After years of anticipation, the world looked on in wonder as Danny Boyle’s vision for the London 2012 Opening Ceremony came to life. Mike Kelt, Managing Director of Artem, the company behind the ceremony’s giant puppets, weather, smoke, pyrotechnics and molten metal effects, tells us how they made it happen…
Did you find it hard keeping the Opening Ceremony a secret?
With all the coverage in the press from helicopters flying over the stadium, when we got to doing the ceremony a lot of the things we were doing were known. But from our point of view keeping it a secret isn’t a problem. We don’t talk about projects we’re doing and often you’ve signed non-disclosure agreements and you daren’t talk about them!
What was it like working with Danny Boyle – and what was the biggest challenge in realising his ideas?
He was great – he was very clear, as was Mark Tildesley, the production designer. They were focused and open to ideas. On occasion there were things where they thought, “We’re not sure if this is possible or not”. That applied to the baby’s head. They’d had an engineer look at it who’d estimated that it would weigh 20 tons. We went away, had a bit of a think about it, and came back with a solution. We had about a month to make it. It was a short timeframe. The delivery of the final bit of it didn’t happen until the last dress rehearsal. There were probably about 30 people at one point just working on the baby’s head and some of them were working through the night. It was very labour intensive!
Which elements were you most proud of?
I liked the molten metal effect. You could feel that sense of hot metal flowing and with the smoke and the sparks and the action of the volunteers it came to life – it was a great sequence. We did all the smoke for the big chimneys and probably people don’t think about these things but there was a whole unit that had to be built to go into those chimneys to send the smoke out in a specific way. That was satisfying because it looked real.
How did you get into SFX?
By accident. I applied for a couple of jobs at the BBC, having been in the theatre. I went to Glasgow School of Art and then went into doing set design through amateur opera. There was one job that I didn’t really know what it meant. It turned out it was in special effects. [The other] one was in set design. I didn’t hear anything back about the set design job but I got the job in special effects.
Do you think it’s important to study an SFX course or can you come from a different background?
You can come from a different background, and people do, but it is much easier if you’ve gone through a specific course because if nothing else it proves to an employer that you’re serious about it and in theory at least you’ve been trained in some basic skills.
What are the common misconceptions about working in SFX?
A lot of people think special effects is just blowing things up, but that’s a minor part of what it’s about. We have precision engineers, we have CAD guys on the computer, we have TNC machinery, we have 3D printers. The old-fashioned SFX technician is a thing of the past and has been replaced to a large extent by highly skilled characters who are also creative. It is one of the areas where art and science meet.
Do you have any advice for people looking to break into the industry?
The hours can be fairly ridiculous on occasion but it is a varied and exciting job. You need to be determined and put up with many knockbacks and, when you’re first getting into it, you need to be sensible about what rate you’re charging. If you’ve never been in the industry before no-one’s going to employ you on anything other than probably the minimum wage until they get a feel for how you are and then you can negotiate up.
If you’re freelance you need to get on the phone on a regular basis to the same group of companies, checking that they know you’re still available. And if you happen to be on the phone when someone’s confirming a job then you can find yourself starting on it the following day. Persistence and determination are key. And being nice and a team player are important. I would never re-employ someone who wasn’t, no matter how good they were.
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