Montreal-based designers and art directors Julien Vallée and Eve Duhamel continually surprise and delight their clients (and their clients’ customers), by creating complex narratives that marry lo-fi, hand-rigged objects with high-end production techniques. The results are often mind-boggling and leave the viewer to wondering, “How’d they do that?” Their video and animation work for clients like Reebok, Hermès, MTV, Coca-Cola, and The New York Times Magazine, as well as a smattering of niche design publications and events, has garnered awards from Adweek, Communication Arts, and Applied Arts, among others. And Vallée, who’s also a Young Guns winner, has already had his monograph Rock, Paper, Scissors, the Work of Julien Vallée published by Gestalten.
When Vallée Duhamel announced itself to the world as a studio in 2008, the two founders really let each other have it—literally. “We planned to make an image to announce the new studio, but thought it’d be more interesting to make a project out of it,” says Vallée. “Our first reaction was to make the complete opposite of what a ‘union’ must be, and we wrote down dozens of things we could do to one another in this direction.” In the course of the one-minute video announcement (above), Duhamel throws an angry cat at Vallée and hits him in the face with a dead fish; he retaliates by grabbing ahold of her hair and pushing her head first into a pan of purple paint. At the end, the disheveled duo stand side-by-side with the words, “High class, lo-fi, and no kidding.”
They are, however, totally kidding about the whole “rivalry” thing. Vallée and Duhamel have been collaborating for the past seven years, ever since they graduated from art school. “Eve was making illustrations and visual art pieces, while I was doing mostly graphic design and imagery setup in the physical space,” Vallée explains. “We started to create animated and video projects, and they eventually became the main request from clients and agencies. After a couple of years developing these lo-fi, handcrafted films, we were able to build a team [and]…it didn’t make sense any more to be co-directors.”
Perhaps it’s their experience producing high-energy videos that gives their print work such dynamism; there’s even a sense of movement on the page. There are elaborate photo shoots with hand-made objects strategically arranged so they appear to hang in mid-air, creating dramatic tension in an otherwise static scene. The level of precision on shoots like these is so labor-intensive that it requires a team of about 10 people working full-time designing and building sets, props, and various mechanisms. Although Vallée Duhamel’s projects are meticulously art-directed, happy accidents are often welcome. “Sometimes unexpected things happen, and if we feel they’re more interesting than what we planned, we’ll work to create something in this direction,” Vallée notes. “On the other hand, we build custom mechanisms for specific effects, and they must work the same in the workshop as in the shooting studio. We like to be in control of what we’re doing, but also have some flexibility to make adjustments along the way.”
For Hermès, the Vallée Duhamel team created a narrative in which everything turns into something new. “What was great about this is they had a lot of products they wanted to focus on, but we were able to use them in the background of the story for some scenes, and as the main characters for others. They never came to us with the idea of having a film that would showcase product, but asked us to create a story using their products. Hermès knows about handcrafted since all of their products are made by hand, and not on an assembly line,” says Vallée. Sounds like a perfect pairing of sensibilities.
And how do he and Duhamel work together? “We want to create good projects, and we don’t hesitate turning things upside down,” he says. “At some point we divide and conquer for production matters. For videos, Eve is more responsible for the specific details that involve the art department, while I work more on the storytelling. We constantly challenge ourselves and touch on every aspect to push things further during the process.”