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The Makers of Beautiful Things

By Dave Benton

Some studios set out to be everything to everyone, to solve one design need after another. But not Serial Cut. Based in Madrid, this design studio makes images—just images—combining photographic and computer-generated visual elements. In fact, Serial Cut has become so well known for creating sleek, bold images that it has become a studio of choice for everyone from Converse to Oreos.

Serial Cut creates beautiful images that show off a wide range of commercial products—from cookies to athletic shoes. This still is from a six-second motion piece the studio made for Nike

It started back in 1999, when studio founder Sergio del Puerto needed to create a handle to produce freelance work under. At the time (and for the next eight years), he was working in-house at a studio, but he dedicated his evenings and weekends to working for himself. When the tipping point arrived and he was earning more from his own projects than he was as an employee, he transitioned to operating Serial Cut full time. In the early days, he worked alone, but before long he was joined by Jimmy Anderson, who had requested an internship after seeing some of del Puerto’s work.

Serial Cut recently posted a one-minute show reel of the agency’s moving images, created for Fenty Beauty, Nike, Converse, Honda, Toyota, Starburst, and other clients. 

“It was a very big step for me, as I was used to working for others,” del Puerto explains. “Then I needed someone to help me, so Jimmy Anderson came over from Sweden as an intern. The most difficult thing was to delegate to someone else for the first time. But once you’ve done that with one person, you can do it with two, then three, and so on….”

Fast-forward to 2018, and Serial Cut is a team of ten people working out of a small but industrially chic office in downtown Madrid. “We can retain the authenticity of the studio at that number,” del Puerto says.

A MAN IN PURSUIT OF PERFECTION

“Beauty” has always been the core tenet behind Sergio’s work—and much of his life in general. A self-confessed perfectionist, he drills deep into the details of each project his team is working on, correcting what he sees as flaws early on, aided by a process that involves creating high-resolution images from the very start. “Maybe it’s because of my personality that I am very picky with many things,” del Puerto says. “I see all the details about images and I want to zoom in on them.” His love of beautiful things extends beyond the studio, and del Puerto surrounds himself only with what he considers to be beautiful things in his own home. “Some people came to my house the other day,” he says, “and they said, ‘You only have beautiful things around you!’ And I replied, ‘Yes, I only like beautiful things. Why would I have ugly things?’”

Serial Cut recently completed this project for Fenty Beauty

As with all things in life, however, there is balance, and sometimes ugly happens. Sergio talks with refreshing candor about the “uglier” projects that don’t make his website portfolio but still need to be done because, well, business is business. He says, “We show only 20 percent of what we do as the rest pays the bills,” he explains. “I could talk for an hour about ugly or failed projects. I think it’s educational for designers to understand that we aren’t doing beautiful things all day.... Sometimes clients are too conservative and don’t want to take risks.... We will push back, but we won’t be super persistent. Ultimately, we will do the work they want. We don’t want a war with a client—it’s just work and we are free to do our own creations, so why fight?”

So where does del Puerto find the inspiration to keep creating his iconic, and at times surreal, images? That comes down in large part to his being a committed traveler. Del Puerto spends extended periods in London, Berlin, New York, and Paris, still available to his studio but absorbing cultural experiences along the way. “I need fresh eyes, and to see new things happening,” he says. “If I stay here in my ordinary life, I work more, but I feel less fresh. The combination of my ordinary life and traveling is what gets me fresh. Sometimes I can be away for two months, going from city to city. I think our profession is lucky that we can share screens on Skype and so on. These tools help a lot. I think designers should explore more places and feel more of a spark with this.”

Still images from a recent campaign for Starburst

BY THE BOOK 

The Serial Cut team is currently working on del Puerto’s second book release, aptly called 99, after the year Serial Cut came to be. It will be released on September 9, 2019, and it comes on the heels of the success of del Puerto’s first book, Extra Bold. The new book marks 20 years of Serial Cut, something that came quickly for the studio’s founder, because, he says, he is having fun and loves what he’s doing.

And beyond the book, what does the future hold for del Puerto and his design team? “I prefer practical work to 3D lately,” he says. “You get to play with real life. Right now we are at 80 percent computer generated here, and the new objective is to be more practical. I mix mediums because it comes about naturally. We started 3D because clients were asking for more complex things. Photography happened because a friend of mine started helping me with projects, and so on, but even though we combine different techniques, my ultimate goal is simply to have a final stunning image.”

INSIDE SERIAL CUT’S CREATIVE PROCESS

The studio generally turns projects around in three to six weeks—and typically has about five projects running at any one time. We asked del Puerto for a breakdown of a typical process and workflow. Here, he explains how his team works, using a project for Oreo as an example: 

Step 1: Brief & Treatment  The ad agency usually sends a brief, where we see the overall request. Then we usually send a treatment proposal, showing how we envision the project, while they also look at proposals from other studios.

Step 2: Storyboards  In this case, the agency and client chose our treatment as the winner. As the final asset was an animation, the first step was to create some style frames as a storyboard, helping the client and the agency to understand the whole story. Here are some examples of corrections I made for my team, as creative director, before presenting to the client (my markups and then the corrected still are shown).

Step 3: Animatics  After some back and forth with the agency and client, the style frames are approved, so we began working on the animation. We presented an “animatic,” which is an animation but without much shading or texturing—just enough to provide an overall idea of how the animation will be.

Step 4: Resources  As we advance with the animatics, we change many things from the animation, we film the hand in chroma background, we add the voice-over, and the musician creates the soundtrack and SFX.

Step 5: Final Render  After all the above is approved, we proceed with the final render. The result of this project is a 15-second video.

(See more stills from the project on Serial Cut’s Behance page.)