Nuit Blanche from Spy Films on Vimeo.

Making Of Nuit Blanche from Spy Films on Vimeo.

Surrealist René Magritte had the best academic training, but his early works are viewed by scholars as being derivative – and you probably haven’t ever seen them. It seems that his work after the academy, as a commercial sign painter, designer, and even wallpaper creator (really), were part of what made Magritte the artist we know now.

What painting signs gave Magritte was a concise wit, a compactness of message – and the rest is history.

At a time when digital visuals are deeply entangled in the commercial world, that could make commercialism a sign of hope. I’m thinking about wit partly because of the work of the Canadian production house Spy Films. In case you missed their stunning work Nuit Blanche when it made its rounds earlier this year, have a look at top. The “making of” video is almost a greater work of art than the original; in exposing the process by which the fictional image is created, it opens up awareness of the artifice in play and to me makes the film more poignant. (Another response, though: ouch, glass! See below – there seems to be an undercurrent of violence in their work. Maybe it’s a Canadian thing.)

Newsworthy: creator Arev Manoukian beat out the likes of Avatar and Pixar’s Up to walk away with the Golden Nica prize in the Computer/Animation/Film/VFX category, a big, big win for indie effects.

Wired Magazine’s Underwire took note last month of the shop’s growing work, putting them in context of a stable of directors working in short, effects-driven films. Just as Pixar once developed directors (and made the first pitch to take digital animation to feature-length forms), the short is a way of building a broader vision:

Effects-Heavy Shorts Show Off Directors’ Chops []

It’s not just about the effects, though. The use of novel techniques is coupled with an intense artistic vision. A recent outing by director Radical Friend of Spy is proof that in the often-derivative world of music videos, inventiveness can still flourish. The partnership with Yeasayer, themselves benders of genre and aesthetic, works nicely. (Some presence of nipples, if that’s NSFW where you work.)

Yeasayer – Ambling Alp from Spy Films on Vimeo.

But back to the original point, I get the sense that the real signature of Spy is compact wit honed in advertising work, in media far shorter than even the shorts or music videos here. Also from their Vimeo account, some illustrations below, among many more. Yes, they’re visual gags – but the same sense of humor in a visual trick can bring impact to a magical effect. (Ask any magician.)

Evil Dead The Musical from Spy Films on Vimeo.

Not an ad, but same approximate length/form, and …yep, this sums up how I felt after a few days of watching Winter Olympics coverage during the blizzards in Stockholm last February.

13 Eme Rue – Biathlon from Spy Films on Vimeo.

Also, giant laser-shooting robots are always the right choice.

OLG – Robot from Spy Films on Vimeo.