B&H Creator of the Week: Steve Giralt, Visual Engineer

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Welcome to the world of Steve Giralt, where speeding matter, splashing fluids, and powerful lights converge under millisecond timelines to crystallize as iconic advertising campaigns. In his remarkable transition from advertising photographer to visual engineer, Giralt has concocted a secret sauce that fuses elaborate technical feats with an irresistible element of play. That, and his constant passion for bigger challenges ahead, leads us to welcome him as our next B&H Creator of the Week.

By means of introduction, we recently asked Giralt to respond to a few questions about his remarkable relationship with robots, his expansive Brooklyn headquarters, and the growth of his business brand, The Garage, into three parts—production company, Cinema Robot rental house, and online educational resource. Keep your eyes on B&H’s social media channels in the days to come for even more of Giralt’s big ideas and effervescent content. And, if you’re a passionate director with big ideas of your own, The Garage might be interested in collaborating.

Jill Waterman: Where are you based?

Steve Giralt: Brooklyn, NY.

What are your most important social feeds/networks?

Instagram, Vimeo, YouTube, Twitter.

How long have you been making pictures, and what were your primary interests when you first picked up a camera?

I first picked up a camera my junior year of high school, while working on the staff of my high school newspaper. For me, the camera was a magical tool, which let me freeze a moment in time while also bringing to that moment my view of the world. I quickly got obsessed, and was the kid who always had a camera around his neck, everywhere I went.

An early travel image Giralt shot on assignment near the site of an ancient meteor strike outside Santa Fe, New Mexico.
An early travel image Giralt shot on assignment near the site of an ancient meteor strike outside Santa Fe, New Mexico.

What is your educational background and how have you applied these studies to your current business and career?

I graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology with a degree in advertising photography, and then moved to New York City to assist commercial photographers. Both school and assisting were important in guiding me toward what I do now. Additionally, about six or seven years ago I began taking continuing education classes in a variety of disciplines—welding, woodworking, electronic circuits, plastics and epoxies, Maya, Arduino, and more. This has also been pivotal to my success in the work I do today.

Bringing together the artistic, business, and technical knowledge I’ve learned through all these different methods has allowed me to create the work I do today, and successfully make it into a business.

Beverage still life shot for a Cuban cookbook.
Beverage still life shot for a Cuban cookbook

Did you have a role model or someone who inspired your vision at the start of your career? What is the most important thing you learned from them?

Growing up in Miami, Florida, in a family of engineers, I didn’t have a whole lot of creatively inspiring people around me, with one exception. My good friend’s father was a wedding and portrait photographer who had emigrated from Cuba to Miami. I would go over to my friend’s house and see his father hanging out and discussing photography with his photographer friends. I slowly started hanging out less with my friend, and joined in on their conversations, sharing my photographs with the group.

He was the catalyst for me to seriously pursue photography, and he even bought me my first Hasselblad body when I when to RIT. I am very grateful for Manolo Lopez, and how he helped me realize this is something I could do for a living.

You currently refer to yourself as a “visual engineer.” When did you first start using this term to describe your work? Did this new title have an effect on how you and your work were perceived by clients?

I first started using the visual engineer title in 2016 after creating my deconstructed burger video. I felt that simply calling myself a photographer, director, or DP didn’t fully describe the work I was doing at the time. Still life photographers always tinkered with techniques to make cool effects or splashes, but bringing robotics and other advanced technologies to my process was something else. It was important to me that people realize I was trying to do something different, and a new title helped to make that clear. In retrospect, there were many challenges, because I had to educate every client on what a visual engineer is and why they should want to hire one.

How has your work evolved since you first started referring to yourself as a visual engineer?

We’ve been having a lot of fun! My work has completely evolved, and the business has really grown. I don’t do as much of the hands-on work building rigs and devices as I did at the beginning, but the way I create images is still the same, by incorporating the technology and custom devices.

In your opinion, what are the most essential qualities one needs in order to be successful as a visual engineer, and are there any specific skills one should add to that of a photographer or filmmaker?

I tell people there are three essential pillars to doing what I do. You need to be creative, technically skilled, and business savvy. If you’re good at just two of those, then it will be hard to succeed. The more technical skills you have, the more possibilities. If, as an individual, you aren’t great at all three, partner up with someone to help fill in the skills you lack.

Your Instagram includes a story feed where you’ve answered questions submitted by followers. What is the best question you’ve ever been asked there… and your response?

I was once asked about the hardest part of my job: Balance is the hardest part. There are always so many things that need to be done, and not enough time to do them all.

Much of your photography involves robotics, and your robots have names and are even featured on your staff page. Tell us about your first experience with a robot. What were the earliest visuals you made using a robot?

My first time using a cinema robot was when I was planning my deconstructed burger test shoot back in 2016. I had envisioned a shot that was otherwise impossible. I needed incredible speed, repeatability, and accuracy, which is only possible with a high-speed cinema robot.

Generally speaking, how much time is involved with trial and error when planning/preparing for a robotic shoot?

There is a lot of trial and error early on, until you get to understand how to be most efficient. My deconstructed burger shoot took me a month to plan, and a couple of days to shoot. Now, we can basically do that same shot in about two hours. The thing with making these kinds of visuals is that it takes a lot of practice and skill to plan and execute them well. But, over time, you get better and better at it.

What’s involved in programming a robot to get it to do what you need, and how great is the learning curve to mastering this?

There are two main ways to program the robot. Most of the time we program the move on set, when we just move the robot from position to position setting keyframes, and the software connects the motion between keyframes. After about a week of working with the software, doing more basic moves is quite easy.

The other method is doing a CGI import. Here, an animator makes a move in 3D software like Maya or Cinema 4D, then we import the move and the robot does the move that was created by the animator.

Deconstructed Burger Behind The Scenes from Steve Giralt on Vimeo.

In addition to working with robots, your work involves a lot of DIY creations. Do you have a favorite DIY hack, creation, or a solution you’re proudest about achieving?

My proudest/most favorite rig I’ve ever created is the Deconstructed Burger Rig. My next favorite is our lighting system. We have created, from the ground up, a super-high-power LED light system we use on all our shoots.

What is the craziest or most extreme situation you’ve encountered in the process of working out a robotics shoot?

The craziest thing I’ve ever done on a robotic shoot is working with Mark Roberts Motion Control to have two robots play tennis. The idea seemed easy enough, but the execution was incredibly challenging. First, the weather wasn’t great, and eventually it started pouring rain, which cut into our shoot day. Second was the game itself: Getting the exact positioning and timing right when hurling a rubber ball toward the ground so that it bounces up for the first robot to hit over a net, and then bounces just right for the second robot to hit back in a way that looks real was the hardest and most extreme thing I’ve ever tried to do with robots.

Is there any one shoot that’s your all-time favorite? If so, what makes it so memorable to you?

The shoot we did a few years ago for Pepsi Black was memorable in many ways. Working in collaboration with our shoot partner Buck.tv, it was the first major international TV spot where a client gave us a lot of room to play and experiment, which led to an amazing result.

What camera(s) do you currently use most often in your work?

Most often, we shoot with the Phantom VEO 4K slow motion camera, and the RED Helium 8K camera.

You build your own lighting for shoots, including a customized, water-cooled lighting rig with large 2000W LED panels. How long does it take you to come up with such lighting systems, and what’s the most extreme situation they’ve allowed you to shoot?

We’re currently in version 4.0 of that lighting system. I first started building it five years ago, just as an idea for specific shoots, but now we use those lights for all our shoots. They allow us to shoot super-slow-motion videos, move lights at high speed, and use 2000W lights at all brightness levels, since they are flicker-free and fully dimmable. These differ from HMI lights, which need to be powered up for long amounts of time, don’t have much range in dimming, and often have some flicker.

Let’s talk about motion control and slow motion. Has working with robotics changed or expanded your approach to using motion control and slow motion as a narrative element in your shoots?

I use motion control robotics to add to my stories, and as a storytelling tool. Many people just orbit around food shots for no particular reason, but for me, I like using the robots to create interesting visual stories. I can start a take in one position and end somewhere else, while shooting slow motion.

Much of your work involves shooting food and beverages. Do you have a preference between these two categories, or do you find one to be more technically challenging than the other to shoot?

It’s funny how this has evolved. Lately we’ve been shooting a lot of beverages. I really enjoy the challenges of both food and liquids, but liquids have their particular challenges. It’s important to understand how fluids move and flow in order to control them. I wish I had a degree in fluid dynamics, since I apply so many fluid theories to the design of particular shots.

With food, as long as you have good light and good styling, most of the work is done for you. With liquids, you can have good light, and styling, but if the movement of the fluid isn’t quite right, then the shot falls flat.

Your shoots often involve explosions of various matter. Do you have a favorite substance to work with? Is there a substance you find to be most difficult to work with?

I wouldn’t say I have a particular favorite substance, but working with real chocolate would have to the most difficult substance. It needs to be at just the right temperature or else it starts to clump up and crystallize. It is sticky and dark, so it shows every air bubble. It’s just a touchy, sticky substance to work with.

In a recent interview with the Creative Independent you say, “My process is inspired by technology in so many ways. There’s always new technology I could pull from.” Is there a new or emerging technology you currently find most exciting or inspiring? And, if so, how do you envision incorporating it in your work?

I’ve very excited by technology. Looking toward the future, I’m really excited to start playing with real-time virtual production, and to combine practical image making with game engine and CGI environments. I could see us setting up an LED volume or wall at some point in the future. Using this technology in slow motion is part of the challenge, as refresh rates and screen brightness add to the difficulty level, but I’m sure in the future it will be possible.

While your work is heavily influenced by technology, you describe yourself as a storyteller at heart. What methods do you use to conceptualize the story you want to tell and translate that narrative into the technical actions you need to achieve on set?

My number one goal in everything I do is to try to bring a new view to products we’ve known for years. Also, I challenge myself to tell these product stories in new ways. A shoe can just be a shoe, or it can be so much more. By breaking the shoe into parts, and breaking down the process of making a shoe, it can be an entirely different experience.

Your business now encompasses a production company called “The Garage,” and you recently moved from midtown Manhattan to Industry City, Brooklyn. Please describe your new space and any new capabilities it offers you.

We just moved to a new 10,000-square-foot facility in Brooklyn that houses my production company, The Garage, along with our Cinema Robot rental company, The Garage Rentals, and our online school, The Garage Learning. Half the facility is dedicated to shooting space; the other half includes a commercial kitchen, client lounges, a fabrication workshop, offices, and a video editing theater. We now have a total of six different robots and two studio stages available for rent to outside productions. Our goal with The Garage companies is to empower the creation of amazing visuals, whether I’m making them, or we’re helping someone else make them, through the use of our tools and team.

Originally, I created work as an individual artist, but I want The Garage to be less about me, and more about artists creating amazing videos in general. In fact, we’re currently looking for additional directors to join our roster, to empower them with our tools and processes.

You’re currently rolling out Online Courses and DIY Learning Kits through The Garage Learning. How long have you been building these resources, and what’s the difference between these two types of offerings?

We started planning The Garage Learning back in 2019, but this was dramatically accelerated during COVID, as the pandemic gave us a break from film production to concentrate on educational resources. At the end of 2020, we raised more than $400K through a Kickstarter campaign to create this company. We pre-sold online course subscriptions, in which we’ll teach everything from lighting to electronic circuits to robotics. Along with this, we created DIY kits that will allow people to assemble their own filmmaking tools. From LED light kits to fully functional robotic Pan/Tilt/Sliders, these are the essential tools for anyone trying to do similar work to what we do.

The detailed videos we provide to show people how to assemble the kits will also teach them how all the parts work, so they can feel comfortable customizing these tools over time to get a particular effect for a given shoot. Almost everything we do day-to-day requires us to customize our rigs, and we wanted to teach this ability to others.

During summer 2021, you’ll also be hosting in-person weekend workshops for limited numbers of attendees in your Brooklyn headquarters. What type of attendee would be best suited to this workshop, and are there prerequisites or required gear that attendees need to bring?

We’re so excited for these workshops! The first ones are planned for June, July, and August 2021. They aren’t designed for complete beginners, but rather for people who are already making imagery in some form, and have a basic understanding of how to create visuals. Still photographers looking to get into video, as well as cinematographers who want to learn about cinema robots and making rigs, would both have a lot to gain from this workshop. During the weekend, we’ll be covering everything from pre-production to post. You can find out more and register on the Garage Learning website.

Do you have any upcoming commercial projects or future initiatives on the horizon you can tell us about?

Unfortunately I’m on NDAs for most of our projects, so I can’t say much. But, I can say that we’ve recently been shooting some pretty amazing work, which should be coming out in the following months.

Do you have any questions for our B&H Creator of the Week? Please ask them in the Comments section, below. And, to view all our B&H Creator of the Week Q&As on Explora, click here

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2 Comments

I would love to learn from you.  Show me the door and I will walk thru.  AMazing stuff 

Glad you enjoyed reading about and viewing Steve Giralt's amazing work, Holden H. Steve's door is always open to qualified creatives through his in-person workshops linked above, or if you can't make it to Brooklyn, you can try out one of his online workshops or DIY Learning Kits. Here's to learning new skills, and thanks for reading the Explora blog!

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