cr aleph main image

A Process

Creative Review Annual 2015

Interview: Rachael Steven

"We didn’t want to recreate what you’d see of Daria in every other beauty publication. We wanted to transcend that and create something more explorative"

Warren Du Preez

Thornton Jones and Du Preez have been working together since 1998. They have produced visuals for Alexander McQueen, Massive Attack and Bjork, alongside music videos for UNKLE and some stunning short films, from one exploring the work of sculptor Augustus Rodin through music and dance, to Worship, a collaboration with James Lavelle for last year’s Meltdown festival, which guided viewers through a series of abstract CG landscapes.

This collaboration came about after CR art director Paul Pensom approached Du Preez and Thornton Jones with the idea of making a less literal, more interpretative cover image exploring creativity. The result is a striking pair of images featuring a digital double of Canadian-Ukranian model Daria Werbowy wrapped in a floral sculpture by London artist Rebecca Louise Law.

Werbowy was scanned using a custom rig built by London prop and costume makers FBFX, and the resulting data transformed by VFX studio Analog. The project is still a work in progress and is now being made into a film, with plans to launch an immersive installation combining projections, floral installations and sound by music designer Salvador Breed.

cr aleph image 1

cr aleph image 2

“We explored various ideas and directions [for the cover image], but the crux of it was not to do a traditional photographic or graphic cover … but something hyper-visual that crossed in to various media and platforms, loosely generated around the idea of the creative process and a live project,” explains Du Preez.

“When we spoke to Paul about the Annual, we discussed that it stood for the best in creativity, and decided it would be interesting to have a metaphor that represented the birth or death of an idea, and how ideas evolve,” adds Thornton Jones. “Somewhere, the concept of nature came into that, and provided a powerful metaphor for birth, growth and life.”

While nature provided a starting point, Du Preez and Thornton Jones say they were keen to avoid creating anything too literal, instead embark- ing on a more abstract film that draws on fantasy and surrealism, as well as the idea of transformation. The film so far features Werbowy engulfed in leaves and beautiful flowers, which grow, bloom and wilt around her.

Werbowy was photographed and scanned on a one-day shoot at Holborn Studios. As a successful fashion model – she has featured on the cover of Vogue, Marie Claire and W magazines, held the record for opening and closing the most fashion shows in a single season, and is currently starring in a campaign for retailer H&M – she is usually pictured in couture clothing or in glossy editorial shoots. On the cover, however, she looks like a kind of relic or statue unearthed from underground or sea: her head and shoulders are wrapped in bright purple peonies, wilting roses and mossy foliage, obscuring her light brown hair, while her skin appears crackled, bronzed and (on the back cover) almost as if it is made of stone or rock. She is still beautiful, of course, but it’s a very different look for such a familiar face, though the pair were keen to ensure her face would still be recognisable.

“We asked Daria to be involved because we had worked with her previously and felt that, not only is she one of the most beautiful women in the world, in terms of her character and physicality, but also  because of the narrative we’d loosely embarked upon … the idea of taking something and transform- ing it,” says Du Preez. “We didn’t want to recreate what you’d see of Daria in every other beauty publication – those publications do extract a personality and a certain look and style, but we wanted to transcend that and create something more artistic and explorative,” he adds.

While Werbowy is used to spending long periods of time in uncomfortable poses, the shoot with Du Preez and Thornton Jones was particularly gruelling – for over 10 hours, she was photo- graphed while being wrapped in plants held together with copper wire, with no idea what the final image would look like.
“Daria gave up her time for free and really trusted us throughout the process, she understood there was going to be a level of de-familiarisation, in terms of how we presented her, and because we had done various projects with her in the past, and she really related to those key themes of transcendence and transformation, she was happy to let us experiment,” explains Thornton Jones. While the shoot was loosely planned, Du Preez describes it as a controlled experiment – “it was very much a live creative process, putting a bunch of stuff together, and seeing how it developed,” he says.

cr aleph image 4

cr aleph image 5

As Rebecca Louise Law explains on p73, the floral arrangement surrounding Werbowy was sculpted from scratch on set. Law was given mood boards by Du Preez and Thornton Jones ahead of the shoot, and assembled a vast selection of foliage in response to work with on the day. The brief, say the pair, was to create something that was tradition- ally beautiful, but could be manipulated and distorted to create something darker, without becoming grotesque.

“I stumbled across Rebecca’s work as she has a studio by Columbia Road Flower Market, and thought her craftsmanship and artistry really suited the project,” says Du Preez. “It was very important [to start with something beautiful],” adds Thornton Jones. “At times, we’ve used degraded flowers, but we knew if we started with that basis, it would give us room to de-familiarise the composition and deconstruct it in post, without losing that beauty,” he explains.

The equipment used by FBFX to scan Werbowy is made up of a colossal rig with over 100 cameras that fire simultaneously, capturing a subject from every angle with millimetre accuracy. While the studio specialises in making costumes and props for film and TV, its digital arm has also been experimenting with 3D scanning and printing for music videos and commercials – last year, it collaborated with Analog and Marshmallow Laser Feast on the promo for Duologue track Memex, which featured a full-body scan of 77-year-old model Beryl Nesbitt.

“FBFX is doing great work creatively, and I think this project was great for them, as it allows them to explore how they can manipulate their data beyond the capture process. We wanted to use the tech in a photorealistic way – the level of detail they can capture was really exciting for us – but also take that data and transmute it,” explain Du Preez and Thornton Jones.

The resulting scans were adapted by Matt Chandler and Mike Merron at Analog, a small VFX house based in a single room office in Clerkenwell. Alongside its commercial work creating TV spots and idents for Honda, Citizen, ITV and Film4, the studio invests heavily in experimental projects, trying out renders of skin, hair and fur, as well as R&D into facial rigging, and different textures and natural materials from ink to stone and sand.

As well as rendering flowers in startlingly lifelike detail, the studio was responsible for building the textures and effects applied to Werbowy’s skin. Du Preez and Thornton Jones describe these textures as ‘metaphors’, inspired by the film’s key themes of nature, birth, life and growth.

“In our research, we spoke about textures that looked like something [that had been] excavated, or something brought to earth, with a kind of tomb-like quality,” says Thornton Jones. “We thought about meteorites and lava, the idea of the birth of a planet, or this kind of unknown quantity with some sort of life form or life force in it. We researched those textures heavily, ending up with an almost mercurial or oil-like feel,” he adds. It’s an impressive piece of technical work from Analog, and Merron and Chandler have been involved throughout.

cr aleph image 3

Speaking to Du Preez and Thornton Jones, it’s clear that the project has been a creative experiment from start to finish – with no clear, predetermined outcome, it has been a process of trial and error, exploring and testing various concepts and in some cases, writing them off in favour of something entirely different (the pair had considered 3D printing a physical sculpture before working on a film). It’s the kind of project that many studios, with ever tighter budgets, resources and deadlines, would be reluctant to embark on, but something Du Preez and Thornton Jones feel is essential to producing new and inspiring creative work.

“We feel that creativity has become quite formulaic to a certain degree,” says Du Preez. “It’s often very process driven, almost done before it’s done, and a lot of that process takes away from the inertia behind the alchemy of the creative process, and what that yields. Ideas are preconceived based on marketing, creative directors, clients, and what they’re prepared to fund, and there’s no experiment in the process … we wanted to turn that on its head, and do something which was more about exploring the unknown,” he adds. This kind of approach isn’t always suitable or feasible for commercial projects, of course, but the pair raise an interesting point about the value of R&D and experimental, self initiated projects, which can often lead to new concepts or techniques for client work.

With the project still in development, Du Preez and Thornton Jones are still working out ideas for the final piece, but their aim is to create an installation that exists beyond a screen, filling a gallery space with scented sculptures from Law, 4D sound from Breed, and powerful moving image projections on multiple screens. “The film will be an exploration of different states of character – it’ll gain more substance and depth over time, but right now, it’s like a collision of those ideas,” says Du Preez. “In three months, we might have a more distilled perspective, but it’s like a painting – you don’t just arrive at it, that builds up over time. When it’s complete, we hope it will be a living, breathing installation,” he adds. “I think it has to extend past the magazine now,” adds Thornton Jones. “Beyond something digital, that you can touch and smell.”