How Artem makes props and effects to give shows the wow factor
Whether it’s a severed head, a talking toilet or an exploding house you’re after, prop-makers and special effects company Artem has seldom been known to refuse a challenge.
“Our job is all about problem solving,” says chief executive and co-founder Mike Kelt. “If the client can buy it or get a carpenter to make it, they don’t come to us. A seemingly impossible challenge is always our preferred option.”
He cites a recent example of a film-maker who wanted Artem to work out how to visualise a house being blown to pieces by a hurricane. “So we’re looking at it from every angle, and trying to work out how we can make it look real,” says Kelt.
Artem is coming up to its 30th anniversary as one of the UK’s leading SFX companies, serving TV, film, music and stage, with busy workshops in London and Glasgow.
The four founding members of the company, including Kelt and Simon Tayler, all defected from the BBC special effects department in the mid-1980s. The then director-general John Birt encouraged the practice, now commonplace, of buying in services from independent companies, including design and special effects.
“We saw the writing on the wall,” says Tayler, co-founder and project supervisor, “and realised there was an opportunity here to set up on our own. We left on good terms and they gave us freelance work as soon as we left. But it was the right time to cut loose because soon afterwards the BBC disbanded its in-house design department altogether.”
Rather than setting up in somebody’s spare room, as is often the case with SFX start-ups, the four friends took out a 100% loan, dug deep in their own pockets and bought premises in Perivale, west London, near their present spacious premises in Perivale Business Park.
“We wanted a proper workshop, not somebody’s garage, and a proper company presence,” says Kelt. “It was quite bold – or naive, depending how you look at it – because none of us had much experience of the business side of things. We were used to making props for light entertainment shows on TV, so it required quite a shift for us to move into TV commercials, theatre props and, eventually, feature films.
“Initially we spent a lot of time hustling for work, talking to people, putting a VHS showreel together, but we’ve never been short of work, and because of the size of the company and the premises, we can do a big range of things, from prop-making and puppetry to prosthetics and animatronics.”
Though it was already well established by 2012, the London Olympics provided a golden opportunity for Artem to showcase its talents to the world. It undertook 22 separate projects for the main ceremonies, including a 60ft-high puppet of Voldemort, a London bus that turned into an octopus and a massive baby’s head, which was still being fine-tuned on the day of the ceremony.
“There was a lot of panic,” recalls Kelt. “We got to know Danny [Boyle] and Mark [Tildesley] quite well and they were happy to tear up the rule book when it came to deadlines. It reminded us of the procurement process on the Millennium Dome, which we also worked on. Everything was left to the last minute.”
When it comes to film and TV work, which makes up the bulk of its portfolio, Tayler says expectations are always high “because they are creating a synthetic world”.
5 things you need to know about Artem
1. Artem was established in 1987 – in 2017 it celebrates its 30th anniversary.
2. The robotic arm used in much of its making cost £150,000.
3. Chief executive Mike Kelt started out as a prop-maker for Scottish Opera.
4. Its website contains a hire and sales department.
5. The company produces a world-renowned smoke gun, commonly known as “the Artem”.
The assumption that everything you see in effects-led movies is created by CGI is a false one. “Twenty years ago, some people were predicting the demise of hand-made special effects because of the increasing use of digital effects,” says Kelt. “But some things just look better when made or performed for real. What’s happening now is that physical elements are being combined seamlessly with computer-generated elements, so there is a coming together of the two disciplines.”
One of the benefits of having a permanent staff of 32 of varying ages and skill sets is that Kelt and Tayler can delegate work according to the strengths of individual team members. “We have a fantastic team at the moment, many of whom are a lot more clued up about computer-aided design than we are,” says Tayler. “Since Mike and I started out, the whole industry has changed, with CAD enabling you to see if something works before you start to make it.
“Even though we’re both old-school, using pencil and paper, we are able to see the potential of these technologies without always knowing how to work them. The most difficult part is financing their purchase. For instance, the robotic arm that we use for making cost £150,000.”
Artem’s work for the stage includes Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for which it was required to create the transformation of Violet Beauregarde into a giant blueberry, the Menier Chocolate Factory’s Little Shop of Horrors, which transferred to the West End and, more recently, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, for which it provided 20 illusions and magic effects. Magic is a world Tayler and Kelt are familiar with, having worked with the late Paul Daniels during their time at the BBC.
Much of the work on Harry Potter was undertaken by one of Artem’s younger team members: Will Wyatt, who grew up with JK Rowling’s world of wizardry. Even the company’s name, Artem, from the Latin phrase ‘ars est celare artem’ (the art is to conceal the art) has a Potteresque feel about it, suggesting that any effects it produces should not detract from the narrative thrust.
“The difference between theatre and film for us is that it is live, so you can’t fall back on CGI or green screen,” says Kelt. “It all happens for real in front of you. Things have to be durable and it has to work every time for months on end.”
Artem’s Glasgow-based division, run by Joanne McLeod, regularly works with Scottish Opera and the National Theatre of Scotland, as well as undertaking movie commissions, such as Boyle’s Trainspotting 2 and the remake of Whisky Galore, both due to be released next year. Artem is a founder member of the consortium Screen Facilities Scotland, which aims to attract creative projects to Scotland.
Though it is a niche sector of the design industry, prop-making and special effects is something that appeals to many young people with technical as well as artistic leanings. So where does Artem look to recruit its new blood?
“We’ve had some great people who have more or less walked through the door saying they’d like to work for us,” says Kelt. “We never know where the next talented youngster is going to come from. We like to have one or two people in the team in a trainee capacity. The main thing for us is not so much the breadth of their skill set as a willingness to learn and an ability to fit into the team.”
Does Artem have any plans for expansion?
“We’ve been approached to set up offices in Istanbul and Cape Town, but I think that is unlikely to happen. It would be great to have other workshops in, say, Manchester and Cardiff, where there is a lot of TV and film production, but the organisation and management structures that have to be put in place require a great deal of effort. For the time being, we are happy as we are.”
Chief executive: Mike Kelt
Number of employees: 32
Current projects: 20
Annual turnover: £8 million
Address: Artem, Perivale Park, Horsenden Lane South, Perivale UB6 7RH; 64-68 Brand Street, Pacific Quay, Glasgow G51 1DG.
For more details, see artem.com