With a lovable felt Godzilla and lifesize paper party animals already under their belt, Agnes Tai and Anthony Sarrus are making quite the impact with their collective modelmaking and animation skills. They're the creative brains behind Agnes & Anthony, a studio based in Brussels whose clients so far include the likes of Hermès, Berth and Kelly.
Originally from Hong Kong, Agnes studied Theatre Design in the UK, where she developed a passion for modelmaking. After graduation, she became a freelance modelmaker in London before joining an architecture and scenography studio in Brussels.
Anthony, meanwhile, studied animation at La Cambre and became a freelance animator and art director for various agencies and campaigns across Europe. In 2015, he established the animation collective Framekit with fellow animator Paulynka Hricovini. They worked together on many projects for nearly three years. It was during this time that he began collaborating with Agnes.
Today, the pair combine their skills to create stunning art installations and animations for everything from advertising campaigns and product launches to window displays and music videos. We caught up with them both to find out more.
How did you get together and decide to start a studio?
Anthony: We met nine years ago while at the University of South Wales. I was doing a one year Erasmus exchange, and Agnes was doing her MA there. After that, I returned to Brussels to finish my MA in animation; Agnes moved to Brussels a year later so we could be together.
We didn't start to work together immediately. At first, I worked as a freelance animation director, and Agnes worked at an architecture studio.
When Agnes decided to go freelance, we shared a workspace with a few other friends. We started to help each other out, collaborating on a few passion projects to experiment with paper and animation. We had a lot of fun making and were excited about the result. That led us to work together quite naturally. After a few client projects, we decided to make it official and team up for good.
What do you both bring to the table?
Agnes: What is nice about our collaboration is that we have different strengths, and we trust each other completely so we can focus on the parts that we're good at and, at the same time, learn from each other.
Anthony enjoys the creative part of the work the most. For each project, we brainstorm to find ideas, and after that, he comes up with a visual composition. He is excellent with colours and finding a visual balance. With his animation background, he also brings the storytelling element to our work, and that's something entirely unexpected when we collaborate on set designs and window displays.
On animation projects, he usually takes care of the animation and composites himself. He is also in charge of shooting the set when we work with a physical paper installation.
I am the maker between the two of us, and I guess I am quite patient and calm, which is important for what we do. I am the one in charge of the production side of the projects. We always want to try new things, so it normally requires a lot of material sourcing and testing before any production starts. As I am a little bit obsessed with detail, I go all the way and care a lot about the finished product. Besides that, I enjoy talking to clients, so I am the one doing the communication most of the time.
Now we have worked together for four years, we are more comfortable taking on things that were not our strongest skill initially. Anthony has become a better maker, and I am getting better with visual skills.
Can you talk through each other's strengths?
Anthony: Coming from a scenography background, Agnes has had a great experience making maquettes and intricate miniatures. Her work is very detail-oriented and super polished. Over the years, she's developed a great technique toward working with paper but also other materials. She is not afraid to go all the way to make something work and spends the time to find technical or creative solutions. I don't think she would ever say no to a challenge.
When we first started to work together, it was a lot of fun to come up with all sorts of crazy ideas, and she would always find a way to make it happen. She is full of motivation and is very hardworking, which I find inspiring.
Other than these technical skills, what is interesting is that we have a different way of looking at things and a different approach to the creative process. While I am more anchored to storytelling and where everything needs to make sense and have a purpose, her approach is more open and free. It shakes up the creative process and brings a lot of new ideas to the table.
Overall, I think that we are very different but very complementary, and that's probably one of the things that have kept us curious and motivated to try and create new things.
Agnes: Anthony is from an animation school, so he is very good at drawing, animation and 3D. Now we work together, he is also great at making paper art, and on top of that, he could take photos and make videos. For me, he is good on the technical side and the creative side because he is full of great ideas. He doesn't want things to just look nice but also to give off emotions. It pushes us to try harder to create a mood and feeling.
He also asks many questions about our work to find the meaning behind it. While we celebrate after each project, he is also not afraid to talk about what could have been better and how to improve. He always tries to find ways to make new things, not repeat ourselves too much, and keep it fresh. What we do can be quite time-consuming, so it is good to keep things exciting.
We don't take ourselves too seriously and we don't compare ourselves to others. We try not to focus on the trends and instead focus on creating work that feels personal and meaningful.
How did you cope with the pandemic – was work still busy?
Agnes: Like most people, there were a lot of unexpected changes. We had a few projects postponed or cancelled at the very beginning of the pandemic, and we had no idea that it was going to last for so long. A few days before the world stopped, we were just starting a holiday in Hong Kong and then Japan, which we had planned for a long time.
When we came back, we decided to focus on smaller projects that we could handle more easily, which led us to work on a short animated ad for a podcast that we made entirely from home (goodbye dining table). We had to make it happen with limited resources due to the lockdown, but ultimately it worked out well.
After a while, some of our clients contacted us again, and things went back to normal-ish. We feel very lucky to have clients who appreciate our work and often come back to us. Ultimately, the pandemic didn't hit us too hard, although we had to turn our home into a workshop, which was quite fun but also challenging at times.
Are you seeing much change as a result of the pandemic?
Agnes: The nature of the projects we have in Europe at the moment stays pretty similar to what we had pre-Covid. One of the main differences is that the organisation for the delivery and set up of our art installation projects has to be considered very carefully to ensure that we follow the Covid guidelines and regulations.
As for the projects outside Europe, we had to adapt a little since we couldn't travel. We worked on a paper installation project for a store opening in Hong Kong last month, but we had to do it remotely from Brussels and coordinate with our team in Hong Kong due to the travel restrictions. It was our first time working this way, but we had a great experience, and it all went well. Although we miss travelling there and working on the project ourselves, we are very grateful that our clients try to find solutions to continue our collaboration with them.
Let's talk about your work. There's a lot of fun and optimism in what you do. Can you describe it? Is that a reflection of your personality?
Agnes: Making big and playful characters is becoming our signature, which wasn't our intention, but has come naturally. Most often, our intention is to tell a story and create a scene and having characters always helps deliver that. It's wonderful to see how people react to them, and we love making them. They are always a challenge to make, but the moment we see them standing on their own and finally having their eyes and noses on, they really do come to life, and it is quite addictive. That is why we keep making them, and they probably are one of the reasons why some of our work feels the way it does.
Anthony: We also think that sometimes our commercial work tends to be more cheerful due to the client's request. We enjoy coming up with fun ideas and tiny details that would make us chuckle. You could see another side of us in our personal work, like our animations and some earlier work where we express our personal experiences and desires more. It is not necessarily darker but more cinematic or atmospheric. Personal work and smaller projects are important to us in that sense because they give us the freedom to explore new ways of expressing ourselves and allow us to be more intentional or "radical" in our visual and narrative choices.
We also like to explore other directions, and we want to be careful not to restrain ourselves in one specific style or direction. For instance, we recently had the chance to create a short animation to be part of a motion design event in Hong Kong. At that time, we were stuck at home because of the everlasting Covid crisis. We were given a lot of freedom, and so we could do something more personal. We think our animation expresses this longing and this desire to escape dreamily. It was still an optimistic work but maybe more subtle and poetic.
We love Godzillove – and what it stands for? The sad thing about disasters, they can bring out the worst in humanity, too...?
Anthony: We are so happy that you love him. This work is one of our latest, and we were thrilled to have the chance to be involved in this project. When At The Venue contacted us, they gave us carte blanche to make anything we wanted. They had so much trust in us that they didn't even ask for a sketch. They only found out what we had made on the day the package arrived at the store. Their store was created to promote Asian-owned brands in the U.S. and raise awareness against the growing racism that followed the pandemic.
Of course, this matter hits close to home. With Agnes being from Hong Kong, we were very aware of this. We are lucky that Brussels, the city we live and work in, is very multicultural and open-minded. Still, even here, we could notice some changes in people's attitudes right at the beginning of the Covid crisis. So we fully realise how important it is to raise awareness on this sensitive subject.
When we began our creative process on this project, we emphasised sharing the love of Asian culture and being benevolent as we don't feel like we should be lecturing anyone. We were aiming to bring people together and encourage curiosity and openness. That's one of the reasons why we tried to come up with a character that would be an icon of the Asian culture, easily recognisable at the first glimpse. We landed on the idea of Godzilla because it is such a popular icon that it almost transcends its Japanese heritage and can speak to everyone. In that sense, we felt that it could represent a bridge between Eastern and Western cultures. But of course, we mostly wanted to create a friendly monster that spread its love in the streets of NYC, and in the end, that was what mattered most to us.
Was it the first time you'd worked with felt?
Agnes: Yes, absolutely. It was partly because we wanted to try something new and because At the Venue is a knitwear manufacturer, so we thought wool would be a perfect match. Another reason was that this material is easier and more resilient to ship across the Atlantic Ocean.
Overall, we enjoyed working with wool. It allowed us to create things that would be very complex to achieve with paper. We wanted to create a rounded and soft character that looks and feels warm and welcoming, which would be hard to do with paper. This technique was great for us since we usually favour organic form over geometrical shapes. It's probably not the last time that we will work with wool, and we are already discussing the possibility of using this technique in our future work and animation projects.
What about some of your recent paper installations and window displays. The one for Hermès called Party Animals was a fun riot!
We love taking on window display projects as we are always given a lot of freedom. It is amazing to see it all come together from just a concept in our heads to see it in real and in volume as a whole set. To be given a space to create a small universe from our imagination – in this case, a beautiful glass building was an incredible experience, and we appreciate the trust from our client.
Party Animals is definitely one of our favourite installations. We were commissioned by Hermès to create this display during Covid and to be installed after the first lockdown. The only thing they asked for was to create something joyful and lighthearted. It was a time when everyone needed some hope and optimism, so we set out to pay tribute to all the things that we missed throughout this weird and lonely period. Simple things like going out, dancing and having fun with friends, sharing happy moments with others, basically just living.
That's how we landed on this idea of a band of friends partying and going wild! The client really liked it, and it was both exciting and a bit stressful to go into the production as it was (and still is) one of the most challenging works we have done. The characters had to be in very lively and dynamic positions to feel their energy and get a sense of motion, but it was also packed with detail, many thousands of tiny hairs and complex clothing to make using paper. It was also the first time that we decided to bring 2D animation in our installation via a screen seamlessly integrated into one of the sets, which helped bring our characters to life. It was a very intense process but very rewarding in the end, and this merry band of dancing creatures still holds a special place in our hearts.
How do you make it work as a couple, too?
Anthony: I think it's amazing to have the chance to work with someone you love and really respect as a person and as an artist. Collaborating with someone you are so close with allows you to be very honest, too. When we are in the creative process and bouncing different ideas around, we sometimes know instantly when something is not going to work and when the other one doesn't believe in an idea.
That probably saves us a ton of time and pushes us to dive deeper, and at the same time, there is a fine line between being honest and having no filter, which is not always easy to deal with. We are very lucky that we can make it work, and we are also aware that there are some dangers in living and working so closely all the time. I am not sure I have the answer to exactly how we make it a success, mostly luck and being passionate in what we do, and a lot of patience, especially on Agnes' part.
Agnes: I agree with Anthony. It is truly refreshing that we don't need to care about each other's feelings too much! Jokes aside, I cannot imagine working with someone else as we have developed a lot of trust in each other over the years. We understand so well what each other is good at. It helps to be efficient and productive when we are on a project. Both of us are happy to follow each other's lead, which I think is hard when you are working with someone else. We always brainstorm together, but if one of us has a better idea, the other would accept it and develop ways to improve it. We could express our thoughts openly. Over time, we've learnt not to take our comments about work personally.
In the beginning, our collaboration was more improvised, and we tried to discuss each project to see how we could improve, and I think we did. Not only in our process but also in the sense that we could separate our work life and personal life a bit more now. At the end of the day, we have the same goal: to do the best we can for each project, and I am still very excited for the years to come.
We all learn as we grow. What have been the biggest lessons of running a studio together?
Agnes: We have learnt a lot in the past four years, thanks to the diversity of the projects we've had. We are a small studio, but we are proud of what we have achieved so far. We are very honest with our clients when it comes to the size of our business, and I think most of them appreciate it, and they know that we will be involved in every stage of the project to ensure quality. As much as we want to grow as a studio and take on larger projects, we realise that we want to do it in a way that would allow us to maintain this degree of control to preserve what makes our work unique.
On a more personal note, I would say that we understand the importance of not comparing ourselves to other creatives. It may sound obvious, but it's especially hard in this social media era. We appreciate others' work, but we try not to get influenced by the trends too much and focus on making what we are interested in, what feels personal and meaningful. It might not be a big hit straight away, but we think it will grow on people slowly as they could feel the passion we put into our work. In the long run, it's more sustainable to work this way to keep our creativity going.
We think it also relates to the idea of not taking yourself too seriously and trying not to put too much pressure on your work, which is easier said than done, of course. Still, it's essential to stay motivated and keep the excitement alive.
There are probably many other things we've gotten better at over the years: time management and communication with clients, for example. And we will surely learn a lot more in the years to come. I think that learning and being open to change is key to staying relevant and motivated as creatives.
What do you have planned next?
Anthony: There are a few installation projects lined up in 2022, so it will be a busy year. While we are very excited about it, we also promised to try to take some time out of each week to develop personal projects. We would like to carry on experimenting with new materials and do more animation-related projects. There are some short films and music videos that have been waiting at the back of our minds for a while, and we hope to find the time to get to it soon.