Steve Mottershead has been creating computer generated visual effects before most people even had computers. “My dad had one when I was young, which a lot of my friends didn’t have,” recalls Steve. “He’s a hydroelectric engineer and my mom’s a photographer, so he’s technical and she’s creative. I ended up with both traits.”
At the age of 16, Steve was exposed to the Flame system, a visual effects compositing software, and by 25, had worked his way up as a Senior Flame Artist at a post production house in Toronto. He relocated to New York for two years before returning to Canada to start the predecessor to Artjail with a friend and a few investors. After a year of trying to reconcile opinions and changes regarding their original business plan, Steve moved back to New York. In 2008, Artjail was born.
For most of us, the idea of visual effects brings to mind the fantastical scenes we see on the big screen: expansive landscapes in deep space, throngs of hungry zombies, terrifying natural disasters. In reality, visual effects enhance more than we think, and the vast majority of the things we see have undergone some kind of post production process.
The blurred line between what’s real and what’s not, and our inability to decipher between the two, are largely due to what Steve and his team at Artjail do. They are technical artists, adept at creating illusory worlds that are believable, beautiful, and oftentimes imperceptible to the untrained eye. “People who are really good at it are very technical but also very creative. That sort of combination is generally rare,” adds Steve.
For the past 20 years, Steve has honed his ability to straddle the creative and the technical, and not only has he built an accomplished career out of it, but also a thriving business.
WORDS & PHOTOS BY MIA SAKAI
How did you get started in visual effects?
I’m from a small town, Caledonia, in Ontario, Canada and was a skateboard and snowboard kid growing up. I was always really into art, and when I was 14-15, asked my grandma for a loan to buy a video camera. It was for a Hi8 camera, which was better quality than normal handycams back then. I started making these skateboard and snowboard videos of me and my friends, and would look up things like how to make exploding 3D titles or how to edit videos. I got really into it. My grandparents introduced me to this guy, Dave Giles, who had a post production studio in Toronto called Axyz at the time. It was right around when Flame came out, like 20 years ago. It was this crazy, huge machine that looked like something out of the CIA. The screens were crystal clear and the quality was incredible. I thought, this is amazing. I started interning there when I was 16.
Did you end up going to school to study visual effects?
I finished high school a year early and took a fine arts course for a year before switching to Sheridan College for media arts. They’re really well known for their animation program, and a lot of graduates are hired at Pixar and Disney straight out of college. At the time, I think they accepted 80 students into the media arts program out of 5,000-6,000 applicants. It was the only place I applied. My mom was freaking out, but I wasn’t really worried. I had been interning, and had recommendation letters and a portfolio of work, so I think that helped. I went to college for three years and worked full-time at night at Axyz. When I graduated at 22, I already had three years of post production experience working on things like Super Bowl commercials. That’s kind of how I got ahead. I switched to the day shift when I was 23 and started working more with clients. By the time I was 24, I was working with these huge agencies and companies.
3 Ways to Get Started in Visual Effects
Research which companies worked on the commercials or movies you like. Make a list of all the ones where you’d want to work, and ask them if you can start as an intern. You can even offer to work for free, which most companies will go for. Eventually, they’ll end up feeling badly and will probably pay you. You’ve got to start somewhere.
There’s a lot of online training available. If you know nothing about VFX, I’d suggest checking out FXPHD or Digital-Tutors. FXPHD is roughly $400 a term, so it’s super cheap compared to going to a visual effects or film school. It’s taught by people in the industry and you get free learning licenses for softwares to use on your computer.
The third thing would be to learn perspective, lighting, color, film emulsions, lenses, f-stops, cameras, and photography. Understanding all that really lends well to making successful work because you’re basically recreating what you’re used to seeing. You want your work to look photorealistic, and not like an effect.
Why did you decide to branch out on your own and open a VFX studio?
I worked in New York for two years, then left to start a post production company in Toronto with a friend and two investors. It didn’t work out for a variety of reasons, so I came back after a year and started Artjail with my wife, Leslie McCartney, and my now former business partner, whom I ended up buying out. I still had a lot of clients in New York who wanted me to work on their projects. I was kind of doing my own company already, and I was good at it. I had confidence in business. I could meet a new client, work on their job, and I felt like they would fall for me and my work. Somehow, I had that part down. It just came naturally. Plus, when you open a company, you’re like, “I can be rich! I can make all this money!” You think that when you start out, but it takes time; it doesn’t just happen. You have to build it up. It’s not like I’m rich now, but it’s all wrapped up in the company. Something good will happen at some point, I think. It’s all good.
How much money did you need to get started, and what did you use it for?
We invested $75,000 to get started. This was in 2008 and the whole recession was just starting. I assume that affected business, but we didn’t necessarily know because we were only beginning. I’m sure it affected everyone though, it must have. Starting then opposed to a boom year definitely engrained good work methods. We were forced into being more efficient than if money was just flowing in. Those were lean times. The Flame was $110,000, and luckily we were able to finance it, but we had to put down $50,000. That system was how I made a living prior to the company. It’s like a photographer. They have their Hasselblad camera and their lighting equipment. In this case, the camera was my Flame. It’s very expensive but you have to be specialized to know the system. Once we had one, I was able to work on jobs.
What’s involved in creating visual effects? Which programs do you use?
Visual effects is an overarching term. Within that, there’s compositing, CG animation, design, motion graphics, and color grading, all of which happen during post production. We use Flame and Nuke a lot, which are compositing softwares, and 3D Studio Max and Maya for CG animation. We also use After Effects, Photoshop, and others, but those are the main ones. Flame is a visual effects software, but if you use it, you’re also known as a compositor. You’re basically putting layers together and making something out of existing footage. If you’re combining one person from several takes, you can use the head from one take, the hand from another, and the body from another, and track them all together. You can choose to stabilize a point, like the button on my shirt, then lock its movement so the background moves around it. Then you can add other shots and make a composite shot.
How much of what we see is the end result of what you do? How much is real, and how much isn’t?
There’s a lot that isn’t real, for sure. I’ll give you an example. I directed and did the visual effects for this PSA for the Coalition for the Homeless of New York. There are 16,000 homeless kids in NYC, and if you put them in a line, they’d stretch the length of Manhattan. The idea was to show a line of kids forming from Battery Park up to the Bronx. The caveat was that we were shooting 25-30 actual homeless kids from a shelter, which meant we wouldn’t have much time with them, and we couldn’t just put them in the middle of the street. So I shot all the empty streets first — and sometimes made them empty by painting out cars and things — and then shot the kids on a green screen, and then put them into the shot. That’s the sort of stuff we do, things that would otherwise be impossible, or take too long, or cost too much. A lot relies on post production to fix logistical or budgetary issues.
ARTJAIL + ANALOG
What do you find most challenging about this industry and type of business?
For me, just having a business is a challenge in that I didn’t go to business school. You sort of learn as you go. That’s like anything though. You learn along the way, you make mistakes, you learn from those mistakes, and you keep going. I run what’s called an “artist-owned” company. A strict business person wouldn’t know a lot of the creative side, so I think it’s good I started on the creative end. Not to say business is easy to learn, but it’s a balance. You have to be somewhere in the middle. If you focus strictly on the business and not the art, people shy away from you because you become stale and corporate. You don’t want to be too corporate, but in a way you need to because you need to make money. You also don’t want to be this totally artistic place that’s not making money because you won’t be around any longer. It’s about teetering between the two. It’s all balance.
How do you handle and reconcile creative differences within a project? How often do differences arise?
Pretty much every minute of the day. There can be a lot of people involved. There’s the director, the agency, and the client. Then on top of that, there’s the art director, the writer, the creative director, the executive creative director, the marketing people, the account people, the president of the client. Sometimes there’s literally 20 peoples’ opinions on a project. There can be a lot of changes. These days, there’s a big movement where clients are creating their own in-house agencies, and agencies are doing their own in-house post production. It’s a lot of everyone doing what everyone else does. Luckily, we’re still getting a lot of work. People need to tell their stories, and they need artists, directors, and storytellers to help make them. Regardless if an agency or a client needs it, there’s still work to be done.
Artjail recently became affiliated with Analog, a creative VFX studio in London. What is that relationship, and how do you see it benefiting both companies?
Right now it’s just an affiliation, but we’re working towards a partnership and merging studios. I wanted to talk to a company in another market about joining forces to create one bigger force together. Analog was on my radar. I heard one of their co-founders, Mike Merron, was going to be in town last summer so I asked him to lunch. When we met, it was literally like talking into a mirror. We were sharing the same experiences and the same stories, and everything was like, “Exactly!” We didn’t know each other, but it felt like we did. It just clicked. They do amazing CG work. They’re proven in their own thing, and we’re proven in ours. There’s just enough overlap between us; it’s like the perfect venn diagram. Before, agencies were concerned about us being big enough to handle the large projects. Now, because of our affiliation, we’re starting to compete against — and beat — the bigger companies for projects.
What’s your advice for someone who wants to start a creative business?
A lot of people start out wanting to be perfectionists and try to avoid making mistakes, but it’s almost better for certain mistakes to happen because you learn quicker. It’s better to make mistakes in your first year than in your third or fourth because at that point, they’re a bigger issue. You have to take risks, especially creative risks. Wieden+Kennedy has a saying: “Fail harder.” If you’re just playing it safe the whole time, then you’re not really standing out, and you’re not different. You’re doing what you think people want. You have to blaze your own trail and do your thing your way. You’re not going to please everyone, it’s impossible. I learned that. You have to be yourself and do your thing. Some people will love what you do and some people won’t. The people that don’t like it, you just won’t work with, but hopefully enough people will like what you’re doing, especially if it’s cool and different. People appreciate that.
New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2011.
More on Artjail
Altman, Randi. “Behind the Title: Artjail CD/Owner Steve Mottershead.” www.postperspective.com. Undated.
Vagnoni, Anthony. “The Vision Thing: Artjail’s VFX, Design and CG Helps Clients See Things in a Different Light.” www.sourceecreative.com. Undated.
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