Kamen Markov: The devil is in the details

My imagination needs stricter diet, not nourishment

I am inspired by people who care about their work deeply, people who have preserved their curiosity and energy over the years, and people who never lose their enthusiasm and drive to improve, visual effects designer Kamen Markov says in an interview to Europost. 

What were the first signs that visual arts would become your occupation?

Perhaps the strongest influence on my choice of a career came from my brother, Georgi Markov, who is one of the best directors and cinematographers I know and have ever worked with. For many years, I was very much into painting. I wanted to go into architecture or industrial design. Maybe I never really had a choice in what I would be working one day.

How did you decide to move to Mexico?

My leaving for Mexico was born out of my desire to learn more about the way things were done, and why the western products looked at a completely different level compared to what we did in Bulgaria. You could say that Mexico was a location I stumbled upon. I came across the website of the leading VFX studio The Filter FX. I really liked their style so I sent them an e-mail, saying I would like to work with them. They invited me on board and the next several years were some of the most interesting in my life. It was not long before I established myself as one of the best experts in my field. This led to collaborations and friendships with some of their best directors at the time, such as Fred Clapp, Jorje Aguilera and Oliver Castro. The years spent in Mexico were extremely beneficial to my career. Some of the projects I worked on won awards, including at the FIAP festival in Argentina, three first prizes at Circulo Creativo in Mexico, a Clio nomination in Miami, gold at the London International Awards, Bronze Lion in Cannes, and Sol de Oro at the San Sebastian festival in Spain.

How did you end up in London?

London is among the largest global centres; some of the most significant films and commercials are created there. After six years in Mexico, I was ready to move on with my development and that was the next logical step. Besides, London is much closer to Bulgaria than Los Angeles or New York and that proximity is important to me.

How did you get the commission for the commercial featuring Sir Elton John, and what was it like working on it?

Moving Picture Company is a worldwide leader in visual effects, in advertisements and films alike. This is why we attract some of the most interesting and complex campaigns on the market. The Christmas campaigns for John Lewis & Partners are some of the most highly anticipated and discussed over the year in the UK, so the challenge we were faced with was daunting. For absolutely everyone involved in the project, precision in every detail was at the forefront of our minds every step of the way. It was those details that turned the commercial into a masterpiece. Being part of The Boy and the Piano campaign was an amazing experience. I would like to highlight the remarkable contribution of the extraordinarily talented director of the ad - Seb Edwards, and the huge amount of high-quality work done by the producers of Academy Films.

The video of the commercial is like a short film. What does the grown-up Elton John think about the little boy with the piano?

The script for the ad is exceptional and I believe that Adam&Eve/DDB London outdid themselves and surpassed all of their competitors. It is emotional, touching in its simplicity and because of the scale of the story. To a large extent, we are a product of our memories, experiences and the people who have been special to us over the years. The story starts in the present day and moves backwards chronologically through Elton John's life, all the way back to the moment he got a special gift from his grandmother - a piano. It changed his life forever because some gifts are more than just a gift and they remain part of us (editor's note - the campaign's slogan is “Some gifts are more than just a gift”). I believe that there is something for everybody in the ad. This is the goal of people like me - to raise such questions and create a message through a string of shots, each of them lasting mere seconds.

Tell us about the nominations and the award, as well as the little details hidden in the commercial.

I and the rest of the MPC team were nominated in two categories - Outstanding Visual Effects in a Commercial and Outstanding Compositing in a Photoreal Commercial. We won the first category. From a technical standpoint, the making of the ad made us contend with unique and unusual creative challenges. This type of VFX is rare in the postproduction process for commercials and is usually applied in feature films. Using special software and an array of photography and film references, we were able to recreate in great detail computer-generated models of Sir Elton John from different stages of his life. Part of the process was the creation of 3D models of the actors so that we could then focus on the details of the face, skin, etc. Thanks to these preparatory stages, we created very accurate models of Sir Elton John in these different timeframes. We also used additional computer-generated models and materials such as glasses, wigs, costumes and fake sideburns. We had enough original material to use as reference for each of the frames but it is impossible to simply copy an existing item such as a photo, so we have to recreate it. We also had to generate from scratch the scenes from The Red Piano tour seen at the beginning. The crowd in the stadium shots alone is made up of 40,000 computer-generated fans.

How do you stimulate your imagination, where do you get your ideas from?

My imagination has always needed stricter diet rather than nourishment. If I ever set out to stimulate it purposefully, things could get scary for me and the people around me. Inspiration is a different deal and it has always been a very important part of my job. I am inspired by people who care about their work deeply, people who have preserved their curiosity and energy over the years, and people who never lose their enthusiasm and drive to improve. It is hard for me to give you specific examples; it's enough to look around and take notice of the world and people around you - it is full of sources of inspiration.

Close-up

Kamen Markov began his career in the visual effects industry back in 2000 in Bulgaria. As a Flame Artist he spent the formative years of his career honing his craft on music videos, commercials and installation projects. Striving for bigger challenges and more prospects, Markov left for Mexico in 2004, where he worked with an impressive list of creative artists, including the likes of Fred Clapp and Jorje Aguilera. He then joined the MPC team in London in 2010, where he established himself as one of the company's leading VFX Supervisors for commercials and worked on numerous high-profile and award-winning campaigns. Most recently, Markov became the first Bulgarian to win the grand prix of the Visual Effects Society's prestigious VES Awards in the category Exceptional Visual Effects in Advertising for creating the Christmas add for John Lewis & Partners that features Sir Elton John.

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