` In conversation with: Effectiv team - Directory

Meet the renowned SFX artists, Effectiv Team, and its esteemed founders, Philipp Girardet and Thomas Degner. Together, we embark on a captivating journey, tracing their beginnings as set builders and witnessing their evolution into pioneers of the special effects world. Join us as we delve into their unique perspective on the delicate balance between technology and imagination, the essence of crafting spectacular effects, and the ever-evolving landscape of new media in the industry.

Jakub Laskus: How did you become who you are now? How did it all begin?

Philipp Girardet: We started out as set builders, in the end of the 80’. Somehow, we found our way into the business. We were building sets, and I remember realizing more and more that there are no SFX guys – they always came from England. So we thought maybe it’s a good idea to take a closer look at what they’re doing and we found out quickly that they’re just cooking with water, so… (Philipp laughs). 

Pretty soon we stopped set building and focused on the special effects. It got more and more precise. We tried to find a high-speed camera which we could use to control our rigs. There wasn’t a real high-speed camera back then, so we approached the German Institute and, together with them, we developed a high-speed camera. Going from there, getting control over the rigs, we tried different cameras, tried to develop them with the inventors. And then the US came up with the first Phantom camera.

Thomas Degner: We actually bought the first Phantom camera in Europe!

P: It was far better than the cameras we had before. We were in contact with the developers and we gave them very precise descriptions of what we need, what could be improved, and so on. So they reacted and sent us cameras back and forth. The first year or so we spent more on UPS than anything else (laugh). But the cameras kept getting better and better. 

T: I printed our first business card in 1995.

J: Oh, so in 2 years you’ll be celebrating the 30th anniversary of your company!

T: We were there before, so 35th! It was just hard times, you know? You couldn’t buy anything sfx related – there were no compressed air-rigs, no trigger boxes, no motion controlled rigs, nothing but our old wood workshop and tons of ideas. 

You had to do everything by hand. So it was like a circus of people: you had the director, a DoP maybe, most of them from London or France, and they were shooting high-speed. We did tests before shooting. We’d travel all around the world with these guys – Kazakhstan, China, everywhere! Always the same crew. And that’s how it started. The olden days.

J: Yeah, the olden days, true. Now the tabletop is completely different – there are many more techniques, cameras, gear. This leads me to another question, which I ask myself and my team a lot: what is the essence of what we’re doing? Is it about technology, imagination, precision? Probably a little bit of all of these.. What do you think is the most crucial element to create a spectacular SFX in tabletop?

P: It always starts with an image. We’ve developed a lot of technologies, we even developed the first robot, because there were no camera robots available. So we just bought robots from eBay and started to develop them further and further, because we had something in mind that we wanted to achieve. Technology was more of a tool for us. 

Nowadays, some companies, I think, are going the other way around. They have technology and they wonder what they can do with it. They have 1, 2 or 3 robots on set and they’re doing things which, we think, are sometimes a bit too technology-driven. They use it too much and forget about the final image, the basic idea, which is a nice image. 

So we, as artists, look more at the nice image, and this is, I think, one of the goals of our company – to come from the point of creativity, not technology. 

We have technology, we use it, we build what we need to achieve the images. So, for us, the essence is creativity. Of course, we have guys here at the company who are a bit of tech-nerds – I say to them ‘we need this and this‘. They disappear and a few hours later they come with the solution. 

T: I think the most important thing is the balance between creativity and technology. So the tool is there to see how the image will look – we test it, by hand at first, to see if the idea of the director will look nice with this tool. Some other people will start to build a huge grip for this, and then it turns out the image is no good. Or sometimes the idea is no good. 

Very often I’ll be on a shoot and I’ll have discussions with the director about the image and I’ll go Listen I don’t like it’. Recently I shot a bolt in London, it was for a company from Belgrade, and everything was done, the SFX team was happy, because the job was done, but I said to the director ‘I don’t like it. I think we have to do it upside-down, change everything, because it’s not looking nice. And the SFX crew came to me and said ‘What are you doing?! We finished, it’s done!’. I said ‘Yeah, but it looks awful’. 

We can’t always do it, sometimes there’s a director that goes ‘I’m the director, I do the job, but most of the time you can talk to the guys, they come to you. And the earlier the better. That’s why we like to do tests for directors, and then we can do something we all like. 

J: It sounds like you perceive yourself more of SFX artists rather than technicians.

P: This is what we hear from others and what we want for ourselves – to be partners to directors, agencies and clients. A creative partner that lets them play around with the ideas. We sometimes invite the agencies who say ‘sorry, we have no idea‘ and try to work out something we all like. 

T: It’s possible, because they trust us. A company that was number one in the 90’, went down lately and wanted to get back up, came to us asking what they can do. Because we know them and they know us. We said ‘listen, we can do it how we did it before, we can count every water drop and so on, or we can do something wise‘. We asked them to give us three weeks – with no client, no agency, we don’t need a director, we’ll only have a DoP. And they agreed. We shot it in 4 days, in maybe 60 shots. It was amazing. 

J: Yeah, it’s only possible, when a client gives you freedom. What do you think, has everything already been invented? 

P: We come across this ‘everything’s already been done’ approach very often. I don’t like it at all. Even if you think you’ve seen it all, you just need to have an open mind and then you’ll see it’s not true. You can get inspired by everything around you. So if you just look with open eyes, you’ll always find something. 

I think it’s important to also have an eye on art, contemporary art and what’s going on with it. It’s always a bit ahead. So if you look at it, you might find good ideas in there. The other thing is just looking at nature.

We have this guy in the mockup department – he’s over 80 years old, but he’s super fit and he sometimes comes in and says ‘Look at this!‘ And he shows us a leaf he picked up. Look at this little structure! I’ll try to copy this’. So, even though he’s a bit older, I think he might be one of the youngest minds in the company, because his eyes are open. 

J: You’re creating amazing, repeatable rigs and systems, which, as we know, are super important to have control over the process. How often are there accidental things happening that give incredible final effects? How do you treat this aspect of randomness in SFX?

P: We always try to keep our test frames. There are a lot of times that these frames look different than what we need at the moment, but we keep them in our archives as a source of inspiration. So we can go back to them and use them for another shot. And the clients are very thankful for that too, when you invite them to see the archives. 

Randomness, I think, is a big source of inspiration. We always try to get as much control as possible over the rigs, the liquids, but there’s always something unexpected happening. I like that a lot! Because we can use it in a different commercial and maybe it will look more interesting than it would without this shot in there. But it also depends on how open the client and the director are. 

J: What are your feelings towards the business side of what we’re doing? How do you think the new media and formats are affecting the SFX world?

P: It started with ‘no, no, no, it’s not a TV commercial, it’s just for social media‘. It changes, and I think that in the future, the new formats are going to be as important as TVCs. Clients will want to have the same results and the same quality. For us, it’s more visible when it comes to beauty – we do a lot of beauty and beauty clients are much more aware of the brilliance that the social media content brings. They recognise that this is a big market and they’re more willing to spend money on this as well. But it’s still developing. 

J: So you’re saying that the SFX and the beautiful, brilliant imagery will soon be more appreciated as a consequence of the need to present more interesting content to the customers?

P: There might be some wishful thinking, but yeah. What we like in this industry is to get challenged. As a company we love these smaller art-driven projects where you can create stunning imagery. But you can’t do this all week long, you need the ‘strawberry and yoghurt‘ as well, in order to free your mind a bit in between and to earn the money for the company of course. And even in these jobs sometimes there is space for playing around, for getting stunning results with small effort. I think that the one thing that is really important to us, is that we really love these nice, smaller projects and put a lot of effort into these ones. 

T: I have some great examples. Today we are shooting for content – it’s a beauty commercial, the company’s here and they have a budget of 20000 euros. Normally it would cost double, if it was shot by a normal film production. They came up to me and said ‘Do something beautiful Thomas‘. We have known each other for a couple of years, they make fantastic commercials for content. 

Another example – at the end of last year, we shot for an Italian chocolate brand for content with stars from the rap scene. It was something completely new, we did the effects for three days. 

What you don’t want to see anymore is the robot arm to slowly go around a boring shot. It’s nothing for the content market for the young people.

So it’s on us to be much more creative to find new images. It’s not the strawberry falling into yogurt, you’ve seen it a thousand times. If you follow it with a robot arm, it’s the same. We need to keep thinking of new solutions – what we can do, what we can invent. 

J: It sounds to me like brands and marketers are reaching out directly to you guys to create visual ideas, rather than just do rigs. And this approach is much more up-to-date, because new media require new visual patterns. 

T: Absolutely. I was at a meeting and there was this guy from an agency – he’s a senior creative, I’ve known him for 30 years and he said Listen, we don’t have any ideas’. And the young creatives, the young people, they search the internet and what they do is they copy things, like a drop falling into water and so on, and then they present that to the client and the client goes ‘Ok, I want this drop!’. And we did this drop three weeks ago for L’Oreal – the same drop!

So I think it’s good to bring them all together much earlier – the creatives, the directors – before they start to make a treatment, before they’re selling it to the clients. We talk about what we can do and it is a better way and if you can do that with the agency too, then you can create something – could be the same thing as the strawberries falling into yogurt, but maybe you find something better.

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