Christo Holloway is a designer, model maker, and photographer who has forged a long career crafting three-dimensional objects for all manner of clients through his Brooklyn-based company, Clockwork Apple. With top-notch work on photographed print advertising campaigns, television network “bumpers,” complicated cinematic shots, and commissioned projects of all shapes and sizes, Holloway has risen to the top of a rarified industry that specializes in creating tactile things. It’s also an expensive one, and the financial demands of keeping Holloway’s shop going have finally become too much. So with the approach of Clockwork Apple’s closure (and the owner joining forces with his biggest rival), I visited its amazingly versatile space in the Brooklyn Navy Yard with photographer Randall Bellows III for a tour of the machinery, finished products, and a library full of reference books and issues of Popular Mechanics, Life magazine and National Geographic.
It was Nat Geo photographer Robert Clark (interviewed for the first installment of this series) who helped Holloway move to the lofts at 475 Kent Avenue in Williamsburg a decade ago. He now occupies an apartment on a high floor, featuring a spectacular view of New York City and talented next-door neighbors that have included actor Bill Murray. Yet Holloway didn’t always dwell at the center of the cultural zeitgeist. Born in Zimbabwe in 1953, he grew up in South Africa amidst very simple technological surroundings that necessitated his creating things for his own amusement—the foundation of a vast and ingenious skill set that others now pay him to harness.
My earliest memory of Holloway’s work was during the mid-1990s, within the brief introductory “bumper” shots that transitioned commercial breaks for cable television station TNT’s MonsterVision program. The shots featured the channel’s backlit logo mounted in front of a bubbling water tank, with flashing lights and buzzing equipment that evoked a mad scientist’s workshop. It was part of a larger series of some 35 logo pieces built by Holloway for TNT—one of which (an Empire State Building version), he still displays in his shop.
Another finished piece on Clockwork Apple’s shop floor during our visit was a mechanism that perfectly demonstrates Holloway’s approach to modelmaking: a four-foot-tall cuckoo clock with an articulated bird created for photographer Chris Collins, which was being repaired and updated with new electronics to compliment its mechanics. The clock’s center resembles a camera eye, with a diaphragm from which the bird emerges to sound the hour with an appropriate number of cuckoos. Holloway then created two-dimensional corporate ID graphics for Collins based on the completed clock.
On the company website, Holloway explicitly spells out his views on three of his prime disciplines, with numerous photographic examples of finished work—many accompanied with a few sentences of explanation about the job that produced them:
On the Roots of His Interest in Making Things
My dad is a carpenter, so me and my brothers grew up in a workshop. If you wanted an airplane, then you'd go to the shop and make an airplane. For a boat, you'd go and make a boat. You know, you didn't go to the Toys 'R Us and buy one. Everything we just made. I mean, I remember taking apart gearboxes. I somehow found a car gearbox, and just disassembled it. Typewriters, too. I just took apart stuff, and made. To us, it was normal. You want to go down to the river and go kayaking, so you make some kind of boat. Or make a soapbox car to go down a hill. That's why I say to people, I started my profession at age four or five—literally made stuff. My dad sort of apprenticed me in woodwork. So it started way back there. It's not something I picked up at a later stage. I was always into stuff that moved, gadgets, whatever. Taking apart existing stuff, and putting stuff together.
I always have to smile when I hear about the "maker revolution." Because I've been doing this since I was five years old. So I don't see that as a revolution. But it is a realization, like they say in America, that "We've gotta make stuff." We can't make money just shuffling papers around. And I think that's kind of kicking in. There's an interest in doing it, but I also think as a country you have to make.
I was always into art, design, photography. And throughout my model-making career, I always sort of knew who I wanted to work with. In South Africa looking out at America, Europe, there were always these big-name people that it's like, "Wow, that's who I want to work with." And then eventually, I went to England first, and worked there for a couple of years, and then came here. So I thought it would be great to work with Irving Penn, or some guys in England whose work I saw before I even went there. And once you know who you want to work with, all you have to do is go there. So with Irving Penn, I did these jobs through the designer Fabien Baron, who's a French guy who was the creative director for Harper's Bazaar. He's a designer, he's now a photographer, and he does pretty amazing photography in fashion. So he came to me to do this job, and then Irving Penn shot it.
I worked with Jean-Paul Goude, the French photographer. He was married to Grace Jones, and he did those incredible covers for her records. So I got to work with him in South Africa, and I think he's a great artist. He designed that whole Bastille Day parade in Paris. That was one of the big anniversaries of Bastille Day, of the French Revolution, where he had fire engines in the parade that sprayed water. And then the group in front of the fire engine had umbrellas. So he created this parade like no other parade before, but amazing. So he's a great photographer, great artist, and he was an Esquire magazine creative director way back.
On Work in Television and Cinema
We did a piece for MTV—brass, laminated wood, mechanical, electrical, [based on] a sketch. It was a globe. There was a VH1 logo, MTV logo, Nickelodeon logo, but no direction in terms of movement or materials. So that’s what we brought to it. The VH1 logo rotated, then stopped. It had two pivot points that were off-center. So it started rotating one way, then another. The [Nickelodeon logo] was motorized, and on a track. So when it got to the top, the rocket sort of free-fell down, then waited, and the afterburn came around and picked it up again. The [whole thing] was a flat piece. The back was flat, so it fit on a wall. It was for MTV for a show in Cannes in the south of France. We had probably three weeks. And because it was such a rush, the moment we did it, they picked it up, put it on the Concord, raced it to France and maybe put it on a fast train to the south. This was all mechanically put together. There were electronics and motors. There were aluminum pieces, and the continents were laminated with veneer in pieces. We did Europe, North America, Africa separately. So there were a lot of pieces to it—a bit of this, a bit of that.
The idea was to make this look like an antique mechanical toy. A thing you'd run across in an antiques shop that was made 100 years ago. Brass, aluminum, wood, and then the background is a copper plate that's been aged. Everything was aged. The VH1 logo is obviously more modern. The Nickelodeon is kind of a funky logo. But I seem to remember that we pushed them into this, "OK, you want it to look like an antique piece. It wasn't made yesterday. It was made 100 years ago, and was restored, and here it is."
We did a job for TNT for their on-air promotion. [I still have] the last of like 35 logos we did for them over a four-year period. The reason why they came to us, the designer is a friend of mine. He was like a first-generation computer graphics guy. He grew up using computers to design. But he's more like a graphic designer. After a number of years, he got tired of everything looking the same. Every object you make on the screen looks like you can sort of put your finger through it. You know, it's not steel, it's not wood, it's not brick. It's just computer matter. So he commissioned us to do 35 logos that were made in real materials—wood, plastic, steel, and moving. They shot it with a handheld 16-millimeter film camera. So not only were the objects real, but how they recorded it was real. It looked real. The moment you see it on the screen, everybody would look at it and say, "Wow, that's real."
We would do a logo, and it's a logo that's made out of solid material, but you can't have it floating across the screen. It's got to be supported. So by the time you show it, because there's the support, you know it's real. With computer graphics, things just come and float around, and then disappear. Here, everything was real, suspended, or supported. So the way [my last TNT logo] worked, it was filmed and then stripped on top of the Empire State Building, and it looks like it's a ten-story object. The logo has got seams, so it breaks up into 12 pieces. So the 12 pieces started inside, where there's a big brass disk, and there's a clock pendulum that swings, gears that move. And these objects on this disk make it look like some kind of obscure clock face that would turn, stop, turn, stop. Every time it stopped, we would take one of the pieces, it would slide off, and come through a duct. The tower at the back moved up and down, manually. There were like 6-7 people operating it. So basically the pieces get picked up one by one on their back piece, but they're spread out. When they were all out, there were motors that brought the pieces in, so you kind of see the logo being built out of the twelve pieces. It was shot with no cgi, no post work. It's all done for real, but with people moving it, and so on. Then there's 200 lights inside. So there were 12 switches on the control panel, and one by one the lights came on, or their sections came on. The lights were little incandescent lights. So you can see it's real, because each area didn't light up smoothly. Then when all of that was together, the “Special Presentation” sign swung around in two pieces. This was used to introduce when they had a one-off program, an event that's not basketball or baseball. All of these pieces were to introduce between breaks. After ads they would have a bumper to get back in. So this was interesting in that the whole project was old school, versus computer-generated. And people liked it because it looked real.
Another piece (four-foot diameter, solid brass) was for a Ron Howard movie called The Paper. So this was the opening sequence, and it started off there's a shot where the camera goes through the inside of an alarm clock. So these gears are turning, and then they took a snorkel camera, and they took it in as far as they could on a motion control rig, and then backed it out. Then we took pieces away, and it went in a bit further, and back. So eventually, when you slice it all together, it's like a move through the inside of a clock. The last move was through the flywheel. So as the flywheel is turning, the camera goes through the gap, between the spokes. Then it hit the back of the face of the clock, and the next move was an actual alarm clock next to his bed. It goes off, he wakes up, and the movie starts.
I believe that took about a month or so. Because they gave us the alarm clock, we took it apart, and scanned all the pieces. Now at the time, 20 years ago, this was all done in the manual. Today, you'd CNC mold the whole thing. There is a machine in the back [of my shop] where everything was manually milled out of quarter-inch brass. And the serial number on it is [Ron Howard’s] birthday—3154.There was a serial number, and we said, "OK, let's just make a bit of fun of it."
On his Work in Magazines
I grew up, you looked forward to Time magazine and National Geographic showing up once-a-week, once-a-month at home. Also, for my 40th or 50th birthday, a friend of mine gave me a Popular Mechanics magazine from the month of my birth. In fact, that was America to me—going to a bookstore, and getting a Popular Mechanics with all those projects and stuff. Life magazine we were very familiar with, but Popular Mechanics was like my kind of America.
We did a cover [June 5th 1995] with Bill Gates for Time magazine. So Greg Heisler would come down to my place, and we’d talk about what it could be. I suggested the Charlie Chaplin Great Dictator scene, where he's got this globe, and he's sitting on a desk, and he's dancing with this globe. In the end, it was a lighting bolt. I made it overnight, and the next morning he took it to Seattle. Basically, we made a range of lightning bolts, and [Gates] just had this lightning bolt coming out of his finger.
For the Jeff Bezos [Time] cover [December 27th 1999], we built a box around his head, made a slightly smaller mouse, and made E-shaped packaging materials.
I have a cast of a violin from a J&B Whiskey job. Instead of showing the bottle in the ad, I worked with the agency and the photographer to come up with this concept: “Let's make an object.” The idea was to make a watch, a camera, a pair of binoculars, and so on. Each object would represent the bottle. So the bottle has a red cap. It's a translucent green. The label is this yellow, with the white outline. So the object itself represents the product in the ad. Kind of like Benson & Hedges used to do in their English advertising, where they never show the pack. They would show something gold. The product was replaced by stuff that wasn't obvious at first glance. Eventually, you look at it and say, "Oh, OK, must be Benson & Hedges. Because it's a golden faucet, and the water's running out, and in the water all the lettered type from the pack is coming out the faucet." So that was kind of the same idea.
On his Personalized Work
We do different types of things, like boxes and containers. They're almost a separate product type. So an example, I did things for Hearst. They were what people would call shadowboxes—we call them life portraits. So it's a box with somebody's whole life story inside. One was a guy who was in charge of advertising for Hearst in Europe. He's this Italian guy. His boat is called “Americano,” so we put his name “Luciano.” I made the model of the boat, because his boat is like one of his favorite things. The right side [of the portrait] has his whole Italian history, the left is his American history, and linking it is his bio with all the magazines he worked on. It's kind of his whole life story. These are guys with money, and they love these things. It's just so personal. They put everything in that you can imagine. You know, these would have his favorite football team, his favorite card game, his family, his whole life story in there. So I did a bunch of these for them.
Another was Terry Mansfield in England. He had a 3D painting of his country estate, and then you could move things. So you could pull out a button at the side, and his Rolls Royce rolls out, and his tractor comes out, and the clouds move up. The tree was an etched metal cutout that was painted, and raised a bit. The lawn moved forward from the driveway, and some guys can come out from behind the lawn. We made his pets. There were also magazines he was involved in. He just loved it. I mean, he called me from England to thank me personally. So it had the antique look. It was kind of like a piece you would find in an antique shop.
Another one was the president of IBM, Lou Gerstner, when he retired. It was basically more his business life from when he started in 1993. So it was a timeline and then a graph of the stock price from when he started to when he ended. IBM logos were etched magnesium, with some of his favorite sayings and stuff said about him. So again, it’s this object that they give to these people, and they really like it because it's personal.
The reason why I mention this is I worked for the Hearst Corporation when Norman Foster designed and built their new building. They invited me to compete with a bunch of designers to do a permanent exhibition in this lobby of the new building of the history of the Hearst Corporation. So because I made these boxes for them, the exhibition was essentially bigger boxes. Each box was closed, and then each opened in a unique way. So initially, there's nothing to see, because they were just these monolithic shapes. But once they opened ... One was a box with hinges, and you could walk in between, and that's the exhibit. Another one was a cube, and it had four doors that opened. You go inside, and the exhibit is in there. So they picked this design, I won their competition, and we built a model of it. Then when I was there showing it to their board, Norman Foster showed up with his sort of posse of guys, and I had to show it and explain it to him. So I'm in to architecture, and it was great to meet these great architects.
On the Name of his Company
The name came from A Clockwork Orange, clearly, in the Big Apple. And I couldn't see A Clockwork Orange. It was banned in South Africa, because everything was banned when I grew up. I mean, it was pretty much a police state. Any political left-wing books were banned. Any movies, they would cut out all the nude scenes, sex scenes, and then put it together and show the movie. So, A Clockwork Orange never showed there. I had the visual of the logo, the apple with a clockwork inside. So the name and the image together made sense. It wasn't like, "OK, this is a name." It started on both ends. "OK, that's a cool image, cool name. Let's bring it together." And like A Clockwork Orange, I sometimes feel we do this crazy stuff, and it was anything goes. So there was just a very subtle connection between the two. Obviously, I liked the movie. I finally saw it in England. That was like in 1984. [Kubrick] actually pulled it in England, I guess out of responsibility, because a lot of teenagers and gangs were taking after it. So he personally felt that it was causing trouble. It's amazing. Actually, when I was working in London, they have elevated railway lines, and you have the brick arches under the railway lines. And many of those are studios and shops. So we worked in one of these arches, and one of the guys who was sharing the arch with me designed and made handbags. And Stanley Kubrick's wife and daughter came in to buy. You know, this guy's parents lived in the same village where they lived in the countryside. So his wife and daughter came in, and I sort of met them on the fly. But I guess coming to America and England from South Africa was to be part of the main creative world. And in the process, I met really interesting people, and worked with them. I mean, you had to move on from South Africa. At a certain point, you had to expand your horizons, and so on.
On Moving to 475 Kent
Robert Clark and David Coventry were working for Greg Heisler. We'd done a couple of covers for Time magazine. He's a portrait photographer, so I went to see him, and he said, "I like your work, but I'll never use you, because I'm a portrait photographer." And then he ended up being one of my biggest clients, because he got this Benson & Hedges job. I think we did six, or so, print ads. I built this model of the Statue of Liberty, and took it to California. So basically, I ended up working with him a lot, because he suddenly got these big projects, and Rob and David were working for him as assistants. So I got to know them there. Then I was in the meatpacking district, and I had to leave when my rent went up from $4,500 to $30,000-a-month. And I knew they lived in this crazy building, so when I moved my shop here, Rob called me and said there's a space going. So I went over, and I took it. I've been there close to ten years, and I still go in the elevator, and I meet somebody, and I say to them, "You look new. Are you a visitor?" And they say, "No, I've been here for ten years." It happens.
I made this goldfish for a [Esquire] job with Bill Murray, but I never met him through that job. He had to have a goldfish in his mouth, and obviously they couldn't use a real goldfish. It was kind of a quick turnaround. So I carved one out of hard material, made a mold, and then cast it in a soft material—and it looked pretty real. Then they took it, and they photographed him. That was after A Life Aquatic, probably 10 years ago. Then my friend was looking for a space, and when my neighbors left, I got him in [475 Kent]. He's a producer for Wes Anderson, so he worked with Bill Murray a number of times. He was away working on The Grand Budapest Hotel, so he was gone for almost a year, and then various people would come and stay in his place. Then one day, people started talking about Bill Murray being in the building. And I was on my deck one day, and he came out. You know, he was right next to my place, and he introduced himself, and I told him that I worked on this job, which he remembered. That's my only real encounter, except for the day Sofia Coppola and her husband [Thomas Mars], who's a French musician, and I think her brother and this whole group came up to visit him. So these interesting characters would move through the building.
On Books in his Shop Library
Books on plastics, materials, all kinds of photography stuff, sculpting, architecture, ship models, and so on. There’s a book on zoology, because I sculpted some horses, I did a cow skull, I did a lion ... When I made palm trees, I read a book on palm trees. So a lot of reference books on plants for leaves. We did tobacco leaves for a shot. I did quite a lot of medical models. So, books on animals. When I did the Statue of Liberty model, I got a ton of books on the Statue of Liberty. So I built a model, the head, the torso, 1/6th scale. Not the arm. When I did the Hearst exhibition, I did research on Hearst himself.
We made a rhino that's on a shelf here. We built that, because it's a frozen lake with this rhino. So, it's super realistic. When you photograph it, it looks like the real thing. So we built a cracked lake, bigger than a table with cracks in it, and we built the landscape around the edge. Then we shipped it to Alaska. The idea was to take this model, and put it in front of a real landscape, and shoot it as one. So when we got there, we set it up outside Anchorage, and then it started snowing. So they ordered a tent. The next thing, there's a tent, and they've got lights, and there's like an indoor studio in the middle of the landscape. So the model was shot separately, and then slipped in. And if you came across this scene, this tent, you go in, and it's like a studio built in the middle of nowhere. So the [landscape photography] book was a reference. It was the lake with the immediate landscape, and then the background was going to be the real landscape. So that's why I get a lot of these books—to act as a reference for a job.
A very cool book was from a show called Mondo Materialis at the Cooper Hewitt Museum. And it is an incredible reference book that I've used over and over, because it just gives you ideas for materials. So reference books, art books, furniture photography, production design ... I had to do a manhole cover for a shot, so I got a book on manhole covers.
I used the manhole cover book partly for a table. The top is a map of Manhattan made like a manhole cover, and the Brooklyn Bridge, the George Washington Bridge, and the Holland Tunnel are legs. So this is basically what I want to do. It’s a prototype I did 20 years ago, and I still haven't taken it to the next level. But I would like to do furniture stuff. Basically, moving forward, I intend on designing and making stuff.
In South Africa, somebody came to me with a job basically creating a [car] grille for a cigarette company, or something, where the logo would have been a cigarette logo. So I went out and bought this book [American Grilles], and it was published in '79. So I move to England, I move here. And while I was in South Africa, I worked with Harry De Zitter, who was a world-famous photographer. He came to New York in the early-‘80s, and was like the guy. He's got a book [in my library]. He was a big car photographer. He would do the big car shoots, and go for weeks into the desert and stuff. Along the way, he'd come across all these wrecks out in the countryside and photograph them. So we worked together in South Africa, and then he left for America, and then England. So at some point, I was living here, and he came by and he introduced me to this friend of his, Rinaldo Frattolillo, and we became friends. He's an advertising guy, like one of the "Mad Men" from that era. But he's also an artist. He makes this really cool stuff. And he had a car accident, and so had a bad knee, walks with a cane. He told me this story that he was working with this photographer, and the two of them would go around shooting grilles at shows, and they put this collection together. And so one day, his partner walked into his office and said, "Here's the first print." And so he tells this story, but I'm not putting two and two together yet. They open the book, and it says "Produced by Frattolillo. Photographed by Salmieri." So Rinaldo takes his cane, and he starts beating this guy up. Because he's like, "You motherfucker, I took half the photographs." He smacked this guy, and he got charged with assault, and went into court, and the judge picked his side. [The judge] said, "If I were you, I'd do the same thing." So at some point, while he's telling the story, I say, "You know what, I bought this book in South Africa with American grilles." And sure enough this was it. So this is 25 years later, I realize that the guy who shot this is this friend of mine.
Harry De Zitter, he's the guy who really made panoramic landscapes part of advertising. Nadav Kander is probably the top advertising photographer in the world, and he used to work for Harry as an assistant. He’s from South Africa, and we've worked together quite a bit. He took it to the next level. I mean, the way he operates is, “You pay me money, so I can go out and do exactly what I want to do.” He's doing fine art for a client, basically, and he does the panoramic thing. Then there's a number of guys who worked for Nadav, who are now also big photographers. So it's sort of this whole tradition of working. But [Harry] really was big, and he did beautiful handcrafted work. And then at some point, people didn't want to pay for that. And again, we worked on stuff way before Photoshop, where we'd shoot a campaign in South Africa—then the art director, him, the client would fly to London and go to somewhere where they can  on a big old computer, because nobody could afford it. So you'd shoot very simple. In fact, on my website there's a shot that we did of a New York scene [for Martell brandy] before I came to New York, which was kind of freaky. It's shot from one of the piers in the Navy Yard over to Manhattan, with a yacht at the end of a pier. It's all built in a studio. So there was this shot of the pier, made a water tank for the river, the skyline, the boat—everything except the people. There were three people in the shot. So they flew to London to have four shots put together. Now, while you're shooting, some guy in the back is quickly putting it together, and ... done. But [Harry] used to be famous for, when the shot's done, you print it. Everything is perfect in the camera. There's no retouching needed.
We had to build stuff. A bunch I did in London, where the whole shot looks like 20 different shots, and it's actually one shot. It's like a three-dimensional blueprint. So it's a building, and you have lines like the measurements. You have a line going across, and the blueprint saying "24 across" with an arrow. That’s a piece of wire, etched metal numbers soldered to the wire, arrow soldered to the wire, painted white on a blue background. So all the lines, that's in space. And then the view is through the five windows—all mini-sets built. Behind this window we built a set, and another set there, and another set there, and it's all shot together. That was also at a time when retouching was happening. But it was very expensive, and very time-consuming. So we'd build these crazy things, and I would shoot it so that it would not need retouching.
On Things He’s Made
[The cuckoo clock] is a project I did close to 20 years ago. Every hour, the diaphragm opens up and pushes the bird out. The bird's tail, the wings, the head, and the beak moves. It cuckoos one, two, three, four times, goes back in, and the diaphragm closes. It’s a clock, with a minute hand, an hour hand. So the hands rotate. And then when it’s all put together, it's a camera lens. So this became [the client]'s logo. Chris Collins was a photographer. He's closed his studio now. And this was like a slow, long-winded way to get a nice business card. It was up in his studio, and people loved it. He came to me and said, "I want a business card, but also some kind of object for the studio.” It started with a business card, and then I thought about it, and eventually it became, "We're gonna build this thing that's gonna be in the studio. It's gonna be an attraction, and be kind of the corporate ID." It started as a small project, and became a big project. It's like the birdie in the camera, so it totally makes sense. It worked for him, and now we're busy re-doing the electronics to make it easier to operate. Before it was like, you switch it on, switch it off. If the power goes out at 10 past 2, you have to wait until 10 past 2 the next day, and switch it on. But this is the kind of thing that we like to do. Beautifully aged outside, mechanical inside. And again, the Clockwork Apple logo is just that. It's the idea of a sculptural object with a mechanical inside.
[For the bird,] I carve a plastic pattern, and then I vacuum-form over that. So there was a shape for the tail, each wing, each side, the head. It’s plastic, but it's put together to look like a tin-pressed toy, with little connectors and everything, and a bit of metallic showing.
We weren't thinking [it would last] beyond 10 years. But this is already 20. Most of it has lasted. The electronics we've updated. This is the third time that we've updated it to more current electronics, so it's more compact. The cuckoo sound initially were two mechanical bellows, mechanically moved to make sound. Now it's a sound chip, because there are fewer things that go wrong with it, and you can control the sound, the volume, everything. But it started off totally mechanical.
We made a 12-foot motorcycle in the window at Barney's, where Lady Gaga's body was the body of the motorbike. So she had the front wheel between her hands, and the rear wheel fixed to her feet. We took [a face mold] from pictures to get her profile, and we vacuum-formed a plastic shape, and we had this metal sort of headgear thing, and strips of laser-cut metal. We painted it. The whole job was, upstairs there was pop-up store with five big sculptures that we did, and then two windows. The one window was this motorcycle, where the wheels were turning, and the lights flashing. Then the other window had these cones—so stalactites and stalagmites in fiberglass, and then two mermaids. But the whole job was probably two-and-a-half months—two windows, and all the sculptures upstairs. And that's working pretty much around the clock.
The job had all kinds of techniques: laser cutting, the body was hand-sculpted and fiberglassed to be really metallic and smooth, welding, electronics. As soon as there's movement, it always just becomes more difficult. If it's static, that's one thing. As soon as there's mechanics and electronics, then it often involves you making a fiberglass shape. The mermaid we carved, and then vacuum-formed most of it. For everything, we used the whole shop—every technique we knew put into one job. So that's what we try and drum up, so that we can do just about anything. We've done sculptures that touch the ceiling, and then tiny objects.
Fireflies are pretty much some of the smallest things we've done. The wings are brass frames made black with chemicals, and then a skin put over it. Then the bodies are cast in little molds, with legs etched in metal too.
We made a butterfly wing that was part of a scene where there's a butterfly, a caterpillar, and then leaves. So it's a scene that normally would be as big as a butterfly, caterpillar, and leaves. But we built it almost 8 feet tall. So we made fiberglass leaves, branches, caterpillar, butterfly wing, and a whole butterfly—body, legs, and all that. Then the Benson & Hedges logo is all embroidered into the wing. So the shape of the wing is a very fine thin piece of fiberglass, with raised ribs. And then I took fabrics and cut them, and lay them between the ribs, and then plotted and drilled holes, and then embroidered the artwork. Then the hairs are very thin brass wires. So we built this entire scene. And once it was built, we shot for maybe three days. But nothing wilted or moved, or anything. Now you'd just never do that. The one shot had flexible sort of rubber bodies, cast metal legs, fiberglass paints, paper, fabrics.
There are one-offs. One is a promotional case for Deutsch, the agency. We made 1,000 of them. Then a case for a small design company, I made 22 of them, because it was for the two principals. Another case was for Ogilvy & Mather to promote their American Blue Card. So they had a CD on one side, and a pamphlet on the other. I made 70 of these. Again, we designed and machined it here. Solid block of aluminum cut out, bolts put in, magnets to keep it closed. Design and semi-mass production is very difficult. Nobody wants to make 100 or 200 or even 1,000 of a piece. So we can. Although [the O&M case] was stamped by somebody outside, and one of my neighbors did the bending and welding—we did the assembly, the riveting, and the finishing. So we're into the semi-mass production. In this building, there’s a world-class metal fabricator, steel fabricator. So I can go upstairs and use their machine to bend some pipes. In steel, they can do it at a very high level. I mean, Marc Newson, the Australian designer, he's like the best, the top guy in the world. He designs bicycles, cars, airplanes, Qantas interiors for their big Airbus planes. So he came here to have stuff made with this [fabricator] upstairs. That's good enough for me. If God came to the building, I wouldn't be quite as impressed as when this guy comes here. He's the top of the game.
On Tools in his Shop
The CNC mold [Computer Numerical Control], a 3D model can be programmed. Once you set it up, it's got ten tools to choose from. And once it's programmed, you can switch it on, and walk away, and it can cut, exchange tools, cut. Come back in the morning, and there's a piece in the machine. This is something that I need to learn to use, because it's just good to know. Not that I can spend days standing here, programming it. But I need to know it. So my aim over the next couple of months is to learn the more high-tech side of the business. Then I can really control it.
CNC can lathe, weld, you name it. Every technique. It can cut to a fraction of a thousandth of an inch. Very accurate, and it's just pretty cool. So once you can do this, then you can get a four or five axis version. It's all becoming digital. But if you want a flexible piece, you still have to cast it. So the way I see it is that we have hammers and nails that have been around for a few thousand years. Then there's a metal band saw, or welder, that's been around for a hundred years. So you keep on adding more tools to the quiver, but you don't discard. You keep on collecting. If you want to make a cube, you go to the table saw, you push a block through three times, and you have a cube. It's doesn't get faster than that. So if you throw away your table saw, you're stuck with a CNC mold. And for certain things, that's going take a lot longer than they should.
I have a manual version of a CNC mold. If you want to cut like a two-foot circle with an angled or beveled edge, you put a piece of metal on, you switch the machine on, and you turn it. And once you turn it around, you have a perfect circle. Whereas with a CNC, you just have to program it. But I can't do a large size on that machine, so we have to do it in two sections. It moves sort of across and down, across and down, so you have lines that you have to take out. So for certain things, I have a machine that sort of won the Second World War. I mean, every piece of military equipment was done on those, and it can do amazing stuff, even after all these years. So you have to know when to use it, versus when to use [a CNC]. Or sometimes you start on one machine, you do some on that, some on another, some on the drill press, some on a table saw, some on a manual lathe. Because we do so many different things, it's all about choosing. You need to know techniques. If you look at a job, there's almost too many choices. I guess in photography at some point, there were so many films—I mean, "When do you use this film? When do you use that film?" Now it's all built in, magic. But here, you still have to choose. Do you want to have it 3D printed? What's the advantage of that? Then the next piece is done here, the next piece is done there, and so on. So it's all about knowing all the choices, and knowing when to use which one.
We don't have a great German table saw or the best Japanese lathe. We have a mix of tools that if we combine that with that with that, we can get stuff done pretty quickly. Today we can do this, and tomorrow we can do that. We 're basically like a factory that produces a different product every week. As opposed to a factory that spends 60 years making one product. So it's versatile. We can walk around and do something, and use different materials. For instance, this piece we did for a Heineken ad. We made one of those ‘60s model chairs. You know, those chairs that you sit inside. We made a pattern in house, and then we take it out to a metal spinning company. So they take a flat disk of metal. And we made a mold, and then it turns, and they force it. So the flat piece gets wrapped around. But obviously, once you're done, you can't get it off, because it's undercut. So the mold we made comes apart. You take the center piece out, and then the side pieces come out. It’s just like a Chinese puzzle that you then dismantle when you get it out. Then you can finish it. So again, to just do this relatively simple thing, we have to do a piece of tooling that's quite complicated, and we have to do it quickly. But now we can do almost anything.
This shop is set up as a very versatile space. So for instance, a whole wall swings away. I like things that move. There is space for metalwork painting, a spray room, vacuum forming, and then casting. So it switches. Like a table can be a welding table some days, and then some days it’s a casting table. And we have all our storage up above. We built all of the metal structures, and mild steel is the material used for all of the frameworks and supports and stuff. For the more detailed stuff—brass, copper, aluminum, we have metal plastic storage. Aluminum is actually something we use often. Easier to work.
On the End of Clockwork Apple
I've got this great shop. My lease runs out in two months, and then I'm going to close this. I'm going to plan to join up with one of my competitors to simplify. I can't sustain this, with all the stuff we have here. I run it all myself with some help. But all of this is on my back. So I'm here like seven days a week. Clients come in, and they want all these great things, but they don't have a budget. They want these beautiful things, like miniature chandeliers, but they can't [afford it]. Most photographers don't have studios anymore. Everybody I worked with used to have their own studio. And one by one they let it go, because every day of the week it costs money. You've got a beautiful studio, you've got all the best stuff, but the clients and the budgets are coming down. So I'm going to join up with somebody else. We split the overhead, join our abilities, join our client lists, and so on. It's just outside the Navy Yards, with a guy who's got his own building. And we're competitors. We employ the same people. We work for the same clients. But that's the natural progression.
I've been doing this for 30 years. But back then, we'd do a print campaign, and it was in the magazines. It's not on phones, or on screens, so the whole print budget goes to magazines. Now the same budget goes to computers, and to iPads, and to online billboards. It seems like they slice it and break it up. There's more versatile media out there. Before, it was television. In fact, when I started off in South Africa, it was only cinema. There was no television in the country, so they spent a lot of money on movie ads. You'd go to the movies and see these great ads. Then they'd spread it between movies and television, so it got chopped up into smaller pieces. That's one thing. The other thing is computer-generated stuff. So instead of having it made, if it's going to end up on the screen, you don't have to make it three-dimensional. Or in print, if they want a car ad, most of those are computer generated. They don't photograph it. If they want to make a viral video with 30 people on toilets cruising through the city, then they have to make [the toilets], so somebody can sit on it, and you can stop-frame animate it. But certain things that we would have made in the past are not made, because it's never three-dimensional. It's more complicated than that. But for some reason, every year for the same job there seems to be a smaller budget. I guess part of it is simply figuring that there are more people out there doing this stuff, so we can make them compete, and get away with cheaper budgets. In photography, I used to work for the top guys who are really good, who spent years perfecting their craft, and have an amazing studio with amazing equipment, and they produce these incredible images that are works of art. Now its like, “Well, do we really need that? Get a guy with a digital camera, and then we retouch it, and it’s good enough." So those top guys, some of them are still working—but not that many who spend a week on one shot.
On his Future Plans
I've made a commitment to learn more computer stuff, because I come from a hands-on woodwork, metalwork background. I kind of missed out on the computer thing. But I just realized that you've got to do it, so I'm going to learn SolidWorks. Right now, I would have somebody do it. So we've done window displays for Marc Jacobs, for Tiffany's, for Barney's, and it's often mechanical stuff. We did a project for Marc Jacobs—it was a fiberglass 3-foot eyeball, vacuum-formed retina that pivots, lit from behind, and the eyelid blinks, [powered by] a motor with a lever arm. So I would sketch it out, and somebody would do it in SolidWorks. Then we would vacuum-form, machine, cast the pieces. We did about six or so for L.A., New York, London, Paris, Milan, Berlin. So my drawing gets done here. But as of now, I can't do it myself. And I feel it's a bit of a barrier, standing behind the guy and saying, "Do this. Do that." I'll look at what these guys are doing, and then I'm back doing something else. I run around. Now I'm going to just make time to know how to do this.
With a computer, you press buttons, and things happen. Here [in my shop], I need all of [the machines] to do the same thing—virtually the same. Now you can either build something here, or run out of clock. I mean, there's no way you need to build a model and try to get a camera through it. So we can never do that again. In that piece [for The Paper], [Ron Howard] took it and put it in his office. So at least he's got some real object out of it. But just for the movie, there's absolutely no reason why you should make a piece out of solid metal. So that's all affecting it to the point where I'd have to have big jobs constantly coming in at a good price to keep this going. Because it takes a lot of people, a lot of space, a lot of equipment—all the bad things. Like I tell people, if you want something manufactured, you've picked the most expensive place probably in the world. So that's why it costs money. Rent costs money, labor, materials, everything. Because you need the space, you need all of this equipment, and it's just not viable anymore. It used to be five people. The skeleton crew: me, the office manager, the shop manager, shop assistant, computer guy. We did a job for Tiffany where their previous contractor pulled out. They needed 1,300 windows done worldwide, and we had a month. So we started, and by the end of the first week I had 50 people that were doing dayshift and nightshift. So if I need a set painter, I call somebody. If I need a specialist sculptor, I call people. We have a book with freelancers. So we, the five people, we could do a lot of stuff. Then as soon as more work came in, specialized stuff, we'd call in the crew. They'd come in, and then we'd have 10, 20 people. And at the end of the project, they leave, and then the next project. So again, it's like a factory where the staff changes on a weekly basis. The products change. It keeps on changing, and that's expensive. It's better to have the same routine thing over and over, so you can do it cheaper and cheaper. Developing a product, it's trial and error, and it takes time.
Those days are over. That's why I now have to move on to a different model. Because this is what I can do, but nobody wants me to do it. Nobody can afford to do it. Basically, like everybody else, you have to reposition yourself. I want to learn the computer stuff, so that I can personally make stuff. I can now program it, and machine it, and then make something on my own. Or I can do more furniture design, or even go more into the art field. So it's moving forward. Modelmaking for photographers is not going to happen anymore. So when I leave here, I take all my skills with me. Everything I need to do this, it's [in my head]. The space doesn't really matter. I'm just going to have to evolve into the next level, next place, next whatever.
Interview by Christian Niedan
Niedan is a New York City-based writer and television producer. He is the creator and manager of a film website called Camera In The Sun, which looks at how people think of the places and cultures they see on screen.