Why analogue special effects are thriving

Think CG dinosaurs spelled the end of the physical FX industry? Think again. Pyrotechnics and prosthetics, models and miniatures, are all flourishing – and London studio Artem is proof we still need them

For the last 30 years, special FX studio Artem has been making models, building animatronics, simulating weather, and doing whatever it takes to bring directors’ imaginations to life. They’ve set up 10-ft fire walls on cold December nights, crafted the life-sized severed head of a sperm whale, and designed the nodding Churchill advertising bulldog. And we haven’t even got to the fried chicken costumes and oversized hot dog prop yet.

For those of us outside the FX industry, it’s tempting to think that ‘real-life’ special effects ended when computer-generated dinosaurs stepped into the spotlight. But according to Artem founder Mike Kelt, the craft is thriving – it’s more that our dependence on digital means we don’t always realise that.

Kelt set up Artem along with Simon Tayler and Stan Mitchell back in 1988, after leaving the BBC special effects department. At the time, the organisation was starting to bring in outside production companies, while in the past everything had been handled in-house. The three of them had been doing everything from building last-minute Tomorrow’s World models, to designing prosthetics and blowing things up for huge drama productions.

“When we left to set up Artem, we didn’t even think that we would do anything other than everything,” says Kelt. “In the big outside world, nobody really did everything. It was unheard of. People tended to specialise. So we suddenly found ourselves being slightly unique, and that was part of our success, I think.”

Steam organ designed by Artem for Paddington 2

Kelt and his partners set out to replicate the same environment they’d enjoyed at the BBC which, he says, meant they weren’t prepared to settle for the railway arches or drafty sheds that many other companies were working out of at the time. Seven years after founding the company, they moved into a purpose-built home a few miles outside London, which has 20,000 square feet of workshop space as well as room for filming outside.

Thirty-five full-time staff work at the studio, but freelancers also come in for specific projects – for example, if they’re making an animal or prosthetic that needs facial hair, they might hire someone that specialises in hair punching. “If you want to do something really strange, then SFX is probably the place to do it,” says Kelt.

Although many in the physical FX industry do have specialisms – such as explosives, if you’re brave – Kelt says that people often cover a bewilderingly broad range of disciplines.