for "Trouble," which looks as if live footage has been pressed into a dreamy wax-paper collage, earned a Breakthrough nomination and took the Moonman for Best Art Direction.
Passion is also home to Pete Candeland, who collaborated with Tank Girl illustrator Jamie Hewlitt to bring Gorillaz to life. The cartoon band, a brainchild of Blur lead singer Damon Albarn and Hewlitt, initially appeared only via its animated videos, including its first, for "Clint Eastwood," which won MTV's Breakthrough award at the 2001 VMAs. This year Passion gave the characters a new dimension at the U.K.'s Brits Awards, where the band appeared projected "live" onstage via Candeland's animated Gorillaz characters carefully designed to match the stage lighting.
On a similar note, the shop continues to gain commercials mileage with variations on the live-action/animation theme pioneered in Roger Rabbit. Recent exploits include a Stuart Little-inspired spot for Aero, in which a mouse shakes his booty off in a live-action universe, as well as the acclaimed spot for the NSPCC and Saatchi & Saatchi/London, in which a father's violence toward a cartoon kid drives home the fragility of real children. Director Russell Brooke, who also created the line-drawn couch potatoes in a Snapple spot called "Rent," helmed the animation, and Passion animation effects director Chris Knott, who also oversaw Roger Rabbit's animation effects, was on set with Frank Budgen to ensure the two mediums would ultimately mesh.
Although its talents span the spectrum of animation techniques, Ruhemann insists that the company's broad scope isn't what keeps the creative on the cutting edge. "It's always been very much about the directors. If they happen to be a stop-frame or 2-D animator, that's almost secondary to the fact that they're a great director, designer or animator. The emphasis has always been on character; it's always been about the talent rather than the technique."