I hope it’s going to involve smoke and big water tanks with cameras, and be a hybrid of digital and analog. That sweet spot of ‘How have they done that?’ is quite a nice place to be.”
Andrew Jones is talking about one of the latest projects FutureDeluxe is working on. It’s for an American science fiction network, and the motion graphics and computer graphics (CG) studio has been given a budget to explore and experiment and see what it can come up with.
“Playing and testing; taking CG and then fucking with it, distorting it, creating something new—we enjoy that a lot,” says James Callahan, who joined as a partner a couple of years after Jones set up the company in Brighton in 2010. The studio, now based in London and 20-strong, has developed a certain look and feel across its body of work, which includes visuals for brands like Betfair, Disney, Intel, Nike and Wacom, as well as the edgy music groups Hockeysmith and Modeselektor.
Flashes of light, vibrant colors, translucency, fluorescence, textures, smoke, reflections and fluids effortlessly blend and spin into motion throughout FutureDeluxe’s visual explorations. You’ll watch with a sense of weightlessness as forms morph, meld, merge, disappear and are reborn in the studio’s abstract universe. It’s a place where experimentation means everything, so FutureDeluxe tries to devote 30 percent of its time to development. With motion design as a starting point, the studio’s work has evolved to encompass visual effects, CG and even code-driven art.
“I’m drawn to color, but I’m really drawn to detail, intricacy and the computational technology element of it,” explains Jones. “Pushing the tools to do things they almost can’t do delivers this intricate detail that I can’t get from real life. I push a computer to its max to find these layers and depth in things we can’t normally see.”
Setting up FutureDeluxe has enabled both Jones and Callahan to also cut free of the restraints set by corporate advertising accounts with tight deadlines and less scope for creativity. Jones worked as a graphic designer in the late ’90s and became fascinated with emerging technologies like Flash and Director. After the dot-com bubble popped, he ended up at digital agency AKQA, developing his talent for motion graphics through digital campaigns, installations and more. Callahan, similarly, worked for various agencies, including the London-based trendsetter Mother. With a background in conceptual filmmaking and with the advent of 3G—and later 4G—he was intrigued by the content possibilities that mobile video would offer. After escaping the agency life, the pair set out to try new things. The two met when Callahan, as a freelance art director, came to FutureDeluxe to help Jones with a pitch. They’ve since built FutureDeluxe into a studio that brands turn to when they want to create something their audiences haven’t seen before, and that other creatives turn to for inspiration.
“It’s less that we have complementary skills or that the things he’s lacking I have, and more the chemistry between us,” says Callahan. “We have very similar references. We like similar styles and, yeah, there just seemed to be this ‘click.’”
Having an experimental approach naturally entails risk. Behind FutureDeluxe’s stunning animations is a lot of testing, tweaking and repeating. Mistakes are made. “The Wacom piece is an example of where it can go wrong behind the scenes,” says Jones.
Intrigued by some abstract feathers that FutureDeluxe had crafted as artwork for its packaging, Wacom and ad agency Iris London gave the studio an open brief to create a film inspired by feathers. FutureDeluxe came up with a concept that took in the themes of growth, display and flight. But when FutureDeluxe storyboarded the film, it felt too literal, so the studio worked on the idea and invited movement artist P A L E T A to improvise a series of bird poses, which were 3-D scanned. Procedural textures and layers of materials were then applied to the human and bird forms, along with the dance and flight dynamics the studio had envisioned.
“We were so sick of it by the time it came out,” says Jones. “It doesn’t come across in the finished work, which has had a really, really good response, but we spent a lot of time just experimenting, and we blew all the budget. The making-of film is probably longer than the film itself. It’s one where we did way too much research and development rather than what was needed for the final film.”
Although the experience nearly put the dampeners on what has become one of the studio’s most prestigious projects, FutureDeluxe learned from it and continued pushing its art forward. In 2017, the studio was invited by internationally renowned digital festival OFFF to create the main titles for its London event.
“It’s about sharing knowledge that in our industry is regurgitated and reused and repackaged,” says Jones.
In the piece, an ever-changing, organic mass of colored particles is passed from one character to the next. In between cuts, swirling granules spell out the names of the main participants at OFFF, like sand paintings made by an indigenous tribe. The passing of the knowledge becomes a surreal ceremony in ultrahigh definition, with a haunting, visceral feel to it.
“We found this technique where you can film and play footage through a code system that we tweaked and developed. It looks at the motion rather than the actual graphic, and tracks that motion while taking color references,” says Jones. “We started experimenting with filming macroliquids, and ran it through this system. Rather than having a 2-D plane of an image, it enables you to have a three-dimensional plane, which you can put cameras into [via 3-D software], and you’re immersed in this image. We textured all the particles to feel like an apocalyptic desert.”
The piece also pushed the studio in its use of 3-D characters. Real people were scanned to create finely detailed human forms, which were later animated to carry out the tribal ritual. It’s an intimate sequence, and shooting the live-action reference footage was part of the fun. “We filmed some of the guys in the studio licking each other’s ears or looking at each other in loving ways,” says Callahan.
Héctor Ayuso, OFFF’s director, had been tracking FutureDeluxe’s work for a while before offering the studio the opportunity. “I knew from the start that they would blow people’s minds with their final piece. It wasn’t like anything people expected. That’s the beauty of an open brief—I made sure they were completely free to do whatever they wanted, and the result was breathtaking and out of the ordinary.”
While the visuals will pull you in like quicksand, what really holds viewers is the audio. FutureDeluxe worked with London-based sound design studio Zelig Sound, run by Matthew Wilcock, to develop audio tracks that perfectly matched the atmosphere—and the editing—of the piece.
“We truly believe that the audio on most of our pieces is easily 50 percent of it,” says Callahan. “What we’re making doesn’t exist, and it’s the audio that helps convince the viewer that this thing’s real, this thing was really there, and this thing moved past the object or landed on the ground.”
“We usually get together and chat about the film: what it is, what they’re wanting to get across, what it’s for. Then we chat about references and moods,” says Wilcock, who regularly collaborates with FutureDeluxe. “Complementing their visuals is just conversation, and then collaboration. That’s the ideal.”
After eight years at the forefront of motion graphics, a new chapter has begun for FutureDeluxe. In September 2017, the studio signed a partnership with global visual effects house Moving Picture Company (MPC). FutureDeluxe is now on MPC’s roster of directors. Meanwhile, FutureDeluxe has MPC’s backing when big jobs come along, and can tap into the larger company’s know-how.
“They can give us the skill sets that we don’t have in-house,” says Jones. “It could be anything from creature animation to working in virtual reality. It’s definitely a two-way arrangement, and they’ve opened us up globally to a whole new audience.”
FutureDeluxe’s London studio, near Old Street, is as hectic as ever. On the day of our interview, three client projects are underway, and the boardroom is filled with children’s shoes of all shapes and sizes for a possible new campaign. The render farm, a high-performance computer system, is whirring in the kitchen, and all have their heads down, working. Jones and Callahan also have a studio in Brighton, and they work there two days a week. The London studio is set to expand, and they have just rented more space on the floor below to make room for meetings and calls.
Going forward, FutureDeluxe hopes to create more work for US clients, in film, television and new formats. “I’m hugely into augmented reality and emerging technology and what’s going to happen in more experiential spaces,” says Jones. “We’re doing more outdoor work, installations, 360-degree dome projections—anywhere there’s a different type of screen. It’s going to be interesting telling stories in different places, rather than just on a computer screen or a mobile phone.” ca