Looks can be deceiving

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On the surface, directing team Smith & Foulkes' reel looks quite wholesome. Working out of London-based Nexus Productions, Alan Smith and Adam Foulkes have produced work for clients from Honda to Virgin Atlantic and Xbox. Each spot save one is colorfully animated-a music video features fuzzy puppets-and woodland creatures are prevalent. Yet beneath the whimsy of each piece of work is a healthy dose of mischief, a knowing wink and some insight into the personalities of its creators-cute bunnies dance to a song about hate (Honda's "Grrr"); the cuddly puppets get it on (Mint Royale's "Sexiest Man in Jamaica"), and airline passengers in an on-board video illegally smoke in the plane's lavatory (Virgin Atlantic's "Welcome on Board"). But the team's work is as notable for its stylistic variation as for its layers of meaning.

Smith, 38, and Foulkes, 35, have evolved from graphic animators to in-demand animation directors since teaming up at the Royal College of Art in the '90s, and they've worked non-stop for the last year in the commercials world, sometimes on three projects at a time. They were brought together by a common directorial ambition to be in control of the work, combined witha belief in "safety in numbers," according to Smith. "But we also did slightly different things-we gave each other a different perspective," says Foulkes.

Their first professional project came shortly after graduation and a lucky break, after meeting Brian Eno and designing animation for U2's PopMart tour on what was then the biggest screen of its kind. The job must have inspired Smith & Foulkes to dream big, because soon enough they were working with different teams of animators to apply distinctively different styles to each project. "We are animators at heart, it's where we came from," says Smith. "We do everything we can." He notes that 3-D animation now necessitates the use of people like fur specialists, and therefore a bigger team. "Sometimes we don't want our work to be limited by what we can personally animate," says Foulkes "There's only two of us, and there are some ideas that are bigger than that. Plus, all of our rabbits would look the same."

After graphic work inspired by airline flight brochures for Natwest bank, the two shifted in tone to include more humor in their style. When Virgin Atlantic approached them about directing an in-flight safety video in the same vein, the two rejected it, instead creating a hipper clip with more-developed characters-a rock star, a scientist and a businessman on his way to a romantic rendezvous-whose dreams and destinations end the film on a cheery note. "The Virgin job is a great one because you've got all these trapped executives flying back and forth between New York and London who have to watch it," says Smith. "Getting the humor down was quite tricky, because you don't want it to become gallows humor. We tried to work in stories of the passengers and the personalities of the people. That's why we put the extra 30 seconds at the end."

"They've stopped playing that now," adds Foulkes. "I think we're costing Virgin a fortune in jet fuel."

Smith & Foulkes looked at the Virgin project, produced with Arcadia Productions, as a chance to demonstrate their desire to do something different with each project, actively avoiding stylistic slotting. Their success in this is evident in their last three commercial jobs, all visually and tonally divergent. Honda's "Grrr," sure to be present on the awards circuit this summer, is a 3-D world of bunnies, fish and peacocks who romp in a green glen that Smith calls "Liberace's golf course." A simplified alphabetic take on the music industry for Observer Music Monthly via Mother, "Abba to Zappa," demands repeat viewings with cleverly-placed details among a different artist or band for each letter. In Xbox's "Portal," black-and-white shadow figures are sucked into another dimension. "That's something that takes time to acknowledge," says Foulkes. "To go from something textured and 3-D like 'Grrr' and then going to 'Abba to Zappa' with Mother and then 2-D for Xbox-that helps articulate the fact that it's not about one style, it's about finding the approach for each project."

Their very latest is a contribution to the feature Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. The Littlest Elf, an opening sequence, is perhaps the cutest bit of 3-D animation ever created and is used to contrast with the film's dark tone. While developing and designing the character, Smith & Foulkes also developed the elf's backstory, posters for the faux film, and sequels like The Littlest Elf in Space. "There was a very sinister undercurrent below it all," says Foulkes. "There was supposed to be an evil corporation behind it, controlling the children's minds."

Their auteur-like approach has become important enough to eclipse personal projects. "We spend most of our personal time writing, plotting and planning," says Smith. "Because we have an experimental approach to everything that we do, it's important to experiment with a pitch and a job rather than to do a lot of personal work."

"It's good that people start to see animation directors as directors, and understand what their background is," Smith says. "Like any director, they work with a crew of people that they've hand-picked over a period of time. We enjoy the approach as much as the job itself."

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