Optical Arts is a collaborative studio pushing the boundaries of motion and CGI

Led by director Dan Tobin Smith, the London-based team devotes its time towards experimental, cross-disciplinary projects.

25 September 2020


Founded on a love of many disciplines – from architecture to illustration, typography to music – Optical Arts is a collaborative studio that raises the bar for motion design. Eschewing industry trends and the constant battle for newness, the team devotes its time to storytelling and pushing the limits of what can be achieved through a camera and CGI. This has led Optical Arts to work on a whole host of projects and films, including Fork, an art piece that starts with one of the most mundane of objects and ends in a surreal adventure, and M – Morris, an homage to the floral design work of William Morris.

Founded and led by director Dan Tobin Smith, the London-based studio comprises a multi-skilled team, including Martin Pryor, designer, stills retoucher and colourist; Fabrice le Nezet, director, motion designer and special effects supervisor; Joe Jackson, photographer, director and designer; and Miguel Wratten, Flame operator and VFX supervisor. The studio certainly makes the most of this varied and diverse skillset.

Growing up in Haringey in north London, Dan says he had a natural eye for art at school. This led him to study a foundation in Art and Design at Central Saint Martins, before pursuing a degree in photography at London College of Printing (now LCC). His dad also played a key part in his creative inspiration as an ex-photography teacher, who had studied under Bill Brandt at the Royal College of Art in the early 70s. Dan was therefore inundated with first-hand experience and knowledge from the industry. He even spent the weekends and holidays in his father’s small darkroom, learning the ropes of picture-taking, developing and printing. “It was an amazing outlet for me and something that felt very natural,” he says. “He was a very good teacher and has a curious mind; he understood complex subjects, which he attempted to teach me – some of it got through!”

Dan knew he’d make his way into the field of visual arts in some form or another – but definitely didn’t imagine it would be in CGI. “I remember feeling threatened by it at the start,” he says, “thinking it would replace curtain areas of photography.” He quickly realised that it was a positive tool for ideas, and one that enabled him to start experimenting outside of his comfort zone as a photographer and director. Thinking of the studio as more of a “laboratory for storytelling”, he and his team not only create digital films; they also expand into physical structures too, working across CGI, installation and design. Dan adds: “We aren’t working within these constraints for the sake of it, the constraints help focus the idea – it’s also what we know and often it’s simpler for us to work this way.”

Optical Arts: Fork (Copyright © Optical Arts, 2020)

Proving that collaboration is very much the key to success, the team at Optical Arts regularly meets to contribute ideas for upcoming projects, both in terms of the physical and digital. While ideating a project, there tends to be one “main author”, but everyone values input from each member in the process. As for the ideas, Dan talks us through a couple of recent projects, Fork and Toccata. The latter was devised after watching the musical animation of the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, “which visualises the music very cleverly,” he says. “What I liked was seeing the inevitable coming towards you as the music progressed and the notes were highlighted, and that got me thinking about entropy, time and music itself.” The result is a dramatic and dynamic depiction of a family of flying crockery, with spilt wine leaping into the air to the sound of Bach.

As for Fork, Fabrice wanted to develop a series of designs driven by “predetermined rules of familiar objects”, twisting these objects with a dose of the unfamiliar, taking them out of their usual settings. “One question was by scrutinising them, these objects, do they change? What is left once they lose their function? Can they break free of human ownership? This idea then evolved into this kind of dreamy and Fantasia-esque film,” Dan explains. These projects, among many others, mark Optical Arts out as a reality-twisting studio that will be warping things for some time to come.


Optical Arts: Toccata (Copyright © Optical Arts, 2020)

Optical Arts: Toccata (Copyright © Optical Arts, 2020)

Optical Arts: Utopia (Copyright © Optical Arts, 2020)

Optical Arts: Surface (Copyright © Optical Arts, 2020)

Optical Arts: Order in Space (Copyright © Optical Arts, 2020)

Hero Header

Optical Arts: M-Morris (Copyright © Optical Arts, 2020)

Share Article

About the Author

Ayla Angelos

Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent nearly a decade as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.

It's Nice That Newsletters

Fancy a bit of It's Nice That in your inbox? Sign up to our newsletters and we'll keep you in the loop with everything good going on in the creative world.