Under the Influence: Smith & Foulkes

April 13, 2016 / Features

By Alex Reeves

The shared passions behind a winning creative partnership.

Ever since they started directing, Nexus duo Smith & Foulkes have been trying to work out why they do things the way they do; where their instinctive answers to each creative question come from. When we asked them to be part of this series they realised it’s tricky identifying your influences as a double act. When there are two of you it’s not a purely personal journey. But when they listed their individual inspirations they found that half are identical to each other’s and half wildly different. “That’s a pretty good average for any successful partnership,” they suggest. “It’s probably why we can still put up with each other.” Here’s a few that they could agree on.

 

Silent Comedy

Adam Foulkes: “Ever since watching Harold Lloyd hanging from a big clock on the side of a skyscraper in his opening titles I was hooked. The construction of the visual gags in Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton films are fantastic. The choreography and structure is complex and sophisticated but feels effortless. There's also a real charm to it. In the current climate of ‘the story being king’ it’s great to watch character being fully explored.”

Alan Smith: “There is such an art to the choreography and comic timing of the action scenes that has never really been bettered. With no dialogue to tell the story every look and gesture is critical. We took a lot from the era of silent movies for our short This Way Up. It is really a simple character study where we examined the relationship between a father and son by putting them in ever more demanding situations. We liked the idea that they almost found themselves in a silent comedy because of their own self-imposed respect for the deceased and because of the breakdown in their ability to communicate with each other as father and son.

“We are always looking at choreography as an art form, although we’re more likely to be found watching 1970s ITV wrestling than hanging out at Sadler’s Wells. We love the instinctive interplay of great comedy double acts like Morecambe & Wise, the inventive staging of Busby Berkeley, or the unexpected patterns of human movement discovered in Koyaanisqatsi. A great example is the amazingly crafted REM Imitation of Life promo directed by Hammer & Tongs. A real ‘wish I’d done that’ moment.”

 

Hayao Miyazaki / Michael Dudok de Wit

Adam:
“I get a bit lost watching Miyazaki’s Spirited Away but it really doesn’t matter. It has a magical, surreal atmosphere to it that is completely engaging and unique to Miyakazi. It is also beautifully animated.

“Another animation director who gets mentioned a lot at S&F HQ is Michael Dudok De Wit. He manages to convey so much character and emotion with a beautiful, sparse style. It just goes to show that even with all the technology at your fingertips often simple is best.”

Alan: “Dudok de Wit creates the most evocative atmospheres from the simplest of settings. He captures the most powerful emotions from the merest of gestures. He allows you to appreciate what isn’t there as much as what is. And every time we refer to his work as we discuss a pitch with a client it is met with universal acclaim. Then we lose the job. The curse of Dudok de Wit! But we’ll keep trying…

“As fellow devotees of the dialogue-less cinematic tradition, we can’t wait for his feature The Red Turtle. The last time we saw an animated feature film so artfully portray the human condition in epically atmospheric landscapes was the first half of Wall-E. Second half… not so much.”

 

Abstract Expressionism vs The Simpsons

Adam: “At college we spent our days making experimental animation and our evenings talking about how great The Simpsons was. It wasn’t just the visual gags and wordplay that we loved but also the moments of real emotion, usually between Homer and Bart. We quickly realised that to actually engage an audience it helps to have characters you could root for and identify with, so we started to move away from doing solely abstract work.”

Alan: “When I was at college my tiny mind was blown wide open by the freeform visual riffing of film-makers like Robert Breer, Len Lye, Norman McLaren, and Oskar Fischinger. The limitations of graphic design and photography were left for dust as I watched these masters endlessly play with abstract patterns cut in perfect harmony with equally inventive scores. Who knew the choreography of shapes and colours could be so liberating? They also showed me how a Director could embrace a whole range of visual techniques, and how you could employ any or all of them to tell your story.

“But when I first met Adam it wasn’t these titans’ work that fired our collective imagination. It was the Simpsons. I guess at heart we just love a bit of silliness. But what was really great about it was how it evolved from a fairly hit-or-miss slapstick kids TV show into one of the greatest commentaries on the absurdities of modern life. I would spend a year making a visually elaborate film about the perils of gambling dependency then Homer comes along and sums up the whole debate with one killer line. And it was funny. It really taught us the importance of writing, character development and storyboarding to get our ideas across.”

 

Britishness (whatever that is)

Adam: “Martin Parr’s photography has always resonated with us, especially his curated Boring Postcards books, and we are endlessly fascinated by the idea of Britishness. Jeremy Deller’s Folk Archive exhibition covered a vast selection of contemporary popular British culture, providing an opportunity for the whole community to have their work shown in an art gallery. Not only drawing and painting but pursuits and pastimes, everything from cheese rolling and gurning to pipe smoking and wrestling, all in one exhibition. A huge celebration of Britishness.”

Alan: “We might not know exactly what it is but we know it’s there, in practically everything we do.
Maybe because we’re a couple of small town boys from the deepest darkest provinces. It’s in the richness of our history and culture, the naffness of Crap Towns, the wonder and variety of our landscape, and the astute tomfoolery of the Pythons. Our characters and stories are somehow unconsciously imbued with the peculiarities of how us Brits do things and how we interact with the wider world.”

 

Small…..Far Away…..

Alan: “Not just a seminal Father Ted moment but more an enjoyment in the illogical disparity of scale. When I was a kid I always entered the ‘creating a miniature garden in a potting tray’ competition at the annual village fete. It was the highlight of the year, the one all the local kids desperately wanted to win (see above). Or maybe it was just me. Anyway, we didn’t have the Internet back then. One year I pulled out all the stops, water features, stepping stones, gazebo, it was a one foot by two foot Kew Gardens. I came third. But it was the start of an appreciation of the surreal comic potential of making big things small and small things big.


“This could be the visual spectacle of Busby Berkeley’s human typewriter. The architectural oddness of Oldenberg’s site specific sculptures. The historical tradition of giant hot dogs, enormous tomatoes and other American roadside attractions. The pompous majesty of the Spinal Tap tiny Stonehenge scene. Or the guy who rides his own backyard rollercoaster while precariously strapped into a car seat. It has provided many a fun visual solution in our work as we searched for a more inventive way to transition from scene to scene.”

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