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  • by Jamie Foley

Todd McLellan: Coming Apart / Coming Together

In a nondescript brick building off a quiet, tree-lined street in Toronto’s eclectic Leslieville is Sugino Studios. Inside, white walls and wood shelving frame the entryway into the bright, airy space where a photographer’s dream in camera equipment waits to create magic.

Sugino Studios specializes in creating advertising motion and still images that used in ad campaigns. Day to day, the team quietly engineer images for companies such as Fido, Bell, Fisherman’s Friend, and Listerine. One of the artists behind the magic is Todd McLellan. He is an unassuming man with a casual air and an easy smile. In talking to him, it is not difficult to see how his passion defines his work. However, McLellan’s creative curiosity extends well beyond the advertising world.

Born in Saskatoon, McLellan moved to Calgary to study design at the Alberta College of Art + Design. “My interest stemmed from a graphic arts program in high school. I was always drawing, creating logos, and airbrushing different designs.” It was in Calgary that he made the move from design into photography, and in his final year he accepted an internship at Sugino Studios in Toronto. When he graduated in 2002, McLellan returned to the studio for an assisting gig and was intent on gaining real-world experience. In 2006 he used that experience to open his own company, through which he created his evocative collection of stills titled Things Come Apart.

This photo-based series uses the latest in Broncolor and Hasselblad equipment to capture the impossible moment between one breath and the next. With a flash duration of up to 1/14 000 of a second, the stills give the impression that time has stopped. The result is surreal, challenging us to puzzle through exactly how the image was photographed. While in some of the images mechanical objects such as typewriters, clocks and rotary-dial telephones have been meticulously taken apart and laid out in a fashion so orderly it borders on obsessive, other stills show those same objects floating in midair, each piece opposing another like a set of repellent magnets kept close for too long. The number of components is mind-blowing, and the viewer feels like a forensic scientist.

Sitting across the table from McLellan, I couldn’t help but ask, “What’s the secret? How did you do it?” He considers for a moment, a visual artist trying to simplify his world into words: “We start by taking it all apart. Then we set up a platform above and a mesh below. The mesh is for catching the objects we drop. Midway through the drop I take the shot. Usually it takes more than once to get it right, so it’s really important to keep hold of all the pieces. We once lost a screw and an hour later we were still looking for it.”

McLellan’s series isn’t limited to stills. In fact, his Things Come Apart collection includes a video called Apart Piano, which shows an old stand-up piano meeting an impressive end. “It was a donation from a church in west Toronto. They had decided it was too old and an electronic keyboard sounded better. I’m not sure if they knew what we were going to do with it.” What they did with it was catastrophic (for the piano). “We could have spent thousands of dollars and dozens of hours with rigs and trial runs, but the simplest thing to do was to grab a bunch of guys and hoist it up by hand, and then let it go off the ropes. It worked great. A little scary, but great.” Because they didn’t get the shot they wanted the first time, they dropped the piano onto the dusty wooden stage again. And again. They dropped it five times in total, the pieces themselves eventually shattering but not before the team was satisfied.

“Working in motion is a bit of a learning curve from still photography. When you rely on post-production you can run into a lot of problems in motion. You can’t pop in the little ‘we’ll fix it in post’ phrase at the last minute.”

McLellan spends a large amount of his time working on projects that involve motion. “I came into the industry at a time when digital was really taking off. Currently about half of my work is done using video, and there’s definitely a demand for more from our clients.”

Todd McLellan

Interestingly, while there isn’t necessarily a different mindset associated with motion over still shots, the process is entirely different. “You can be working alone on stills, and there’s always the opportunity to edit the shot later. With motion, editing isn’t as much of an option. You can be shooting a thousand frames a second. Editing can easily add $100 000 to the project budget.” The timelines are also different. “I could shoot a still on Monday and see it on a billboard by Wednesday. The timelines are much faster.” This is because motion often involves a greater degree of post-production work that takes time. “Because of the cost and time implications, it really is important to ensure the team is working under one vision.”

It had been over 12 years since McLellan made the move to Toronto and into photography. Originally only intending a short-term experience-driven residency, today he’s settled with a wife and two children. What’s next? McLellan continued to work on his collection of Things Come Apart and has recently been tempted by the donation of a Japanese-to-English translation typewriter. Photos from his series have also been published as a fine art book by Thames & Hudson. The book, titled Things Come Apart: A Tear Down Manual for Modern Living, has garnered worldwide recognition with releases in several different languages. Prints of the series are available through his website.

Ironically, for the master of taking things apart, it certainly seems like things are all coming together. See more of Todd's work, including Apart Piano, at:

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