Parts of the Process — Animation studio The Line on injecting Gucci’s SS18 campaign with extra magic
Sometimes the subtlest option can also be the most complex. When artist du jour Ignasi Monreal asked London animation studio The Line to bring his surreal paintings to life for Gucci’s SS18 campaign, retaining their painterly feel was a perplexing challenge. Each living tableaux required a unique solution and animation skillset, testing The Line and its crack team of animators to the limit. Earlier this year, the project was even nominated in the digital category as part of the Design Museum’s Beazley Designs of the Year. Here, we speak to animation director Bjørn-Erik Aschim and producer Sam Taylor to find out more about how it all came together.
Simmonds LTD for Gucci
3 months (November 2017 – February 2018)
Ignasi Monreal, illustrations and paintings
Bjørn-Erik Aschim, animation director
Sam Taylor, producer
Sylvain Magne, compositing and animation
Thom Flavelle, compositing
Kye Dorricot, compositing
Jonathan Gallagher, compositing
Fiona Lu, compositing
Deborah Ho, compositing
Hugo Morais, compositing
Mathieu Dellabe, compositing
Russ Etheridge, compositing
Venla O. Linna, animaton
Tim Dilnutt, animaton
Duncan Gist, animaton
Mike Shorten, additional Painting
Luke Gibbard, 3D previsualisation and comp
Box of Toys Audio, sound and music
Bjørn: Ignasi Monreal’s flatmate is a friend and he had told us that Ignasi really wanted to work with us. Apparently he loved animation, anime and all that kind of stuff. Eventually Ignasi brought a job to us – a music video that he directed for [Spanish flamenco signer] Rosalía, which included animation and live action. During that job, he was already working with Gucci on the SS18 campaign and was keen to add some animation to the project.
“Animation was a whole new arena for them, so we needed to explain a little bit about how the process worked.”
Ignasi set up a few meetings with Simmonds LTD, the agency that was handling the Gucci campaign. We almost had a direct line because Ignasi was the main artist at that stage. We put together a pitch, but it was more about how we could deliver the idea. Animation was a whole new arena for them, so we needed to explain a little bit about how animation and the process worked. The pitch document also included some contract information so that we were all on the same page about how the project was going to work.
Sam: We had a remarkably free reign with Ignasi to do whatever. It’s probably the most freedom we’ve had on a project in quite a long time.
Bjørn: Initially we proposed something quite different to how the project ended up. We wanted to go down a Ghibli-style animation route where everything had a cel-shaded feel [a type of rendering that makes 3D graphics look flat], but there was a bit of push-back. Gucci just wanted Ignasi’s paintings to move, more or less.
We did three animations first, to test the whole thing out. We took one of Ignasi’s existing paintings and put it into After Effects as a proof of concept to show them what we could do. I think that made it clearer for Simmonds.
Ignasi had already begun creating the artwork. He did 150 paintings in three months or something insane like that. They’re so detailed as well. He’s a machine. He was based in London, so we just briefly talked through with him the sort of elements that he wanted to move and because the schedule was so compressed, we just started animating.
“Ignasi had already begun creating the artwork. He did 150 paintings in three months. He's a machine.”
One of the Ignasi’s paintings
Sam: Research and development was integral from the beginning. The work had the potential to be quite boring or gross-looking; it could look computer-y, straight out of After Effects. So to do it right we had to do it really subtly. That was the challenge. It took quite a bit of time to figure out how to make it smooth and slow, but still interesting and fun to look at.
At the beginning we were also really concerned about how the hell we were going to make some elements move and still look like parts of a painting. So we decided to just reduce the movement. For the fish swimming around the bag, for example, the plan was for it to just swim past but Sylvain [Magne] came up with this really nice animation where it actually comes out of the water. He's used a very special technique that he invented himself. He actually made it look more like a painting than we thought he could.
Notes for the lilypad section
Assembling the team
Sam: We had a really amazing team of artists working on this project and it was an incredible team effort. Here in the studio, we worked with Sylvain Magne, Deborah Ho, Venla O. Linna, Fiona Lu, Matthew Dellabe and Tim Dilnutt. When the animators started working on a scene, they’d add their own take. We divided each of the paintings up by asking which one people wanted to work on. Bjørn was the director, so everything went through him. He’s quite hands on as a director. The animators were all doing brilliant work, but if there was something they couldn’t figure out then he’d just touch it up at the end or maybe offer advice.
“In any kind of creative partnership, one person takes on more of a production role and the other takes on more of a creative role.”
Sam: I’m a director here at The Line and have been an animator for about 15 years but when we set up the company last year, I moved into production because there were only six of us and somebody needed to do it. I guess I probably don’t come to projects as a normal producer would. I’m possibly a little less good with spreadsheets but on the other hand, I work with Bjørn a lot so we have a pretty good relationship. I think in any kind of creative partnership, one person takes on more of a production role and the other takes on more of a creative role. We are used to that dynamic. But having an animation background, I’m know how long things take and understand specific technical requirements.
Bjørn: Sam’s really good on the phone and talking to project managers, which I’m very bad at.
Defining the Style
Sam: The first animation we started working on was Ophelia, which featured subtle movements like her hair in the water and a dragonfly buzzing. From that point on, it felt like we’d, to some extent, defined the style. The thing that’s consistent across all the animations is that we turned flat two-dimensional paintings into moving 3D worlds while keeping them subtle and slow. One of the things Bjørn came up with very quickly early on is the idea of having the camera move in a looping movement.
Bjørn: We had to actually redo the first three paintings because we did it just with one camera move, and it would pop back again to the beginning and do the same movement all over again. So we had to make sure that the movement of each would actually loop so you could look at it continuously.
“The animations were mostly ideas we could find in the paintings themselves.”
Ophelia by Ignasi
Bjørn: The animations were mostly ideas we could find in the paintings themselves. We would send a list of elements we thought could move in each of the shots to Ignasi, like making the light bulb flicker, making the table fall, adding some insects, moving the plait like a cat’s tail and so on.
We’d talk to Ignasi about the elements he thought sounded cool, which he would then propose to Simmonds, and they would say ok. After the first three tests, they were really hands-off. They didn't really comment very much at all. I think they were probably one of the most amazing clients we’ve had. We braced ourselves for feedback rounds, but they were really happy with it.
A Unique Process
Bjørn: What made the whole process quite unusual was the fact that there was not really one single way of getting the shots done. All of the elements were different in each shot, and required different solutions – whether it would be working with frame-by-frame painted animation in Photoshop, warping and distorting the image in After Effects or using depth masks and camera movements to give the illusion of 3D. We couldn’t really rely on one technique to get it done.
It was also a bit of an exercise in restraint. If we started moving things too much, the illusion would break and it would start looking crazy. So we had to pull back the animation and calm the image down on several occasions, keeping it minimal and delicate. The hypnotic back and forth camera move was a device that helped us a lot in bringing the paintings to life without distorting or modifying the elements too much.
“The project was an exercise in restraint. If we started moving things too much the illusion would break and it started looking crazy.”
The rough outlines for the first pass were traced from each painting. Each of the animators’ techniques were different. For example, Tim would animate his by hand with pencil and then he would have to reduce it a little bit before animating each key frame. He would paint each key frame and then we used a method that allowed us to blend between the key frames.
But for someone like Sylvain, he had his own completely unique way of doing it, where he would just go in and paint pretty much the whole thing right from the beginning because he had that skill. If something was really complicated and we needed it done really well and really quickly, we’d just hand it over to Sylvain. We would delegate based on the strengths of each person.
Sam: I think there’s lots of different types of animators. You have people who’ve got a very specific skill set. Even within 2D animation, you have people who maybe specialise more in anime style, or action or effects or a very Disney-ish style. Then there’s this rare group of people who are just able to do a little bit of painting, a little bit of 2D animation, potentially they can do a tiny bit of After Effects as well, and just figure out solutions to any kind of project. This was a project that called for exactly that.
We also had a couple of freelancers in from the outside, who we tasked with expanding the canvas on all of the paintings so that the camera could move around without compromising on the composition. We knew a few people that we’ve worked with before, so we just gave them the paintings and said to make everything a bit bigger.
Sam: The most challenging part of the project was figuring out how to animate the artworks and still make them look like paintings. They were very delicate pieces, so if you pushed them too far they didn’t look like paintings anymore. If you animated it too much, it destroyed the artist’s original vision.
The job had a very short schedule with a lot of deliverables and was in a style of animation that we’ve never seen done well before. Week one was pretty terrifying. There are examples of painted animation where people paint on glass, and quite often it looks quite muddy and gross. We knew we didn’t have the time or the budget to paint every single frame by hand so we had to find a way to deal with that.
“For each film there were about seven different versions in different sizes and shapes, and for different social media platforms.”
Sam: And when you’re just sliding shapes around in After Effects, an animation can also look quite digital and crap, so finding the balance between the two was a really difficult task. Bjørn has a really solid background in both painting, animation and compositing, so that really broad skill base was what made him able to figure it out.
Another challenge of this project was that the client wanted so many different versions of each animation. For each film there were about seven different versions, all in different sizes and shapes because they wanted banners and for different social media platforms. There were 21 films in all, so we created around 150 different assets. It wasn’t just a matter of adjusting ratio, we had to go in and rejig the camera movement so that the animated action would be visible and the shot was central. That was a big undertaking.
The animations on an iPhone X
A Job Well Done
Sam: I think if we did the project again we’d like a bit more time, but that’s it. The efficiency with which we did this was quite impressive, if I can say that myself. We’ve got much better at scheduling and planning so that the artists have the time that they need to produce the work comfortably. I think the project has taught us that we can probably aim higher than we thought we could. This type of job is not really something we’d ever really done before.
Seeing our work on huge billboards in Hong Kong or going down to the shops in London and seeing it there was amazing. Simmonds, Gucci, Ignasi and the whole team were actually amazing to work with. If the project was a success, it was as much down to all of these people coming together, as much as it was anything that we did.
Final paintings by Ignasi
Final paintings by Ignasi
Final paintings by Ignasi
Final paintings by Ignasi