FUTURE SIGHT OF LONDON: FOUR COMBUSTIBLE EDISONS CREATE A COMMERCIALS BACKDRAFT AT SMOKE & MIRRORS.
The term "smoke and mirrors" has always suggested creative sorcery rather than technical wizardry, and now that the smoke has burst into Flame, the transition of special effects into a full-scale art form is virtually complete, nowhere more so than at London's Smoke & Mirrors. The company's origins can be traced to a pub in 1994, when Sean Broughton and Jon Hollis, then working at London postproduction companies Rushes and The Mill, respectively, discovered a mutual dissatisfaction with the role of skillful manipulator, adding the techno-tricks to otherwise completed commercials. Both wanted to get involved at an earlier stage and with a wider range of work, so they came up with a new conception; the following year Smoke & Mirrors Productions was born and christened with its suitably magical moniker.
Tom Sparks, who gave up the idea of studying fine art to become a print retoucher before traveling the world and working as a runner at Rushes, and Chris Roff, also from The Mill, joined Broughton and Hollis as fellow Flame artists and directors at the new company. All business decisions are taken mutually by this democratic quartet and often incorporate discussions about how to fit in weekend or overbooked work that will be charged at much less than the usual, unavoidably expensive, hourly rate. This is not a strategy generally embraced by other such companies, but it emanates from the directors' conviction that their primary objective is to get and produce good, interesting work.
And indeed they do just that. The company is probably best known in the States for Fallon McElligott's wet and wild "Canals of New York" BMW commercial, directed by London's Daniel Barber. Broughton came in on this one at storyboard stage and was present on the shoot in Florida, where the boating scenes were filmed. Barber, Broughton explains, is typical of a new generation of directors who have grown up with technology and don't view it as something separate and mysterious from the directing process. "There are fewer big egos around among the younger directors," says Sparks, "and often at our first meeting we can explain to them what they can do with the camera more cheaply than we could do it with our machines."
The Smoke & Mirrors artists are scornful of "effects people who hide behind the so-called magic of digital technology," says Broughton. "We are not so protective about our skills, and we view improved technology simply as giving us a bigger palette to work with." If involved early enough, for example, they can use the tools to test what is possible and work out the director's vision beforehand, thus minimizing more laborious and costly postproduction work. In the States, they suspect, where the technology is more widely available, digital manipulation is often used to achieve what is perfectly possible with the camera.
Their collaborative approach means that the work is divided between team members according to individual skills and interests, rather than on a simple cost or availability basis. Thus Jon Hollis, who was once set on a career as a rock guitarist and particularly enjoys working with abstract forms, has a long-standing acquaintance with Graham Wood of Tomato; Hollis works on most of that company's productions, including music videos for their band, Underworld.
Broughton has a similar relationship with commercials and music video director Jonathan Glazer. Tom Sparks leans toward optical work, like the radical makeup removal job he did on William Hurt's face, which was grotesquely overwrinkled for the movie Jane Eyre. More recently, he has completed Tarsem's "Storm" commercial for Reebok, in which the computer-generated raindrops and puddles seem the most realistic element among the (real) physical stunts.
Asked about future plans, they modestly scorn any suggestion that they might rival the big special-effects houses of the West Coast. "It would be arrogant to imagine that we could compete with, say, Industrial Light & Magic," they laugh, but admit that they are nurturing projects to progress into movies. "But we intend to start small," Broughton quickly adds. "We would far rather do 10 really good rather than 60 mediocre shots." And their overwhelming incentive would be to complement and reinforce the narrative, enhancing the telling of the story. "We're not interested in becoming known for spectacular effects," Sparks emphasizes. "Even with commercials, if viewers react by saying, 'What fantastic effects,' you know you've lost the game."
Until now, the geographical scope of their work has depended on personal relationships. Work in the States, for instance, has come via Glazer, working for Nike with Wieden & Kennedy and Propaganda-a hypnotic mix of slow and fast motion footage of Michael Jordan flying to the hoop while an assortment of TV viewers look on-while JWT's Entenmann's "Bonnie & Clyde" spot, in which a little girl with a sweet tooth fails to notice the infamous duo as they tear through her town, came to them via directors Vaughan & Anthea, then at Federation. They are certainly not averse to doing more work in the U.S., though they acknowledge the disadvantage of "having to appeal to such a broad spectrum of audiences." Their experience working with American directors has proved them to be "both the best and the worst collaborators," says the straight-talking Sparks. "The great thing about good American directors is that they know when to speak and when to shut up."
While conceding that ILM "holds the trump card" where visual effects is concerned, the Smoke & Mirrors team admires them "because we know how difficult it is to achieve what they do, but we don't aspire to do the same." They are huge fans of the early effects work seen in such Ray Harryhausen films as Clash of the Titans and Jason and the Argonauts, but their greatest accolade would go to smaller-scale live action and animation combinations like France's City of Lost Children.
Fortunately, they perceive Flame technology as the ideal tool for developing a visual story without pauses for-literally-effect. "I really hate that tendency to build up to some great effect, and then stop for impact," declares Sparks.
Flame tend to be rather expensive (S&M has four), but, says Broughton, it has removed the creative limits set by previous tools. "Now we can do almost anything, and few disappointments can be blamed on the equipment standing in our way." He is full of praise for Flame's manufacturers, Discreet Logic of Montreal, for listening to their users and acting on this feedback to produce software that facilitates their aims. The possibility of customizing Flame with plug-ins from other software writers inspired S&M to set up its own research and development department, whose top software writer actually came from Discreet Logic and recently collaborated with the directors in writing three new versions of the Flame software in four weeks.
Despite dismissing the technological skills required by their work as "no greater than learning to type; after you've learned, you don't think about what the keys are doing, though you may keep trying out different functions," these artists do admit to "being on a constant learning curve." Knowing that 10 years ago the latest machines held only two and a quarter minutes' video footage as against Flame's hour and a half, they are in no doubt that technology will continue to charge ahead, enabling them to get faster work at a high resolution.
Nor are they complacent about the quality of the work they produce. Tom Sparks confesses that he can't remember ever not seeing any faults in a commercial he's worked on, "until this Tarsem spot for Reebok," he adds. Though they constantly have to reject work from sheer busyness, they will cram something in if it seems really amazing. "If good work comes in, our aim is to make sure that something as good, if not better, goes out," says Broughton. But he and the others bemoan how much effort goes into mediocre commercials for, say, detergent, "just to get a result." He agrees that the exception that proves this rule is the beautiful Persil spot, "Stain Free," directed by Graham Fink, in which a dalmatian literally shakes off its spots, thanks to Jon Hollis' Flame work.
However quickly technology progresses, it's more than likely this level-headed crew will continue to stay ahead of the game. Whether they diversify into film production, directing or other related areas, their Flame seems set to burn