Nick Limb, Founder and Creative Executive Officer of Curve Digital rarely waxes lyrically about the Company. But after much persuasion, we managed to capture some quiet time with him and get him to share his vision and thoughts about Curve life, his values and the ethics of their work.
His career path wasn’t a straight road to where he is today, but then with a company name like Curve you wouldn’t expect it to be. Starting out, Nick worked in a traditional reprographic environment where he gained valuable experience being the link between the designers and the printers, making sure a client vision was created. Sounds familiar though! How has that time helped you in your work today? Well, I suppose the basics of reprographics gave me disciplines and the process, a consistent way to produce. It also let me see the files that other people created to reverse engineer them and find their tricks. You could say I’m a problem solver, or I just love to know the details behind a final image or product. The fun part, and the part I most enjoyed was image manipulation from scanned transparencies. Especially in the early days when people were amazed that you changed the colour of a t-shirt. The words of my very first boss still ring in my ears. ‘Attention to detail!’. As much as I hate to admit it, he was right. The devil is in the detail, and now my focus is definitely on the detail.
Curve was launched as a partnership in 2005. You are now the Limited Company on your own in 2018. It has a very different look and feel to when it first started. What was the turning point that made you think ‘I want to run my own business’? I guess I have always been quite driven to succeed. I have never been the kind of person to go home at night and switch work off. I’m always thinking and learning. Working for myself was always going to be the best solution. The difference between then and now, well I always tell people that we are a collection of happy geeks who like making pictures of shiny things. Our expansion in to CGI some four or five years ago was a long and painful road. We’ve had lots of changes, and lots of new software and hardware. It wasn’t something everyone could get onboard with and we lost some good and bad guys along the way. But with this evolution, we have become a more rounded company. We still amaze each other daily with what is possible with CG and retouching working hand in hand. Our clients seem to like what we are doing which is great.
You say you are a devil for the detail but your Company strapline ‘High-end image creation for elite brands, done by the Good Guys’ isn’t complicated at all. Surely what you do isn’t that simple? You are right, it isn’t simple. I think the trick is to try and make it look simple and effortless, when the reality is that the guys work so hard to make it appear that way. We never let a client down. Now that sounds like a bold statement, but it really is our ethos. Delivering on-time, on budget and to the highest standard. We absolutely believe that’s all a client wants, and we will stay all night to achieve that.
Setting up the office in LA seems to have been an organic next step and has been very well received by the industry. What have you learnt? And apart from the timescales and the currency, how significantly do the markets differ? Culturally the U.K. and U.S. differ quite a lot from a business perspective. We have been made to feel very welcome in the U.S and the people have such a positive outlook on life, which is quite a departure for a self-degrading Englishman. However, banking in the U.S is like going back 30 years. I can’t remember the last cheque I actually wrote in the UK. But am now the proud owner of a shiny new U.S. cheque book.
Having an office in the U.K. and the U.S. does this mean you can offer a 24-hour service? That’s’ something quite unique. Technically I suppose it does. We have implemented a mirrored U.K. and U.S. server system, meaning that work saved in the U.K. appears almost instantly on the servers in Los Angeles and vice versa. It’s been a huge headache to deploy but luckily, I like problem solving. But now it’s working, it’s amazing and our clients are definitely seeing the benefit.
Curve is doing well in Europe and the U.S. How do you measure your success? It’s never been about wealth for me, and I really don’t care about being famous. For me it’s simple. If I can do something that I absolutely love, with people who make me laugh for people who appreciate the results then to me that a success.
The industry you are in is full of talented individuals and teams, all vying for the same market space. Everyone uses the same computer software, to some degree. So, how and why do Curve stand out from the crowd? It’s still quite bizarre to me that we actually do stand out. I still feel like a local boy from a sleepy village in England. But seeing our work on billboards in the U.S, I guess we must be to a degree. I suppose the internet has given us the vehicle to be seen internationally. Publishing our work on Behance, an online portfolio site, has been huge for us.
What is it about other people’s work (those you may consider competitors) that motivates you to be better? I still enjoy dissecting how things are created, and we have some very talented competitors so there is no shortage of inspiration. My motivation is to be the best I can be, at whatever I do. Image creation requires observation of the world around us including competitors, and a dogged determination to excel in whatever software is required.
Observing you at work you appear to be a hands-on, working in the business office, but with your desk in the creative studio. You were overheard looking at a piece of work with the team saying ‘I don’t want it done quickly, I want it done well. I want people to look at it and go ‘it’s a photo’. How would you describe your management style? Everyone at Curve understands that you are only as good as your last job. Nobody gets complacent or boastful. The team knows the importance I put on absolutely dissecting the image and that I need the research behind the final piece. It is essential that they understand exactly what does what and how something affects something else. It’s important that all team members are grounded, positive and quietly assured people. My job as their manager is to steer this direction, encourage them to improve themselves and make something that we can all be proud of.
You are very unassuming about what you have achieved and describe yourself as just a boy from sleepy English village. In contrast you work in a highly professional fast paced Global industry. How do you think your staff and clients see you? Wow, that’s a tough one! I hope my staff think I’m relatable, approachable and someone they are happy to work with. From a client’s perspective, I would like to think that they see me as a dependable problem solver. Someone who listens to what’s asked and brings a creative solution.
The term photorealistic became popular in the 1960s and 70s when artists and graphic designers would replicate a real form on paper to represent a photographic image. What does the term mean today and why is it used when digital Photography has advanced significantly? There is a huge push at the moment for ‘Natural’ looking imagery. Since the dawn of Photoshop there has always been a tendency to over-polish a picture. Art-Directors and Creative Directors would even refer to this as looking ‘Too CG’. I think what they mean is that something doesn’t look quite right with the image, as was the case with early CG imagery and because of that, the skill is now how real/believable you can make an image whether that be in Photoshop or any other CG software. The art of making an edit on an image but leaving the image looking untouched. Or creating a CGI image which everyone believes actually existed.
You must see the relationships between photography and retouching, and CGI should be very delicate as the reality is these mediums could be competing against each other. But at Curve your relationship with photography and photographers grows ever stronger. Can you explain the respect you have for each discipline? You’re right, I have a huge respect for the eye of a good photographer. Their vision for how a final image will look whilst standing on a road in the middle of nowhere is incredible and unique to them. Equally with CGI being such a technical discipline it’s a special thing to see an artist navigate such a complex menu driven environment to finally create something that you believe is real. Especially in car photography, sometimes it’s essential to use CG, as the car may not have even been built or released. Often though, photography is much more immediate and sometimes the clients preferred route. We aim to provide both to the highest standard. The smart photographers are seeing that they can use CGI creatively to enhance and complement their imagery.
Would you say that CGI is used for visual effects mainly because the quality is often higher, and effects are more controllable than other more physically based processes? Or that it allows the creation of images that would not be feasible using any other technology? I’m sure Hollywood has its reasons for using CGI, but for us its purely another string to the bow. Just as car photographers are being asked more and more to shoot video as well as stills, we are being asked to create CGI images to fulfil client’s asset requirements. Often due to the fact that manufacturers don’t want their new car out in the wild where roving paparazzi can snap it and show the world. They prefer the launch to be a considered showing of all of the best angles of the marque.
With the invention of smart phones, availability of software and the numerous Aps readily downloadable, we are all retouchers of some degree, shape form or other. What makes a Curve retoucher better than the average? Retouching has two sides to it. You have to be technically minded solving issues but at the same time be creative in your delivery. Oh, and repeat the process over say ten or twelve images under tight deadlines whilst accommodating comments from multiple clients. If you can do that and still have a laugh and a joke without losing that ‘Attention to detail’, then this makes a Curve Retoucher.
As a person you are interested in what the next big thing is, whether that is sports, games, gadgets. What is the next big thing for Curve? Yeah, I love new stuff. I love to change as well, much to my artist’s dismay. Just as they fully understand a piece of software, I will find something else. Sorry guys. If there is something new coming out, I want to know about it. I guess it’s just in my nature. With the L.A office only just opening, let’s see where that takes us. We have some new CG innovations coming out soon along with some of the world’s best automotive photographers becoming new clients, so everything is looking great for the future.