Back in 1999, Sbastien Roux worked in a communications agency specialising in web animation, games and video clips. But he spent much of his free time experimenting with the opportunities offered by a new, exciting vector animation tool named Flash. It was then that he built himself a personal website to showcase his work, superdeux.com.
Initially, the site had no commercial aspirations, but Roux's images rapidly circulated across the web and, by chance, caught the eye of Peter Thaler, whose own website featured the most interesting graphic artists on the web. Thaler's site became increasingly popular, and, as a result, was transformed into Pictoplasma, the design bible for advertising executives that is now respected the world over.
Appearances in Pictoplasma and other such titles drew the attention of millions of people across the globe to Roux's inimitable style. And so, three years later, Roux left the communications agency to concentrate his efforts on Superdeux, which was already attracting work from clients. Roux teamed up with Stphane Huleux who soon took charge of the studio's technical side together with web programming and sound design and the rest, as they say, is history.
Whether for print, web, animation or toy creation, Superdeux's work is now characterised by a style that is simple and streamlined. "Our characters have very simple shapes, our images are very colourful, and everything is heavily tinged with fun and irony," says Roux. "We enjoy combining a cute design with a violent idea, perhaps even an aggressive one, and this mix produces something slightly off-centre that people seem to like."
Roux cites Japanese anim, street style, eighties culture and music as his main influences: "Music is very much present in the work we do. I often pick up and reuse phrases taken from hip hop tunes."
For the last two years, the company has spent time formulating creative plans to conquer the world. How? Superdeux develops individual artistic concepts and then attempts to apply them to everything it produces. This process usually starts with the creation of a small character, which is then liberally stylised.
Along with the character, a strong idea or a sentence is created, which forms a sort of signature or a slogan. "Once a concept has been developed, we work hard to come up with all the possible and imaginable ways it can be used," explains Roux.
"From there, we contact the manufacturers directly and, if we can work out a deal, they execute the project."
And that's really as complicated as it gets. For his toys and T-shirts Roux has taken the chance to send his concepts to perfect strangers: "I only knew the people I contacted [about his work] through their websites. I had used their site but had absolutely no personal contact with them."
Sending your own designs away to a toy manufacturer on the other side of the world may seem a little risky but, as Roux says, "The only thing I had to lose was my designs, and I thought it was worth it." And indeed it was. After several months of email communication, Roux finally signed a contract. "I guess it's not very professional," he admits. "We had already agreed on the terms, but I didn't sign the contract until the toys were in production."
Superdeux's sales technique is thus remarkably simple. With a simple email contact, Roux can subcontract all his projects, from toy manufacturers or textile specialists, even if they are located halfway around the world. It's clear that much of the company's success comes down to the optimal use of internet resources.
From his office in Lille, a city in the North of France that few non-French advertising executives could locate, Roux attracts business from Asia, deals with his customers in the United States, and uses the internet to communicate with graphic artists worldwide.
"The Superdeux touch"
Superdeux can now boast an impressive client list including huge names such as MTV, Universal Pictures, KidRobot, ITRangers, EA Sports and Sony. Another, Sony Ericsson, asked Roux to design a range of tiny pixel-art characters to be used as animation on phone screens.
"Working with Sony Ericsson was actually not too different from working with smaller clients," says Roux. "They wanted "the Superdeux touch", so we were completely free to create, perhaps even more so than with smaller clients."
The characters, originally designed as low resolution Flash files, were then exported as animated GIFs before conversion to an image format compatible with mobile phones.
Technical matters proved a little more complicated during work for television network Comedy Central. "To make the short clips the client asked for, I had to work with animators who used After Effects, an application I have yet to master," says Roux. "At fi rst, I was only asked to draw the characters and they said their animators would do the rest. But then I mentioned that I could do the animation myself in Flash."
There were several technical issues - resolution, managing the frame rate and the colour space, for example. The animations were produced in Flash in RGB, and then transferred to Illustrator for conversion to EPS format in CMYK, where colours had to be tweaked. Everything was then exported to After Effects.
"The French have no guts"
In addition to the publicity gained from Pictoplasma, Superdeux has an agent responsible for drumming up international business, particularly in the United States and Japan. Roux also keeps busy as creative director of Thunder Dog Studios, a New-York-based design company, so he regularly travels to the States to work on location for a few months at a time. Being there gives him the opportunity to make new business contacts for Superdeux.
While this international experience has increased the studio's prestige, Superdeux, paradoxically enough, has virtually no French clients. "I guess our style just doesn't suit them," Roux concludes. "They have no guts," adds Huleux, smiling.
When asked what has been his most surprising experience, Roux immediately states that it's disembodied communication via the web that he finds the strangest. "There have been times when I have worked for months with a person before meeting them face-to-face. I find this manner of working increasingly annoying. I miss the human contact."
Superdeux aims to substantially reduce its "made-to-order" jobs by developing its personal concept work. "Ideally," says Roux, "we'd like large corporations to contact us and say "we would like you to do some work for us, but we don't really know what". From there, we could freely develop an entire range of products."
To achieve this honourable goal, the team works by relatively modest means. Roux won't be parted from his portable Sony VAIO and Huleux works on a PC he put together himself. Of course, their favourite software is Flash, but, at times, they also use Illustrator and Photoshop.
Right now Roux and Huleux are launching a parallel label to Superdeux, Unchi (the Japanese word for poo). "[Unchi] is intended to host all of our artistic creations as well as the ones from the people we love," Roux reveals. "That way we can do exactly what we like and become masters of the universe which is, of course, our secret objective."