It was about 1 year ago that I found myself at a 4th of July party. It was, you might say, a most un-American party with platters of sushi, vinegar-seasoned rice, vegetables simmered in sweet soy sauce and a dizzying array of Japanese beers and sake. But the most memorable fixture was an elaborate nagashi-somen contraption. It had been fashioned out of several pieces of interlocking bamboo chutes that were cut in half to create aqueducts. A water pump allowed for a continuous flow, which, much like a water slide, carried cold noodles as they zipped through and down the bamboo chutes. (Here’s a photo of it I captured at the time)
The Art of Crafting Commercials
The contraption had been designed and hand-made by the host of the party, Makoto Aoki. And as it turns how, Aoki makes it his business to build such mechanisms, often with the water pumps but without the noodles. Aoki, who leads the Brooklyn-based firm Swell, specializes in model-making and special effects for print ads, TV commercials and films.When PepsiCo needed to create a Mountain Dew ad, Aoki was called upon by the photographer to rig a contraption that would spew the beverage (actually green-tinted water) through the cracks of the bottle. (you can see some making-of footage here) When Pringles wanted a tower of chips that appeared to be karate-chopped in half, Aoki went through boxes of Pringles, sorting the nicely shaped chips and gluing them together. When Money Magazine wanted a shiny dollar-sign-puzzle-piece to grace the cover of their magazine, they turned to Swell.
Pringles and Money Magazine / Dan Saelinger
Going Back to The Future
Aoki got his start – and paid his dues, over 20 years ago when he moved to the U.S. following the footsteps of his uncle. There, under the direction of Hirotsugu Aoki, the special effects director on Back To The Future, the younger Aoki learned the intricate craft of model-making and special effects rigging. “I was basically a servant boy,” jokes Aoki. “I was doing all sorts of odd and ends for like $100 a week.”
The Authenticity of Shooting Real Things
And although Aoki went off on his own, and now employes anywhere from 3-6 freelancers at a time, his job description hasn’t changed all that much. His hands-on approach has him involved at every stage of the process from idea sketches to delivering the final product to the photographer or ad firm. That’s also part of the reason why he has gained an impressive roster of faithful clients.
Swell has recently added CGI to their list of offerings but for the most part models and props are all made by hand. And Aoki doesn’t see this changing anytime soon. Despite advancements in computer graphics, there’s an authenticity and beauty that’s only achieved by shooting real things, especially if they are miniature models or enlarged props.
And as it turns out, there’s a reason why he’s based in New York and not Japan. “There really isn’t much demand for this type of work in Japan,” explains Aoki. The country has tendency to use celebrities in ads, rather than models. “It’s a very different culture.”
Aoki approaches each project with the same methodical precision and accuracy. Which is why he struggles with questions like, “what was the most difficult?” Although each project is unique and different, through a calculated process of reverse engineering Aoki manages to churn out each project within several days. And there’s a certain Japaneseness to his work ethic. “I try to exceed expectations of the client,” he says. Sometimes that means creating multiple versions of each order in case the client has a change of mind.
An Elaborate Bird House in Olympic Park
“What was your most successful project?” is another question that Aoki struggles with. But it’s not just his methodical approach to his work that obstructs an answer. Aoki doesn’t often receive feedback, nor does he bother asking for it. But when pressed, he told us that a project he did for Guinness in 2012 was probably up there.
“We don’t get to travel much in our line of work” but for this project the team took their models to Olympic Park in Washington. They were staged and shot by photographer Nadav Kander. As a result, there was almost no post-production wizardry that needed to happen.
As usual, Huey (7) had a few questions for Makoto.
Makoto was kind enough to offer a recent model he creating to 1 lucky reader: a fake Dove soap bar that was used in a commercial (“we never use real soap because the bubbles don’t stick to it properly”). I’m sure you could have some fun in a guest bathroom with that!
To qualify all you have to do is leave a comment below and 1 person will be selected at random. Don’t worry, we’ll cover postage anywhere in the world! You have till July 27, 2014 to enter.