A Conversation with: Anil Mohabir of Studio AM
Having previously served as the home to munitions factories during World War I, the Port Lands neighbourhood now hosts the bustling Port of Toronto, a variety of industrial companies and a few nightclubs. Standing out among the monochromatic landscape is Studio AM, a film studio and technology company tucked neatly behind a door mincing the sunrise’s gradient. Founded at the tail end of 2019, the multi-disciplinary space blurs the lines between the physical and digital worlds with technology.
We sat down with Studio AM’s founder Anil Mohabir to chat about the space and how the pandemic acted to catalyze the development of River, a groundbreaking piece of technology improving the filmmaking process.
Why did you start Studio AM?
Starting Studio AM was a massive accident. I was in software for a while and when I moved back to Toronto, I started bartending for fun. I met who became my future business partner who was starting a video production company and asked if I could make servers. I was also coding random things for experiential marketing activations plus getting into stage design and live visuals. After doing that for a while, our company got acquired then we got acquired again. Sitting at that crossroads, I had a bunch of potential projects coming in and realized it was time to go into this full time. I thought I was going to just jump into doing live activations and being an “artist” using tech. I had this massive project with Soulcycle and Equinox in New York and I was getting a lot of pitches, then COVID happened and every single contract that was in the books died. Then, I was super lucky — I got hit up by a friend who was trying to film a video with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in L.A. remotely. Figuring that out was truly the birth of River and the studio coming into being more of a hybrid production environment. We were focusing on making really cool films enhanced by technology, going back into my production roots. Now, we’re providing basically tech help for film companies [and even worked on] an Apple TV show called See.
Photo cred: Anthony Tuccitto
Talk to me about River. What applications do you see the tool having in the future?
River was birthed strictly out of COVID as a way to help people film remote locations. It kind of blew up — over COVID we did more than 300 commercials. We built the studio because we needed a place to host the servers. Literally the servers were in my bedroom for the longest time, but as we scaled up that got harder. Fast forwarding to the present day — spending more time on these big union sets was really a learning point [where I saw] that the current set of tools were very old fashioned. Even before COVID, the only way to see [what] the camera [saw was on] one big monitor somewhere and everyone would crowd around. Shout out social distancing, because now each department needed a monitor with some people wanting to be able to see on their handheld devices. I thought: “How do we take this route of technology and expand it?” With onset streaming that is secure, quality [and can be accessed through one’s own device], that opens up more opportunities as the cost of is often a barrier to entering the industry.
Photo cred: Anthony Tuccitto
One of the things I think about all the time is how film is like a really beautiful dance between art and science and technology. Even film cameras, like that’s a chemical reaction, and lighting in a coding sense, we’re seeing ones and zeros. We are computer technicians whether we say it or not, and I think the beauty of technology is when you have a bridge that doesn’t even let you feel any of the friction. That’s really what I hope River can be. It’s like finding ways to sneak the highest tech we have into art to make making art smoother.
Where does that end? I don’t even know yet; that is still being discovered. But in the meanwhile, I hope to make filmmaking more accessible, and I say accessibility knowing I’m talking to you Rachel. Being on set for that many hours is strenuous and in some ways very inefficient. While I think in the future, there are a lot of ways people will still be on set, a producer for the first time ever can be in a chair at home instead of having to spend 14 to 18 hours on set. There’s still going to be friction for some, but I think this collaborative environment where it is possible to be virtual sometimes is just another fun side effect. Often, we’re not filming in chronological order… It’s like, “a month ago, was this ring on the right hand?” and with River’s artificial intelligence we can speed these things up. These are the dreams we are trying to make actually happen with the River, which are coming true.
When you first began coding as a teenager, did you imagine it’d be a part of the large-format visuals and stage design work you do now?
No, and even now, every time I do it I’d be lying if I said no matter the amount of stress I have that it doesn’t make me smile. I’m still pleasantly surprised each time I get to see the link between figuring out something [through coding] and then getting to see people interact with it. For a long time I was obsessing over decreasing a page loading time by 0.2 seconds, working for weeks on a more efficient path, and no one would notice. Now, we’re doing these massive shows and get to see like 3,000 – 4,000 people react to what we did. I tell everyone I work with [on these shows] it’s important to just turn around and look at everybody else. We’re an invisible layer of energy that hits everyone at the show. I love that aspect of it, taking whatever art is there and amplifying it.
For Canada’s 150th anniversary, we did the show at Nathan Phillips Square. Drake came out with the whole OVO crew. There was a moment when the show was done after we set off the fireworks that I’ll never forget. I was just like: “Whoa. We are part of this,” and as an immigrant, this is such a cool thing. A bunch of my family was there too.
Photo cred: Anthony Tuccitto
How did the first AM 55 Session come together? What is the intention behind these sessions?
Carry Corp hired us for a corporate video shoot we rented three cameras for. At the same time, I had just finished the renovations at the studio and Nate, Jojo and Matt and I wanted to do something fun over the weekend. This was peak COVID, and we all thought about how live music got slapped in the last little bit. A lot of people had been streaming from home and wanted to find a way to just showcase all these amazing artists and just give them a platform. At the same time there were so many amazing directors and crew [who were affected too]. We wanted to create a safe space for people to come learn in an onset environment and walk away with a piece they can show to people. We of course push it with tech, whether its projections or lighting to create something that makes people wonder how it was made.
Sometimes sets can be very stifling with the old attitudes that are around film, especially as a minority. AM 55 is a break from that and it’s been really exciting to see so many of the directors we worked with the first time put out projects later. It’s so fulfilling to know that this might help somebody make something cool or later on, and that’s worth more than anything.
What advice would you give to young creators looking to break into the industry?
It’s best to just try to connect with as many people doing what you want to do. Sometimes you’ll get no’s, but whenever you can just get on set, just do it. We live in an era where like we did Super Bowl commercials that were shot on an iPhone with River, and while everyone wants to buy the most expensive camera, the most expensive laptop there’s a way to [get involved] with everything you have right now already. [Whatever it is], just start making it. Like, you might hate it, it’s gonna go wrong, but you have got to keep trying with what you have. And eventually if you do that enough, it will only make you appreciate it when you get a chance to with all the toys. Do your reps. Sometimes, you give a lot and you’re not gonna necessarily get it back but when you’re getting started it’s kind of your only hope — to put your heart on the line and just kind of see what happens — because you never know who you’re gonna run into. Just make sure you’re presenting the truest version of yourself when you’re there.
What is your favorite aspect of the creative process when working on a project?
Honestly, there’s always a moment where you’re like: “Shoot! I don’t think I can actually do this,” where you’re kind of at this crossroads, usually a technical issue for me where I’m getting to overcome that. Pushing the idea forward [especially after I] hit that point is the high I search for in life. That’s what I live for. That part of the creative process is always insanely exciting and fun for me, especially as I do more and more stuff being further back from the camera. It’s like: “How can I do something really cool here that allows something crazy to happen down the line?” For me it’s often coupled with: “How can I use what tech I have or can make in a very weird way?” We shot this video recently with the Raptors in the Air Canada Center and we built this ridiculous iPhone streaming rig being sent to the client.
Who would be your dream collaboration?
A brand partner — any brands that want to give us money for AM 55. There’s a dream partnership!
What’s next for Studio AM?
With Studio AM there’s like three main goals I have. First is asking: “How do we do dope projects, where I can pay all of my friends and make really cool things?” Two is like really refining our place in being a film technology service by continuing to find weird problems to solve. And three is really focusing on River. That’s a big focus of what I’m working on in the next year — really trying to force change in film with it.
Like what you’re reading? Check out A Conversation with: Trevor Twells of MakeRoom Inc.
Rachel Romu is a Glossi Mag contributor.
They are an advocate for disability visibility and inclusion in the entertainment industry, an ATV stunt-driver and a zealous reality TV fan. Rachel also works at Matte PR.