Physical special effects in the modern cinematic landscape are often sidelined in favour of the shinier options offered by CGI. However, despite a slight dip in popularity, physical special effects are again fast becoming the go-to option from high-budget films to events and exhibitions. Most often, the most memorable special effects are a combination of both physical techniques and digital creativity.
However practical special effects retain the edge, their very grounding in reality allows both crew and actors the opportunity for natural reactions, heightening the effectiveness of scenes and emotional beats in a way impossible for a virtual projection.
Artem is a creative company based in London and Glasgow who provide physical special effects and creative solutions for film, TV, commercials, events and exhibitions. They specialise in a number of disciplines including pyrotechnics, floor effects, prosthetics, animatronics and puppets, special costumes, high end model making, mechanical rigs and liquids. Basically if you can dream it, Artem can build it.
Mike Kelt of Artem
Scott Ledbury: I’m joined by Mike Kelt, who is the co-founder and CEO of Artem. Thanks for joining me Mike, your portfolio is so vast, rather than me listing them, I think it’s best if I just give you 60 seconds to give us a rundown of the sort of things and highlights you’ve done.
Mike Kelt: Well, over the years, and we’re coming up to our thirtieth anniversary we’ve worked in everything including major films (we’re just finishing Paddington 2 at the moment for instance) and recently, soon to come out, we worked on The Foreigner film. We do commercials, we do TV and events, just been working on the Take That tour. It is very varied.
SL: As we’re audio only, give the audiences a sense of what you’ve done, you do anything from singing toilets, anything that’s physical or character driven or effects and props and models?
MK: The singing toilet was an interesting one simply because it was a 48-hour build from the initial phone call to it being in the studio – which was pushing it. In our line of work everything these days seems to be deadline driven, and although we keep thinking things are going to improve, they rarely seem to.
SL: A good recent example to talk about is the work you’ve recently done on Trainspotting 2 or T2 film where Artem provided a multitude of effects, were you the go to guys for wounds and smoke and water, is that right?
MK: Yeah, we have the advantage that it was shot in Scotland and we have a branch in Glasgow, and I’m from Glasgow. But all the physical stuff, we do physical effects rather than digital effects, in most films there’s lots of atmosphere that you’re often not even aware of. Then you move onto fight sequences, soft props, tables that shatter when you fight. Rigs and flying and all sorts of things. It’s fairly varied, there’s a scene in a car park when Ewan gets his arm slashed, that had to be a rig on his arm that split his costume and gushed blood. Not that you really saw it particularly, it just had to be there so you got that subliminal feel of what was going on.
SL: Am I right in thinking that it’s a bit like ‘A good musical score is never noticed’? If people don’t notice your work you’ve done a good job?
MK: Yeah, I don’t think you should really see the special effects, you definitely shouldn’t be thinking about them. In fact, the word Artem comes from the Greek Ars Est Celare Artem which means The Artists conceal the Art, the idea being that you’re not really aware of it being an effect.
Injury makeup for Trainspotting 2
“I don’t think you should really see the special effects, and you definitely shouldn’t be thinking about them.”
SL: What sort of services, processes and equipment can we expect to see in an Artem workshop?
MK: These days a lot of what we do, starts on the computer and there’s a digitally driven affair, if I had to put it on percentage, almost 50% starts on a computer, there’s a lot of hand skills.
If the stuff that goes onto the computer either by being drawn on the computer, sometimes with a haptic arm (where you can feel the computer screen) or some things are sculpted and then scanned into the computer.
Then it might go to the 3D printer, or it might go to the big robot arm to be carved, or various CNC machines. But ultimately it is a craft skill at the end where it takes that and turns it into something wonderful.
Outdoor special effects for Sunset Song
SL: Talk us through the cross-virtual world where you can build real-world models out of virtual models and computer models out of real world objects. For those who don’t know; you can take a physical model and scan it into a computer to be worked on, and vice versa. Talk us through the benefits and processes of that.
MK: When we were working on In the Heart of the Sea, we had to work on a full size whale. In that instance, Stan our sculptor sculpted a little whale a metre long, and we scanned that into the computer which gives you all the subtlety and the artistry and crucially it gives you a real 3D object. Quite often, one of the problems of the CG world is that the person building the model in the computer is building it on a 2D screen. If they haven’t got a 3D sculptural background they’re up against it. However, if you sculpt it for real in 3D, in the real 3D world then you walk round and look at it, then you can scan it. You know that what’s in the computer is correct.
SL: Obviously that can be scaled up to any size?
MK: Oh yes, that 1m whale became a 36m whale. But you can also manipulate it, so if you’re wearing the haptic arm which as you hold it like a pen, you can feel the surface on the computer screen, you can push it and pull it. You can scan something in and you can do some more work on it if you want. In that instance, we used the robot arm and it carved the whale in sections because it was digitally done those sections all fitted together perfectly to form the 36m whale.
SL: In the reverse, say a client or a producer has an existing model, maybe from an animation series, where all that digital modelling has been done they can give you that file and you can create a real-world modelling sculpture from that file, is that right?
MK: Yes, sometimes we get information from post production houses and we make something real. Sometimes you just buy it off the internet. These days there are loads of files all over the world you can buy for £10 or less and you can import that into the computer and manipulate that. As an example, at the moment we’ve got to make a very very small statue of ‘Justice’ for a model for Paddington 2. We bought the starting position off the internet and now we’re manipulating it to make it into something we want. It’s very adaptable, it does help a lot.
SL: How does the crucial initial briefing stage start with the client, talk us through those development stages, what typically would they come to you with?
MK: That’s very varied. If it’s a film, then the first thing you’ll get is a script, ideally you’d get a script and we’d break it down. In that case we’d break down the whole script, anything that is potentially an effect, even things that we don’t think we might do, that might be make up.
We’d then pass that back to production and then you’re discussing it, ideally with the director, to see what really needs to be in there and what doesn’t before you come up with some sort of course which is sometimes a nightmare.
SL: When is it right to use special effects over computer generated effects?
MK: The first thing is how much interaction with the item you’re dealing with. If there’s a lot of interaction with the cast or it’s surroundings then a physical object is obviously much simpler.
SL: Would that be like an explosion?
MK: It could be. But not necessarily because a lot of explosions we do are in fact then taken and composited in post. So it varies but a lot of pyrotechnics do get done as miniatures. There was an item that had to be done in a film recently, and the cost to build it in CG was £350,000 and we built it for £45,000 so there’s the difference there.
Promotional image for HIM (Mainstreet Productions Ltd)
“There was an item that had to be done in a film recently, and the cost to build it in CG was £350,000 and we built it for £45,000!”
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SL: In my opinion, water and smoke still don’t look right in computer simulation, it might be down to physics and gravity, what are you thoughts on this in this day and age of advanced graphics.
MK: There’s a lot of things that don’t quite look real and I guess in time, all of these things will change and improvements will be made. For the opening of Les Miserables the film, we did some water elements that they had to composite into what was a digital opening sequence of a ship being towed into dock. The reason they wanted to do that was so that they could get the unexpected that happens with water, splashing against the harbour wall. We just built a big tank and we were throwing it against green screens, but they could take that and paste it into their composite, whereas trying to make that up in someones head, you think ‘What would happen?’ Well no one knows what would happen, because it is a random thing, so it’s must easier to do it as a random thing.
SL: What sort of challenges and pressures have you seen in the last twenty years in terms of the advancement of film technology, I’m guessing you have to keep up with the arrival of HD and 3D. In the old days of lower resolution could you have a model that wasn’t quite so polished?
MK: I guess you could but I don’t know if you ever really did. You always assumed that it had to be as good as you could make it, and usually it’s determined by the budget and technology. Digital cameras have made it simpler in that you can see immediately what you’ve shot and if you’re doing something like a pyrotechnic, you can look at it and say immediately whether it works or whether you need to do another one. It’s very rare these days for someone to say they want to shoot a miniature and they’re going to give you more than one take. Most of the time you can only afford one take – there are challenges in that. But I don’t think the camera side of things has influenced us particularly, we just do our stuff in front of the camera and the camera records it. But technology certainly has impacted us in the workshops. As I said the use of computers and 3D printing etc.
SL: I remember when HD came to television, departments like costume, make up, set design were all working out how to hide the cracks, I was wondering if the same was true for special effects?
MK: I was at the BBC before we set up Artem, and back then (30 years ago) they were all talking about HD and what it would mean for the craft side of the industry and they set up a studio at Television centre with the latest technology to see what would happen. Some make up was done, some special effects were done and everyone was rushing around worried. But nothing happened for about 15 years, it took that long for the whole thing to start up. I don’t think it’s made that much difference, certainly in special effects, not to us anyway.
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SL: Going back to some of your own work at Artem, what are some of the strangest things you’ve been asked to create?
MK: I’m not sure what we’d describe as the strangest things, there have been lots of weird things. We mentioned the singing toilets, which were amusing, still out there on the internet. The complicated things tend to be driven by the deadlines, sometimes by technology. We a robot some years ago, for a quiz show in fact, did one series and flopped entirely.
That was technically a nightmare because it was totally driven by computers and radio control, a five week build from start to finish which was colossally silly. That was a real challenge and there was a whole team of people working right through Christmas and New Year to make it happen.
WaterAid Singing Toilet Video
More recently we had something with Paddington where we had to work through Christmas and New Year, sometimes it happens, it’s the nature of the beast. As far as objects being concerned I’m not sure I can think of an odd object as all of them are a bit weird. When we did the Olympics, we did the opening and closing ceremonies there was a lot of stuff, about 22 projects within all that. That was fun, though maybe the crew didn’t agree because I kept coming back with more work. But it was fun, the adrenaline of that, no one in the crew will forget the thrill of making that happen.
SL: How does the special effects industry engage with the next generation of special effects artists and how do you guys entice them away from the lure of the special effects pixel. Do you still see an interest or less of an interest in bringing young talent into the industry?
MK: There is a shortage of both. There’s a shortage of visual effects and of physical effects people coming into the industry because over the past few years the tax incentives put in place by the government have led to a huge increase into the work flowing into the UK. Fingers crossed that carries on but there’s not enough people. There is a difference between those going into the two sectors. The people coming into special effects want to be doing things with their hands, they’re more creative dare I say and have a much wider breadth of skill.
There are courses, university courses, you can get an Honours degree in special effects if you want, which wouldn’t have been the case twenty years ago. That’s more and more where people are coming from. The old days of having to know someone in the industry and it was all governed by unions and almost a closed shop have long gone. We do try to keep in touch with the various colleges that are out there running courses. We try at this time of the year to be going and looking at there degree shows and we’re always interested in a few people, spotting them coming into the industry. Most people coming into the industry come in as freelance individuals, but occasionally we employ them full time from day one.
SL: It’s really about inspiring them, I know you do visits to schools and show them all your models and tools and trickery, it’s getting them excited isn’t it?
MK: Yes we do give talks to various bodies and colleges when we can. If they ask. It’s interesting, I think one of the problems goes down to the secondary school levels and perhaps the parents who don’t want their children to go into this line of work, just because they don’t know about it. Yet, the people who go into it can make a lot of money, especially at the minute. It’s pretty secure at the minute where as ten years ago it was a bit flakey and nobody really knew what was going on.
Sky Sports Cricket commercial – paint-filled cricket balls
Beagle Street, insurance monster
I can’t see at the minute that there will be any change in that, there’s more and more work coming to the UK, more and more studios being built to accommodate it. There is a good career in it, people who want to use their hands and be creative because it’s a vastly wide area.
One minute you can be doing explosions and pyrotechnics and obviously you don’t come into the industry knowing that, we do that training in-house. Other people just want to be precision engineers and they’ll work with that, other people want to design and they’ll work on a computer with some of the complicated mechanics that we have to deal with.
People tend to specialise but when we’re looking for recruits, we’re looking for people to come in at the bottom and be trained by us into the various things we do. So that they have a better grasp of their whole system and all the skills.
It is a industry where skills vary from pyrotechnics to precision engineering, from sculpting to make up and prosthetics to going out and making rain and snow. It’s very wide, you never get bored doing the job. I’ve never come across someone in our industry who gets bored doing the job even though they might be about to retire.
SL: Thank you very much Mike, it’s been a fantastic chat.
MK: Thank you.