© Simon Duhamel
When COVID-19 abruptly halted all in-person production shoots within the creative industry, Montréal-based multidisciplinary studio Vallée Duhamel had to think fast and pivot to a new way of working. Eve Duhamel and Julien Vallée, partners in design and in life, were set to direct “Daisies,” a new music video for Katy Perry, in the whimsical, live-action style they’ve built their careers on. It’s a brand aesthetic they call “high-quality, lo-fi,” blending sophisticated post-production techniques with practical effects, sets and hand-built props to imbue an almost magical effortlessness in their work.
“We were asked to direct the Katy Perry video just before the pandemic, and then right away we realized we weren’t going to be able to shoot anything live,” Duhamel explains. “We’re both graphic novel lovers, so we decided to pitch something using animation instead. Even though our portfolio didn’t reflect that creative approach, Katy loved what we presented in the deck and trusted our process to deliver.” They appreciated the freedom she allowed in terms of branching out in a new direction. “Often with commercial clients, they’ll want to see the finished project before we’ve even shot anything. It was quite a different experience working with a recording artist who wanted to take a chance on something new.” That chance definitely paid off; the end result is a beautifully surreal animated narrative about perseverance, which, in a way, also reflects the conditions under which the video was produced. Vallée Duhamel collaborated with more than 40 artists from around the world, all working remotely.
Collaborating beyond their local design scene is nothing new for Vallée Duhamel. They are currently represented by Partizan in the United States, and most of their clients are based outside of Montréal and include global brands like Apple, Hermès Paris, Nokia and MTV, just to name a few. There’s a warmth and playfulness that shines through in all their work, whether it’s a project for cultural clients, like the Katy Perry video, or large commercial campaigns for tech giants like Samsung and Google.
In an ad for Google’s Android Wear, Vallée Duhamel’s signature style of candy-colored surrealism is on full display. They adeptly represent the high-tech capabilities of the smartwatch with hand-rigged tactile objects like dozens of toasters popping out toast in unison to indicate the alarm clock, or 4,000 ping-pong balls showering a room full of umbrellas to symbolize its weather forecast feature. “We like creating a bridge between the user and the way we interpret things in the real world to describe the often abstract functions of a digital device,” Vallée says. Another delightful ad in a similar vein is for Samsung’s Galaxy Note S Pen. An overhead view shows a table covered with a variety of office tools that are used to portray the many features packed into the digital pen, transformed through post-production magic and well-choreographed sleight of hand. “We actually went and found a local pen-spinner champion who could flip and spin all the objects in his hand with so much ease and style. We spent a lot of time prepping for the shoot, testing the timing of each movement so it would really look believable,” Duhamel explains.
Vallée’s and Duhamel’s backgrounds are in graphic design and visual art, respectively, and their work has evolved over the years from static three-dimensional papercraft scenes for magazine covers to now predominantly consisting of large-scale installations for live-action video production. “We’ve always liked the rawness and imperfections of tactile lo-fi design, and even though our budgets have increased, we still embrace that aesthetic, trying not to rely too heavily on technology but rather creating things by hand,” Vallée says.
The size of Vallée Duhamel’s studio team has ebbed and flowed since they started working together in 2013 after graduating from art school. “Our studio has really existed in three phases,” Vallée explains. The first phase was just the two of them sharing a small studio in Berlin for six months, before moving back to Montréal, where they began phase two, expanding to a larger space with their own workshop for building sets and growing to a team of ten, consisting of producers, coordinators and graphic designers. “It was a great environment, but we started to feel like we were spending too much time managing a team and not enough time just creating,” Vallée says. So, for phase three, they scaled back down to their original two-person team and converted their existing studio into a coworking space to share with other creatives. That all changed last March, when COVID-19 meant work would now be 100 percent remote. It also meant adapting to a new work-life balance.
Like so many other parents during the pandemic, working from home for Vallée and Duhamel has now included home-schooling their children as well. “Thinking that you’re going to be able to maintain that same nine-to-five schedule where you’re properly dressed and showered every morning just doesn’t really work anymore to be honest!” Vallée says. The workday now is broken into pieces, between morning schoolwork or board games and trips to the ice-skating rink in the afternoons. Because of the flexibility of their job, the couple decided to rent a cabin in the woods outside of Montréal. It was a nice escape for their family, but rural living wasn’t always conducive to running a design business remotely. With limited internet connection at the cabin, Vallée and Duhamel would drive to a nearby Wi-Fi service station throughout the day. “It was basically a wooden post with a Wi-Fi sign attached to it in the middle of the forest. It had a plug where we could connect our laptops, and we’d take our Zoom meetings that way in the car,” Duhamel says with a laugh. “It was a strange way to work, but we just had to embrace it.”
People ask Vallée and Duhamel what it’s like running a studio as well as a household together, and they say there’s an innate understanding that comes with working together as a couple. “When we work, it’s usually in very intense crunches,” Duhamel explains, “just nonstop working from the moment you start pitching till when you wrap production. So, having a partner who understands that intensity and is also working on the same project enables us to take a break after a job is over and spend time together as a family wherever we want, like a cabin in the forest, or three months in Costa Rica as we did two years ago.”
Like most of us, Vallée and Duhamel say that initially adjusting to life during COVID-19 was not easy. There was a period at the beginning of the pandemic where there was no work at all, and despite sending out dozens of pitches, no one was shooting anything in person. “I think like a lot of people in our field, we thought our industry would never die, and we weren’t really mentally prepared to see that it could just change so drastically from one day to the next,” Vallée says. Social distancing safety protocols were eventually developed to allow for small crews to work on set, and so Vallée and Duhamel spent much of last year living in the cabin and coming into Montréal for shoots. “It was very strict, but it was important to ensure everyone’s safety,” says Duhamel, who recalls that team members were not even permitted to remove their mask to get a sip of water unless they left the set and took a break outside with no one else nearby. “Strict is what’s been keeping our industry running during this difficult time. We’re just grateful to have work.”
Living and designing in quarantine has also helped them to recalibrate and focus on personal projects and diversify their portfolio, dedicating more time to cultural work like museum exhibition design or visual art and music videos. “We’d really been on cruise control for the last couple of years,” Duhamel says, “and suddenly there was all of this space for creativity. We asked ourselves, ‘What are we going to do with it?’” The duo returned to their old sketchbooks and have been spending their extra time at home creating tests and experiments that they’ll be able to implement on a larger scale in the future. “So often on set, we’ve got whole crews building our ideas for us. With just the two of us here at the house, it was nice to be able to build things ourselves and get our hands dirty. It brought us back to the love of our craft.” ca