It took two years and a change of name, but Notting Hill's most cosmopolitan studio has made the transition from graphic all-rounder to moving image specialist. Mark Penfold asks the three founders about fate, film and the future.
It's been a busy year for Foreign Office. No, not that Foreign Office - the other one: the firm behind massive moving image projects for the likes of MTV and Nokia, and the stunning animated title sequence for Stephen Frears' latest movie, Mrs Henderson Presents.
Together, the three founders - Fredrik Nordbeck, Sonia Ortiz Alcón and Matteo Manzini - have developed a rich and versatile approach to the moving image, embracing animation, still and live-action techniques. The result is something uniquely hand-made and increasingly sought after. 2006 could be their year.
"In life, I discover, that's the way it is," says Manzini. "The biggest things, the biggest turning points, happen in the weirdest way." Fate seemed to have a hand in drawing together the three creatives who make up Foreign Office. From Sweden, Spain and Italy, they came to London, each very different but sharing a love of the moving image, film and cartoons.
Eventually, the three gravitated towards Central Saint Martins (CSM), where they naturally fell-in together. "We were foreigners," smiles Ortiz, "but also very important was the peculiar sense of humour we seemed to share."
It nearly didn't happen. "I was about to leave London, actually," reflects Manzini, the team's Italian contingent. On the one hand, a new life in New York; on the other, a place at CSM. "For once," he says, "I put work before love." A short while later, the three exiles were searching for a name.
Only Nordbeck, who was once a desk editor at the Swedish version of the Financial Times, came to London with the express intention of studying graphic design at CSM. "That was in 1994," he recalls. "I was interested in graphic design as a means of communication, but anchored in digital technology."
Ortiz met Nordbeck on the second day of the course: they were both looking for a flat share. Manzini turned out to be their neighbour, and the seed was sown. "We love laughing and talking all the time," says Ortiz. "We love nonsense as much as we hate pretentious, slick design."
And at that time, the mid 1990s, there was no shortage of slick design.
Nordbeck had brought a Mac with him from Sweden, a move that put the newly formed group a step ahead of the 120 other students, who were then sharing five machines at college. "For that reason, we were considered unusually clued up," says Nordbeck. The trio specialised in motion graphics at the end of their first year, and spawned the Cameo Project as a means of exercising their dismay at the shiny vanity then prevalent in design.
"Our dislike of fashionable design without a message: that was the energy that made the Cameo Project interesting," says Nordbeck. Like Manzini and Ortiz, he had quickly tired of the software-driven design that characterised the early Macintosh years. Together they reacted by developing their own loose and inclusive style of computer-assisted animation.
"We would create things with the monitor turned off," says Ortiz, "or I would give directions to Fredrik from the next room, not seeing what he was doing." This unusual approach really worked. "The joke was that we would still get good marks!" Of course, this only encouraged further horseplay. "We just said: 'anything you want to do, toss it in, mix it around and it's going to be fabulous'," says Nordbeck.
During their final year at Central Saint Martins, the friends - now calling themselves 4K - produced three short films, two of which they presented to the 1997 British Short Film Festival, and one of which won an award. "I think it was Best Ambient," reveals Ortiz. "I still don't really know what ambient is!"
The prize was a professional commission for the 4K collective: the client was none other than Levi's, then at something of a credibility zenith. The Cameo Project provided a perfect first draft: ironically, what had started out as a protest at the prevalence of form over content ended up as a looped movie shown in Levi's stores. "That whole project was probably appealing to Levi's for different reasons to our own," confesses a bemused Nordbeck. "They thought it looked cool. We thought we were protesting."
The big decision
From pop videos for Super Furry Animals to cinematic odes to design in the shape of Nokia's L'Amour range, Foreign Office is known for producing moving images. But in the past, its eclectic approach has meant that nothing is out of the question, be it print, web or anything else design-related.
Nevertheless, the company had to endure difficult times to get to where it is now. "Because we didn't get any loans, it was hard to buy the equipment ," says Manzini. "But then we had a very fortunate moment with the internet."
There were two fortunate moments, in fact - the first for the now-defunct Boo.com, and the second for playstation.com. "We did a few websites, but then we discovered that the whole internet thing was finishing." The dot.com bubble burst, and the internet has never been the same.
Then came the question of aptitude: "You can't structure a company around the web if you're not that technical," says Manzini. Foreign Office is principally three creative types doing their thing: a shift of emphasis was inevitable. Over the last seven years, a huge variety of work has come through the doors: Ortiz even spent a year on secondment to Philippe Starck's studio in Paris. Behind all of this, however, remained a steady but unfulfilled preference for moving image projects - so two years ago, says Manzini, "we decided to really go for it full on."
"When it came time for us to move from a partnership to the corporate form, our original name - 4K - simply was not available," explains Nordbeck. That suited the group completely, though, because it was time for a change. "As an exercise, it made sense," he says. "We purified our intentions, cut off loads of possibilities, and decided to specialise purely in moving image and film-making."
That doesn't mean that the previous work outside this new focus had been wasted time - quite the contrary, Ortiz argues. "Even though we always wanted to do moving image, all the work we've done contributes to our style. The experience of doing print means that much of our animation has a print feel to it. That would not have happened otherwise."
The manual mark
This passionate love of what Nordbeck calls "the manual mark" is nowhere more obvious than in the studio's recent coup: Mrs Henderson Presents. "It's amazing, isn't it?" says Ortiz, sounding as if the whole thing could still turn out to be a dream. "Stephen Frears lives close to our studio in Notting Hill, so he would often pop in to have tea and some cheese and we would talk about it together." Frears loved the three minutes of classically rendered animation the studio produced for the film's title sequence - and, apparently, "he loves cheese". "When it worked out well, I started to think we might be at a different level where we could achieve bigger projects with better budgets," says Manzini, who had been instrumental in getting the Mrs Henderson gig. The studio has been careful in the past about how it grows, but this project in particular puts them on the cusp of an entirely new stage of development.
"We've done a lot of TV, and that's a great primer for getting into commercials," says Nordbeck. "But if the cinematic thing explodes, then we're ready to go with it." It certainly looks like 2006 is going to be an interesting year for the trio.
"If you look at our reel from a distance," says Manzini, "you can see some of our common denominators going on. I don't know exactly what it is, but there is a certain attitude." That's what makes Foreign Office so attractive: the sense of personal involvement you get from its work - tempered by a professional desire to see the best results for the client, of course, but still intimate.
The group agrees that getting the balance right as a company, rather than as a collective of talented creatives, is going to be the main challenge in 2006 - maintaining that sense of humanity while simultaneously taking a step back.
"We have to be careful that it doesn't turn into something where you need to produce loads of cold impersonal work just to pay the overheads," cautions Nordbeck. But we needn't worry: the characteristic of Foreign Office that makes impersonal overheads unlikely is characterised perfectly by Manzini's lament: "The three of us have a tendency of getting a bit too personal on the job. We get really attached."