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Artem: Inside a Real-Life Santa’s Workshop

London, UK
Artem founders Mike Kelt and Simon Tayler talk to LBB’s Adam Bennett

There are certain rooms in Artem’s Perivale workshop in which you wouldn’t want to find yourself trapped at night. Brushing past a series of disembodied heads and limbs, CEO Mike Kelt recalls the numerous and varied campaigns for which the studio has provided special effects and props. 

“Ah yes, and this one was for Brunel University,” he explains as he gestures towards a series of prototypes for the unique ‘Connect’ exhibition before turning to introduce me to a mischievous-looking gremlin, “and this little fellow was for a Snickers campaign.”

Such a wild variation in clients is fairly typical for Artem. A look through the company’s online portfolio reveals a staggeringly broad spectrum of projects. From working on special effects for blockbusters like Hot Fuzz to providing technical solutions for the Harry Potter and The Cursed Child stage show, via animating a talking toilet for Water Aid, the studio really has done it all.

As the studio prepares to celebrate its 30th birthday next year, Artem is as busy as ever with festive ads. Simon Tayler talks LBB through some of the work the company has been involved with this year. “We’ve done quite a few actually this time around, including a lovely ad for the Italian supermarket Esselunga. It was a bit unusual to see an Italian supermarket chain come here to film a commercial – maybe they were taking advantage of the falling pound – but it was a huge job, directed by Chris Columbus. The story is about Santa’s workshop in the North Pole, and we supplied this incredible kind of globe thing that shows where all the presents are going. It was a great spot”.

The studio also worked on Wes Anderson’s superb ‘Come Together’ ad for H&M: “We did a few bits and pieces on that one, some prop-making and some snow. We also did Asda Christmas, covering a car in fairy lights, as well as the dolls for the new McDonalds ad of course”.

That McDonalds ad has arguably been one of the highlights of the festive season, with the hand-painted dolls charming millions of viewers. 

“For McDonalds, we were asked to design something that was unique and bespoke”, explains Tayler, “and this is a process that would normally take something like two months, and we had two weeks. So it was a very intense process but we’re delighted with the outcome.”

Both the Hero and the Juliette doll were hand-painted at Artem by special effects artist Emily Pooley, who tells us that “it normally takes about a day” to paint one doll. But the level of detail on each finished product is quite incredible. Emily is standing in front of a wall of prototype dolls, each of which is the product of hours of design and effort (unfortunately LBB is not allowed to photograph the wall due to the presence of top-secret work for upcoming films!). 

Despite this level of secrecy and professionalism, there is a real sense that Artem is a studio that takes real enjoyment in what it does. Whilst talking through some of the studio’s old work, the conversation with Mike Kelt eventually turns to THAT scene in Hot Fuzz in which Timothy Dalton’s Simon Skinner finds his chin somewhat graphically impaled on a spike. Kelt lets out a laugh, “yes, that one was certainly good fun. To make it convincing, to make people go [sharp intake of breath]. That whole project was fun- as it happens I was a stand-in for the grim reaper character who went around murdering people, shoving shears into their necks and that sort of thing- I just happened to be the right size!”.

He continues, “but it has to be fun. I suppose we wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t fun in the main, but I think if you’re prone to stress it’s not the business to be in. For one thing, the deadlines are crazy, and the demands can be outlandish.

“I remember one evening I got a phone call out of the blue, from somebody who wanted a singing toilet, and they wanted it in front of a camera in two days. What goes through your mind when people phone like that is, well, half of your brain is talking to them on the phone trying to get information, the other half sort of splits off and wanders around trying to figure out how you’re going to do this. If you’re lucky, by the end of the conversation those two halves of your brain will have converged and you’ll say yes we can do that!”. 

And Artem did make the singing toilet, complete with toilet rolls for eyes, as part of the campaign for Water Aid. 

Often, it feels that working in an environment such as this can be overwhelmingly unpredictable. Kelt says: “I always think that in this industry the skill base that people end up with is probably wider than any other job. Because one minute you’ll be blowing up a bus and you need to know about explosives, and then you might be doing precision engineering and moving trains around, and then it’s puppets. It’s such a broad area, but that’s what makes it interesting.”

Over the last three decades, Artem has grown from a company started by four ex-BBC employees (“we could all see the writing on the wall at the BBC”, Kelt tells us) into a major studio with 32 full-time employees and hundreds of freelance workers.

“It’s a big undertaking because suddenly we’re responsible for thirty-two mouths to feed, thirty-two families even, so it has changed from just having fun at doing something into a fairly major enterprise”.

But this is a studio that is still in love with what it does. Tayler tell us “it can be very nerve-wracking, especially when you’ve put hundreds of man hours into building something to see it blown up in a fraction of a second. But on the other hand, it’s just such a satisfying job”.

With plenty more in the pipeline, the intensity is showing no sign of easing up at Artem. Walking around the studio’s workshop you’re never more than a metre away from a top-secret prop or prototype being made for an exciting new project. This is a studio that’s in great shape for another thirty years.

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