Tomasz Opasinski is from Poland, works in the United States, and has a long history with numerous creative agencies. He’s currently employed as Senior Art Director at BLT & Associates, Inc. He’s mastered Photoshop, digital illustration, design, and continues to experiment whenever time allows.
Tomasz has created hundreds and hundreds of posters for the movie industry. He shares his story with us, starting from humble beginnings and charting the rise to success. He shares his creative insights on design, inspiration, creativity, and more. This is an interesting and thoughtful interview from a talented artist, so lets jump into it!
1. Tomasz, could you tell us a bit about your background? How did you get involved in the design field and creative industry? What training do you have and how has it helped you in your work?
Hi Sean, thanks for having me here… :) Short story long… :) For years my dream was to become a Navigation Officer and maybe a ship Captain one day. I had completed Inland Navigation School in Poland and I was about to start my Master’s Degree in Navigation when I was disqualified because of my poor vision – eye glasses. So, my dream burst like a soap bubble in one second… I had to decide what to do next since navigation wasn’t an option at all (even with LASIK surgery) and… my choice came naturally: computers and publishing.
Even in elementary school, I painted, hand drew and worked on school flyers and it seemed to me like this could be something. And it was. Right after my Inland Navigation School, I enrolled in the School of Advertising – also in Poland. In the meantime, I worked in traditional advertising agencies… first as a desktop publishing operator, then designer… then I did some 3D work and finally I got my shot at advertising in one of the biggest agencies in Poland – Euro RSCG Dialog.
At that moment, I felt like I was on a top of the world… I witnessed some of the biggest campaigns being born and made alive, I got into "Young Creatives Competition," I had been "everywhere" at that moment, but… it wasn’t enough for me. I got addicted to adrenaline, to this lifestyle… and to stress – believe it or not.
In 2000, I decided to leave my home country – and try something new in Australia. Tehe… please don’t ask me why Australia – I don’t know… :) At the same time my roommate (Wojtek) decided to go to Ireland and it became a "who goes somewhere first" competition. I had failed miserably when Wojtek got his Irish working visa in 2 days, where with an Australian Embassy it looked like a year long process. So… I gave up. I gave up on Australia, but not on my "second destination" – USA.
After my 3-week long trip to the US, I had decided to give it a try… and it worked. It wasn’t the easiest process on the planet, but I got my Visa… and I got my first design job in Milwaukee, WI. It wasn’t an easy time for me… I came into a different country, a different culture and a different language. Funny thing about the language – I knew close to nothing then… I couldn’t complete a sentence in English. This was a very stressful time. As they say: "sink or swim" here – sinking wasn’t an option.
In 2002 a Beverly Hills agency – Seiniger Advertising Group (the oldest entertainment advertising agency in the country) – had contacted me with a possible job offer. In the meantime, I won "Guru Award" at 2002 Photoshopworld in San Diego – this award gave me a bit more confidence in "doing and thinking." After a week long series of intense testing, I got hired as an Art Director at Seiniger. Wooohoo!
Ever since then, it’s been "a one, big blur"… I moved from agency to agency, I was given more and more responsibility, I learned many things, I learned English, I learned to manage time and projects better than before… Now, after 7 years, I see my current job from a totally new perspective – now, I strategize more and plan more carefully rather then solely focusing on Photoshop work… I focus on a message, I solve problems. Hmmm… what helped me? Persistence.
2. Could you tell us about your portfolio? There are quite a few technologies one could utilize for their portfolio website, as well as formats for presentation? What are the benefits of the direction you’ve chosen to present your work? What was the thought process and planning behind this project?
I started my website back in 2001. Over the years, the site transformed from a "friend-oriented" to "project-oriented" scheme. I’ve been using my website statistics to optimize it’s shape, size and content. The current shape and form represent visitors’ expectations and I think it goes a bit beyond.
There are many challenges when it comes to an online presentation… many questions have to be answered. Not only from my side, but mostly from a user end. I had to ask myself many, many, many times: what do I want to show here, how am I going to show it, what am I going to do about different formats, what I’m going to do with the amount of work being shown, how small is too small and how big is too big, where to position myself, what type of viewer do I want to attract? These and many other questions that have to be answered at once… it gets tricky, trust me.
In my opinion, the present tomasz-opasinski.com site is optimized for those who want to take their time and view art work, not for "cruise-by" visitors… It’s a gallery and there are no "sort by," "comment" or "google." It’s a gallery, where you experiment piece by piece, you like it or not…and move onto to the next one. There are no ranking, sorting engines, music – its all about images; images in various sizes and proportions… I have horizontal pieces in the experimental art department, I have traditional posters, I have billboards, some packaging, horizontal photography and all these make a library of more than 2000 images.
This design filters out any "noise" present on many websites… buttons, sliders, moving parts, colors, animated elements… this website gives me what I essentially want to see: large images. Viewing all these images requires one thing only: time. The content is much more important than the technology behind it… my website has my photography, experimental artwork, commercial posters and several more interesting ideas. For example, the before and after section (a.k.a Evolution) – takes you to "behind the scenes" with some of the projects.
I’ve always been a fan of "behind the scenes" for motion pictures and here is my favorite one. There is also a section: shapes, where I present simple proportions and schematics behind contemporary posters. I think they make for a great starting point. I tried blogging on my website, but somehow never got into a habit of posting info on a daily or weekly basis, but I’m still trying to figure out the best way to answer all the questions people send me everyday… I suppose I need more time… :)
3. What was your first experience with Photoshop? How does Photoshop fit into your workflow? What are some of the must know skills with working in Photoshop for the type of work you do? What are the programs and tools that you use on a regular basis? And what does your studio setup look like?
Hmmm… I guess my first semi-Photoshop experience was with Aldus Photostyler back in a day… then Photoshop came along. My very first montage was a balloon flying over a lake… I remember using the lasso tool , tehe… it was fun. Prior to Photoshop there were Amiga 500 and Amiga 1200 with Deluxe Paint. Ehhh, memories. :)
Currently, the industry is fully (and unfortunately) Photoshop dominated… rarely you can find some dude using Painter and/or a 3D program. I say unfortunately, because Photoshop appears to me as a really stiff, huge creature unable to make smart and quick moves. It looks to me like Adobe work is based on a model: "Hey, programmers, come up with something and let the marketing guys sell it."
They’re missing one, "small," but so important element: "Hey, lets listen to what the users want and lets give it to them…" – it would sell itself. To be good at what I do, I have to listen very carefully to what my clients want and work accordingly – I wish this would apply to other places.
So here we are with Photoshop CS4 and must-know skills… what would it be? Hmmm… First and foremost it would be: masking… Why? you may ask? Because all we do is a collage… we blend images, we dissect every single image into 5… 10… or even more elements, which are used later on in our projects. Not only that… masking is used when we color-correct images, when we create a scene seen on a poster (a dude behind a tree or something) and, for instance, we use masking to "hide" half of our final poster on the promotional websites.
Besides masking, I would say that "coloring and color correction" are important to know… these are very useful skills when it comes to building "a comp" from 40 different images – some of them shot yesterday in our studio, some of them taken five years ago on a rainy day and some of them at noon on the beach… at the end, all these elements have to work together and look like one seamless snapshot.
Type is also important, but I suppose it’s not a typical Photoshop problem. Though not necessarily Photoshop related, I would love to mention one significant skill. I call it "a dissecting skill"… it is an ability to see more in every single image than an average person, it’s all about attention to details. Example: image of a car parked on a residential street… What you see? It’s not just a car that you can mask out from this image, but plenty more elements which may be very useful one day… reflection in car windows, wheels, leafs from a tree behind the car, house windows, stairs, license plate, street surface, clouds, lousy cat sitting on the window sill, grass with yellow flowers… and so on.
When you exercise your imagination, this is where your job gets waaaay more interesting. Your limits disappear. Seriously. :) Imagine that one day you may have more than a million images in your library. Imagine that every single agency has its own library with millions of images… imagine that you have to memorize most of them in order to pull some of them to use in one of your projects. Exciting, right?
I hardly go beyond Photoshop at work… In the past years, I used Maxon Cinema 4D for my 3D elements and compositions, but I have switched to more sophisticated software, Autodesk Mudbox and Pixologic Zbrush. I try to reach beyond posters and 2D work.
I have two "studios"… one at work and one at home. I work on a Mac Pro, two Dell monitors and use Wacom Intuos tablets… nothing extraordinary (except 20GB of RAM maybe). I’ve tried Wacom Cintiq 21UX for about 2 months, but I couldn’t deal with the pain in my arm after 8 hours of illustrating. It’s great for digital sculpting though, I have to admit. What else. I have a lamp with a natural soft, white light to see true colors and headache tablets of course. :) An extremely important part of my studios is backing up my work – other than Time Machine, I have additional 2TB for my monthly backup needs. Add a nice chair, webcam, huge speakers and you have my studio… with some posters on the wall.
4. Could you tell us how you have evolved as an artist over the years, what key lessons have you learned that stuck with you?
I don’t feel complete as an artist to be honest with you. Maybe privately (other than work) yes, I am making my experimental art, but work-wise I’m in a marketing business. I strategize, I solve problems by using images (posters) and it just happens that (thankfully) people like my solutions to their "problems" – posters, mostly posters.
How does art fit into all of this? It lies in the execution (Photoshop)? of my ideas. Is it part of the strategy I choose for a particular campaign? Is it "feel" or "treatment" I choose? Is it the way I present my artwork? I’d rather make a great image rather then saying 1000 words.
There is only one lesson to learn (except masking) go beyond expectations. As corny as it may sound, it works. Those who took risks will understand me now, those who didn’t – may have something to look up to. I think that the US produced more than 700 (!) movies last year and imagine that every single one needed a poster… now, imagine that many great posters have been done in the past, imagine that you should "reinvent" every single new poster, imagine that for every campaign, we, as designers, have to create hundreds of "possible posters," then go beyond that. Once you do… yeah, it feels good. :)
5. How long have you been creating posters? How did you get started in this area of design? How did this grow into such a large part of what you do?
It’s been 7 years now, but it feels like 19 or so, trust me. It’s a really fast-paced environment, full of stress, deadlines and very creative misunderstandings. Have you ever heard, "You snooze – You loose?" This industry is based on this saying then… time, time, time – this is what I have really mastered at my job. How to be faster, wiser… more efficient.
In the past 7 years, I was involved in about 300 campaigns, which gives an average of 3.5 campaigns per month. Let me emphasize that "a campaign" does not equal to only one final poster. We’re talking about tens and hundreds of posters per campaign. How did this grow on me? I just love what I do… I really do. Some aspects more, some less – it’s life I guess, you can’t love everything equally. :)
Commercial design grew on me over the years. First, small projects for friends and family: invitations, cards, wedding albums… then, school brochures, school newspapers (with ads), "school dance" posters followed by flyers and more grown-up, traditional advertising. These days I do the same thing, but entertainment oriented. "There is no business like showbusiness," as they say… :)
After all this hard work: thinking, shooting, sketching, illustrating, positioning, executing… you won’t see your name (or the company for that matter) in the movie’s credits. :) Just so you know, the pizza delivery guy’s name will be there, right after "mr. smith’s" taxi driver… :) Funny? Nah, I don’t think so.
6. What top resources would you recommend for someone to learn poster design skills? Where do you go for your inspiration?
It’s hard to say exactly where to go, since there is no place for all the answers. You basically learn as you go (!). Some learn fast, some learn slow and some are not meant to do this kind of job – simply, this applies to all professions.
There are plenty of books and DVDs about drawing and Photoshop, so don’t worry about that. What else? Hmmm… there are countless web sources for Photoshop tutorials, check out Scott’s great one.
It gets tougher when you narrow it down to posters… I would recommend books about traditional advertising… techniques, styles and tricks. There are quite a few books on classic posters – Russian, British, Polish, Chinese, etc. There is literature about contemporary posters as well, but somehow they all end on 1990 – what’s up with that?
Well, a problem with all those "poster books" is that they don’t show/tell you anything about the creative process or marketing solutions… Most of them are (or should be) in the NON-educational section, since they present only a final stage of poster (no, not gallery). Where am I going with this? I would love to publish a book about movie posters… current movie posters with educational background to each sample presented… but, unfortunately, you will have to wait for it for a while.
Other than books, there is not much to learn from when it comes to posters… you can always try to learn from the professionals, who design posters for a living, right? Ask these guys for mentoring? Workshops? Be creative… :) I do have some links to poster designers on my website, or just simply google them.
Inspiration comes from everywhere… from your grandma making odd comments, kids flying kites, nature… everywhere… but the most important thing would be to preserve these memories and apply them when needed. Otherwise, you search for inspiration all day long without much being done in the meantime… :)
This is just one of the skills that may be helpful one day… another one is known as ADHD. Without ADHD you would be stuck with one idea for 6 hours or longer… :) I call it a natural prerequisite… :) I know, it’s funny, but so true. :)
7. Could you tell us about the creation of one of your favorite poster projects? What was the name of the project? What makes it stand out in your mind as something you enjoyed working on? Can you walk us through how you created this piece and how it fit the intended message and audience?
It would be "Paris, Je T’Aime" followed by "Sukiyaki Western Django", exequo… both posters/campaigns are in separate categories… "Paris" is heavily "concept based" where "Sukiyaki" is "image/feel based." Both projects gave me a chance to go beyond what I was expected to do as an Art Director. Both gave me creative freedom, both gave me a chance to send a message between studio/producer and audience… it’s a great feeling when you can do so much with just one image. Both posters are unique in regards to style – it’s a valuable exercise for a designer to stretch between these imaginary borders. Both just feel good, feel… right.
8. You have built up a great client base having done work for large corporations. In your opinion what are some effective ways to market yourself as a designer to attract clients?
It’s a tricky question. I work for agencies and technically the clients are not my clients. I go to the meetings, briefings and screenings, but I represent an agency. The law does not allow me to work for multiple agencies at the same time. It would be creating competition for myself… :) You know what I mean?
Many people (mostly students) have asked me the same question: "how to market yourself?" And… hmm… every time I respond: "go beyond expectations." Among others, it means that you have to prepare your portfolio… and by portfolio, I mean some good stuff. Remember that good stuff mostly doesn’t happen at school… it happens when you have an idea and vision and want to experiment with it. It happens when you spend some time with it… when you put some work into it… and in the end – it really shows.
Remember, seek opinion from everybody other than your family and friends. They tend to tell us what we want to hear… and in this game it’s not about what you want to hear, it’s about what people in your profession think about your work… the bottom line is that a client has to like your designs, he pays your bills. This brings me to my next point: website… from there you can get some really honest feedback… and it’s easy to forward to other people. Convenient. You won’t get sticky fingerprints on web based portfolio… :)
So, portfolio is one thing. Case studies also help to understand how you do stuff, how do you solve problems, how long it takes between the problem and solution? Little tip: people love to see short ways for solving problems. :) There is one more thing: attitude… but that’s another article!
9. What are you currently working on that’s captured your imagination? What are your plans for the future?
Unfortunately, I am unable to share my thoughts on my present project with anyone outside the agency, but trust me – there is plenty of cool stuff currently in works. As far as my plans go… hmmm… tough question in tough times, but I’m a 34-year-old guy, it’s time to grow up and do something more serious… :) I know, sounds pretty enigmatic… :)
10. Thanks again for providing Psdtuts+ with this opportunity to interview you. Any final thoughts for creatives working hard to grow in this industry?
Go beyond expectations. You guys at Psdtuts+ definitely do… :)
Tomasz Opasinski on the Web
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