On 20 Years Of Directing

10 August 2023

Written by

Megan Williams, Creative Review

The director duo cut their teeth creating unusual animated visuals for artists like Björk as part of Lynn Fox.
They reflect on how architecture influences their work, the elements that ads often overlook and the future of music videos

The Sweetshop

Christian Mckenzie and Patrick Chen rose to prominence in the early 2000s as part of directing collective Lynn Fox, which was completed by Bastian Glassner. Together, they created a spate of animated music videos and visualisations that often leaned into ethereal or spectral territory, brought to life with the burgeoning possibilities around CG. Their visual language especially resonated with Björk, who enlisted Lynn Fox for various projects over the course of a long-running creative partnership.

They also brought their taste for graphics and eerie visuals to brands like Audi, before the trio split and Mckenzie and Chen set up a separate directing venture, Christian & Patrick. They have since directed ads for luxury car brands like Lexus and Mercedes- Benz, as well as spots for Thomas Cook and Dulux that play with cinematic devices in their own way.

The two initially studied architecture and met while doing their diploma at Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL, which is renowned for its innovative approach.

“Pat and I both came from very, very traditional architecture schools before that - I certainly thought all I was interested in was bricks and construction and making something,” Mckenzie says.

They both signed up to a unit exploring the links between architecture and film. "I was just drawn to the madness of it and the fact that they were doing these flying animations that felt like music videos in a sense," he remembers. During this unit, they not only found each other but landed upon the medium that would go on to define the next 20 years of their careers.

Having known each other longer than they've known their own partners, Mckenzie and Chen have found an instinctive way of working together. "It's like riding a tandem bicycle,” Chen explains: one controls the front, the other pushes behind. “Once you have that synergy, you know each other almost back to front. It's these things that make the creative energy a lot easier and a lot more fun as well. You don't get that loneliness, and at least when one of us has self-doubt or doubts about the project, the other one picks it up and sees the positivity of it."

While at architecture school, they peeled away from the pack in terms of the animations they would create, opting out of predictable, linear visualisations in favour of spatial pieces inspired by their heroes at the time, which included Björk and Warp Records.

"We were constantly going around to other units saying, you know what, what we don't want to do is those early architecture demonstration computer simulations, where you almost feel like a camera is strapped on the head of a fly and flying through a room going, hey here's room A, room B and room C. What we wanted to create is a very emotional feeling piece as to how you could feel when you go into space," Chen says. "That's why our work felt more like music videos coming out of college. We just instantly started cutting towards music, rather than architecture animation, which tends to be quite a dry affair that was almost no music or just very plain classical music that allows you to fly from one room to a corner of the next room."

They came out of architecture school with a pass and a few video tapes of animations, which they took to labels like Warp and eventually gained their first commission from John Hassay, founder of production company Colonel Blimp. “Little by little these things got noticed, particularly I think just because we were coming at things from a very, very different angle to most people,” Mckenzie explains. “Most animators were coming out of animation school doing cutesy little characters that danced around and went from one place to the next and it was a bit traditional. Whereas we would start with a photograph that we found interesting – say it was a seal turning in the shadow of a boat underwater, or say it was a piece of coral or the first cells of human embryo." The photograph would get chopped up and blended back together in an unusual way using Photoshop and 3D software, "until we had something that we'd look at which we didn't understand anymore, but made us feel something.

"We were coming at things in a really weird way," he adds. “I think that that just struck a chord, particularly with people like Björk who is all about her own unique world. I think she could see some sort of kindred approach between us and her for doing that.” As part of Lynn Fox, they went on to create a handful of her music videos as well as the concert visions for her opening ceremony. It was an exciting time to be working at the intersection of animation and music videos. "I remember we were hanging around with Shynola and lots of creative young animators that seemed to be everywhere because I think it was a time when people all of a sudden had the power to do things," Mckenzie recalls. "It was a little bit like the music revolution when suddenly samplers came out, and then you got people making hits from their bedroom," he says. “I think a similar thing happened with animation when computers just got a little bit more powerful and people could make pretty impressive animations from their spare bedroom. So we were in awe of people like Chris Cunningham and Alex Rutterford and there were loads of other really great animators out there, filmmakers that we were all fascinated with."

Their practice at the time was heavily influenced by fine art, a hangover from their architecture school days. "The imposter syndrome couldn't get any better in architecture school because you're supposed to be the one who pulled in all the trades yet you don't know how to put plasterboard up or lay a brick! So you're constantly trying to reference different artists," Chen says. "Our tutor always said: go and steal and borrow!"

It was something of a golden age for music videos, compared to today's model of audio streaming where most music video budgets have dwindled. “It did feel like it was the place to show your skills. I don't know if that's quite the same anymore as a forum for youngsters,” Mckenzie says. “That doesn't mean that there are not amazing music projects going on - they still do happen, but they're not the MTV standard shape anymore." Artists like Beyoncé have popularised the visual album format, and they both feel that music videos as short films are likely going to be the future (Mckenzie was particularly taken by FKA Twigs' martial arts epic Sad Day directed by Hiro Murai).

As time went by, the duo decided to steer away from ethereal yet photorealistic animations, not only because they could save time on computer graphics but also due to the "real, magical discovery" that comes from working with actors, Mckenzie: says. "As an animator, you're very, very, very in control - you can micromanage every single hair on something - but when you're working with an actor, there's this wonderful chance element." While their visuals have diverged away from their early days in animation, he feels that there are tonal similarities. For example, he believes their first ever music video (for FC Kahuna) and their recent Thomas Cook advert are both underpinned by a "slightly dreamy" tone with a "hint of melancholy".

Their projects also share an emphasis on music, where possible. Coming from the world of music videos, they are well attuned to the importance of sound and image working together, however, they both feel that music and sound design are often overlooked in commercials.

“I think music is massively, massively important for film, of course it is. I think a lot of the time, it's thought about too late," Mckenzie says. "To me, it should be 50% of what you do when you put something together because sound communicates feeling so strongly." Here too, they feel it's as much about giving space as it is overloading the senses, a tactic they opted for with the Thomas Cook ad, which toys with romance and

"The sound design in that was really, really quiet. I think we had this feeling that, although we were going to be watching incredibly high-energy and jubilant pictures, at times we thought it might be interesting to have almost no sound. And when you expect it to be at its most frenetic, to do the opposite," Mckenzie says.

"It's funny, you just feel it inside you but you don't know what you're feeling because there's nothing there. It's weird. That's part of the magic of sound and film."

"Say you're having a dream or a memory of that moment in your life, certain sounds actually seem to be punctuating through more than others," Chen explains. It's all about the little things: "You don't need to hear everything. It's like a horror film - you don't need to see everything. You don't need to see the stabbing. That's the sort of thing that sound can do and unfortunately a lot of the time, that definitely gets forgotten in most ads."

“Pat and I recently have been having discussions more and more about this sense of the gaps between things and when you put one thing next to another, how does it feel?” Mckenzie echoes. "How many things do you actually need to tell? How few things do you need to tell in order to create a real feeling inside people?” It still links back into their architecture background: he compares rooms to scenes, and the organisation of and flow between them as important to a film as they are to a building. "When you cross between two rooms, there's a certain feeling - that's the feeling of the art of architecture. I think in film, there's a similar feeling when you bring different scenes next to each other. You as the director are creating that spatial connection between these two things.

"I think that that's something that we're still learning about now, Patrick and I, as we've grown in this industry, changing from architects into filmmakers. We're still putting it all together in our heads,” he adds. “I think weirdly enough, we learnt things in that unit that are still trickling out of our consciousness many, many years later."