A magician reveals his tricks on Cogs & Marvel's 'Holiday Gift' work
Here’s a question for you: how do you package a place? Another: how do you capture scent on film?
Jon Hozier-Byrne, creative director of Cogs & Marvel, is laughing as he asks these questions. They sound more like riddles or magic tricks. “This,” says Jon, “is why the novel Perfume was considered unfilmable for something like 25 years.”
Jon’s background is film - he’s been nominated twice for the Irish Emerging Director Award, shortlisted for an MTV Music Video award, and his debut film went to Cannes - but his delight over seemingly impossible challenges is, for lack of a better phrase, classic Cogs & Marvel. Jon and his team like when clients come to Cogs & Marvel with ideas that require us to go up, under, above, and beyond because those are the projects that release true creativity.
A few times a year, we apply our creative, critical, and producorial thinking to our own brand. These internal projects feel like something between design experiments and high-tech games. “It’s an interesting change of pace,” says Jon. “There’s something very personal and expressive about the process.”
To thank our clients for a great year, we wanted to share the places that make us, our office homes of Dublin, London, and San Francisco. Fitting three very different cities into a cohesive parcel was a challenge, and this brings us back to those riddles above. Their solution was ourHoliday Gift: a sensory capsule of Cogs & Marvel’s multi-city home.
How Cogs & Marvel do it? “It was all about synaesthesia,” says Jon.
And with that, he graciously revealed the tricks behind Cogs & Marvel magic.
We wanted to do something that would evoke a sense of familiarity with each of our three homes, to show what we loved about each place, what made them special and interesting. So, the challenge we set for ourselves was to create a full, multisensory experience of Dublin, London, and San Francisco.
The first element was a boxed experience that featured some really beautiful illustrations by Clara Dudley, our Art Director, which spoke to each home. We had three individual, bespoke cocktail recipes with ingredients drawn out of each landscape. Three edible fragrances were created for us by Mandy Aftel, a world-famous perfume atelier who has created personal fragrances for the likes of Leonard Cohen and Madonna. This was all a way to evoke the flavours of our landscapes, flavours that had a particularly festive and emotional note to them.
But you can’t get everything into a box - quite literally, we had to think outside of it. In art, synaesthesia is the exercise of replicating one sense with another, and the film that accompanied the box was what elevated everything to a synaesthetic level. It’s a fascinating challenge for any visual artist to try and evoke the olfactory senses. How do you render the smells of Ireland? It’s not just about filming the thing, it’s about filming the composition of the thing, recreating the tone that will evoke a sensation in the viewer. For Ireland, that was droplets of rain gathered on Heather and brambles; brown bread and rich, rich, butter; old hands picking up some dried peat. For London, it’s gin and earl grey, fish and chips in Hyde Park. And for San Francisco, it was citrus, sun, the incredibly atmospheric Presidio forest.
Q> In the film, the impressions of each location contrast quite a bit. Was that intentional?
Jon>Oh yes, there was a conscious effort to activate the senses by creating contrasts between the urban environment of London, the viewer’s rural ideal of Ireland, and finally, the warm, natural bohemian vibes of California.
Q> Tell me about the nuts and bolts of building those images, how you inspired the senses. There’s a distinct aesthetic quality to the film.
Jon> The quality you’re referring to comes down to two separate elements. One is a very shallow focus that was used to play with depths of field. The goal is to draw the viewer into the specific thing we want them to be sensing at a particular moment. Andre Bazin described deep-focus photography as the most democratic form of filmmaking because you're allowing the viewer to see what they want to see. We were trying to do the exact opposite. We were holding the viewer to a very, very specific sensation at a very specific moment, and, in doing so, hoping that would evoke the sense-memory.
The other element was a split diopter, a type of convex lens extension, which we used in various shots, most notably in the London tea room sequence. In that sequence, we were trying to replicate that moment when you have your first sip of tea, and for an instant, the rest of the world disappears. We used the diopter to actively blur out the negative space around the actress, to visually create that sense of removal from the rest of the world in that moment.
We also paid special attention to the sound recording. We captured really clean, really crisp audio of, for instance, the noise of the teacup hitting the saucer. Early on, we figured that would carry a lot of weight in trying to evoke all the senses.
Q> You come from a film background - you’re a two-time nominee for the Irish Emerging Director Award, your debut film went to Cannes - how did you find the experience of working on this piece?
Jon>On a personal level, this was my first time doing any filmmaking for Cogs & Marvel, so I would be lying if I said I didn’t have an extra interest in this piece. I really wanted it to feel special and have a true aesthetic quality. I remember communicating with Tommy Fitzgerald, my long-time creative partner and cinematographer, about how important this was to me, how it felt like it could be a really effective piece of synaesthesia.
But you discover a lot about a film as you’re shooting. We waited until we got to San Francisco to work out the storyboards for that location because that allowed us to work in-person with the San Fran team on production design. Back in Dublin, we had Jose Quintana (design director) and Clara doing the production design for shoots in Ireland and London, so it was only when we got to San Francisco that we were able to compose all three locations.
That was the best part of the experience, really. The film was very much a single product of the international offices. You saw that across the board, from the items in the box to the film production design. Rosie O’Connor (graphic designer) in the EMEA office designed the napkins connected to London. It was Jose who designed the coasters for the fictional Cogs & Marvel whiskey distillery. It was Clara who designed the newspaper for the London park bench, Cogs & Marvel newspaper to wrap the fish and chips! And it was Nick Watkins (production coordinator) who designed the Cogs & Marvel matches for the cocktail scene in the film. In post-production, one Luke Page (assoc. creative director) put all these pieces together - I’m still struck by how loving and attentive his edits were. Everybody had their hands on the ball at some point.
To bring so many different elements of Cogs & Marvel together creatively, to get this done via logistical and producorial and experiential and technical all pulling in the same direction - it was creative for creative’s sake, and to my mind, that’s wonderful.
Q> It’s interesting that Cogs & Marvel can feel at home in such different and vibrant places. What do you think that says about the team?
Jon>You know, Cogs & Marvel began in Dublin with the tech boom. And Dublin has changed, in many ways, to mirror the tech-forward centres of London and San Francisco. Cogs & Marvel has grown in the same way. We maintain the charm, the values, the familiarity that are so fundamental, I think, to Irish culture and society. And I like that about how we approach our business. We succeed in these very crowded markets because we maintain a sense of who we are. Irish people have been finding new homes beyond our island for centuries. Likewise, Cogs & Marvel is proudly Irish but truly at home in London and San Francisco.