Dezeen Magazine

Designers turn to film, becoming agents of "mass communication instead of mass production"

Interview: designers are increasingly making films instead of products to get their ideas across, according to Studio Swine, which has won multiple awards for its movies (+ movies).

Co-founder Alex Groves believes that his London-based studio's movies, which have been lauded at Cannes film festival and picked up by National Geographic, are part of a wider trend for designers creating professional-standard documentaries as part of their work.

"Increasingly companies are working with designers for PR rather than to make a mass-produced product, so they're looking to designers to be 'designers of mass communication' rather than 'designers of mass production'," he told Dezeen. "Dezeen ran a story recently about Ikea saying there's too much stuff... but films are free of that baggage."

Studio Swine interview
Studio Swine's Terraforming film depicts a crystal planet that has been discovered in the galaxy

From established names like the Bouroullec brothers to students and recent graduates, a swathe of designers are all using movies to better explain and promote their ideas and products.

"There's a lot more design film than ever before," said Groves. "It's a really exciting area of design at the moment."

He believes that improvements in digital SLR cameras are partly behind the increase in design films. Designers can create high-quality films themselves with very little money, he said, and are being acknowledged with prestigious awards over big creative agencies with giant budgets.

Studio Swine interview
The film follows a young cartographer's journey to the planet, where he engineers the environment to be habitable for humans

Groves also credits web platforms like Youtube and Vimeo for helping these movies to be seen and shared by a much wider audience. Studio Swine's films have hundreds of thousands of views on its channels.

"There's this whole world that's opened up to designers, and the way that design film can be used, to really engage with people and make something that spreads virally," said Groves.

The studio creates movies to accompany many of its design projects, working with filmmakers to produce short documentaries that explore the sourcing of unusual materials and experiments with manufacturing techniques. Most of its films have been shot on Canon 5D and 7D cameras, and edited using Final Cut and Cut&Run software.

Studio Swine interview
Behind the scenes on the Terraforming set

Groves set up Studio Swine in 2011 with Azusa Murakami after they both graduated from London's Royal College of Art.

During their studies, the duo and designer Kieran Jones created a film documenting their Sea Chair project, which involved harvested plastic from the seas with a retired fishing trawler and transforming the waste into chairs onboard.

Made with filmmaker Juriaan Booij, who now collaborates with Hollywood director Ridley Scott, the Sea Chair film went on to win Second Prize in the European Short Film Category, Young Director Award 2014 in Cannes.

Studio Swine interview
Behind the scenes on the Terraforming set

Studio Swine's Hair Highway project resulted in a short documentary about the hair markets in China, which was picked up by National Geographic and Huffington Post, and a collection of accessories and homeware made using the products sourced on the trip.

As one of three designers or studios to be awarded the 2015 Designers of the Future award by Swarovski, Groves and Murakami produced a sci-fi video called Terraforming, influenced by director Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Studio Swine interview
Studio Swine's Alex Groves (left) and Azusa Murakami. Portrait by James Harris

Read the transcript from our interview with Studio Swine's Alex Groves below:

Dan Howarth: How do you use film as a studio?

Alex Groves: We've always designed both the film and the objects from the beginning. So really what we do is we create a world that the film portrays, and then we can manifest some of that in to real objects. The two are always created symbiotically right from the beginning.

I think it's quite a unique approach for a design studio. In a lot of design films that you see, the film is made right at the end of the process, after the project has been completed, to document it. Ours have a different relationship I think.

Studio Swine's film documenting their Sea Chair project, which involved harvested plastic from the seas with a retired fishing trawler and transforming the waste into chairs onboard

Dan Howarth: How is this area of design developing?

Alex Groves: We're really interested in where design film is going, because it's a really exciting area of design at the moment. Obviously the Eameses made incredible films – Charles Eames used to be in the art department for Billy Wilder so he had an understanding of cinema – but then since the Eameses there hasn't really been anything that's come close till now, where you're seeing more ambitious, cinematic films from designers.

Sea Chair by Studio Swine
Studio Swine's Open Source Sea Chair, which is made from plastic caught in fishing nets or found washed up on the shore

Dan Howarth: Are there lots of other studios doing a similar thing to you guys?

Alex Groves: I'd say there's a lot more design film than ever before, but I think that we're going to get past this stage of merely documenting process and it's going to move closer to having cinematic qualities, or closer to creative agencies like advertising. I think that you'll see a lot more branded content that's using film, and designers working with that.

Studio Swine's movie for their Buttons project features Modernist buildings in São Paulo, which the duo said inspired the designs

Dan Howarth: Why do you think the change has come about recently?

Alex Groves: There's a few reasons. One is that the level if filmmaking can be so professional and it's much more accessible to make professional-looking films. You can do it on SLR cameras.

We worked with Juriaan Booij, who's now actually a Ridley Scott associate director, but when we first started working with him we were both at the RCA together. It's a David and Goliath thing, you can make a film – we made Sea Chair for example with Juriaan – on no budget, and it won an award at Cannes film festival. You're competing with creative agencies that have budgets of hundreds of thousands, that's just an incredible thing.

Also, the distribution of the films has become incredibly democratic. You can just host a video on Vimeo or Youtube or AppU and get hundreds of thousands of views. Whereas before the internet, why would you make a film when it had to be paid to be distributed?

I think that's something that's truly coming through now and it's really interesting with the shift in advertising. Car ads regularly have absolutely huge budgets, quarter of a million, but is that going to be an interesting film that people want to share with their friends and spread, that people want to watch? Or is it something that you have to pay to put it in front of something you actually want to watch and is skipped after five seconds?

There's this whole world that's opened up to designers, and the way that design film can be used, to really engage with people and make something that spreads virally. We've always been fortunate that our films have spread very virally and we've never paid to promote them. Hair Highway for example got over 350,000 views in like 48 hours. As Dezeen did with the branded-content and the MINI series, it's much more interesting than a conventional car ad.

Studio Swine's set of gold and silver clip-on buttons are inspired by the textures and shapes of Modernist architecture

Dan Howarth: Do you think that the content of these films is one of the reasons why people find them so interesting? You're able to cover subjects that are fascinating to a wider audience.

Alex Groves: Definitely. Designers are almost explorers, they like finding out new things. We used to actually have three films hosted on National Geographic and that's because it was the first time that that particular scenario in the world or that part of the world had been captured. It goes beyond the design world, where you don't have to be interested in design to engage on a wider level.

That hair market in China for example, it was the first time it had been filmed. Gyrecraft was in the North Atlantic gyre; that was on National Geographic. Design seeks to engage with the world on a wider level, so it's only natural that if you capture that engagement in a really nicely packaged film, people will find it really interesting.

Studio Swine's Can City movie shows the duo's mobile aluminium furnace that recycles discarded cans

Dan Howarth: Is there a particular style of film-making or method that you use for all of your videos?

Alex Groves: It depends on what suits the project. We actually really like looking at a lot of film references. One of the influences for Terraforming – the sci-fi film that we made – was Stanley Kubrick. Obviously there's this homage to the match-cut you get in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey; the one with the bone that turns into the spaceship.

What we did with Terraforming was we found the first kind of crystal, which is a flint hand axe – the first discovered human tool – because flint is also made of glass and also has a crystal molecular structure, they're both made of silica. We contrasted that with a jump-cut – a direct homage to Kubrick – to a Swarovski crystal, so it's like a two million year gap between the two.

We're also influenced by B-movie trailers, which means that there's this quite retro-future feel to it. But the styling is increasingly getting ambitious. That was the first time we shot in a big film studio with a crew and three different cameras, these really high-speed fancy cameras that you can get this monumental feeling with. So I think the style is changing a lot.

For their Can City project, Studio Swine built a mobile foundry and used it to cast aluminium stools from drinks cans they collected on the streets of São Paulo

Dan Howarth: Is the design industry picking up on this and doing anything to promote it?

Alex Groves: I think so. When you get a commission from a brand, there's increasingly real interest in a product outcome but also how we're going to communicate it, and film is something that has attracted that a lot.

I think that it's going to grow a lot more actually. Increasingly companies are working with designers for PR rather than to make a mass-produced product, so they're looking to designers to be "designers of mass communication" rather than "designers of mass production" and that's really interesting. Dezeen ran a story recently about Ikea saying there's too much stuff, that's the problem, but films are free of that baggage.

This movie shows the process behind Studio Swine's Hair Highway project and includes footage of the hair market in China 

Dan Howarth: Please tell me about some of your most successful films, how you made them, and what the outcome was.

Alex Groves: We started with Sea Chair, going out with fisherman in Hastings, collecting plastic and making a plastic chair on the boat. That went to win Cannes Young Directors award, which is fantastic and went to National Geographic. I think it's now on like 340,000 views on our channel but once you go to National Geographic they have like a million unique visitors a week.

We've had Can City; that was a film we made in São Paulo and with Heineken. Essentially we made a mobile furnace that capitalised on waste because in São Paulo could melt drinking cans with waste vegetable oil on the street, so everything that's on the street. That went on to national news in Brazil, Globo TV, and got like 200,000 views, just on our channel. They all go to film festivals as well.

We have Hair Highway, that's 380,000 views on our channel and that went to National Geographic and Huffington post and all kinds of things – it's always extending beyond the design world. We always look to engage with as many people as we can. And then the great thing is that they also go to actually play in the museums where they're shown, currently it's in Central Museum in Utrecht.

I think Juriaan is the best design filmmaker in the world and he's now doing films for all kinds of brands.

Gyrecraft was shot with Petr Krejčí – another really amazing filmmaker. He's made films for various designers that have done really well as well.

This movie features Studio Swine's Solar Extruder, which uses an aluminium parabolic mirror to concentrate sunlight for melting the plastic

Terraforming was the most recent film with Juriaan. The interesting thing about Terraforming was that we were making a film for our Swarovski project, but when you go to Swarovski it's very high tech and they're very secretive about their process – as they understandably always have been – so you can't see any of the production.

It made us think; we've got to invent the process or invent the production in some way, so that's what made it very sci-fi. We had to make our own CNC arms that you see in the film; we had to make the whole crystal control panels.

Because we're designers, we're in a unique position of being in the art department as well. Normally we film a real-world situation and we have an intervention in that, but with this we had to create everything in the studio. We created landscapes out of salt and used micro-crystals.

We also did design research so we went flint mapping with an expert in flint mapping, Will Lord, who's in the film as a caveman. We joined the British interplanetary society to learn more about real Terraforming scenarios. I think this design thinking is what gives design-filmmakers an advantage.

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