Digit gets the low-down on leading animation studio and film production company Passion Pictures.
Passion Pictures was founded by Andrew Ruhemann and Alan Dewhurst 15 years ago as an independent production company specializing in making animated commercials. Now with a host of awards to its name, including an Oscar, the company is one of Europe’s top animation and film production studios employing more than 40 people in its London offices.
“The name Passion Pictures came from Dewhurst simply reflecting about the reasons why we were setting up the company,” says Ruhemann.
Both Ruhemann and Dewhurst had previously worked with Academy Award-winning animator Richard Williams, on projects such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. “We originally set out exclusively to make animated commercials at the highest level, maintaining the world-class standards that Richard Williams had set at his own studio,” explains Ruhemann.
Passion Pictures’ initial work reflected the founding duo’s training, with an emphasis on classic 2D character animation. However, the company’s range of styles has since expanded to include stop-frame and CG animation. A film and television department was set up to develop drama and documentary projects, and the company has also moved into music video production, creating award-winning promos for top bands such as Coldplay, Gorillaz, and REM.
According to Ruhemann, the variety of projects and range of styles the company can work on is one of Passion Pictures’ key strength. “We’re one of the few, if not the only company, to cover all animation techniques expertly… stop-frame, 2D and CG are all represented equally, there’s no weak link,” he says.
“The growth of the CG department mirrors the increasing demand for digital animation, as opposed to traditional 2D or stop frame,” he says. Seventy per cent of Passion’s work is CG and it has recently signed several top animators and rendering artists.
“When the company moved offices two years ago, we deliberately sat the 2D and CG animators together – they had been on separate floors previously,” recalls Ruhemann. “We were hoping for some crossover and collaboration between the two departments and the experiment has worked very well. We now have some animators who are able to both pencil and computer.”
Another strength is the company’s eclectic mix of staff, with more than 20 directors of commercials from around the world – including Pierre Coffin, Russell Brooke, Darren Walsh, Tim Hope, Pete Candeland, Alyson Hamilton, Psyop, Ed Holdsworth and Michael England – along with a large number of illustrators, animators and designers.
This eclectic mix of talent is mirrored by the varied nature of the projects the company takes on – ranging from traditional 2D animation such as the NSPCC Cartoon commercial to CG effects such as Mini Martians to a combination of the two as in Tim Hope’s The Wolfman commercial.
“The arrival of Tim Hope at Passion created a big buzz within the studio,” recalls Ruhemann. “The strong live-action element to Tim’s work was a bit of a departure for us, and alongside the Gorillaz project which coincided with his arrival, showed that we were demonstrating perfectly our commitment to producing new fresh, original and exciting work.”
“We’ve tried to put together a team of highly individual and eccentric artists, often at an early stage in their career. We’re looking for something distinctive that separates them from the crowd – which can be anything from perfect animation timing to draftsmanship,” explains Ruhemann.
“In spite of their originality and individuality, these people are happy to work as part of a team at Passion.
”In the last 15 years, Passion Pictures has produced over 700 commercials, idents and music videos for agencies, broadcasters and record companies worldwide. Among the best known is BBC Future Generations (winner of BTAA and Creative Circle Silver Awards, a Promax Gold Award, and a D&AD Yellow Pencil) – a three-minute promotional film featuring characters from the BBC’s catalogue of children’s programmes interacting with a live-action narrator.
Others include Aero Kiosk ad, produced in association with Glassworks (winner of a Best Animation BTAA Craft Award 2001, and a British Animation Award 2002); cinema commercial Mini Martians, which won Passion awards for its CG spaceships and aliens; and Tim Hope’s multi-award winning ad The Wolfman for Sony PS2.
“We’re particularly proud of Mini Martians because it came at a time when the CG department was just making the transition from small to big time,” says Ruhemann. “It was done with very limited time and with a very low budget but I don’t think Hollywood would have done it any better.”
More recently, Russell Brooke’s 2D animation for the NSPCC commercial Cartoon, directed by Frank Budgen of Gorgeous, swept the boards at the majority of creative awards ceremonies. The list includes a Cannes Lion Award, a D&AD Yellow Pencil, a BTAA 2003 Award, a Creative Circle Award and the Grand Prix for Best Commissioned Film/Video from the Ottawa International Animation Festival.
“I’ve long thought that Russell Brooke is one of the world’s best 2D animators, but he’s quite retiring and doesn’t seek the limelight,” says Ruhemann. “This commercial won every award going, obviously thanks greatly to Frank’s direction, but the animation is absolutely flawless. It got Russell the long overdue recognition he deserves and proved that there’s still plenty of energy and life in traditional 2D animation.”
Working on this commercial was rewarding says Passion’s visual-effects supervisor Chris Knott. “Everyone involved saw the chance to do something special,” he says. Despite that fact that the client was a charity and had a limited budget, Budgen used two 35mm cameras and crews – “something we don’t often run to on the standard commercial,” says Knott.
The project also benefited from the talents of animator Brooke, a crew of committed assistants, and compositor Barnsley from The Mill. “This was all provided at cost, or subsidized by the companies involved,” says Knott. “For an important message, with a strong, clear concept, the industry rallies round impressively.”
One of the challenges of the commercial for Knott was in working out whether to rig effects on the set or simulate in post. “For example, we originally rigged the crack when the kid hits the kitchen wall, but there wasn’t time to get it just right, so we enhanced it in post,” he says. “During rehearsal for the cigarette scene, the camera action seemed too solid and real, so I suggested swinging them around a lot more, as a cartoon character would move rather differently to a real kid. It was great that everyone picked up the idea quickly, and it became part of the process,” he says.
Passion’s foray into the world of music video production has been equally rewarding. One of the first, and most influential, was for Clint Eastwood by Gorillaz – the animated band formed by Damon Albarn of Blur and Jamie Hewlett of Tank Girl fame. Co-directed by Hewlett and Passion animator Pete Candeland, the promo used 2D animation that was hand traced to reproduce Hewlett’s distinctive style, and CG backgrounds and sets.
“At a time when animators throughout the world were dropping their pencils in favour of a computer mouse, Gorillaz showed that 2D animation could still break new ground and thrill audiences worldwide,” says Ruhemann. “Most satisfying was the response from our peers and competitors who absolutely loved Jamie Hewlett and Pete Candeland’s work.”
The video went on to win a host of awards, including a British Animation award, a Billboard Music Video Award, and Best Music Video from Rushes Soho Shorts Festival 2001.
On the film side, Passion Pictures has scored the double glory of an Academy Award and an Emmy for its documentary One Day in September.
“The success of One Day in September and Live Forever put us on the map as producers of long-form films,” says Ruhemann. “We’re also very proud of some of our smaller documentaries such as Game of Their Lives and State of Mind, which have gained us a lot of respect in the documentary world, and have generated interest among young documentary filmmakers who are now approaching us with their own ideas.”
The company’s success in this field is remarkable considering only two years have passed since it received development funding from the UK Film Council. In that time, Passion has produced one live-action feature film, three documentaries and has four feature films in production. The work produced by this side of the business also has an effect on the rest of the studio, according to Ruhemann.
“The directors and producers appreciate the fact that there are other exciting and interesting long form projects going on around them and it’s another potential area for them to explore,” he says. “Both Tim Hope and Pierre Coffin are developing feature films with us, while Pete Candeland is involved in several television series.”
Looking forward, Ruhemann sees the company continuing to seek out and develop new talent. “I see us more and more as a storytelling studio in whatever medium and whatever technique is most appropriate, be that animation, live action, fact or fiction,” he says.
The establishment of studios in Paris and Melbourne will give Passion access to new pools of talents as well as open up potential markets for the company, explains Ruhemann.
“This is the biggest expansion the company has made since its inception so it’s pretty scary, but very exciting at the same time.”