Every company has its own compelling tale to tell. The industry is full to the brim with creative studios eager to outdo one another, and that’s bound to come with more than a little bit of flair and pomp. But rare are those stories where a success was made out of anything other than passion, out of anything other than a desire to do great things. That was where Smoke & Mirrors began, the VFX studio that has built up quite an empire taking on post-production and visual effects work across a broad spectrum, with film, advertising and even music videos jumbled in among its varied portfolio.
“It started in 1995,” says Gary Szabo, the company’s current CEO who explains he wasn’t there at the time. “There was a group of creative talents in London who worked for other companies and they had an idea that they’d like to get together to start their own boutique post-house. Post-houses in those days all strove to be big, but these guys – four artists – wanted to just build a company for artists.” That was when the company’s heritage was born, a resilient motto that is as true to the team now as it ever was. It was an exciting birthing period of roughly three or four years where the company really made a name for itself in the VFX scene. “The work was just stunning,” says Szabo of the early years. “I mean if you look at any of the groundbreaking work that was done by directors like John Glazer and that in those days, they really just reinvented stuff.”
The company’s earliest work defined a lot of what could – and should – be done with music videos, and really helped to define its name
But things have changed for Smoke & Mirrors. It was clear a small team of four artists wasn’t ever going to cut it, and in the decades that followed that tiny group of dedicated, like-minded friends grew to become a powerhouse for visual effects. First there appeared a studio in New York, then Bangkok and Shanghai; an eclectic selection of locations have since popped up throughout the globe. And now the most recent addition: Amsterdam.
“Is there an established artist community?” poses the head of 2D at Smoke & Mirrors, Aleksandar Djordjevic, when quizzed on the company’s new expansion. “Definitely there is. There is quite a lot of it to go around, and it’s really growing and it’s growing exponentially. The creatives from all over the world seem to be kind of congregating here – on a monthly basis I seem to be hearing a new name coming into town. It’s a very interesting place, it’s a place of a lot of movement.” Szabo has to agree, adding that the new Amsterdam studio was almost like a passion project simply because of the energy of the place. “You only have to come to this city to feel that it’s a bit different,” he adds.
The company intends to create the very best work it can – as much to draw new talent as to retain its veteran artists
This continued growth naturally brings with it new obstacles to face, but in this ever-connected era it’s becoming increasingly clear that not only is a global brand necessary for artistic endeavours like this, it’s becoming considerably easier to achieve, too. “Now we’ve got all these different locations,” explains Szabo, “what we don’t want is individual business working environments. What we want is to be able to tap into, say, the creative community in Amsterdam but then we want that global team. So, for example, we have a team of 48 CG guys spread around the globe, and so the trick for us is harnessing those 48 people on every single project.” That trick, then, is to ensure the company’s worldwide roster of creatives is available to each and every one of its outfits, with leads stationed on the front lines to capture the creative essence of the area. “We’ve got a facility in Chennai,” he adds as an example, “where we’ve got a great support structure there, but our lead creatives have to be in really creative areas.”
With Djordjevic leading the new team in Amsterdam, our questions on the struggles of globalising such work went to him. “The business challenge for our industry is just moving data around quickly,” he explains, “and as that gets easier then geography becomes less important. We are concentrating on creating a collaborative pipeline and it’s just been rolling, but I think that’s the future of this whole industry.” And that’s true, it’s a pattern that’s becoming increasingly popular across a spectrum of professions, but creative industries especially are becoming empowered by the move away from centralised locations. “The more integrated we become,” adds Szabo, “the more places we can go to. So for us now it’s not such a big deal to open a shop window – a small office in Milan, say – and tap into the creative talent that we’ve got at the centre.”
The company has worked with some of the biggest stars on some of the most recognisable tracks and music videos
The best part of all this is how it enables Smoke & Mirrors to stay true to its core, to the company’s desire to embolden artists and rely on their creativity and talent to build great things. It’s a reward cycle, too; by giving its artists the opportunity to express themselves as creatively as possible, clients are increasingly likely to want to work with the studio, thereby bringing in more inspiring projects for the artists to work on.
“Without a doubt, creativity is the most important part of the company,” comments Szabo. “It works on so many levels. When we go to see a new client, we show them the work that we’ve done, so that has to be of the highest value. But also we need to recruit people, so we need them to want to be part of our team because they think that the work we do is of the highest value.” But the entire process for Smoke & Mirrors isn’t just about fulfilling an objective or completing a task, it’s encapsulated by the artistry of the talent it has. “The nature of our work is artistic collaboration,” suggests Djordjevic, “so even the clients we work with are artists. So it’s all round a process of creative conversation which eventually means beautiful things come to life.”
Advertising is constantly evolving its techniques as agencies look for more inventive ways to sell products, and Smoke & Mirrors is at the forefront of that
And since this is a company with more than two decades already under its belt, it’d be more surprising if it didn’t know a thing or two about bringing beautiful things to life. It’s been around since some of the earliest days of VFX work, and it’s seen things change. “I think actually what Alex has just said is possibly the key change that we’ve seen in the industry over the last couple of years,” adds Szabo. “We are much more collaborative earlier on in the creative process now, because what we don’t want is people coming with stuff that they’ve shot and telling us what they want to do with it.” Ultimately we’re left pondering how, exactly, Smoke & Mirrors can maintain such a high level of creative input when it works primarily with other clients on prestigious brands.
Much of the studio’s work has been driven by advertising or from musical artists, two areas that are notoriously closed to outside input. Are such creative restrictions imposed during the process of a project, and how can the company maintain its flair and passion if that happens? “I would say yes, there are restrictions,” admits Djordjevic. “But it’s very interesting, I always thought that this restriction enhances the creativity because it makes you steer [the client] in the direction that you want. So there is a lot of help that comes from these constraints and challenges.”
In more recent years, Smoke & Mirror’s work has been hugely eclectic, ranging from the elaborate and the intense to the colourful and the fun
This is by far and away the defining aspect of Smoke & Mirrors, then. It’s a company expanding at a steady rate not because it wants to take over the world – “the plan isn’t to get bigger,” says Szabo about this, “ we’re naturally growing” – but primarily because its thirst for creativity has opened the world’s eyes to its energy. Szabo tells us that while Amsterdam might be its latest drive, the company has already been staking out a potential move to Mexico, too. “There’s a demand for us down there,” he says. “We don’t open in a strange country and make a big fanfare and say ‘Ta-da, here we are’. There’s got to be a reason to go there before we go there.”
It perhaps sounds a little predictable – what art studio isn’t fuelled by the creative passion of its employees, after all? But there’s something about speaking to these two that makes it clear that, for Smoke & Mirrors, it’s not just a hackneyed throwaway phrase intended to endear us. “I want to create that kind of environment,” explains Szabo, “one that I actually want to be a part of.” And Djordjevic isn’t too dissimilar, either, claiming that he wants to enable that same passion in his team. “When I come to work every day I want the whole team to be as inspired as possible,” he says, adding that he feels like “if you don’t commit as an artist to the work that’s ahead of you – no matter how big or small – if you look at it as something lesser than you did ten years ago, then you may not be in the right place, in the right mindset. When I come to work I expect to do the best work of my life that day. Pretty much. That’s what gets me up in the morning.”