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Partnership / Coal Drops Yard: Double Take

Six animators bring their own unique styles to Coal Drops Yard’s shapeshifting identity

We at It’s Nice That have teamed up this autumn with Coal Drops Yard, a new shopping and dining district in London’s King’s Cross, to create Double Take – a new installation that has seen five giant characters take over and transform the entire site. If you’ve wandered down there over the past couple of weeks, you’re sure to have encountered this cast of colourful newcomers. If you haven’t yet, you’ve got until 6 November to do so!

As part of our partnership, we have also commissioned six animation directors from around the world, who have taken over the Coal Drops Yard Instagram account over the past few weeks, just as the sculptures have commandeered the physical space. We briefed these animators to each create an animated loop to reflect the playful spirit of the project, to celebrate their own style, and to respond to the history and heritage of Coal Drops Yard as a destination.

Each animator was given a particular shape from the Coal Drops Yard identity, which was created by Droga5, as well as a specific colour to use as a starting point. They were also tasked with returning to the same image at the end, creating an ongoing loop. But the five or six seconds in between were theirs to use as they saw fit. Below are the glorious results of this collaboration and each animator’s thoughts on how they got there, too.

Raman Djafari

We’ve always loved the vivid colours, complex transitions and thoughtful concepts that are evident in all of Raman’s animation work. Although for this project he had a limited colour palette and just a roughly five-second slot to fill, the final piece still manages to conjure up an entire world and grapple with some wonderfully nuanced ideas.

For inspiration, Raman looked to the history of Coal Drops Yard, the way it has been constantly reimagined and reinvented over the decades. He focused on coal, which is why the site was built in the first place (for years, this is where coal from the north of England entered London). “For millions of years, dead plants have been compressed underground into what was later mined in the form of coal and burnt for energy,” Raman explains. “To me, this chemical transformation seemed analogous to the history of Coal Drops Yard.”

At the start of his animation, we see round pieces of coal falling, disappearing, then transforming and releasing their energy in the form of a dancing person (a nod to King’s Cross’s history as a heartland of the British rave scene). We then see a plant growing that again disappears into the ground to become coal again, repeating the cycle. “I like to see this as a take on the re-appropriation of urban spaces for cultural purposes, a kind of live and let live of spaces in the city,” says Raman, whose process usually starts with pencil sketches on paper and then migrates over to a software called TVPaint.

Raman is aware that some of these concepts are a bit too complex to translate easily in just five seconds of animation, but for him, it’s important purely for his practice: “I wouldn’t be surprised if most viewers wouldn’t necessarily read those ideas from the animation, but taking a concept like this as a starting point and framework for my design always informs the visuals I create.”

Wang & Söderström

Tim Söderström and Anny Wang, best known as Wang & Söderström, have in the past described their work as “mind tickling” – and this piece of animation is a case in point. Hyperreal textures, fluid transitions and a strong sense of tactility combine to make something at once hypnotic and playful.

The duo was given the shape of one of Coal Drops Yard’s heritage columns as their starting point. “The column symbol that derives from one of the architectural elements was the one we were supposed to transform from 2D into 3D to seamlessly loop back to be 2D again,” explains Tim. Quite quickly, he and Anny realised that they would need some kind of motion to initiate that transformation from 2D to 3D. “With a symmetrical shape like the column, it was logical that it be a spinning motion,” says Anny. “The spinning motion would then create a chain reaction where the column breaks up into smaller parts and through the cracks different things starts to ‘take over’.”

Those things that take over are difficult to pinpoint or identify, and that’s exactly how Tim and Anny like it. “By adding alien elements to our creations we try to incorporate some weirdness and abstract connections between the theme and whoever is looking,” says Tim. “Is that a sea cucumber from Saturn or is it a coal molecule?” Honestly, who knows?

Jaedoo Lee

Whereas Wang & Söderström had the immediately recognisable symbol of a column as their starting point, the New York-based animator and illustrator Jaedoo Lee had something far more abstract: a stack of purple rectangles. Like Raman, Jaedoo was intrigued by the history of Coal Drops Yard and the notion of transformation. “I wanted to bring the original shape out of its flat form and give it dimension through blossoming flowers,” he says, “which to me represented the transformation of the Coal Drops Yard space from its original state.”

He started by illustrating the shapes and then began “roughing out” the animation of the tube shapes in Adobe Photoshop, starting with the reveal of each tube first, then doing the same for the resolve. “Once I had the tubes animated, I added the spherical heads, the eyes, and the petals by tracking them along the animation,” he goes on. “Once all the shapes were cleaned up, I added the shadows, making sure shadows were cast properly amongst the tubes.”

While he admits that “making weird tube shapes is something I’m pretty familiar with”, Jaedoo explains that the challenge came with “transitioning from flat to dimensional without looking choppy”. He overcame this challenge by animating the entirety of the shape (the coil first, then each tube, making sure each of the tubes in the coil could align with the tubes sprouting), even the parts that were hidden behind layers. “I thought that doing this would allow the shape to better animate as a whole and not look like separate animations were hacked together,” he explains.

Arina Shabanova

It was King’s Cross’s history as a heartland of the London rave scene in the 1990s and 80s that inspired Moscow-based creative Arina Shabanova for her animated loop. “The idea was to show characters leaving the club, as a nod to the ravers of the day,” she says. She did this while also making sure her characters were made up of shapes derived from the Coal Drops Yard identity too.

“Especially if we think about ravers, the first thing comes to my mind is the freedom they had and how they reflected that in the way they dressed up,” Arina explains. “It was interesting to show that through the work but in a very gentle way. I was trying to focus on the character diversity in lots of different ways: the way they look, the way they dance, the way they jump from the door.”

Whereas some of the other animators start with pencil sketches and shapes, Arina always begins with character design. “Only when there is a ready-made character can I imagine their nature, temper and, of course, dance moves,” she says. “So as a starting point, it was important to play around with the identity shapes and create main characters from them. I chose five heroes. For me half of the work is done at this point, as I can imagine how they can interact with each other in my head!”

Her final piece, which was also – like Raman’s – created in TVPaint, is packed with personality and character. “The only thing I’m sorry about is that these characters have no development,” says Arina. “I would be very interested to know where they went, what they ate and drank, and how this party ended.”

Milo Targett

Anyone who has read It’s Nice That for a while will know Milo, at least through his playful animation work, which we’ve covered many times. He packed a lot into his short animated loop, including references to Coal Drops Yard’s history (those lumps of coal and red bricks), its latest reincarnation (that shiny new jewel), and King’s Cross’s recent past as a raver’s paradise (those over-the-top boots).

“I started with a sketch and then modelled each of the blocks in Cinema 4D,” says Milo. “I animated each element backwards from this position into the jump adding squash and stretch on the impact.”

For him, the constraints made the project enjoyably challenging. “It was interesting to have the compositional limitation of these blocks in a very specific shape,” he goes on. “Working out how these could all balance together in a believable and pleasing way was a challenge. Technically, the trickiest thing was rigging the face to animate with the other blocks in the stack moving in unison.”

All in all, he says, “It was a really fun brief to be given as there was quite a lot of freedom to mess around with the shapes as I saw fit. The architectural nature of the location was a really interesting starting point to be given and it was interesting looking into the history, too.”

Eva Cremers

The Netherlands-based creative Eva Cremers caught our eye earlier this year with her wildly over-the-top and shiny animations, which she grouped together as her Inflatables. Like the rest of the creatives, she was given a starting shape and a main colour to begin with. “I immediately loved the playfulness of the brief,” she says. She started in 3D, creating all the architectural shapes and doing some initial tests with animation. “I first started working on the look – getting the tactile materials right,” she says. “The outside shape has a sort of glassy translucent material that lets the inner shapes deform. When I started to like the overall look, I began animating it.”

She had the idea to have a small explosion inside of the big shape, in which the inner objects would bounce against each other and deform as if they were soft. “The first attempts almost made my computer crash, as I accidentally made the inner objects a very dense mesh,” says Eva. “I created a simple and invisible mesh around each object that I triggered to do all the animation. I played with gravity, attraction, wind and keyframes and tried a lot of things to make the animation just right. This took loads of time, but I’m really happy with how it turned out!”

You’d never know that Eva has barely been working in 3D for a year and has basically taught herself everything she knows. “It was really fun and a struggle at the same time to make this animation,” she admits. “I combined trial and error together with some – sometimes questionable – tutorials and I scrolled through a lot of 3D forum websites that I didn’t know existed. By undergoing this sometimes-frustrating process, I think I learned a lot on the technical side!”

Coal Drops Yard is a new shopping and restaurant district in London’s King’s Cross. Coal Drops Yard was originally established in 1850 to handle the eight million tonnes of coal delivered to the capital each year, and was latterly the location of nightclubs Bagley’s and The Cross. The area reopened in October 2018, reinvented by the acclaimed Heatherwick Studio, which has interwoven a contemporary design with the surviving structures and rich ironwork of the original Victorian coal drops.

Located within a reimagined set of historic buildings and arches directly adjacent to Granary Square and Regent’s Canal, Coal Drops Yard houses over 50 stores from a unique mix of established and emerging brands, along with cafes, bars, top independent restaurants and new public spaces.