Originally founded in the late 1980s, a group of friends working in and around the BBC’s Special Effects Department bandied together to form Artem. The name of their company, and inspiration behind it, comes from a Latin phrase – ars est celare artem – which can be loosely translated as “the art is to conceal the art.” In other words, Artem – as CEO and Special Effects Supervisor, Mike Kelt, confirms - seeks to “actively avoid making things look like ‘effects’, and have them accepted as being real.”
The company is based in a 20,000 sq-foot, purpose-built workshop in London’s suburb, Perivale: their primary site for the past quarter century. Their portfolio is awash with examples of spectacular special effects that have been produced for television and the silver screen, live events and exhibitions. It all leaves me with one question. What does it take to make entertainment go bang?
Aaron Lambley: Artem has been producing special effects for just shy of 30 years - what work would you say goes into the average project?
Mike Kelt: If only there was an ‘average’ project! But with all projects there is always an initial discussion around a brief of some sort, which involves asking lots of questions about what is actually required, and, of course, when. Deadlines can be the biggest challenge. After this, a cost is worked out and the whole thing swings into action.
The projects are grounded in a client’s requirements, but in most cases, this is only a starting point and a great deal of creative input is necessary to realise the result. As well as the visual end-result, there is almost always a requirement for mechanical integrity and clever ways to make things happen safely and reliably. The beauty of the job is that no two projects are the same, so variety is both a constant challenge and a great satisfaction.
AL: 3D printing is becoming more and more prevalent. Can you tell me about this and how it features in your work?
MK: Within Artem we do a lot of manufacturing; we don’t have to rely on sub-contractors. Generally these days, many projects start on a computer where the design is drawn up and rendered, and possibly output to a robot to carve or machine, maybe a 3D printer, or other computerised numerical control (CNC) equipment. However, traditional hand skills continue to play their part, whether sculpting, moulding, fabricating or hand-finishing items from the CNC machines.
AL: That’s a great deal of work. Is there a particular area where you would say Artem’s forte lies?
MK: Artem’s forte is its creativity. Most staff come from a creative university or educational background and this, allied with comprehensive diverse facilities in-house, allows individuals to flourish and produce almost anything one might imagine. It sounds like marketing hype, but we do pride ourselves on a high-quality finish allied with reliability – and considering the things we are asked to do, this is not an easy mix!
AL: Can you tell us about a few projects that have stood out?
MK: Many projects over the years have been both challenging and rewarding – indeed, it can be the challenging ones that are the most rewarding. The biggest of these in recent years must be the 22 projects we did for the London Olympic ceremonies – not least as this was performed live in front of a vast TV audience with no room for error. But other much smaller projects can be just as interesting and certainly challenge the possible in terms of short deadlines – for instance, designing and building a full-size singing toilet in 48 hours!
AL: London 2012 must have been a highlight…
MK: The London 2012 Olympics definitely stand out. The sheer adrenaline of controlling smoke from huge chimneys as they rocket skywards - we did the smoke, not the actual chimneys - and trusting that they will all work. Or dealing with all the effects around the pouring molten metal to make it feel real.
AL: What about Artem’s more recent work?
MK: Working on the Take That tour and building the ‘copter-bike’ comes to mind. When I first saw it being used in rehearsal, the ‘copter-bike’ rather took my breath away as it flew over the audience with the band on it, puffing a small train of smoke behind it.
AL: That certainly sounds impressive - especially pulling it off live on-stage...
MK: The main difference with live events, particularly on-going ones, is that things have to last and be reliable, and of course remain safe over time. The ‘copter-bike’ had to be structurally robust and capable of carrying many times the weight it would ever have to, so engineering plays a big part, as does getting parts tested and certified - very different from something in front of a camera for five minutes where retakes are possible, and probably expected.
AL: For readers who are looking for a career in creative effects, what advice would you give them?
MK: The most logical way into the industry is to do a relevant university or college degree. To name a few, the University of Hertfordshire do Honours degrees in ‘Model Design & SFX’, Wimbledon College do a course called ‘Technical Arts’, and there are many others.
Alternatively, other people enter with engineering training or a wider Applied Arts training. Hand skills are a must when starting out. At school, a background in Art and Physics is good; English and Maths is always advisable. Self-starting and quick learning achieve advancement and, by necessity, there is a high level of training ‘on the job’. It is a practical industry requiring practical people.
AL: Artem is involved more in the effects that go into stunts, rather than the physical stunt work itself. Is that correct?
MK: That’s right. The work we are called on to do is hugely varied. The ‘traditional’ effects, often referred to as ‘floor effects’, include those that appear in front of the camera – such as rain, snow, wind, fog, pyrotechnics and explosions. Often these are worked on with a stunt team if performers are involved in something that at least looks scary.
If you were to take a bullet hit, as an example; this may be simply plastic capsules being fired at the ground or solid objects, giving dust puffs or sparks, but it may be blood hits on people, where we carefully dress small explosive ‘squibs’ into costumes and blow holes through a bag of blood and the costume itself – so safety is always high on the list of considerations.
AL: From dramatic explosions to harrowing prosthetics and models – what are the limits of Artem’s creativity?
MK: Special effects (at least at Artem) can produce virtually anything people have the budget for. In effect, we are a last port of call when things can’t be hired or bought. We’ve built Santa’s sleigh, and blown up a police station, created two Loch Ness monsters and operated them on location, produced horrific wounds and gashes for horror films - severed heads are a speciality! We have a store full of babies (non-crying variety!), have designed and built robots with computer control, along with various animals that could dance or sing. I particularly like the ‘hoola-hooping’ hamster. The limit is only that of the imagination.
AL: Most people have (fortunately) never seen explosions, car chases or gun fights in real life. Considering this, what goes into producing effects to make them seem realistic?
MK: I certainly prefer realism. It is, however, the director or client that dictates whether realism or fantasy is the order of the day. Bullet hits can be realistic with little initial blood, or great splats of red spraying across the screen. A logical mind and Internet research guides the realistic approach - almost anything can be viewed online. Also, the script often guides the final look and the actions that lead up to a particular scene. I hate great fireballs on screen if there is no logical reason for them – high explosive, for instance, does not result in a fireball, but fireballs are easy and cheap to produce, so again it can come down to budget.
AL: Where do you draw the line between spectacular effects – for showmanship and flair – and more real, grounded effects?
MK: At Artem, we aim to actively avoid making things look like ‘effects’, and to have them accepted as real. For instance, a good rain effect in a scene should just be accepted by the viewer as it having rained when it was being filmed, and thought no more of. A bad rain effect will be noticed, whether by the water pattern on the ground or the rain falling in different directions at the same time - a cardinal sin! So a good effect is one that is not noticed. Of course this does not apply for some obvious effects; like huge explosions and people being shot, or some space fantasy set in the future. Yet, the same challenge applies – to make it sit within the scene appropriately.
AL: What gives an effect the “X-factor” – if you will – the thing that moves a viewer from complacent spectating to active appreciation of what they are seeing?
MK: Trying to make things a bit different from the norm and thus stand out (say, in explosions) is always nice – where creativity takes over from reality perhaps, and of course in pyrotechnics ‘big’ is always going to win I guess. But I do believe it is the visual integrity that matters most.
AL: What advances in the industry is Artem most excited about? Are there any upcoming projects you can talk about?
MK: You might think that physical special effects is a dying industry being replaced by digital CGI visuals, but not so. True, there are some areas where we do not do nearly as much as we might have in the past, but new areas open up to replace them and you have to keep ahead of the curve. The biggest change over the last 10 years is in the digital arena for us too, but it is in CNC machining and 3D printing.
Where we may have sculpted something in polystyrene, we now draw it up on the computer and fully render it, before passing the data through various software packages and then down to robot arms and the like. So new skills are needed and in-house training and development paramount. Then there is of course the financial investment - these machines and their associated software can cost a few hundred thousand pounds!
AL: When’s the next day for a live demonstration evening as I noticed you did one recently?
MK: We tend to do the live demo once a year. It can be pretty disruptive - and I’m always worried about boring people if they come again as there is a limit to what can be done in West London!
AL: If you could summarise your thoughts on Special Effects, what would you say?
MK: Special Effects is a hugely varied area with fantastic, constantly changing challenges – you rarely get bored! The pressures to deliver and the timescales often involved are not for those of a nervous or stressed disposition! But to succeed and meet those challenges is very satisfying. The range of skills within Artem, and the industry generally, are incredibly wide-ranging so you never stop learning. From explosives to high-end machining, from sculpture to making rain, from computers to welding and woodwork, the list is long. I can’t think of another industry where the skills required by individuals are so broad.
For more information, contact www.artem.com
Words: Aaron Lambley
Images source: Artem