When we left college I don't think we had a clue what directing really was. You work as an individual on your own film which is great for finding your own filmmaking voice but there is a danger that you are making work purely for yourself. On one early job we even made our own separate sections then glued them together at the end. The result was one unholy mess. We learned pretty quickly that we wouldn't have much of a career in this business unless we shared the creative process. After that things came a lot easier and the whole process was immensely more enjoyable. It's critical at any stage of your career to choose your jobs wisely, but particularly early on. There's no getting away from the fact that it's your work that gets you work so it's better to take on an interesting no budget project rather than that Daytime Car Insurance Ad, despite the cash on offer. Always go for the scripts that take risks or offer something new. Our best relationships have been formed on that basis, one which allows us to go off and write our version of their concept. When this works we end up with our best work, but often we can spend months on a project which ultimately turns out to be too left field for the client to feel comfortable with. You've just got to chalk it up to experience. But scripts like this are rare so sometimes you have to creatively reinvent an idea. You'll know pretty soon whether the agency/client are up for that.
What do you wish you had known when you were just starting out as directors?
You only learn through experience so you may as well get used to the fact that you're sometimes going to fuck things up. It helps when there are two of you so that the other one can politely point this out before it's too late, but occasionally we manage a synchronized fuck up, and you just have to live with it. But sometimes things magically come together almost by accident and it turns out better than you expected. I think what I'm trying to say is, without reverting to a worn out cliche, that you gotta roll with the punches.
What are you still learning about the job?
We learn on every job, especially if you're using new techniques/technologies to create them. The best (but probably not the safest) way to enjoy your career is to constantly take chances. If you're known for 2D, try 3D. If you're an animator, try live action. This is what has kept us creatively sharp. But don't expect to be given this opportunity on a plate—you get scripts based on the work that you've already done so you constantly have to take a few steps back and re-invent yourself in order to go forward. Animation is notorious for pigeonholing directors. Eventually (after about 10 years in our case) you are seen for being someone who directs, rather than that guy who draws skinny characters with long arms.
Watch some of Smith & Foulkes' spots
Read more from the 2009 Directors Special Report