Inspired more by Japanese anime andthe films of Miyazaki than the lumbering VFX giants of Hollywood, their groundbreaking trilogy of videos for M83 have put French duo Fleur & Manu ahead of the pack when it comes to creatively visualising music. Since then, they’ve been wooed by Hollywood and made award-winning spots for INPES, Renault and Lacoste. David Knight meets two self-styled masters of the imagination.

Fleur & Manu have high standards. When it comes to directing, the purity of the image – and the emotion it inspires – is all-important. After all, they are successful ex-art directors who won a D&AD with their first ever commercial, went on to make a succession of acclaimed music videos and ads, and habitually employ superlative post production effects to make their ideas come to life.

So they are not too impressed when your correspondent casually likens the special children in their hugely successful trilogy of music videos for French electro-pop band M83 to the X-Men, just because (like the X-Men) Fleur & Manu’s kids practice telekinesis in a special school and can move large objects with the power of their minds. The directors have a rather more eclectic, and frankly more interesting frame of reference than a bunch of Marvel-cum-Hollywood characters. “Village of the Damned, Akira, Princess Mononoke…” reels off Fleur. “We wanted to do it more like a Japanese way – more spiritual. It’s less about the effects and the huge machines.”

“X-Men is more about the genetics, about science,” continues Manu. “What we are trying to develop with M83 is more like a Shaolin spirit. The name of the M83 album [Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming] was really important – the starting point to creating something.”

Measly budgets and post nightmares

And it’s true, the M83 videos for Midnight City, Reunion and Wait have a far more Japanese approach to action spectacle than the wall-to-wall explosiveness of your average superhero movie, and are all the more effective for it. It may be tempting to suggest this is also because the M83 videos were produced on measly music video budgets, where talented visual effects artists were essentially providing their services for free. Manu does concede that this has been a consideration. “We prefer not to have so much CG that it’s going to be too much for the people who are working on the project,” he says. “That would mean, at the end, everybody is disappointed.”

But another of their music videos last year, for New Zealand singer-songwriter Connan Mockasin’s Faking Jazz Together, was only finished thanks to months of heroic post production that left no mark whatsoever. In the video a cameraman follows a reporter into a forest to witness an extraordinary ritual of mass levitation – and it all happens in one continuous shot. This required erasing wires that lifted the cast in post – but by the shoot day they had become thick cables.

“The post producer said: ‘It’s impossible.’ But what could we do? It was the day of the shoot and it was too late!” Fleur recalls. “So afterwards we had six months of erasing. It was a nightmare.” But the end result is wonderful – and really was shot in a single take, on 35mm film. “We were shooting four-minute rolls. In the take we used, smoke covered Connan’s head just as we ran out of film…”

Mutating Polos and bloody cars

Fleur & Manu’s work is stylistically varied, entirely determined by their interpretation of the music, or script. They are equally adept working with stock footage, or lo-res video formats, or high-end VFX. But it is fair to say that they are in the business of creating things that are out of this world while making them just a little bit more real.

The evidence is all over their portfolio of acclaimed videos and commercials: in their recent ads for Lacoste, young Parisians customise their Lacoste shirts with a flick of a finger, and a classic white Lacoste shirt is elegantly, ingeniously transformed into a Eau de Lacoste perfume bottle with a few folds; and in their new ad for Renault, Restart Your Heart, a Clio driving through Paris pumps the air with red light, like blood through a beating heart. Even their latest video, Pursuit, for super-hip French DJ Gesaffelstein, reveals some unfeasible yet mesmerizing imagery in a series of immersive tracking shots, with in-your-face super-clarity.

“What we generally try to do is to make it real,” says Manu, talking from the Les Télécréateurs office, their production company home in Paris (they are repped by Caviar in the UK and US). “It’s so important to have a good process to hide the effects,” he continues, pointing out how big post-heavy movies of just a decade ago can now look hopelessly crude.

“If you see the effects, it’s embarrassing,” echoes Fleur. “In each step our attitude is: ‘What can we do now to progress, make it better?’. We don’t understand the directors who always do the same thing because for us it’s boring. And we think it’s important that we challenge ourselves.”

Professionally, Fleur Fortuné and Manu Cossu started out as art directors, working for hip label Record Makers and French fashion magazine Officiel in the mid-Noughties. By that point they were already a couple, having met in south west France a few years before, and then both attended art school in Bordeaux. Manu started first, Fleur enrolled a year later. Then Manu became an intern at the studio of successful design/direction team H5 – and Fleur joined him there.

At Record Makers they worked together on sleeve designs for the releases of the label’s svengali Sébastien Tellier, and it was there they also got their first proper chance as music video directors, with the videos for Tellier’s Roche and Sexual Sportswear. They caught the attention of Jules de Chateleux and Arno Moria at Les Télécréateurs, where De Chateleux was launching a music video division – called Division. Fleur & Manu were soon signed up.

Their first video was, on paper, quite tricky. In fact, it was for trip-hop legend Tricky, for a track called Murder Weapon, shot in the La Salle boxing club in Paris, with Tricky as a boxer who refuses to throw a fight. It was a test the directors passed with flying colours. “That was a good experience,” Manu recalls. “And Tricky was so kind with us. Everybody told us he’s completely crazy…” “He was crazy!” adds Fleur. “But he definitely was cool.”

Bag Raiders’ Sunlight was their first video for Australian dance label Modular, and filmed in Bangkok, involving a Max Mon Amour-style love affair between a girl and a chimpanzee.

By this point, they had already made a hugely successful anti-smoking ad for French health body INPES. La Chance ponders the incredible odds of the Earth coming into existence, leading to human life, and so on – compared to the very short odds of getting cancer from smoking. With its brilliant use of stock footage to illustrate its compelling message, the ad won a D&AD gold in 2010. “At the time we had no idea it was so important,” says Fleur. “The irony is that we were smoking cigarettes outside the D&ADs, and talking with an art director, who said: ‘Oh my God, it’s the fifth time we’ve come here.’ We told him we won, and this guy was totally depressed.”

Pixels give way to joyous reality

The couple had yet to fully establish themselves in music videos, let alone commercials. In complete contrast to the live action narrative Bag Raiders video, they created a video for French DJ Étienne de Créçy almost entirely comprised of mesmerizing pixel-like graphics – until right at the end, when joyous reality kicks in, in the shape of a man manically dancing to the retro-techno track, in what appears to be a home video.

“The title of the music is No Brain. So we tried to do something that would crash the brain of someone who is watching,” Manu explains. “And our influence was the Op Art movement. It’s a psychedelic music video of how they did it then, updated.” And it turns out that their manic dancer was cast from his own YouTube video. “The track is two minutes thirty seconds, but the label wanted a three-minute video so we had to do something else outside of the CG,” Fleur recalls. “Finally we decided to shoot a dancer. But the dancer was too good – it was not crazy enough so we said ‘OK now we go and find the guy on YouTube’.”

The pair then made a video for the Australian band Canyons, involving a Tumblr-like flow of home movie-style footage, shot in numerous formats. And about a year later – and out of the blue – they were invited by Leo Burnett in Chicago to replicate the style and mood of the Canyons video in a commercial for US telecoms giant Sprint. In many ways this vindicated Division’s strategy for the directors, to make highly creative rather than financially rewarding music videos.

“It would be a bad idea to do a music video intentionally to lure agencies,” says Arno Moria, their executive producer for commercials at Les Télécréateurs. “It proves you can do something completely different, that isn’t going to be seen by millions of people on YouTube. Agencies are looking for new visuals, like this one.”

Creative control of the cut

In fact, Fleur & Manu were not exactly happy with how Leo Burnett used the footage for their multi-vignette Sprint ad. In the customary manner of American commercial production, the agency took over the editing. “We were disappointed they only used 10 per cent of what we shot, and it has a completely different energy to what we discussed before the shoot,” says Manu.

“Editing is a huge part of the directing for Fleur & Manu,” adds Moria. “If it gets into the hands of people you don’t brief, or aren’t part of the team who did the music videos, it’s really difficult to deliver what you wanted. The process is not the same.”

And when it comes to post production, the duo’s most trusted collaborators are all in Paris: Mathematic and Machine Molle for 3D animation, and Home Digital Pictures for everything else. They have supported all of Fleur & Manu’s projects, even their music videos, such as those for M83 and Connan Mockasin, which came with budgets that have been seriously challenging.

But having been something of a stop-start affair, their progress in commercials is now definitely gathering momentum – which arguably began with the beautifully simple ad they created for Eau de Lacoste a couple of years ago, turning the Lacoste shirt into the cologne bottle. Again it was one of Fleur & Manu’s low-budget efforts that had the biggest impact.

“The story of that commercial is really funny, because we did it just with a DV camera in the garage first, as a test,” Manu explains. “The client was working on a huge commercial with a big budget, but then the ad we made in the garage tested so well – the UK gave it 100 per cent – they said, ‘lets make it properly’. And we did it for TV.” This 30-second gem (featuring Grandmaster Flash’s The Message on the soundtrack) also became a viral hit.

Getting to work with huge toys

More recently they have created witty, visually expansive spots for GDF Suez (out of Saatchi & Saatchi) demonstrating the French corporation’s social responsibility; and their internet film for Lacoste, made for the company’s 80th anniversary at the end of 2012, showing the future of fibre in Lacoste shirts.

And now comes Restart Your Heart, their sleek, slick, very enjoyable ad for Renault, for Publicis Conseil, which was created in a spirit of compromise that appears to be a new development. Fleur and Manu talked about threads of red light trailing from the Clio, but as Manu explains: “The agency said they didn’t want the effects to go too thin. We said ‘OK, we trust you, but we’re not sure’. When I saw it at the end, I was really happy – it’s not too serious.”

Making an ad in the car sector is certainly a big breakthrough which, apart from anything else, enabled them to work for the first time with “huge toys” such as a ‘Russian arm’ crane, that they say actually made shooting the ad relatively unstressful. “It’s funny how scared the client can be by the way you shoot the car, because it’s not too difficult,” says Fleur.

“There was one before that, a job that we almost won, but didn’t at the last minute,” reveals Moria. “The car manufacturer was beginning to understand that ‘new directors’ coming from music videos actually have a lot of experience, and bring something super-fresh that is lacking in a lot of commercials. You can do super-original music videos but you can also be at the service of a client. It’s not that complex.”

Fleur & Manu are certainly part of a movement of young French directors – a new wave, if you like – who began making very cool videos for very cool French record labels.

And, like several of their talented contemporaries, Fleur & Manu will surely continue to make exciting forays into music videos for a while yet. Their latest, the video for Gesaffelstein’s Pursuit – part narrative, part moving surreal painting – features a series of dreamlike scenarios revolving around a golden glove and a couple’s progress to absolute power. It scored 600,000 views in the first four days – before it was replaced by a new censored version pixellating some eye-catching nudity. In some ways, the Pursuit video is a departure, with Fleur and Manu inspired by Gesaffelstein’s bombastic take on techno music. “We asked Jules to work with him because the sound is so new,” Manu says. “It’s the story of two kids finding a golden glove and becoming increasingly powerful – a mix of technology and mythology.”

It still could become Fleur & Manu’s most successful work so far in terms of YouTube views, but whether it has the impact of their M83 trilogy remains to be seen. Those videos prompted Hollywood to get in touch, in the guise of two leading agencies. They have been sent scripts – but despite the welcome attention, and perhaps not surprisingly, Fleur & Manu are keen to do things their way. “The scripts we were sent were more science fiction than what we did for M83 – and it was every film you’ve already seen hundreds of times,” says Fleur. “You see that in Hollywood there is a crisis about the scripts and they reproduce the same ideas again and again.”

So they are now working on their own feature script – and the kids from the M83 video could return, this time on the big screen. “We’d love to continue it even longer, because we love the subject,” says Manu. “We want to open the gate to a new sci-fi – more ecological, more organic. We’d love to develop something like that. A bit like Jedis on Earth, you know?”

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