Profile: Critica

Motion graphics, typography, 3D rendering, live action, cel animation... it's all in a day's work for this award-winning Singapore studio.

Leaf through Critica's portfolio - bursting with striking work for big-name clients such as MTV, ESPN, Tiger Beer, Universal Music and the Ministry of Sound - and you'd be forgiven for thinking it was a well-established design house packed to the rafters with a legion of hot young designers. Yet the truth is that the company was formed less than two years ago by Singapore-based designer Xavier Oon, who even ran the business single-handedly for the crucial first 12 months.

Blessed with training in film and television, and carrying largely self-taught design and animation skills, Oon had previously spent three years on the MTV payroll. That was until an opportunity to work for UK agency Attik (on a motion graphics piece for Camel) prompted him to strike out on his own and start up his own fledgling design studio.

"I felt I was young with nothing to lose and that setting up a design company doesn't really require a large amount of capital," Oon recalls. "Once the Camel project finished, more TV projects started to come in, so I assembled a PC from parts, registered the company name for 60 bucks, bought some tables and chairs from IKEA and rented a small office downtown."

The designer admits he had to learn everything about running a business from scratch. "I read books like PR For Dummies and The Creative Guide To Running A Graphic Design Business, got some valuable advice from friends and just figured out things like contracts along the way," explains Oon. "There was a lot of trial and error, but it was exciting!"

Oon had been lucky enough to work on some freelance projects for Sony-owned entertainment network AXN before forming Critica, which provided the company with its first official client. The result was an award-winning promo for hit US television series The Shield. "Most of the projects during the early days were either from friends or friends' recommendations," he recalls. "Word then started to spread and agencies began approaching us to do more animation-based projects."

Working with designer and animator Jared Tay and a team of freelancers, Oon has put Critica on the map with projects that blend motion graphics, typography, live action and 3D elements. It's an ambitious mix, yet Oon likes to remain involved throughout. "I'm pretty hands-on with most projects and kind of a control freak in the process," he says. "I tend to finish most projects and am sometimes still tweaking right until the tape needs to go on air."

Oon deems this mix of working methods and influences worthwhile, as he feels a defining house style would limit creativity. "Our work is continually changing and the clients seem to like that," he says. "I guess our style is simply the irreverent fusion of live action, 3D, graphics, typography and colours, along with the 'just do it' attitude we have with our projects."

There is, however, a strong undercurrent of both classic and urban culture references running through much of the studio's work. Oon cites 1970s and 1980s reference points such as Star Wars, Akira, Macross, Atari games and Nintendo's Game & Watch as early influences. Meanwhile, his design partner Tay brings a love of American comics, kitsch 1970s and 1980s film and music styling and veteran animators such as Chuck Jones, Bruce Timm and Mike Allred to the studio's table.

"We also watch a lot of movies and animation when not working, look to games, books and magazines and constantly surf the web while jobs are rendering," says Oon. "We kind of store all the data in our heads and then it just comes pouring out at the conceptualisation stage."

It's an approach that clearly resonates with MTV and other youth-orientated brands, but Oon says there are times when more restraint is required. "Taste and preferences are very subjective and so sometimes corporate clients do feel uncomfortable with some of the early styles we propose. We try to compromise - and there is always the alternative 'director's cut'!"

Client handling
Among Critica's roster of clients are several notables in the UK and US. Oon says they've been fortunate enough to bypass a pitching process on these projects, enabling them to work via email and conference calls. Although it still represents a small percentage of the studio's output, efforts are currently underway to change this and find representation in the West.

Back in Singapore, the art and design scene continues to expand and evolve through government funding and new initiatives. There has also been an influx of new design festivals, art galleries and events, although Oon says the emphasis is often on CG animation; tellingly, both Lucasfilm Animation and KOEI have opened animation divisions in the country.

"Most of the big clients here are still more into nicely shot film commercials or traditional visual effects," he says. "We see less motion graphics TV work and more projects for cable channel titles and promos. The creative demands are also different. Western clients definitely tend to be less 'sale-sy' and more subliminal in their logo positioning."

As for the motion graphics scene in general, Oon believes exciting times lie ahead. "Movies are already using more illustrative motion graphics for opening titles and end credits and that's really changing the way we look at things," he enthuses. "I think we're also going to see more collaboration between different disciplines such as fashion, art, photography and music. Mobile phone bandwidths will increase, allowing for more complex video and animated content to be sent over broadcast networks. And more seamless and cohesive merging of technologies like QuickTime, Flash and After Effects will make it possible to deliver a more intuitive end-user experience."

In the meantime, Critica is making a continued push to integrate more cel animation, painterly illustration work and 3D into its output, although what form the results will take is anyone's guess. "We're aiming to do more self-initiated work this year," says Oon. "Or perhaps work on a music video. Or a multi-disciplinary short film..."