The Madness of Method

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There's a certain craziness to the images that come out of Method Studios: a young man who outruns a cheetah and plunges his arm down its throat; another who butts heads with a ram, both in spots for Mountain Dew; or the surreal, staccato-animated jet-setters who run through tunnels or ride motorcycles for Levi's Engineered jeans. Such unusual fare is typical for this Santa Monica visual effects shop, which in just over two years has managed to build a reputation as an Inferno/Flame hot house, drawing directors like Kinka Usher, Mark Romanek and Frank Budgen, for clients like Sony, Nike, Madonna and Levi's. Method owes its origins to an exodus from Santa Monica's 525 Post, in an effort, say the founders, to create a strictly artist-focused company. Visual effects supervisors Alex Frisch and Chris Staves; executive producer Neysa Horsburgh; and director of technology Andreas Wacker joined former 525 president Jerry Cancellieri and CEO Steve Michaels in the new creative venture in 1998, and their shop soon burgeoned into an unqualified success. Today, the studio, with a staff of 25, benefits from the broad perspective of its multicultural staff, adds Frisch, a French native. More than half of the company hails from other countries, including Germany, England, Australia and Poland. "I think there's a sharing of different backgrounds that makes it richer for all of us," says Frisch. "In every country, especially in Europe, I think the approach to visual effects or design in general is a little different. There's less prep, less production, and it's more up to the artist to come up with solutions, even if you don't have all the elements you need."

Frisch had no shortage of elements available in the mind-boggling scenes in Kinka Usher's Mountain Dew commercials, via BBDO/New York. Besides the arm down the wildcat, he did the alien spacecraft that zooms around like a skateboard, with Dew dudes at the controls. Such perilous scenes often feel like risks for the artist himself. "What drives me is the challenge of doing something that is really hard," explains Frisch. "I think a lot of the jobs that I do are risky because when I take them on, I think I'll pull them off, but it's only at the last minute that it finally comes together."

Man and beast came together quite seamlessly in Mountain Dew's "Ram." The moment of impact, when the guy's head collides with the animal's horns, was of course a composite of documentary stock footage of the ram and 35mm live-action shots that were treated to match the stock's 16mm look. "We felt that real footage of wild rams would be a lot more compelling and that it would be hard to find an animal trained enough to shoot," Frisch explains.

Besides his work for Usher, Frisch also crafted the effects masterpiece for the "Sony Playstation 9" commercial, directed by Eric Ifergan for TBWA/Chiat/Day/San Francisco. The spot, which won a Silver Clio this year for effects, shows a game player from the year 2078 who drifts in and out of various fantasy worlds and encounters robot warriors and a tentacled mermaid.

Although Method's work is often jaw-dropping, the artists get the most satisfaction out of going unnoticed. "It goes back to being a little bit of a magician and using sleight of hand," explains effects supervisor Simon Scott, who joined the Method staff last year. "You want to add to the project in a way that's not obvious." The London native has worked his magic on three major campaigns since joining Method. He supervised the David Kellogg-directed Blue Man Group spots for Intel Pentium 3 and 4, from MVBMS/Euro RSCG, as well as Wieden & Kennedy's Levi's Engineered jeans campaign. Most recently, Scott worked his magic on the Nike "Play" campaign, also from W&K, directed by fellow Brit Frank Budgen. Scott says that his role was invisible yet crucial on Nike's "Shade Running" spot, which features a runner playing a game of sun-dodge as she attempts to run only within shadowed spaces. Originally it did not call for a lot of effects work, but it turned out to be the campaign's most post-intensive spot.

"The production team had done very careful timing and weather planning, and the idea was originally to shoot most of it in-camera," he explains. "Unfortunately, even though they planned everything meticulously, they got bad weather and had a lot of overcast days in which the shadows weren't strong or visible at all." In the end, Scott says that about 60 to 70 percent of the shadows were post-generated.

Method also boasts a long list of music video work for stars like Madonna, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Prince. Effects supervisor Chris Staves created effects for several Madonna videos, including "Ray of Light" and "What it Feels Like for a Girl." Staves also crafted the techno-rustic look of the diva's "Don't Tell Me," with director Jean-Baptiste Mondino.

The Method men have also followed many of its patrons into film. Method worked on a few scenes from The Mexican, directed by Gore Verbinski, and they're collaborating with Mark Romanek on his upcoming feature, One Hour Photo, starring Robin Williams. On the big-picture front, however, the artists are quite happy staying low key. "We don't ever really want to be a huge facility that just pumps out shots for movies," explains Staves. "If you're doing 100 effects shots for Armageddon or something, there tends to be much more the factory mentality, where it gets broken down into an assembly line and it's like, `I'm working on this guy's pinky.' If we're working on a shot, we want to have one artist take it from beginning to end."

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