Business interview: Director of Atomhawk Design, Ron Ashtiani

Director of Atomhawk, Ron Ashtiani, discusses how his art and design company has become a precious asset in the production of hit films and games

Director of Atomhawk Design Ron Ashtiani pictured at his office within the Northern Design Centre, Gateshead
Director of Atomhawk Design Ron Ashtiani pictured at his office within the Northern Design Centre, Gateshead

The games industry has always been volatile, according to Ron Ashtiani.

And he should known; throughout his career in digital art and design, he’s seen a fair few studios - once thriving on the back of chart-topping hits - shut shop following a flop or two, taking the jobs they provided with them.

Hence, when Midway in the Team Valley went into administration, he and several colleagues from the firm - Pete Thomspon, Steve Pick and Corlen Kruger - took a bold step and went out on their own, establishing Atomhawk Design as an art-and-design-as-a-service company.

Five years on and its fair to say that boldness has paid dividends.

Raking in a turnover of £1.13m last year, the business - which focuses on films, games, television and user interfaces - now counts the likes of Marvel and Warner Brothers among its clients as it works on hit blockbusters like Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: The Dark World.

Essentially, Atomhawk is there to realise ideas, Ron explains, using illustration and design to set out the vision for a product or production.

In the case of movies, that can mean months, or longer, of painstakingly detailed work, as the firm’s concepts - such as the striking Milano spacecraft in Guardians of the Galaxy - are turned into physical reality.

“That was one of the most impressive props and sets I’ve ever seen in my career,” said Ron. “You could go inside it and all the switches were proper switches – you could flick them on and off.

“And the seats had been trimmed by one of the guys who does the trimming for Bentley. It was a real high-tech production and just an amazing experience to see it.

“You can think right back to being in a room discussing an idea for a spacecraft, then seeing it go through the process from simple black-and-white sketches, to colour, to key art – that’s what it will look like in the movie – to it actually being turned into a real object.”

Starting with just four founders, the Atomhawk team is currently 18-strong, with 16 based at the Northern Design Centre in Gateshead and two based in South Africa - a quirk that came about when Corlen Kruger decided he wanted to return to his home country while still remaining with the company.

This hasn’t proved a problem. In fact, thanks the wonders of increasingly advanced technology, the South Africans are able to engage just a fully as anyone else in contributing ideas.

With regard to skills, everyone on the team is expected to be an all-rounder, but each will have their areas of expertise, ranging from character design to putting the finishing touches on projects.

On the games side of things, it’s unlikely the business will have much to do with the gameplay aspects.

However, with design and narrative being intrinsically linked, it’s often the case that ideas will generate further ideas, meaning Atomhawk can end up contributing a great deal.

One good example was its work on Project Spark for Microsoft, a game that sees users build and play within their own worlds.

In that instance, Atomhawk was pretty much given a “blank canvas”, allowing its creative team to surprise even themselves with the richness of the content they created.

“The secret with the guys on the team was to break it down into chunks,” Ron said. “If you went to a team of artists and just said, ‘Design a world’, there would be chaos.”

Of course, working with creatives brings its own joys and challenges that require understanding.

“As a manager of creative people, it really helps to be a creative person yourself,” Ron said. “You need to understand what motivates the team as a whole and the individuals.

“I have worked with managers from non-creative backgrounds and they can get quite frustrated with creative teams because they don’t understand that some days, no matter how great a person is, the spark just isn’t there.

“There’s an emotional tie with this work; you don’t necessarily come in at 9am and get stuck in. You can get artist’s block. My job, therefore, is to spark the team again - I’ll sit down with the guys if they’re struggling and bounce ideas off them.”

Ron first discovered his own spark as a child growing up in London and Sheffield.

With a mother who enjoyed arts and crafts and an engineer for a father, the basics were already in place for a career that would merge precision with free-flowing artistry.

His grandfather, on his mother’s side, was also an artist and sculptor, who inspired Ron with his passion.

“In those days, art didn’t pay,” he said. “It was a lifestyle choice and if you chose it, you had to be happy facing the fact that you would probably be poor for the rest of your life. So my grandfather led a fairly humble existence.

“These days, fine art is still hard to get into, but if you’ve got the skills and can work in digital, at least these days, you can have quite an enviable career.”

Although academically successful, Ron was somewhat disruptive at school - “a pain in the backside” and one of “the usuals” on detention, as he puts it.

Hence, he left at 16 to pursue a apprenticeship in engineering, a career that ultimately wasn’t for him. Instead, he went to enroll on a fine art course at college - but got nudged in a different direction.

“It was only when I went to interview that they said they were happy to accept me, but did I know that there was a new computer graphics and design course that had just started that year? I went to see about that and I was absolutely smitten. This was about 1995, I think, and Toy Story had just come it.

“Suddenly, there was this movie that was entirely computer generated and that really sparked the imagination of everybody. The education world was therefore coming round to the idea that this might be something they could support.”

On graduating in 1997, he moved to Leeds to work as an animator, a role in which he remained for two years.

It was exciting environment for a young man who had always loved games and films, with Ron gelling well with his colleagues and developing a fascination with the rapidly changing world of technology.

On moving to Gremlin Graphics in Sheffield - which by that time employed around 280 people - then, he got his first experience of management, running a team of 12.

Again, he remained with the company for two years before eventually moving to London where his girlfriend, Karen - now his wife and public relations manager at Atomhawk - wished to pursue a career in advertising.

“The first job I did there involved working on the video game version of John Carpenter’s The Thing, which was a huge success - 1.4m copies sold,” Ron said. “I even went out to San Francisco to collect an industry award on behalf of the team. I was 23-years-old at the time and it was quite an amazing moment.”

Following the highs, though, came the lows as the company he was working for eventually collapsed.

“It was awful,” he recalled. “I couldn’t understand how it had happened. I really felt that things had gone badly wrong and it took a while to get over that.

“Within another two years, however, I was working on Nintendo games and life was good again. What I realised over the last 20 years is that it’s a boom and bust industry.”

Eventually, Ron’s talents were spotted by Midway, who head-hunted him, leading him to move to the North East.

When that company went into liquidation, enough was enough and he realised a new direction was needed.

“At that point, my wife was weeks away from giving birth to our first child,” he said. “The idea of having to move to the other side of the world or back to London wasn’t particularly palatable.

“We had a conversation in the pub and we all agreed about the way forward. The team I had was the best I had worked with, so I was confident that if anyone could make a go of it would be them.”

The early days, of course, were tough, involving long hours in a less than desirable office space that featured a searingly hot radiator that couldn’t be turned off.

Business, however, grew at a rapid rate, with Ubisoft Reflections being among Atomhawk’s first clients.

By the end of year one, the company had had three number one games - Driver San Francisco, Mortal Combat 9 and Dead Island - and had started work on JK Rowling’s Pottermore project, an online encyclopedia immortalising the world and characters of the Harry Potter series.

Soon, in fact, Atomhawk’s main problem involved adapting to its rapid expansion, rather than having to chase work.

Being based, in the North East, Ron said, has helped in a number of ways - from the rich network of connections the region provides in his sector to the considerably lower cost base compared to the likes of London.

The area now also features a number of high speed internet hotspots, making it perfect for new start-ups joining the industry at an exciting time.

As for the future of Atomhawk, the next five years will be about “controlled growth”, as the company moves into a number of new markets, Ron said.

In the long-term, though, his vision is clear: “I want Atomhawk to be perceived as one of the greatest design companies in history.

“I want people to look back at things we have done in 50 years time and say: that was a definitive company in its field.”

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