Interview with Jon Wells from Smoothe's New UAE Office
Tell us about Smoothe and your new office in the UAE. How many people work there? What are their roles?
Smoothe is a design communication company with studios throughout the UK, Europe and the Middle East.
We embrace new technologies to create cutting edge images, film, music, animation, events, exhibitions and websites which communicate ideas and messages whilst engaging and stimulating the audience.
Recent work includes: provision of lead images and animation for the London 2012 Olympics; a 3 minute film for Ajial Real Estate & Entertainment Company, plus film and image work on a couple of islands in Nakheel’s The World Development.
Smoothe are also involved in producing fully integrated marketing campaigns for commercial developers all over the world including Russia, Dubai, Kuwait and Mexico.
Our UAE office is in Bur Dubai, on the 14th floor with a wonderful view over the Emirates Towers and the Burj Dubai. There are currently just 3 of us, I am the Creative Director, then we have a Business Development Director and a Project Manager but we have a view to grow the production side very soon.
When you are provided a brief from a client, can you walk us through the steps you go through to formulate your pitch?
Firstly we will ask a lot of questions. We want to get a full picture of what the client needs, so as to provide them with the best solution possible.
Once we have analysed all this information we can write a detailed brief and present our initial concepts. These may include the mood and pace of the film, ideas on look & feel and descriptions of how the animation and cameras will tell the story. This initial process provides the backbone to the film and we may require a couple of meetings to make sure we can start the storyboarding stage with a clear agreed concept.
In any of our work, whether it is a film or image there are 3 key phases which I believe transform a good piece of work into a great piece, these are:
Do as much research as humanly possible in the time you have. Research the project, the client, target audience, styles, history, art, film, advertising, editing. This research, no matter how abstract it may seem at the time can and will influence your work in a great way.
Experiment with composition, story telling, treatment, edits, and colour palette. Always try new things and push the boundaries, never rely on old tried and tested routines which can quickly become stale.
At Smoothe we try to collaborate with people outside of ‘3D’ as much as possible. We work with artists, photographers, musicians, film makers. This is a great way to learn, develop the work we produce and keep our creativity fresh.
Do you find there has been any change in the last few years in the sophistication of deliverable the clients are asking for, or do you as a studio push the clients to step outside of their comfort zone?
Definitely, over the past few years we have found our clients more and more willing to take direction from us and want to produce work which is pushing the boundaries. It is now a far more collaborative process, and clients are actively interested in the new technologies we are using.
We find more and more often that clients are being less prescriptive. They are now giving us far more creative freedom, not only in the development of concepts, but with the final deliverables as well.
For instance, we produced a film for the Al Hamra Firdous Tower (AHF) in portrait, and then displayed it on plasma’s turned at 90 degrees for a more cinematic effect.
Smoothe has been involved in projects in the Middle East and Dubai for a number of years. Has the volume of work from this area increased? Have the scale of projects you work on changed?
Having the office here has definitely increased interest in us. We started off working here 7 years ago on the Jumeirah Beach Residences project, and have had the pleasure of working on some large projects in the following years including Dubai Festival City and The World Development. We are now getting more enquiries from all over the Middle East, from smaller image jobs through to massive film productions.
Tell us about your work on the Al Hamra Firdous Tower in Kuwait. How did you land this job and what was the brief provided by the client?
We produced a film for AHF in Kuwait, which was designed by SOM. This was an unusual job in that the client, who is a local developer in Kuwait, had an earlier film produced which was a conventional ‘fly-through’. Whilst this earlier piece did everything that it should have done, the client felt they wanted something more emotive and inspiring than what was originally produced.
Whilst the film still had to show the technical specifications of the project, from the commercial floor-plates to the podium retail area, we had to create a narrative which engaged the audience and was much more inventive and emotional.
How did you approach the client brief and develop the film for this project?
The steps we followed were very similar to the ones I spoke of earlier. We spent some time speaking to the client, asking questions to get the full picture. We also spoke to local residents to get some background on the area and site specifically. The site was an old cinema which the local residents were very fond of. We wanted to bring character to the development and also include references to the old cinema and the new cinema which would take its place. Once back in the UK we brought a team together to brain-storm the initial ideas for the film. This is something we always do at the start of projects to get the creative juices flowing. The team included senior and junior members of staff along with freelance creative artists who would provide the location, filming and sound for the film, along with further ideas and thoughts.
The final treatment shows a ‘dreamer’ falling asleep in the old cinema, dreaming of the future, with the films conclusion showing him waking up in the new cinema of his dream. We thought this tie in with the site’s previous use a rather neat solution.
Were there any unexpected challenges or developments during the project?
There are always unexpected challenges with any job and this was no exception. Things often change on a project, such as the scope may alter or the client may want something which is way beyond the realm of the budget. You need to be creatively resourceful in order to come up with solutions that give the client what they want, whilst ensuring the project comes in on time and to budget.
On this project the client wanted a character driven film, without having the appropriate budget for the hiring of actors or a ‘green screen’ studio. However due to our collaboration with the creative artists at Koja Orden we were able to set up our own ‘green screen’ studio and use colleagues and friends for the talent. Also creating the film in ‘tall-screen’ rather than the conventional widescreen threw up a number of challenges along the way.
Tell us about Smoothe’s work on the Central Market ‐ Trust Tower. What was the client brief?
The client, Aldar, are creating a scheme that will eventually be pitched as a commercial hub for the whole of the Middle East, hopefully housing the Middle Eastern headquarters for such multi national conglomerates as Mircrosoft. The client wanted us to create images that showed the magnificence of the scheme and its placement within the central hub of Abu Dhabi. The images were produced by some of our talented artists in our studio in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Which is your favourite image from the project and why?
I would have to say my favourite image is the aerial view. This was one of the more challenging images as the background photograph is made up of a couple of separate images and where the towers now sit is a huge construction site so a lot of Photoshop work was needed on the background photo before the scheme was dropped into place.
Can you break down this image and how you put it together and achieved the final treatment?
The image was created in a number of steps:
Modelling the scheme - all our modelling is done in 3ds Max.
The background photo was cleaned up and stitched together.
We then camera matched the model to the photo and rendered a number of passes using V-Ray. The passes would include elements such as the main buildings, reflections, glass, shadows on the surrounding context etc.
The final stage would be the post-production work done in Photoshop, on average we spend nearly as much time, if not more in Photoshop as we do within 3ds Max.
Which project thus far has been your favourite and why? What type of project are you still looking forward to working on?
I have been fortunate during my time at Smoothe to have worked on a number of interesting projects, from high profile city work such as Swiss Re to cultural projects like a film museum in Moscow. However, my favourite project so far would have to be the London 2012 Olympic work, carried out while I was still in London. At the time it was such an exciting period, and I feel proud to have been heavily involved in something that the whole country was talking about.
Looking forward, I’d like to get involved in a project which looks at architectural images in a slightly different way. I’d like to move away from the clean, sharp, blue sky image we see so much and try different styles such as reportage, where you capture the building at a given moment. It may be a cloudy, rainy day but the image has a certain ‘real-life’ quality about it.
If you could give one piece of advice to professionals in our industry what would it be?
At this stage, in this economy, it’s really important for us to all continue delivering the best that we can. We need to stay positive in the face of a downturn in business, remaining confident that it will pick back up again eventually.
Again I’ll return to my mantra for any work that Smoothe produces - research, experiment and collaborate.
What is the most disturbing thing you’ve seen in the architectural visualization field in the last year or two?
I don’t want to be too negative but it would have to be the amount of websites that are cropping up selling what we do as if it were double glazing. Websites which advertise ‘any image for $250’ without putting any thought into the creative process, or artistic metric that goes with our industry.
Luckily there are so many talented individuals and companies out there: companies such as dbox, The Neighbourhood and Neoscape to name but a few. These companies have a healthy respect for each other and our craft, along with a friendly rivalry, constantly pushing each other and therefore continually raising the bar for what is achievable within our chosen field.
Where do you think the architectural industry will be in five years and where will your company be in five years?
I think the Architectural industry will find itself much more influenced by the film and advertising industries, particularly the sort of work some of the automotive industry is pursuing. Moving away from the technical specifications of a model, towards the lifestyle and emotive attributes of a product.
In terms of Smoothe, we would hope to have a larger production studio running here in the UAE, as we plan on growing further in the coming years. We will need to take on another project manager as things get busier – the countries with sovereign money are still growing fast and as the economy picks up again globally, we anticipate an upturn in work levels. As new technologies are developed we hope to work with our clients to continue creating inspiring and cutting edge films and images for all areas of the construction sector.
What projects are you working on now?
We are currently working on a number of projects in the UAE and Middle East, one of the major ones is for the Urban Planning Council in Abu Dhabi.
We also have other projects in the pipe-line in Abu Dhabi, Oman and Doha, so we’re looking forward to 2009 with a good level of optimism.
To check out Smoothe, stop by their website
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