Behind the Work in association withThe Immortal Awards

Your Shot: How Smith & Foulkes Embodied Fear Itself for the BBC

Production Company
London, UK
Nexus Studios directing duo reveal the process behind their 2D animated spectacular for the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics
The BBC’s trailers for their Olympic coverage have an impressive pedigree. Their powerful works of animated magic enchant audiences and have gathered heaps of accolades over the years, from industry-specific awards to BAFTAs. And it’s a brief that only comes around every two years (for summer and winter games), so it’s a big prize for whoever ends up making it.

For the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics the responsibility fell on the broad shoulders of Nexus Studios’ directing duo Smith & Foulkes. With a brief from Y&R London to demonstrate the fearlessness of the competing athletes they embarked on a creative journey, using VR as a creative tool and drawing on Korean folk art to create their stunning 2D animated film, complete with dragons, wolves and luges.

LBB’s Alex Reeves sat down with Alan Smith and Adam Foulkes to find out how they brought Olympians’ fears to life in their mythical epic.

LBB>It's a project where the visuals are integral to the idea. What was the brief from Y&R and how much creative space did they give you?

S&F> The brief had a very clear strong concept: capture the feeling Olympic athletes have when overcoming their fears to compete to the best of their ability on the world stage. We just had to find a visual treatment that would complement both the geographical setting and the disorientating sense of fear. 

We wanted a visual style and colour palette that was in harmony with the Korean tradition without being too obvious. But it also had to be logistically achievable, and not overly complex. In this instance, less was definitely more, and the minimalist abstract spaces enhanced the sense of disorientating fear.
LBB> How influenced were you by the BBC’s previous Olympic films? It's quite a tradition you're now part of!

S&F> It is a wonderful, hard-earned tradition and expectations always run high, so no pressure there then. But we were only influenced by the desire to avoid what has come before. And it wasn’t easy! There are only so many sports to choose from and they have already been shown in many creative ways. But we had this new twist to add: athletes battling their inner personal fears, not just the course and the elements. So we could create a more surreal fantasy world of scary nightmares.
LBB> How early did you decide to make it 2D? And what guided that decision? A lot of recent Olympics films have been CGI-heavy.

S&F> Again this was fuelled by a desire to try something new. The last few spots have explored further into CGI territory so we wanted to avoid that this time. We also wanted to focus on the thrill of the action rather than overly worry about seamless texturing, lighting and rendering. But there can still be endless debate about the exact quality of an inky line.
LBB> What were your main visual references for the look and feel of the film? It seems to have a feel of Korean art styles, but it feels quite contemporary and international.

S&F> The 2D rendering was a conscious desire to reflect the Korean folk art tradition, but we didn’t just want to try to copy it. After all we’re not Korean and wouldn’t know where to start. We just wanted to capture a little of its tone. Then we used 3D cameras and spaces to give the film a more contemporary feel.

LBB> The idea demands some quite sinister, intimidating imagery. How did you find the right balance between making it a promotional film for the games and filling it with fearsome creatures and scenes?

S&F> We didn’t want to just go totally abstract and scary. It’s important that the viewer can empathise with the idea that fear can manifest itself in many visual forms, and that it can negatively affect performance. It is something that must be overcome in order to succeed at the highest level of your sport. But we did have to tone it down a bit for a family audience.
LBB>Can you tell us about how the film was animated using VR? What benefits does that technique bring and how does it work?

S&F> We wanted to have moving cameras to emphasise the dynamism of the events. This can be tricky to invent from scratch in 2D animation so we decided to block the scenes and the camera movements with 3D sketches done in VR at the animatic and layout stage. It allowed us to quickly iterate our shots and the transitions between them, experimenting with angles and lenses. This was then given to the 2D animators as a guide, helping them to animate complicated shots more efficiently.