Surachai Puthikulangkura is the highest-ranking illustrator/digital artist in Lürzer’s Archive (and probably the entire industry).
I’m eager to improve myself every single day.
Over the past five years alone, our print magazine has featured an incredible 100 campaigns in which the prolific Bangkok-based creative and his Illusion Studio were involved in one way or another. Surachai has garnered shedloads of awards, Cannes Grand Prix and Lions included, for his work on accounts such as Batelco, Samsonite, the WWF, Canon, and many, many more. Michael Weinzettl found this to be more than reason enough to chat to Surachai about his background and remarkably successful career.
Hello Surachai, did you grow up in a very art-oriented household?
Not at all. I grew up with my parents who owned a grocery shop. I lived in a rural area in the northern part of Thailand where electricity ran only three hours a day. The word “art” was very far removed from me.
What prompted me to step into the world of art was the medium of film. I’ve loved watching movies since I was young. I started in fact, while still in primary school, to notice errors that occurred during the shooting of the films and this got me interested in post-production. This influenced and proved to benefit me throughout my career.
What were you like as a child and adolescent?
What were your interests?
When I was young, I loved art class. I remember how happy I was and how well I did in class. In my teenage years, however, I spent most of my time playing sports. I was focusing on playing basketball. I wanted to be in the school team. Yet I quit basketball two years after I got into university with a painting major, also to prevent myself from hand injuries caused by playing basketball, I turned my attention to painting instead. I like competing with myself and am eager to improve myself, every single day. To this day, however, playing sports has affected my attitude toward work. I still imagine myself playing sports but my equipment is now a computer and my team’s name is “Illusion.” I want to develop my team to be proficient enough to win a championship in the world of international advertising award festivals.
When did you first get interested in creating images, and what media did you either already have at your disposal or try your hand at? I know you studied painting at university.
I started to love creating images when I was young and got deep into painting when I was studying fine art at the university. I definitely first started from drawing with pencils, crayons and painting with oil colors, acrylic paints, and working in airbrush. Then I learned photography, self-taught, I was so fascinated with working in the darkroom. I explored many different techniques for photo retouching. In the final year of my university life, I decided that I was interested in “super-realistic” painting. It made myself always perceive every detail in my surroundings. After that, I continued my studies of visual design at the Gakuin Design Academy in Tokyo. I had a chance to try a Macintosh computer at an Apple exhibition in Tokyo. From that moment on, I knew that computers, instead of acrylic paints and paintbrushes, would be my new tool to create artwork. My first time learning to use a computer was with Macintosh SE and I got an opportunity to create images for karaoke with Macintosh IIci at Zoom System Service Inc. in Japan. At that time, there were only graphic images with not a whole lot of colors. I heard the word “Computer Retouching” for the first time in Japan. I was so impressed. It was much different from retouching by hand. I learned from observing and finding faults in advertising posters in train stations and magazines, along with learning how to use a computer intensively. I discovered that finding faults in advertising poster techniques was similar to the way I was interested in finding mistakes in the shooting of movies. I got interested in post-production, and that got me so excited. After I had been working in Japan for six months, I came back to Thailand and worked as a graphic designer, designing brochures and posters. I observed myself and found that I preferred to spend time retouching with Photoshop rather than designing, so I decided to change my path to photo retouching for a living by learning on my own. I retouched photos at Kamarat Studio for seven years, then I quit and established my own CGI studio named Illusion in 2001.
At that time, hardware and software for desktops were too slow, I couldn’t afford the workstations and it took some time to build a team, especially in Thailand, which didn’t have classes in this field so I had to build my own team. Agencies and clients did not believe that we would be able to use CGI to create advertising images. I did retouching service and was at the same time building my CGI team. When hardware and software for desktops were developed to be faster and cheaper, enabling them to be used in advertising with its very tight schedules, I decided to transform the retouching studio into a CGI studio in 2010 to create hyper-realistic CGI images. My amazing story started then.
Can you tell us about Illusion, your studio? How many people work there today?
I founded Illusion in 2001. At that time, I did my own research and found that the world would be changing the workflow from analog to digital, and that CGI would become the future of creating print in the world of advertising. Retouching images has many limitations but creating images from 3D programs has a lot more flexibility to support more varied ideas. We can create a new realistic aesthetic which is not photography. It has broadened the boundary of creating print ads.
On the first day, we started with only ten people and now we are 30. This is the best part of my life. I’m so lucky I have such great teammates. I’ve worked with a brilliant team for over 17 years. I would like to mention my three directors, who are like the heart of Illusion. The first one is the most talented CGI artist that I have ever worked with and he is the one who stands behind every one of Illusion’s works. He is our CGI director, Supachai U-Rairat. The second person is our production director, Somsak Pairew, the man who, for 17 years, has supported all the processes for Illusion and made sure that they go forward smoothly. The third person is Post Rattanas, overseas producer director. He is the one behind the effective communication with clients around the world, no matter where the client might be located and in which time zone. As previously mentioned, we have a total of 30 people in the team, which consists of CGI artists, retouchers, producers, finance and housekeeping. We work as a team. Everyone does what they can do best to create the best work.
What or who influenced you in your path?
For me as a creator of print ads, Lürzer’s Archive is what has made the most impact on my journey. When I first started creating print ads, I found out that there is a big difference between paintings and print ads. Print ads have to be concise and easy to understand, to speak out a product’s/brand’s qualification that needs to be communicated to the viewers. On the other hand, fine art is to communicate with the artist himself. So I started to search for good print ads to see what they look like. I studied from the world-class advertising award festivals like Cannes Lions, D&AD, The One Show, Clio Awards, and LIA Awards. From my analysis, I found that most of the award festivals change their judges every year, which brings some inconstancy to the festivals. The only one that has never changed the judge is Lürzer’s Archive. All works have been selected by one person for decades, and that one person is you, Michael Weinzettl. Studying Lürzer’s Archive for years made me understand more about good print advertising, and what great art direction should look like. So I set myself the goal of creating works that would get selected to be published in Lürzer’s Archive as much as I can, because if they are qualified for Lürzer’s Archive, which has been called a bible of advertising, there would be a good chance of winning the world-class award festivals. That is the reason why I am number one in the Lürzer’s Archive’s ranking and keep winning awards from all the award festivals around the world.
Did you have any heroes, artists that you very much admired when you were growing up, and that you would call influential for your own work?
I admire many artists but none of them are particularly my heroes. Paintings of various periods that have influenced my work are the aesthetic of Caravaggio’s darkness and light, Rembrandt’s beauty of light and shadow, and Dutch still life painting of the seventeenth century that realistically expressed the beauty of daily goods such as glass cups, flowers, fruits, food, animals, or even those tiny insects. Moreover, there is the influence from 1980s American photorealistic artists like Chuck Close, Richard Estes and Charles Bell, who created paintings from photography, and also natural details in Andrew Wyeth’s work. There are so many more that I have not mentioned. Nowadays, I still visit museums around the world in my free time to see those works of art so I can improve myself all the time.
How do you and your people go about creating one of the striking images you are famous for? How do you start out: With a photo, an illustration, or a pencil sketch? What are the next steps?
In our way of working, the most important thing is to choose the project that has an idea, and it absolutely has to be a good idea. We carefully choose the project we would like to do, and I am the one who makes the decision whether we will do the project or not. The reason is that, for advertising, no matter how great the visual, if the idea is not good enough, it really is just nothing. Good crafts must support a good idea. In terms of selecting projects, we pick from creatives’ sketches. Once we get the idea, we start researching to see the direction in which the idea should go. Of course we stick with the image in the creative’s mind first and then develop it to be farther than their expectations while giving them some supporting references. We will look into it and see what needs to be real, what can be reduced, and what can be added to make the visual impact and emphasize the idea. After that, we create a sketch or a layout to confirm with the creatives that we are seeing the same thing. The next step is modelling, for which we use 3D programs such as Maya, 3ds Max and ZBrush, depending on which suits the project best. Then we send the model to the creatives for reviewing and there might have to be some adjustments, usually two to three times. Next up is texturing and the lighting process for rendering. Once we have got the image from rendering, we retouch the image with Photoshop to bring out the mood and tone of the visual.
Can you tell us which projects turned out to be important points, what might be called stepping stones in your career?
Samsonite’s “Heaven and Hell” was the biggest turning point in my career. It was the first Grand Prix Print in Asia from Cannes Lions. We worked with a super-talented creative team from JWT Shanghai. That work made the world know who Illusion is, all the creatives’ eyes were on us, and they were looking for more opportunities to work with us.
When did you get internationally famous, and with which projects for which clients?
After a great success with Samsonite’s Heaven and Hell in 2011, more clients came to work with us. This has given us the great opportunity to do many great works with talented creatives from all over the world, such as Maxam toothpaste’s “Don’t Let Germs Settle Down,” for which we got the first Gold Illustration from Cannes Lion in 2012, Sunlight’s “Separate Them” from MullenLowe Thailand, which won Gold in Illustration at the Cannes Lions Festival in 2013 and was selected to be on the cover of Lürzer’s Archive’s 30th anniversary calendar; WWF’s “Stop One. Stop Them All,” from Leo Burnett Sydney, which won Best of Show from The One Show 2015; FGM’s “It Happens Here,” from Ogilvy London, which won the Grand Clio 2015; Watson’s “For Monsters Breath,” from DDB Group Hong Kong, which was selected to be on the cover of 200 Best Digital Artists 2015/2016; Lego’s “Build The Future,” from Ogilvy Bangkok, which won the Grand Prix from Spikes Asia 2017; “Chop-Chop 2.0,” from Amber Shanghai, China, which won the Grand Prix from Ad Stars 2018; JBL’s “Block Out The Chaos 2,” from Cheil Worldwide Hong Kong, which won the Grand Prix from Kam Fan Awards 2018; “KFC Hot & Spicy,” from Ogilvy Hong Kong, which won five Golds at the Cannes Lions 2018 and was selected to be on the cover of Lürzer’s Archive Vol. 3-2018.
When you look back at your output over the years, are there images that you would like to do differently, or to redo, today?
In my opinion, I believe that there is no way we can change the past, neither in work nor in our lives, so I’m always willing to do my best at the moment and also believe that everything is as good as it can be. I learn from mistakes, to improve myself and to create better work. I always look ahead, searching out new opportunities to create something even better.
You’re number one in our Illustrators as well as in our Digital Artist ranking. What is the difference between the two, the illustrator and the digital artist? Do you even see one? A lot of your work seems to fit into both categories.
Both Illustrator and Digital Artist have different aesthetic ways of working but there are still some parts that overlap. Before computers, illustration work was done by hand, which gave it a very natural look – created by a human and reflecting the characteristic style of the illustrator in terms of the use of colors and the stroke techniques. It is different in the case of digital artists as they use computers to work, which enables them to retouch or enhance an image, or use images to composite a new image. This group of work would look like a photograph, or in other groups might use effects to create the work. The outcome would be very computerized. For Illusion, a lot of our work did not start from photography. We started by rendering from 3D programs and, after that we do post-production and paint in Photoshop to achieve a hyper-realistic CGI look, which gives the image a similar texture to painting (illustration) and sometimes feels like photography. This is what has made Illusion’s work fit into both categories.
How do you find inspiration for your work?
Reading books, watching movies, listening to music, and traveling is the way I receive inspiration from the outside world. Meanwhile, being alone and talking to myself is another way to inspire me. Being with my lovely family and receiving support from the loved ones is the greatest inspiration not only for my working life but for living a life that is worth living.