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Here at shots, we pride ourselves on spotting creative potential – and when amazing animation duo Smith & Foulkes first graced our pages at the turn of the century, we knew they were destined for great things.

Turns out Brian Eno and David Bowie beat us to the punch, though, when they picked out Alan Smith and Adam Foulkes’ work from hundreds of 10-second student projects while on a visit to London’s Royal College of Art back in 1996, where the pair were studying animation. “Serendipity, and all that,” says Smith. 

BBC – The Fearless Are Here

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It’s a typically modest response, and a more down-to-earth pair of heroes would be hard to find, despite the award-winning reputation they’ve built for original visuals combined with strong narratives and sharp wit. Most animators develop a calling-card style, but riffling through Smith & Foulkes’ reel reveals a jaw-dropping diversity of techniques. From the airline emergency graphics used in their breakthrough 1999 spot, NatWest Escape, to the Grand Theft Auto-inspired look and feel of Coca-Cola Videogame, to the masterful mix of animation, CG and live-action that was Honda Hands, and the stunning 2D-animated illustrations for their recent BBC Winter Olympics trailer, Smith and Foulkes simply can’t be pigeonholed. They also admit to occasionally going in with a live-action treatment for a script “just to keep [the clients] on their toes”. 

Channel 4 – Payback Time

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The way that they tell their stories may vary, but at the heart of their success are brilliant narratives rivalling anything from Pixar’s canon. Take the Michael Bay-esque Payback Time, for Channel 4’s Stand Up To Cancer campaign: a disaster movie in miniature where a society of cancer cells are terrorised by an outbreak of mysterious blue slime. Or the nail-biting journey of a blithely happy balloon sailing through a landscape of sharp and spiky hazards in Sonnet’s What’s The Best That Can Happen?. And let’s not forget their dark Oscar-nominated short, This Way Up, about two dour undertakers embroiled in a series of unfortunate events while trying to deliver a coffin.

…the all-singing, all-dancing animated tale of a smoky, sputtering diesel engine metamorphosing into a clean, green machine was the most awarded spot that year.

Even their “happy-clappy” work has a dark undercurrent to it, exemplified by their most famous spot, 2004’s Honda Grrr, which they claim is also the most creatively heroic thing they’ve done. Set to certifiably the world’s catchiest jingle (all together now: ‘Hate something / Change something / Make something better…’) the all-singing, all-dancing animated tale of a smoky, sputtering diesel engine metamorphosing into a clean, green machine was the most awarded spot of that festival-spanning year (two Black Pencils, a Cannes Grand Prix, two Clios and 33 other gongs) but at the time, remembers Smith, “it was a total risk. None of us – the agency, even the client – knew if it was a good ad.” The script was essentially the song and “a few little panels” and they were told to “just go for it”. “We finishing comping it on the day we delivered it, so no one had actually seen the full version until then,” adds Foulkes.

Honda – Grrr

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In the same year, the pair were Oscar-nominated for This Way Up, although that wouldn’t have happened without the help of one of their heroes, Mike Judge, of Beavis & Butt-Head fame. “We were always trying to make a short film and never getting it off the ground, because we were always too self-critical of what we were doing,” remembers Smith. “Mike was doing a travelling screening, The Animation Show, in the States. He just said, ‘Here’s a bit of cash, deliver a film in six months.’ And that was This Way Up.” 

Judge isn’t the only animator to have inspired Smith & Foulkes over their 20 years in the industry. In their more “abstract” student days, their creative heroes included John ‘Run’ Wrake, whose experimental animated collages “made you realise animation doesn’t have to be linear”, 1920s animator Oskar Fischinger and cut-and-paste pioneer Robert Breer; today, Michaël Dudok de Wit, the Dutch director behind Studio Ghibli’s 2016 fantasy drama, The Red Turtle, remains a strong influence for pacing, framing, and “how to do non-schmaltzy emotion, without the stereotypical ‘big eyes welling up’”.

Asked about the heroes of tomorrow, the duo reckon that the democratisation of the medium through cheaper, more readily available tech and ease of sharing through global platforms means there’s more outstanding talent coming up than ever before. “Twenty years ago, you’d have a few people who were head and shoulders above the rest, but now, when you see something and think ‘Bloody hell, that’s good’, it turns out it’s by someone you’ve never heard of,” explains Smith. 

When it comes to the villains of the industry, there’s not much that riles this mild-mannered pair, although they admit that the craft of animation directing isn’t always given the recognition and respect it deserves. “We do get a bit annoyed sometimes about the [perception] that live-action is ‘directed’ and animation is ‘designed’. Though people are starting to realise that animation actually takes a lot of directing, it doesn’t just come off someone’s pencil,” says Smith. All too often, they say, animation is seen as a replacement for live-action when budget is tight, which is why Grrrr was “so amazing – they [Honda] totally embraced animation”.

None of us –the agency, even the client – knew if [Honda Grrr] was a good ad.

What’s next? Post-Oscar nomination, the bright lights of Hollywood had beckoned – “We got an agent, went through the whole process, looked at a lot of scripts,” – but Smith & Foulkes refused to sell out to a big, prescriptive American animated feature, preferring to do it on their own terms. “We want to bring a bit of what we’ve learned commercially into the feature. Rather than follow a formula, we want to give it a different look and feel,” says Smith. Armed with a BFI grant, they’re currently developing an idea with a scriptwriter in the rare moments of downtime from their commercial work, which includes a spot for Wimbledon 2018.

One thing’s for sure, though; they won’t be twiddling their thumbs while they wait for the John Lewis Christmas ad script to come in, says Foulkes. “We’ve waited three years for that already!” 

Wimbledon – In Pursuit Of Greatness

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