Mike Campau is on another level, and I don't even know where to begin to look for this level. Mike is a industry leader in CGI and photoshop composites for the commercial advertising industry. He collaborates with names like Paul Mobley and Tim Tadder. Mike can take a blank canvas and build uber realistic baseball stadiums while drinking an IPA. Mike is an entrepreneur, father, husband, and inspiration to anyone that picks up a camera. I had the pleasure to step into the matrix with Mike recently and pick his brain, this is what happened:
About Mike Campau
Mike Campau is a big city talent with a small town attitude. While at the University of Michigan, Mike dabbled in scientific illustration, graphic design and photography. After graduating with a B.F.A., he finally found his passion of digital art - combining photography, illustration and cgi. His random interests now started to make sense. Mike has climbed the ladder of studio and agency life and now has over 15 years of valuable experience under his belt. Over the years, he has had the privilege to work on some high profile brands (Chevrolet, WWE, Budweiser, Ford, Pepsi, ESPN, and Sony to name a few) and their agencies. His talents have also landed him celebrity projects including Kid Rock, Mike Tyson, Roger Daltrey, Dave Grohl, Tracy Morgan, Zac Brown, and many more. Known for his dynamic images and clean execution style, Mike is constantly striving to not only meet, but exceed his high visual standards. Currently residing in southeast Michigan, Mike lives with his very understanding wife and 5 kids. Yes, 5 kids. Needless to say, he has plenty to do in his spare time. When Mike isn't working or spending time with his family, he likes to play soccer and go for long runs to clear his creative mind.
Mike thanks so much for sitting down with me to chat. You have really managed to stand out in this industry. How would you label yourself? What exactly do you do?
I call myself a digital artist because there is really no other title that is fitting for what I do. I have years of experience in photography, cgi, illustration, retouching and creative direction. So, if I say I’m a “retoucher” or “photographer,” it limits what people think I am capable of and what I really do. I think of myself as an artist who has a background in many of the digital fields that can create an image, so I guess it’s the perfect title for me.
I think of you more as the pixel whisperer, but I can understand if you don't want to put that on a business card. Mike, was there a defining moment in your life where you knew exactly what you wanted to do? If so, what was it, and how do I get one?
Ha! I wish there was that “moment” for me, but honestly I have always known I was going into art. Since the age of three I was constantly drawing, entering art contests, and taking as many art classes as I could. This lasted all the way through college. I guess the big “ah ha” moment for me was in 1991 when I stumbled across an application called Photoshop. Well, I guess it wasn’t “Photoshop” technically. At the time it was called BarneyScan and it was bundled with some scanners at the university I attended. But needless to say, I was fascinated by the fact that I could take images into the computer and manipulate them, change them, or just plain old destroy them. From that day forward I always “played” in photoshop as it was never taught or hardly even used by many in the art school. It was just available on all the machines.
What’s a typical day look like for you?
The typical day has changed over the years, but I will let you in on my current situation. I wake up early around 6, usually because I can’t sleep with the 10 million things I need or want to do racing around in my head. I beeline to the coffee maker and make a double cup. Sit for a minute and enjoy the silence, then see what emails have piled up in my inbox. Next I take some time to cruise the creative networks and check on my social media to kind of get my mind in the right place. After that it’s time to work. With multiple machines running, I setup renders and work Photoshop at the same time. With running my own business, my day is filled with phone calls to review work, bid new jobs, talk about new projects or even take the time to say something as simple as “hi, how’s it going?” This will usually take me through to the evening when I take a family break and step away from my work. I then typically like to have a nice meal, spend time with the kids, and maybe go for a run. If I still have work to do, I will wait until the kids are in bed and get back to work. While this is somewhat typical, I am trying more and more to give myself more mental resting time.
Agreed. On that topic, who are the people in career that you most depend on? What does your team look like?
I have a huge network of artists, retouchers, and photographers that I can fully depend on and vice versa, they can call and depend on me. I am sure you are familiar with some of these people as it’s no secret who I work with. I know I can’t try to do everything (even though I probably could) because it just doesn’t make sense to spread myself so thin trying to do it all. There are people who can help me along the way and free me up to do more “creative” work and experimentation. There are also people who are completely amazed and shocked at the amount of work I can do myself at a pretty high efficiency. The problem with this is that it is very mentally taxing and hard to keep up for long periods of time. Because of this, I make sure to bring in help on larger projects to keep me fresh and on top of the overall picture.
Nice. I want to switch gears for a minute and talk about mancaves. If you could design the ultimate mancave, what would it look like?
It would have a full theater HD projector system, a large comfy couch, a kegerator with some good beer always on tap, fridge for food, good space for a poker table and a fireplace to keep warm in the winter. Oh wait, I already did that! To be honest, I really just love my beer and the rest of it is just to fill the space.
How would you describe your style?
That’s a tough question. I think I have a pretty large range of work and I try to push myself into areas that make me uncomfortable as an artist. I think I am always a realist and try to find ways to make things look believable even though they are clearly unrealistic or more fantastical. I am a big fan of clean and simple, but sometimes I tend to work in very busy and complex compositions as well. Wait, what was the question again?
Finding your style in this industry is one of the hardest things to do, at least for me. It’s becoming harder and harder to take a bad photo with today’s technology and software and therefore harder to stand out amongst the noise. What’s your advice to the amateur or semi-pro photographer on the hunt to find their niche?
I really can’t tell someone how to find their style. Each person has to find out what they love, what looks good to them, and execute that better than anyone else. What you definitely don’t want to do, is copy a trend or popular style. At that point you are just following and not leading. More than likely someone has already perfected that technique and you are just playing catch up.
If you could hang out with three people for four hours, and they must be alive, who would they be and what would you do with them? You can be anywhere in the world.
Hmmm, tough one. I am not hung up on “celebrity” or idolizing people. I guess maybe I would want to take the top athletes in the world like Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, and Lionel Messi. I would make them draw something on the computer so I can feel better about myself!
Little offended I wasn’t on the list, Mike. What was all that one in a million talk? Anyway I understand you have like a baker’s dozen of children. How do you manage a healthy work-life balance?
Haha, you are correct in that I have five kids keeping me on my toes. It’s not easy, that’s for sure, and I am always making a conscious effort to plan my schedule to include as much family time as possible. If that means turning down a job or two, then so be it. What I have become really good at is minimizing the amount of time it takes me to do things. I am always looking for the quickest way to accomplish tasks while still keeping a high quality. It’s sort of like the movie “The Pursuit of Happiness” when Will Smith realizes it’s quicker to hit the hang up on his phone with his finger instead of actually placing the handset on the phone and picking it back up. This tiny step saved him hours in a week. I try to take that mentality into my everyday.
Nice, I do the same with my zipper and that's why it's usually down. Great minds think alike I guess. Anyway, what life experiences have helped your get to where you are today?
I would have to say sports and my family have both contributed to my work ethic. I had to start working at the early age of twelve. This wasn’t an easy country club job either, but handwork on farms and landscaping positions in the blazing heat. Along with that and playing sports throughout college, I learned what hard work was. I can attribute this to making me mentally tough enough to keep working at something even when I was mentally and physically exhausted. I have also trained and run in marathons, which really is a test of your mental strength more so than your physical ability. Most people will just quit or say the can’t do it. In reality, if you put your mind to it and train, anyone can do it.
Well said. Who have been the people in your career that have influenced you the most? Did you apprentice with someone? There isn’t one specific person who had a major impact on me as an artist, but more of a series of life events and encounters. In high school, my art teacher really pushed my drawing skills. In college, my classmates kept me motivated through those all nighters in the studio and labs. And for the last 15 years or so, I learn something new from all my colleagues and artists that I collaborate with. So, I guess there really wasn’t one person that took me under their wing and taught me the ropes, but it was a collection of people that helped me get to where I am at today. It really does takes a village.
Well said. Sounds like this level of success can’t, and doesn’t happen over night, but rather over a decade or two. If your career didn’t exist, where do you think you would have ended up or what other profession would you be in.
Never thought of that, and really don’t want to. It’s a scary thought, because whatever it is, I would be miserable.
Okay then we will go with Lumberjack for this questions. Mike Campau would have been a lumberjack had it not been for digital. That sounds good to me. Haha just kidding. How do people acquire the knowledge to make the images you make? Are their programs out there at schools? Is this an apprenticeship type trade or can someone go to school for it?
Now there are tons of classes and workshops to take. When I was in school, Photoshop was brand new and it wasn’t offered or used in classes until my later years. I had to teach myself and learn on the job. With the internet these days, you can search google and figure out how to do almost anything. But just knowing how to do the mechanics won’t make you a good artist. You have to have a good eye that can read composition, good lighting, use of color and how to pull all of those things together to create a great image. I am not sure if this can be taught or if you are just born with it? But either way, the only way to get better is practice, practice and more practice. All the books, classes and tutorials will only get you so far.
What has been your most rewarding project to work on and why?
That’s a tough question for many reasons. There are rewarding aspects and regret on almost every project. Plus, I have done thousands of projects and images over the years so it’s really hard to just pick one. What I do enjoy the most is working directly with photographers on personal projects were we are in complete control of the creative and sort of “do what we want”. These projects are usually the most rewarding and the most fun to work on. Just a few come to mind, “The Future of Sports”, “Motion in Air” and “Celebrities” are all series of images that were just created for fun and personal satisfaction, and I think it shows in the work.
What has been your most challenging project to work on and why?
I just wrapped up a project for TECATE beer and I have to say it was probably the most challenging series of images I have ever worked on. It was a series of 13 composites that involved backplate environments, cgi, photographic elements and models shot in studio. I was working with Tim Tadder on this project and we were in charge of the visual concepts as well as the execution. Trying to figure out 13 compositions, all very different from each other and still trying to maintain the “series” feel to it was very mentally taxing. Each backplate was created from multiple shots (hundreds of backplates were shot over a 12 day period in Brazil) and then cgi elements had to be matched into the scenes with the correct lighting and color. I am sure one day I will look back at that project and enjoy it, but right now it hurts my head to look at them anymore.
What image/project has taken you the longest to complete and why?
I don’t think there is one in particular that was “long”. Most of my work usually wraps up between 2 weeks to 1 month, but the real question is how much do you accomplish in that time. I had a project that involved 4 major photo composites, along with cgi components all in large format, and I had 4 days to do it. Those projects are brutal and I promised myself I would never attempt that again. I think that almost killed me.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made in your career and could it have been prevented?
I really have no regrets or “mistakes” that I can think of. I made some wrong choices, but looking back those choices made me who I am today and I don’t think I would change anything. I guess, the one thing I would tell people who can answer this question is to not look back, but look forward because you are always going to make mistakes. You have to just learn from them and focus on getting better.
What’s more important, learning from your own mistakes or traveling?
Learning from your mistakes. When I train people, I always want them to work on personal samples. The reason for this is that you will make a ton of creative mistakes and not every image or sample is going to be good, but learning from them is really the key. Know why something is good or what makes it bad is the only way to learn how to get better. Sometimes the only way to know what works is to know what doesn’t.
What advice do you have for the millions of people that are stuck in a job they dislike that are doing something photography creative on the side trying to make that their career?
The biggest brand you need to worry about is yourself. When you’re ready, attach your name to everything and treat your name like you would your client’s brand. If you build up your brand big enough, people will find you. You can try to do this while you are working your day job, but make sure you put your best work out there. One bad image can ruin ten good ones. This is usually a slow process so be patient and keep working at it. Don’t find time to create, you have to make time.
Who are you listening to right now? If you aren't listening to anyone now, who's on your latest playlist?
Ha! I listen to everything. Country, rock, pop, rap, 80’s, 90’s. But right now, Zac Brown is always on that playlist. The guy has a great voice.
If you had a month off, what would you do?
Haha. I am trying that now and it’s not working out so well. Two days in and my phone won’t stop ringing for requests and proposals. I know, it’s a good problem to have and I’m not complaining. I guess I would say, if I had a month off I would be a little worried! When I do take breaks, it’s usually to play soccer, which I’ve been playing for over 35 years. I also love going fishing in my backyard, or taking a trip with the family.