The Mad Experiments of Jim Le Fevre

September 18, 2015 / Features

By Alex Reeves

This Nexus director is exceptionally curious. In both senses of the word.

Jim Le Fevre never grew out of his art foundation course. Many in the creative industries spent a year after their A-levels experimenting in various mediums, finding the most comfortable outlet for their creative energies. Most eventually settle down and pick one though. But Jim liked the experimentation too much. “You’re just playing around and you learn,” he remembers fondly. It’s essentially how he still conducts his business.

Now a director with 15 years at Nexus under his belt, you could say he’s settled into a career in animation and commercials. “I still like doing film stuff,” he says, “but I get obsessed about all this other stuff. I’ve always wanted to be an artist but never had the balls.”

He’s not a normal animator. As his reel makes clear, he’s a fan of unconventional techniques.

Experimentation comes naturally to Jim. Often daunted by the prospect of writing a narrative, he’d rather start by playing with process. “When you’re experimenting in process the action justifies what you’re doing,” he says. “Then you can go back and weave through narratives.”

Another notable aspect of Jim’s work is the curiosity for engineering that comes through. “The thing that really makes me excited is how things are made,” he says. So he looks outside of animation and filmmaking for inspiration.

It’s a good time to have this attitude. “Everything’s really holistic at the moment,” he notes. Engineering, the sciences, technology and the arts are converging more and more, and he celebrates the richness this brings. “They’ve all got things that we can use, and I think art’s got so much more it can use from other places.”

He doesn’t exactly work in a goal-orientated way, preferring to pursue things he finds interesting to see where they take him. “The most exciting thing is realising they’re so worth following down,” he says. “Nobody may ever understand what I wanted to do with some of these things, but the end result is always interesting enough.”

Housed at the Nexus studio, Jim’s experiments have led to some fascinating techniques. Here are some of his creations:

The Phonotrope

Wikipedia lists Jim as the man who coined the term phonotrope. As a father of the technique, he describes it as a descendant of the zoetrope, a kind of animation “using the confluence of revolutions of a record player and the frame-rate of a camera. It doesn’t have to be a record player. I did one on a potter’s wheel and I was recently playing with our salad spinner until my wife told me to stop. Anything that spins really.”

The idea came to him as he was taking part in the Straight 8 film competition, where directors are given a single Super 8 cartridge and have to make a short film without editing. “Everyone tries to out-clever each other and I thought it would be quite good to get some animation into the frame-rate.” It didn’t work, but Jim’s rampant curiosity was piqued enough for him to continue experimenting.

“I didn’t discover it,” he says. “I just uncovered it because we’ve practically been able to do it for years. Three of us kind of independently stumbled on it roughly at the same time.”

As one of the fathers of the technique, Jim has worked on a number of Nexus commercial projects using it and has pitched on a few more that have ended up getting made by other phonotropists. “You can’t copyright a technique,” he concedes. “But I feel responsible for them, even though some of them are really badly done. My ugly bastard children.”

He took to a potter’s wheel for his Craft Council film, which was a little scary. “Pottery’s very different to animation,” he says. “There aren’t as many undos on a pot.” Luckily the pot didn’t explode in the kiln, and the film has now been watched by thousands of people.

It’s also got him involved in other zoetrope-like projects, the most recent being his work on Nexus’ SBTRKT-O-SCOPE for electronic music artist SBTRKT, which used strobe lighting as the electronic equivalent for the slits in a zoetrope, illuminating a rotating sculpture at intervals to make it look animated. http://www.nexusproductions.com/work/sbtrkt-o-scope “It was a real delight when we got the SBTRKT-O-SCOPE up and running,” he says. “What’s so nice is that it cuts away the rest of the world and you’re entirely locked into this thing.”

In the process of making that Jim continued to experiment. They tried to play around with UV lighting until they realised it brought up certain health risks.

Nexus Stage

The Nexus Stage project is another new medium Jim’s experiments led to. Its job was to prove that game design, Unity, Arduino, projection mapping, mobile technologies and microengineering could all come together to create a new kind of experience. “They’ve all been around and they’re accessible enough to be able to just wire them together and create a lovely thing,” Jim says. The lovely thing they created allowed people to use their mobiles to control a 3D-printed physical installation with projection mapping on it.

This prototype later developed into Futureville – an interactive exhibition at the science museum that incorporated this platform to fit a commercial brief.

It was only through simply playing around with these new technologies that that was able to come about. “To get to that stage we discovered some really clever tools, which we’ve since used on some other jobs”, Jim says, “which we never would have discovered otherwise.”

 

Deconstructed Videogames

Jim’s been playing a lot of early 2000s Nintendo game The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask recently. And he thinks he’s onto something. He started thinking about the structure of the game and how the player’s progression through it requires certain tasks to be undertaken. “As soon as you’ve done that you can get to this,” he says. “But it’s all dressed up in narrative. “It’s really beautiful and I recently started this. It’s really satisfying.”

Basically, he’s stripped away all the narrative and skill required and drawn maze-like diagrams of the game’s structure, not based on the geography of the game but of the tasks themselves. “Everything is a lock and a key,” he explains. “And that key could be loads of different things. It could be an ability, a fight, a challenge.”

He’s drawn maps for every stage of the game. “I don’t know why but I know there’s something interesting about totally deconstructing a game and creating this ziggurat formation.” He’s looked at other games too and the differences are striking. “Grand Theft Auto’s got a circular, kind of fractal shape to it,” he says.

The aesthetic representation of a level in Majora’s Mask

 

One idea he has is to build a physical structure of the game, because his diagrams are beautiful in their own right. But he’s also learning to code in Unity, so would be interested to create games himself. If games have different shapes, he’s realised, “you can paint a game by making a structure which is interesting to look at and then you’ve a data hierarchy, which you can work backwards from.”

You could even use these stripped down game shapes to build new games, overlaying new characters, settings, narratives and skills. Jim’s interested in exploring this. “Does it matter that I had to go to the snow world? What if all the snow related abilities and tools and enemies and challenges were toothpaste?”

“I don’t know where that’s going,” he admits. “But I know travelling through I’ll discover some really interesting things on the way.”

The aesthetic representation of a number of choices in Majora’s Mask

 

Something Between Games and Films

He’s also on the path to answer a question that has plagued the creative industries for the past decade or two: how to make a game that’s as emotionally engaging as a film or a film as immersive as a game. “I think the solution is that it’s not a film that’s a game or a game that’s a film. There’s actually something else.”

“It’s kind of early but I know there’s something in there, like I knew something was in the other stuff,” he says.

He’s creating a short film and a short app experience that share the same story and setting but certain things depend on which you visit first. “It’s actually the difference between the two that’s most important. We’ll see how that works out. I have no idea. It just sounds really cool.”

Nexus is known for its core of ingenuity, and whilst not every production company would support a director exercising such curiosity, Nexus prides itself on nurturing these director characteristics. Jim still directs traditional commercial jobs, but he’s lucky. “I don’t know whether it’s because I’ve been here so long, but I feel like I’m allowed to just play around with things,” he says. “Sometimes you don’t get jobs for a while and you can either not earn money not doing anything or not earn money doing something.”

But all these experiments serve a business purpose. What Jim’s learnt in the process can be applied to countless clients’ briefs. “There’s so much that just showing something to an agency that have possibly got the right kind of client can do,” he says, “rather than people trying to drag ideas out of the internet. We have seen this with Nexus Stage leading onto Futureville for the Science Museum as well as being used  in  a 100 metre interactive Printemps window display for Burberry”

It’s important to get the right fit with this process. “I think if you either have no morals or taste you can shoehorn anything,” Jim chuckles, knowingly. But the trick is to hold onto the great ideas until the right client comes along. “When something is good in its own right and is totally justified; when they all fit it’s so nice.”

Jim will keep going with his investigations. “I’m a doer,” he proclaims. “If you have found yourself with an idea and you’re talking about it without having done something you’ve got a choice: Either stop talking about it and do it and never talk about it until you’ve done it; or just ditch that idea and never talk about it again.”

He’s certainly single-minded. “I know I have to continue down these little rabbit warrens,” he says. “and while I’m going down these routes I pick up little discarded gems.” It sounds like he really has been playing too many Nintendo games.

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