Slow electronic beats and low light start the day at the Serial Cut studio in Madrid. On one of the ten monitors, Jimmy Andersson is working on a huge 3-D letter formed by a swirling wave of seawater, and in the kitchen, something equally frothy, but far more tasty, is brewing in the espresso machine. The lights will be low all day—the studio’s computer graphics artists prefer it that way—but the music will quicken as the ten staffers add their choice of tunes to the shared Spotify account.
They’re led by Sergio del Puerto, the studio’s founder, who came up with the name Serial Cut in a split second back in 1999. “It’s a stupid name, really,” he says. “I was designing a self-initiated project, an image of a serial killer. The design was a bit bloody.” Then, around the time that del Puerto had the personal project on his mind, a client asked how he wanted to credit himself on a party flyer for print. “I didn’t want to put ‘serial killer,’ so I said ‘serial cut.’”
Unique, spontaneous and perhaps a touch surreal, the name has stuck, and it perfectly sums up the studio’s approach to image making. Serial Cut puts together complex scenes, often building sets either in computer-generated imagery (CGI) or in real life, adding all sorts of characters, props, textures, color schemes and lighting effects—and, frequently, bold type—to create something that’s more than just a picture. The studio’s strange blend of synthetic, digital elements and physical objects made and photographed in the real world results in scenes full of depth and atmosphere. Huge brands such as Nike, Diesel, Cisco Systems, Vodafone, HSBC and many more come to Serial Cut looking for that magic touch.
Del Puerto—who even as a child set up his action figures to create scenes rather than pretending they were fighting each other—first started using this set-making technique in 2005 when working alongside photographer Paloma Rincón. They’d met years earlier when they both studied at Universidad Complutense de Madrid, where del Puerto studied visual communication. Rincón remains one of Serial Cut’s key collaborators.
And then came the time for del Puerto to use his unique approach in his art direction for a Beefeater Gin campaign called WET: Night. “They wanted one designer to make a booklet for them, with total freedom, but the subject had to be night,” explains del Puerto. “We picked up some props and started to make it. The models were friends of ours, and we combined photos of them with the other images to make the booklet. It took us two days, and we did it really carefully. I still like it.”
The resulting brochure for WET: Night, with its illuminated glass blocks, 3-D type, and photographic and illustrated cut-outs, alongside duotone photos of a man and a woman, may look simple compared with more recent work, but it certainly establishes a mood. Serial Cut still uses the same approach.
It was also the first time that del Puerto documented the creative process he and Rincón followed—a method that’s very important to him and that defines the studio. “I feel like I need it. The situation isn’t going to happen ever again, so I take the opportunity to look at the project from a different angle and capture it. I can see how we worked together. I like to explore the things that surround a job and make it happen. It’s like being backstage at the catwalk or in the theater,” he says.
Early on, Serial Cut would photograph the behind-the-scenes process. These days, the team will often use video or stop motion, add music, and turn it into a highly professional production that can be shared through social media. This attracts other designers who become fans. It also gives potential clients some understanding of how the studio operates, engaging them with Serial Cut’s method. Not every job is documented, but if it’s a special one on which they hope to break new ground, they’ll record the process.
The studio has worked for dozens of household names, but brands don’t excite Sergio del Puerto. He never set out to work for big companies and has never chased clients. One global brand might give Serial Cut the freedom to come up with something progressive and groundbreaking, whereas the next simply wants a repeat of something the studio has already done.
“I didn’t want to work with someone big. The only thing I wanted was to have a nice portfolio. This was my concern. I just wanted good projects to show. I’ve always been very anxious and ambitious about the next update of the website and the new projects. I have always been very picky with my own work, selecting the best of the best. Right now, what you see on the website is, let’s say, just 25 percent of what we’ve done.”
While client work pays the bills, self-initiated work fulfills all of the studio’s remaining creative yearnings. Del Puerto reveals that the studio is busy with a project inspired by Salvador Dalí. For the first time, they’re using 3-D printers to make the pieces, then painting them, building compositions and taking photographs. The team is working with a 3-D printing service, but already has plans to buy a 3-D printer because del Puerto enjoys the process.
Serial Cut’s heavy focus on its website and portfolio has been a successful tactic. Between 2005 and 2008, its image-making style caught the imagination of designers in Europe, and del Puerto led a trend toward craft-based art direction. After seeing Serial Cut’s work in the British magazine Computer Arts in 2008, Andersson, who was a Swedish design student at the time, e-mailed del Puerto to ask if he could intern at Serial Cut. Del Puerto accepted—a milestone moment for him.
“It was the first time Serial Cut had another member, so delegating was really hard for me. But we started, and little by little, Jimmy learned CGI, and I learned to delegate,” he says.
Today, Andersson is a wizard with Cinema 4D and the rendering software V-Ray. He studied digital media at Hyper Island in Stockholm, but today, a lot of the work he does is in print, albeit digitally produced. Currently, Serial Cut produces about 70 percent of its work through CGI, and Andersson is one of the key artists. He loves photo shoots just as much.
Working with a photographer informs his 3-D creativity, and vice versa. Andersson says, “When we’re having a photo shoot with a lot of lighting equipment, it’s really good for us to see a real-life set and learn real-life tricks that you can use in the digital world as well. For example, maybe to even out a background, you can use two colors on different surfaces, but because of the lighting in the final photo, they blend into one. This photographic technique also helps me make a more realistic image in CGI.”
With about five projects in progress at any one time, plus self-initiated work, del Puerto has to delegate a great deal these days. Project manager Susana Bilbao, who has been with the studio for two years, manages the logistics while del Puerto guides his creative team based on his visual ideas. But it’s not as though the team doesn’t get to contribute. For certain projects, they’ll brainstorm together and the best ideas will progress. In the case of self-initiated projects, his team has much more scope for experimentation. They’ll often work with like-minded collaborators, such as the German studio Bartholot Photography & Art Direction, London-based production agency Studio Output, design group Grandpeople in Norway, which has now merged with Anti Inc., visual studio Vallée Duhamel in Montréal and graphic design studio Vasava in Barcelona.
Del Puerto focuses on creating a scene, a feeling or an atmosphere, and he likes to perfect it. But he admits that he needs help with motion and that storytelling isn’t his strong point. So the rest of the team plays a bigger role in shaping the narrative, and they might also hire a motion expert to help produce the work.
Still, ever since the earliest motion pieces Serial Cut did for Pepe Jeans and MTV back in 2008, its videos have fallen in with del Puerto’s visual style. At that time, it was just del Puerto with Andersson working as an intern, so they hired a CGI and motion expert to collaborate on the videos.
Serial Cut’s most recent motion project, for the American speaker brand House of Marley, continues to exemplify the studio’s aesthetic. The work uses bold color palettes, rich textures, and detailed objects and characters—all in complex dioramas that are filled with activity. Its campaign for a Bluetooth speaker required a TV commercial and three sets of stills, each featuring a different scene made by Serial Cut.
Gabriel Kuo led the creative direction for House of Marley. “I wanted the creative to make the speaker feel larger than its actual size—that this tiny speaker has the ability to transform and amplify your space and world in a fantastic, sonic way. I felt that having Serial Cut build these vast, richly complex imaginary worlds would really convey this theme. Their visual storybook-like approach worked perfectly,” he says.
The fashion brand Diesel is another recent client that shows the studio’s flair. Serial Cut worked with Amaranta Villafranca, of Diesel’s Italian branch, on an in-store video depicting ultra-glossy, melting versions of props from the window display, such as an ice cream cone, a basketball and a surfboard. The purple and green color scheme is as striking as the unreal CGI.
“They have a special touch, treating objects like nobody else does,” says Villafranca. “3-D becomes more beautiful than reality in their hands. Some of the window dressings we’ve done for the past season went in that direction, and I wanted to get the same feeling in our stores with digital installations. Serial Cut always goes a step further than the other studios, and they always treat each project as their baby, taking care of all details until the final result is perfect.”
Del Puerto willingly accepts that he’s a perfectionist. In the studio, they work on everything at high resolution throughout a project. There are no roughs or scamps. “This way, you see a lot and catch the imperfections,” he says. “I need everything to be well done.” ca