On the evening of Saturday 13 April 2013, a young Australian musician stepped up to the stage in front of a sell-out crowd in Dubbo, New South Wales. Drenching the 18,000 revellers in cascading layers of cooing synths, chopped-up vocals and electro beats, he bobbed and weaved over his laptop as a pulsing light show whipped the crowd into a rave-fuelled frenzy. From their homes, thousands more Australians joined in as a huge, hexagonal light installation made its debut to the world.
The musician was Harley Streten, better known as breakthrough electro artist Flume - Sydney's latest superstar producer - and the show-stopping visuals came courtesy of Toby & Pete, an eclectic design duo rooted in print craft. "I think we were more nervous than Flume," laughs studio co-founder Toby Pike. "We'd rehearsed the show dozens of times, but a massive crowd of eager fans definitely makes you question every technical connection several times over."
It's been a whirlwind 18 months for the Sydney-based studio. Flume didn't have a platinum album when his record label, Future Classic, first contacted the team, looking for a unique visual icon to represent the producer on stage. Toby & Pete meanwhile, then more famous for the studio's innovative photo-illustration and CGI work, had never built an interactive light installation. But that didn't stop them.
As the hype around Flume exploded, the design crew kept their heads down, drawing on the DJ's kaleidoscopic album artwork to create an 'infinity prism' - a six-sided device embedded with LED lights and mirrors, connecting directly to Flume's live set. With the help of an extended team, Toby & Pete also created over two hours of mesmerising multi-screen visuals for the producer to control during his set.
"It was three months of doubt and fear," confirms fellow studio founder Pete Stopniak. "From a technical standpoint, Lukasz [Karluk], the interactive programmer we work with, is no stranger to generative animation. 3D for print is fairly close to motion work and Angus [Forbes], our director has been shooting live action for years.
"We were, however, building custom LED panels out of glorified fairy lights to be displayed in front of thousands, and then loaded onto a truck and carted around the country." Stopniak continues: "Everything was ok until we started meeting with the tour production people. Hundreds of 'random tour disaster' stories of tried and tested equipment failing for no apparent reason didn't help us at all," he laughs.
Fortunately, the debut show went off without hitch. Since then, the infinity prism has toured with Flume through his sold-out Australian tour, across the UK and Europe, and around the US, picking up 'best live act' in the 2013 InTheMix awards and propelling Toby & Pete firmly onto the world stage. "The attention we've received has been phenomenal," says Stopniak. "We'd struggled with breaking out of the purely print studio category, but now I think people realise we're much more than that."
In fact, the studio has always been more than that. Toby & Pete is bigger than the name implies, with a third designer - Lachie McDonald - permanently on the books and a large team of freelancers (currently between eight and 10) who share the huge warehouse space on Cleveland Street, in Sydney's Surry Hills. Between them, they make up a unique, ever-changing collective of talent and have a diverse span of work - and awards - to prove it. Cadbury, the New York Lottery, MasterCard, Greenpeace, Rolling Stone magazine and Sony are just some of the big-name clients that have come calling in the three years since Toby & Pete launched.
Stopniak and Pike first met a decade ago at Sydney-based retouching studio Electric Art. Having suspected that "some form of digital imaging" was the way to go, Stopniak - who had been playing a lot of games and was beginning to experiment in 3D - studied Visual Communication: Photography and Digital Imaging at the University of Western Sydney. In 2004 he was offered a job at EA after covering for a friend who had taken time off. "Toby did a degree in digital media and joined me at Electric Art a few months later," Stopniak recalls.
Six years passed before the designers started Toby & Pete. During that time Stopniak honed his 3D and CGI skills, while Pike accepted an art director job at Saatchi & Saatchi. It would be another two years before the pair reconvened on the freelance circuit, but by the time they did their first job - a set of three landscapes with 3D type for The Age newspaper in Melbourne - a creative partnership had become inevitable.
"3D and retouching are now combined by default, so it was kind of understood that we'd be collaborating on most projects," explains Pike. "The plan was to share a space for six months and, if things continued on an upward trend, we'd set up a company. Two months later, we were sitting down with lawyers and accountants signing contracts." Toby & Pete was born.
Both Stopniak and Pike are highly skilled retouchers in their own right. Their photographic-illustration work is exquisite, screaming attention to craft and commanding more than a handful of industry awards in recent years. Earth Hour, for instance - a stunning print campaign showing moths flocking to a lamp - picked up a bronze award for digital manipulation and silver for photography from the Australasian Writers and Art Directors Association during the studio's early days. And after just 12 months in business, Toby & Pete was named at the forefront of the Australian retouching field by Capture magazine.
When asked, Stopniak defines the studio's aesthetic as "some kind of modern surrealism". He explains: "We started our professional careers trying to make everything as real as possible, but now we're trying to get into a space somewhere between real and graphic. We often try to use implausible shapes assembled photorealistically, whether by photography, retouching or CGI."
But it isn't just the level of craft that characterises Stopniak and Pike's work: innovative concepts streak throughout their portfolio, and there's more than a touch of typographic genius in some of their projects. Take their logo for creative director Steve Back. Briefed, simply, to make the client's name 'fun and playful', the pair transformed the type into a huge inflatable castle, weaving vibrant, oversized 3D lettering into an alluring vision of softplay mastery. It looks good enough to bounce on - indeed, the project quickly caught the attention of the design media and preschool children alike.
So how did a partnership that's so good at print end up working across film, interactive, live visuals and more? The evolution, Stopniak reflects, was part restlessness, part accident: "We knew from the get-go we didn't want to be retouchers forever. Motion was a logical step, but we actually got asked to pitch on an installation before our first motion job. I still think the installation job came to us by accident," he confesses, "because there was no mention of such work on our website at the time, but we're glad they did - we got to know Lukasz in the process of putting the pitch together for that."
And therein lies the crux: central to the studio's ethos is a huge emphasis on collaboration. From the moment Stopniak and Pike began sharing a space with fellow freelancers, they saw an exciting opportunity to pool their skills and break new creative ground.
"We formed the wider collective with the view that a good creative can work with a good craftsman to create amazing work. That's our reasoning for branching out into so many different mediums," Pike explains.
"It's interesting," he continues. "We know some people who are a little wary of the whole Jack-of-all-trades thing, but generally we find our clients really respond to that, as we can offer a better, more complete solution. They can come for the print but stay for the interactive."
These days, all new projects start with Stopniak and Pike. The pair tried bringing everyone onboard early on, but it became tricky to manage - so now the co-founders work out a rough creative direction before a new project begins. Stopniak tends to take the lead on the 3D and CGI work, while Pike gravitates towards the photographic side of things.
"On most projects we start off at opposite ends creatively and end up streaming down to a place we're both happy with," says Stopniak. "If the job calls for skills beyond our own, then we call the experts."
The beauty of their setup is that feedback is always on hand. The creatives sit in one, long desk arrangement, and while freelancers rent their desks and are free to work on their own projects, the environment facilitates a constant, invaluable feedback loop, with designers swapping input and opinion - whether they're directly involved in a project or not.
"It's a fun place to work," Stopniak adds. "There's always music playing and someone doing something cool. It can be hard to concentrate at times, but you also get that life-saving feedback when you hit a wall. There's generally one or two people who come and go each month as well, which keeps it interesting." He laughs: "We're down the block from the local pub so we're always hanging out there together - perhaps a little too much at times. Long hours in the studio can bring on the cabin fever."
McDonald, Toby & Pete's third full-time designer, joined the team 18 months ago: "Lachie rang up from Melbourne one day looking for work experience, but we thought he sounded weird on the phone," Stopniak recalls. "We told him to send us some work anyway. As soon as we saw his book, we told him to pack his bags and head up to Sydney. There was photography, 3D, painting, sculptures in Blu-Tac and a general sense of good fun. He's doing some amazing work in 3D, but he really is capable of anything."
Currently, there are no plans to bring in any other designers full-time. As Stopniak points out, with the studio's portfolio continuing to broaden into the "field of doing everything", it's tough to predict which skills the team might need long-term. More importantly, Toby & Pete's blend of collaboration works.
Right now, the team is busy putting together two more clips for Flume's next show: "We're always planning on evolving it, so as long as he's touring we'll keep adding to it," says Stopniak. The pair are also working on a book cover and a project for a US-based lottery, via their US agent Levine/Leavitt, and are considering whether to do another exhibition. ("I want to get this down on record," he laughs, "so now we're really committed.")
If there is a plan, moving forward, it's to stay relevant, skilled-up and surrounded by "good people". Exactly where that will take Toby & Pete is anyone's guess, but one thing's for sure: the studio is likely to continue to evade convention for quite some time to come.
"If you look throughout history, there have always been characters that defy definition," Stopniak asserts. "Starting with Leonardo Da Vinci, for example, or Eames, Rennie Mackintosh, Raymond Loewy and William Morris - such prolific output across so many different disciplines. We'd like to be even one per cent of what they've been.
Words: Julia Sagar Photography: Jeremy Shaw
This article originally appeared in Computer Arts issue 224.