What happens when four architects with creative leanings form a cutting-edge digital agency? Tom Dennis heads to The Neighbourhood to find out
When The Neighbourhood's self-promotional showreel, Stories from The Neighbourhood, was released in early 2008, journalists, bloggers and the wider creative community drew a collective gasp and watched on in envy. Rather than a well-worn combination of portfolio work and snippets of existing shorts, the Manchester-based design studio grafted a wholly original story to illustrate its breathtaking 3D illustration and animation work. Taking the form of a linear, three-dimensional journey, the showreel employed bright illustrated characters and elements in a single, continuous shot that mimicked a children's pop-up book.
It was a tactic that paid dividends. Little over 12 months later, The Neighbourhood's TV spot for Sony's PSP is receiving healthy airtime and huge industry praise, while a satisfied client list as diverse as Manchester City Football Club, CBBC, Make Architects, New York Bagels and Urban Splash are all benefactors of The Neighbourhood's boundary-pushing creations.
"For us the whole ethos of The Neighbourhood was always about creating a place rather than a company," says Ben Davies, managing director and one quarter of the company's founding members. "We wanted to build a creative neighbourhood where a number of different talents and points of view come together to create something far richer than the sum of its parts."
Davies - together with creative director Jon Humphreys, technical director Tim Woods and art director Jon Hey - formed The Neighbourhood two years ago, working on borrowed laptops from a corner of rented office space they now share with agency LOVE Creative. All four of the founding partners share backgrounds in architectural design, animation, digital media and illustration, and were previously all working together at another company.
Like so many others, they realised their design aspirations were often too experimental for their industry clients, and so set about creating The Neighbourhood - a studio determined to set its creative bar as high as possible in terms of craft and innovation. "Our architectural influences often come through in our projects," explains Humphreys. "There's a spatial aspect to a lot of our work."
"But it's not all about the polished look that CGI can produce," adds Hey. "It's just a tool at the end of the day. To create memorable imagery you have to employ good compositional rules and use balance, contrast, light and shade to bring drama and atmosphere to a scene. The paint never dries - you can continually try out lots of ideas."
Since staring out two years ago, the four founders have grown to encompass a permanent team of 11, including illustrator Chris Moran, who was featured in the 2008 Computer Arts Graduate Showcase.
As well as the permanent team, The Neighbourhood has a healthy roster of regular freelancers who are considered part of an extended family of like-minded creatives. "They're almost like fifth Beatles," says Humphreys. "They have a specific approach to projects, which makes us go back to them. We get illustrators, sound designers, animators, modellers, storyboard artists, photographers, the lot." Among The Neighbourhood's collaborators is illustrator Tracy Worrall, who created the stunning look of the studio's website.
What strikes you about the working environment of The Neighbourhood is the team's genuine enthusiasm for tackling complex briefs. This attitude and ethic is clear in The Neighbourhood's client work, and has won the studio several honours so far, including a triple win at last November's Fresh Digital Awards. "The Neighbourhood is about the ideas as much as their execution," explains Humphreys.
"We spent time ensuring this was actually part of our business plan," adds Davies. The result is Neighbourhood Play, a forum set up for exploring ideas that lie beyond traditional client-based briefs such as ideas for short films, illustrations, visions for future cities, research and development, and anything else in-between.
It's a manner of creative thinking that's especially pertinent when you examine the ingenuity that went into the Sony PSP advert. Using a combination of its 3D animation skills, a professional green screen set-up and an on-set manicurist, The Neighbourhood team cajoled and persuaded 15 people to pose for them - including the staff at their favourite Indian restaurant.
The end results are truly mesmerising and underpin the studio's edict that it's not afraid to educate its clients and push them in new directions - an attitude that in these troubled times has won it an army of admirers, including world-famous chef Heston Blumenthal, who The Neighbourhood has brought to animated life for the chef's new sweet shop project.
"Our work with Heston Blumenthal demonstrates how deeply perfectionism runs in this studio," explains Woods. "We're spending a lot of time perfecting the imperfections to give the work a natural feel. That includes everything from differentiating between bonbons and humbugs, the use of sub-surface scattering to get the skin texture just right, and developing a complex facial rig to give our 'virtual Heston' a full range of expressions."
As with all its projects, the results are amazing. And whether it's an Urban Splash film featuring animated gnomes or a promo reel for Manchester City Football Club, The Neighbourhood's work lives up to everything its showreel disc promised those 12 months ago.
Find out more about The Neighbourhood at www.the-neighbourhood.com