Since its launch in 2002, each edition of the CR Annual has featured a cover by a different creative, with an image depicting the letter A. It has been cut from marble, grown out of pollen cells, painted in neon and constructed using every story and image from the CR blog in a single year. This year’s cover project, however, is the most ambitious yet, involving one of the world’s best-known fashion models, a gargantuan 3D scanning rig, a flower artist, a team of VFX experts and some visual artistry from directors Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones.
Thornton Jones and Du Preez have been working together since 1998. They have produced visuals for Alexander McQueen, Massive Attack and Bjork, alongside music videos for UNKLE and some stunning short films, from one exploring the work of sculptor Augustus Rodin through music and dance, to Worship, a collaboration with James Lavelle for last year’s Meltdown festival, which guided viewers through a series of abstract CG landscapes.
This collaboration came about after CR art director Paul Pensom approached Du Preez and Thornton Jones with the idea of making a less literal, more interpretative cover image exploring creativity. The result is a striking pair of images featuring a digital double of Canadian-Ukranian model Daria Werbowy wrapped in a floral sculpture by London artist Rebecca Louise Law.
Werbowy was scanned using a custom rig built by London prop and costume makers FBFX, and the resulting data transformed by VFX studio Analog. The project is still a work in progress and is now being made into a film, with plans to launch an immersive installation combining projections, floral installations and sound by music designer Salvador Breed.
“We explored various ideas and directions [for the cover image], but the crux of it was not to do a traditional photographic or graphic cover … but something hypervisual that crossed in to various media and platforms, loosely generated around the idea of the creative process and a live project,” explains Du Preez.
“When we spoke to Paul about the Annual, we discussed that it stood for the best in creativity, and decided it would be interesting to have a metaphor that represented the birth or death of an idea, and how ideas evolve,” adds Thornton Jones. “Somewhere, the concept of nature came into that, and provided a powerful metaphor for birth, growth and life.”
While nature provided a starting point, Du Preez and Thornton Jones say they were keen to avoid creating anything too literal, instead embarking on a more abstract film that draws on fantasy and surrealism, as well as the idea of transformation and symbiosis. The film so far features Werbowy engulfed in leaves and beautiful flowers, which grow, bloom and wilt around her.
Werbowy was photographed and scanned on a one-day shoot at Holborn Studios. As a successful fashion model – she has featured on the cover of Vogue, Marie Claire and W magazines, held the record for opening and closing the most fashion shows in a single season, and is currently starring in a campaign for retailer H&M – she is usually pictured in couture clothing or in glossy editorial shoots. On the cover, however, she looks like a kind of relic or statue unearthed from underground or sea: her head and shoulders are wrapped in bright purple peonies, wilting roses and mossy foliage, obscuring her light brown hair, while her skin appears crackled, bronzed and (on the back cover) almost as if it is made of stone or rock. She is still beautiful, of course, but it’s a very different look for such a familiar face, though the pair were keen to ensure her face would still be recognisable.
“We asked Daria to be involved because we had worked with her previously and felt that, not only is she one of the most beautiful women in the world, in terms of her character and physicality, but also because of the narrative we’d loosely embarked upon … the idea of taking something and transforming it,” says Du Preez. “We didn’t want to recreate what you’d see of Daria in every other beauty publication – those publications do extract a personality and a certain look and style, but we wanted to transcend that and create something more artistic and explorative,” he adds.
While Werbowy is used to spending long periods of time in uncomfortable poses, the shoot with Du Preez and Thornton Jones was particularly gruelling – for over 10 hours, she was photographed while being wrapped in plants held together with copper wire, with no idea what the final image would look like.
“Daria gave up her time for free and really trusted us throughout the process, she understood there was going to be a level of de-familiarisation, in terms of how we presented her, and because we had done various projects with her in the past, and she really related to those key themes of transcendence and transformation, she was happy to let us experiment,” explains Thornton Jones. While the shoot was loosely planned, Du Preez describes it as a controlled experiment – “it was very much a live creative process, putting a bunch of stuff together, and seeing how it developed,” he says.
As Rebecca Louise Law explains on p73, the floral arrangement surrounding Werbowy was sculpted from scratch on set. Law was given mood boards by Du Preez and Thornton Jones ahead of the shoot, and assembled a vast selection of foliage in response to work with on the day. The brief, say the pair, was to create something that was traditionally beautiful, but could be manipulated and distorted to create something darker, without becoming grotesque.
“I stumbled across Rebecca’s work as she has a studio by Columbia Road Flower Market, and thought her craftsmanship and artistry really suited the project,” says Du Preez. “It was very important [to start with something beautiful],” adds Thornton Jones. “At times, we’ve used degraded flowers, but we knew if we started with that basis, it would give us room to de-familiarise the composition and deconstruct it in post, without losing that beauty,” he explains.
The equipment used by FBFX to scan Werbowy is made up of a colossal rig with over 100 cameras that fire simultaneously, capturing a subject from every angle with millimetre accuracy. While the studio specialises in making costumes and props for film and TV, its digital arm has also been experimenting with 3D scanning and printing for music videos and commercials – last year, it collaborated with Analog and Marshmallow Laser Feast on the promo for Duologue track Memex, which featured a full-body scan of 77-year-old model Beryl Nesbitt.
“FBFX is doing great work creatively, and I think this project was great for them, as it allows them to explore how they can manipulate their data beyond the capture process. We wanted to use the tech in a photorealistic way – the level of detail they can capture was really exciting for us – but also take that data and transmute it,” explain Du Preez and Thornton Jones.
The resulting scans were adapted by Matt Chandler and the team at Analog, a small VFX house based in a single room office in Clerkenwell. Alongside its commercial work creating TV spots and idents for Honda, Citizen, ITV and Film4, the studio invests heavily in experimental projects, trying out renders of skin, hair and fur, as well as R&D into facial rigging, and different textures and natural materials from ink to stone and sand.
As well as rendering flowers in startlingly lifelike detail, the studio was responsible for building the textures and effects applied to Werbowy’s skin. Du Preez and Thornton Jones describe these textures as ‘metaphors’, inspired by the film’s key themes of nature, birth, life and growth.
“In our research, we spoke about textures that looked like something [that had been] excavated, or something brought to earth, with a kind of tomb-like quality,” says Thornton Jones. “We thought about meteorites and lava, the idea of the birth of a planet, or this kind of unknown quantity with some sort of life form or life force in it. We researched those textures heavily, ending up with an almost mercurial or oil-like feel,” he adds. It’s an impressive piece of technical work from Analog, and Merron and Chandler have been involved throughout.
Speaking to Du Preez and Thornton Jones, it’s clear that the project has been a creative experiment from start to finish – with no clear, predetermined outcome, it has been a process of trial and error, exploring and testing various concepts and in some cases, writing them off in favour of something entirely different (the pair had considered 3D printing a physical sculpture before working on a film). It’s the kind of project that many studios, with ever tighter budgets, resources and deadlines, would be reluctant to embark on, but something Du Preez and Thornton Jones feel is essential to producing new and inspiring creative work.
“We feel that creativity has become quite formulaic to a certain degree,” says Du Preez. “It’s often very process driven, almost done before it’s done, and a lot of that process takes away from the inertia behind the alchemy of the creative process, and what that yields. Ideas are preconceived based on marketing, creative directors, clients, and what they’re prepared to fund, and there’s no experiment in the process … we wanted to turn that on its head, and do something which was more about exploring the unknown,” he adds. This kind of approach isn’t always suitable or feasible for commercial projects, of course, but the pair raise an interesting point about the value of R&D and experimental, self-initiated projects, which can often lead to new concepts or techniques for client work.
With the project still in development, Du Preez and Thornton Jones are still working out ideas for the final piece, but their aim is to create an installation that exists beyond a screen, filling a gallery space with scented sculptures from Law, 4D sound from Breed, and powerful moving image projections on multiple screens. “The film will be an exploration of different states of character – it’ll gain more substance and depth over time, but right now, it’s like a collision of those ideas,” says Du Preez. “In three months, we might have a more distilled perspective, but it’s like a painting – you don’t just arrive at it, that builds up over time. When it’s complete, we hope it will be a living, breathing installation,” he adds. “I think it has to extend past the magazine now,” adds Thornton Jones. “Beyond something digital, that you can touch and smell.”
Process #1: Floristry
The floral sculpture pictured in this month’s cover image was created by London-based artist Rebecca Louise Law, who uses flowers to create large-scale installations in urban spaces. Here, she explains her process and the challenges of working with live materials
Based in a studio by London’s Columbia Road Flower Market, Law was brought up in the countryside and says she was fascinated with nature as a child. After studying fine art at the University of Newcastle, she decided to work exclusively with natural materials and now creates large-scale living artworks for private and public spaces, from a Valentine’s display for Viacom’s New York office made out of 16,000 fresh flowers, to elaborate arrangements for Jo Malone, Max Mara, Hermés and Jimmy Choo.
Working on set with Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones, Law had just a day to create the sculpture shown in this month’s cover, using masses of foliage wrapped around model Daria Werbowy and held together with copper wire. “Warren and Nick wanted to create something that was new, yet had this very old essence to it, made using a combination of technology and nature. I worked with flowers and leaves to create a sculpture around Daria from the ground up, so it looked as if she was coming out of the earth,” explains Law.
“It was quite tricky, as you’re sculpting with living materials and copper wire is quite harsh on the body, but Daria was very patient and open to experimenting, giving me a lot of freedom to work with her and make it look as if the flowers had kind of become one with her…. We started out with bare skin and just a few flowers, and ended up with most of her body and head covered,” she adds.
With just a couple of weeks to plan for the shoot, Law says she devised the sculpture on set, choosing from a vast selection of plants she took to the studio instead of designing it in detail in advance. “I work with flowers as a sculptural material. It’s very much hands-on work, so I don’t tend to plan too much – I just gather everything I can around me and build it there and then,” she says.
“Warren and Nick gave me some pictures of Daria so I could see her skin tone. They were adamant that the sculpture should be beautiful and not become grotesque, so I chose a variety of plants that, in my mind, reflected beauty, making sure I had a balance of different forms, colours, shapes and sizes. It was just before Christmas, so I had quite a limited palette to work with, as there wasn’t a huge amount of variety available,” she adds.
While Law describes the one-day shoot as a challenge, she is used to working quickly – most of her installations are created using freshly cut flowers, which have to be quickly assembled before drying out. Once installations are taken down, Law uses the plants to create permanent sculptures encased in glass.
“You can preserve flowers like paper, but if they’re put in the wrong environment or not handled correctly, they’ll just disintegrate or rot and decay. I love the challenge – coming from a fine art background, where you have total control over what a painting or print will look like, it’s really exciting …and I love the idea of bringing nature indoors and into cities,” she says. “It’s also about showing people the value of nature, which is often treated as throwaway,” she adds.
Process #2: Image capture
The rig used to capture 3D scans of Daria Werbowy for this year’s Annual cover was developed by FBFX, which specialises in costume and prop making for film and TV. Made up of 130 DSLR cameras fixed to 16 poles, which fire simultaneously, the rig is capable of capturing an actor in movement from every angle in just a few seconds.
The rig is portable, though time consuming to deconstruct and reassemble, but is usually based at Shepperton Film Studios. Scans can be used to create 3D digital models, or to print physical mannequins of actors for designers and seamstresses. “Once we complete the scan, the concept artists and costume designers can work with millimetre accurate data as a base model – for example, producing a suit of armour or space-suit that fits an actor perfectly. The actors love it because they only need to pop into our studio for a couple of minutes and don’t need to keep coming back for fittings,” explain FBFX’s head of scanning Jack Rothwell and director Jonathan Hancock.
“Something we do regularly is produce life-size (or larger) replicas of the scan – in our workshop we have a huge seven-axis industrial robot that can mill out an exact copy of the scan in high-density foam or something similar,” they add. “We’ve also just started to mill from plaster, [and] can make a traditional mould for casting in bronze at a foundry or to produce an acrylic or stone figure.”
Before using the rig, FBFX often had to create life casts of actors – a messy and time consuming process, explains Hancock. “It’s not very nice for the actor either, as they sometimes need to be completely covered, breathing only through a straw. Digital scanning is over in a second, and generally, it’s a far better way of gaining an accurate impression of a body,” he adds.
While the equipment was initially developed for use in film and TV, Hancock and Rothwell have since used it to work on idents, ads and music videos and to produce 3D scans of trainers for Nike.
“The main difference on the shoot with Warren and Nick [compared to other work] was the free flowing nature of it – we’re very much used to having everything planned out, such as the lighting conditions and how exactly data will be used, but this was very different. Warren and Nick were really keen to experiment, and it definitely pushed us – hopefully we’re building a name for ourselves doing more artistic projects,” says Hancock.
“I think we produced about 250 scans,” says Rothwell. “We did a lot exploring Daria’s movement first, without any flowers, then with just a few, building them up gradually. Eventually, you could barely see any skin, just her face emerging from this huge bouquet, before the flowers all fell away.”
Process #3: CGI rendering
Working on the cover for this year’s Annual was a time consuming and challenging experimental project for VFX studio Analog, as Matt Chandler, director at Analog, explains Chandler worked closely with Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones to create the cover images for this year’s Annual, and accompanying short film, and was involved in the creative process throughout.
“Warren and Nick got in touch with us at Analog having seen our previous work utilising 3D photo-scanning data,” explains Chandler. “They were fascinated by the 3D data sets and the processes behind generating the models, textures and materials that could lead in so many directions. [The project] wasn’t to be just a visual effects brief … but very much a collaborative process, where we could explore material states, compositions and the play of light across complex strange yet familiar forms.”
To create the Annual images and short film, Analog worked with hundreds of detailed 3D scans provided by FBFX, and created additional 3D models of flowers from images taken on a point and shoot camera. The flowers were created using texture mapping, cloth simulation and sculpting software, resulting in detailed and startlingly lifelike blooms that can open and wilt on screen, appearing realistic even in extreme close up.
“We sourced some of the plants that had been used on the shoot with Daria, and created some very detailed mesh data for each of them [recreating the textures of each],” says Chandler. “This enabled us to individually place and compose flowers. We could then do macro shots of flowers opening and closing and going through material transitions…. Animated texture maps are also used throughout the sequence, and we used some filmed elements such as inks and oils bleeding on porous papers to add internal movements to the refractive areas of materials.”
Rather than simply recreating Werbowy’s natural skin tone, Analog says the aim was to render the model in textures based on metals and natural materials such as resin and meteorites for the cover. “After reviewing the models with Warren and Nick, it became clear it would be much more interesting and visually intriguing to render Daria and the model forms as something other than just recreating her as she was on the scanning day,” he explains.
“We wanted to bring some ethereal light, lensing and colours to the materials. The cover imagery helped bring these explorations and tests together and influenced the short film . [The biggest challenge with the project] was handling the large amount of model data, while still meeting creative expectations. There are many stages between loading in a detailed 3D scan and getting to the final, composited images.”