The hills are alive… an interview with mikrotom

originally posted on December 18, 2011


A few years ago, while searching for street art photography on flickr, I happened upon a set of amazing images that contained streets, art and photography, but in a different order. mikrotom, a graphic designer living and working in Austria, takes photos and then populates them with his haunting vector creations. Insects, robots, animals, ghosts and other fantastic creatures appear in urban and natural scenes or interiors, sometimes creepy or disturbing, sometimes very calm and quite settled in their surroundings.

CW: The settings you’ve selected for your characters are beautiful in many different ways – there are snowy forests, dilapidated buildings, old-fashioned trams and strange empty urban spaces – where were these photos taken?

mikrotom: Mostly in Vienna/eastern Austria. Where The Hills Are Alive…

Your characters fit their environment perfectly, as if you found them dwelling in their natural habitat. How do they find their way into the image – do you take your photos with their future inhabitants in mind?

I love off-spaces. You know, those places where “nothing happens”. Like parking lots, the back of shops, abandoned gardens, empty restaurants or playgrounds in Winter. (Funny, when I think about it … given how cramped my flat is.) So I always take plenty of photos in these kinds of places.

One day I discovered (in a Pictoplasma book) some photos with characters in them. That was my kick start. When I take photos now I keep in mind that one day a creature may end up sitting or walking around in them.

“Grünmarkt”/”Blue” © mikrotom 2008

“Grünmarkt”/”Blue” © mikrotom 2008

The “Grünmarkt” picture was that kind of off-space. There was nothing there, yet it had the potential to host a large green character, which I saw first when I was short-listing my Belgrade photos for flickr. The fact that it was green was a coincidence and that there is something like a “Grünmarkt” (It’s a market for fruits and vegetables, I guess it’s an Austrian word) [was] too. I did not think about it until the moment when I had to name it. It all fell into place. Also the blue guy. That he’s blue wasn’t planned. I took the photo on a freezing cold day in a public bath in Vienna and I knew someone hat to sit there. What colour or mood was not fixed. It simply happened while I worked on it. So as soon as I saw it I thought: Perfect! He IS blue.

The night vision pictures are an exception – I knew exactly how I wanted them to look, so I searched for places in Vienna to take photos.

Could you explain how you created that wonderful grainy night vision effect or is it a trade secret?

It’s not a secret at all. The photos for the night vision images are usually taken at dusk, so I have a little natural light left. I use the noise filter to add graininess, I also add a green layer and then multiply or darken it. I also play with the brightness/contrast settings a lot.

“Nightvision” © mikrotom 2008

“Nightvision” © mikrotom 2008

Have you considered using this kind of character art to create animations?

I hear that a lot. Funny thing is: I have never thought about it myself. To me the still image is much more powerful than the moving image. Dunno why.

How about street art – have you ever thought about going the opposite way and physically placing a character somewhere before taking the photo?

Yeah, I thought about that sometimes. But since I’m such a lazy ass I never managed to do that. Yet.

Which artists, people, things, places, concepts, feelings or people inspire you?

Pictoplasma (as mentioned before) inspires me a lot. The one [Pictoplasma] conference I attended really sucked, though.

I read a lot, and love Sci-Fi and Alternative-History-Novels. Children’s books are also great. And, though it sounds corny, nature is my biggest source. Looking at insects or deep sea creatures is even more exiting than reading about a policeman in a fascist 1950s Britain.

Also Plants. Plants are great. They can kill you without moving a single leaf. Isn’t that amazing?!? For example: There are those huge trees in Australia. When you touch them it can sting for the rest of your life. You change your whole existence for the worse by simply touching a plant. Absolutely breath-taking.

“White” © mikrotom 2010

“White” © mikrotom 2010

Are you planning on publishing or exhibiting your designs in any form other than on the internet? Personally I would love to have a thick, heavy picture book full of these creatures – I can imagine myself just staring at them for hours.

I am planning to have postcards made. I’ve even designed the reverse side already, but I still have to find out how to finance the printing (I don’t want any logos on them). Maybe I’ll organize an exhibition one day. There are plenty of galleries in Vienna, so that shouldn’t be a problem.

Do you work in any media other than photography and vector graphics?

I draw with ballpoint pens a lot, but recently it’s been vector graphics I enjoy. I do however think a lot about doin’ my pictures in oils or tempera. Something like that. Like the old masters. I love the craft aspect. Somehow it seems to me that this would bring the whole character thing to a new level. I guess I’m rather conservative in that aspect.

“Dragon”/”Red” © mikrotom 2008

“Dragon”/”Red” © mikrotom 2008

Top 5 artists at the moment?

Top 5 songs/records to listen to while working?

  • I’m very fond of mix-tapes. So I listen to my hit list when doin’ the illustrations.
  • In 2011 this top of the pops included:
  • The Go!Team – Buy Nothing Day
  • Low – Especially Me
  • Florence & The Machine – What The Water Gave Me
  • The Black Keys – Lonely Boy
  • The Kills – Satellite
  • The Wild Beasts – Bed Of Nails
  • Battles – Sweetie & Shag (Featuring Kazu Makino)
  • Ladytron – White Elephant
  • Zola Jesus – Vessel
  • Yann Tiersen – Fuck Me
  • Noah And The Whale – Give It All Back
  • Planningtorock – The One
  • Lady Gaga – Born This Way
  • Gus Gus – Within You
  • Fever Ray is also always a source of inspiration.

Another Top 5 of your own choice?

Highly esteemed directors I can’t stand:

  • Stanley Kubrick
  • David Lynch
  • Pedro Almodovar
  • Terence Malik
  • Martin Scorsese
“Occurence” © mikrotom 2009

“Occurence” © mikrotom 2009

“Bug”/”Ghost” © mikrotom 2008/2009

“Bug”/”Ghost” © mikrotom 2008/2009

“Robot Attack” ©mikrotom 2009

“Robot Attack” ©mikrotom 2009