Straightforward, stylish and successful, photographer / director Shin Sugino combines his passiom for people, art and business to built a thriving studio in an ever-changing market.
Sitting down with Shin Sugino one month after the launch party officially opening his new motion picture studio, he speaks calmly and thoughtfully as he describes why he built this new space and why the word EVOLVE stretches across the front of the building in 10-foot-tall brilliant orange letters.
“It’s a message about ourselves,” says Sugino. “In this day and age, everything changes so fast. You have to evolve, or you die.” Sugino is something of an anomaly in the commercial photography business. He has been at the top of this turbulent industry for over 25 years, leading the way technologically and taking chances artistically to keep his skills sharp and satisfy the ever-changing demands of the marketplace.
The new space, located on Eastern Avenue in Toronto’s studio district—a gritting and artistic neighbourhood—is a testament to Sugino’s survival. At a time when photographers and motion production companies are closing or consolidating, Sugino not only built a new studio, but he has made it one of the best equipped spaces in the country.
“People ask me, ‘Why don’t you just rent space?’ but I say ‘No,’” says Sugino. “If you rent it you don’t have the freedom. What’s most important is freedom, and for that you have to pay.” As the story goes, born in Osaka, Japan, Sugino traveled to Vancouver alone in 1965 at the age of 19, with $350, a camera and speaking no English. Taking the train to Toronto, he was set on becoming a printer, but once he had earned enough to enroll in college he entered photography school, and the rest is history.
Beginning his career as a fine art photographer, in the early 80s Sugino specialized in taking still photos for the motion picture industry, and in the mid-80s he opened his commercial studio. In the advertising world Shin became a go-to automotive photographer and has worked for top-tier clients ranging from Telus and Levi’s to IBM and Labatts, shooting stills and now spending most of his time directing commercials.
“He’s just driven,” says Eden Robbins, a photographer/director who’s known Sugino since 1987. “He’s always on the edge, always at the forefront of the industry.”
Sugino was among the first commercial photographers in Canada to take on digital. He recalls purchasing a $15,000 Nikon camera in 1995. “The images were useless,” he says, “and people in my studio asked, “Why did you buy that?” I told them it was about the learning, the education.”
Some 10 years after adopting digital photography Sugino made a serious move to capturing motion. Again, when asked “Why?”,
Sugino said, “it was the need to adapt.” The progress of digital photography—higher quality at lower prices—was democratizing the craft, lessoning demand for his skills.
Sugino Studio was also an early adopter of digital cinema cameras as well, purchasing among the first RED cameras in the country while others were still shooting film.
He was also the first independent studio in the country to own the super high-speed Phantom Flex digital cinema camera, a $350,000 system that can capture high-definition super slow motion effects, like droplets rising and falling from a splash of water.
“We’re not afraid to invest the money,” says Sugino. His philosophy is, “If we rent something twice, we buy it.”
And when it comes to purchasing digital technology, Sugino pays cash and works hard to get a return on the investment within six months to a year. “We don’t finance digital equipment,” he says. It’s a lesson he learned after that first Nikon digital camera, when within a year cameras with four-times better resolution at a quarter of the price were hitting the market.
Robbins first met Shin after answering a help wanted ad and becoming Sugino’s assistant at his new commercial studio. He describes Sugino as an extremely hard worker and a problem solver who is always thinking about what’s next.
“He’s a bit of a risk taker, but to him it’s not a risk it’s just a hurdle,” says Robbins. “And he knows he’s going to go over it, or he’ll figure out a way.”
Sugino admits that there’s always risk involved with the major ventures he’s taken on, and he’s blunt when he describes what has made him successful while others have failed.
“You have to have balls,” he says. One of his mottos is “F**K First, Think Later,” a mantra he compares to Nike’s “Just Do It”.
“A lot of people have a lot of good ideas and think about a lot of things. The difference is either you do it or you don’t. And if you don’t do it, it doesn’t mean dick. We do it.”
“The way we operate is not anything unique—it’s just common sense. The difference is, we do it.”
Among the most unique features at the new Evolve Studio is Mamba, a motion controlled robot arm Sugino had commissioned by a company that makes robotic arms for automobile manufacturing lines.
He worked together with the company for a year, and it was a significant investment. Equipped with a special housing to hold the high-speed digital cinema camera with integrated focusing and zooming capabilities, the multi-directional fast-moving arm takes slow motion video to the next level.
“Are we making money on that now? Not really, but we will eventually,” he says. “Sometimes it’s not just about the machine itself making money,” he explains. “It helps the overall image of the company, and we’re the only ones that have it.”
Sugino has a history of spending. Some 20 years ago he installed a 441-foot multi-directional Megalight system for shooting cars at 47 Booth, his other photo studio. “At the time it was either I buy a house, or I buy this lightbox for $350,000,” he recalls. “I thought about it, and a house doesn’t make money. The lightbox will.”
Technology is only one part of Sugino’s business. He takes the craft very seriously and has collected multiple international awards for his commercial work. Creativity, vision and knowledge are all part of the service he delivers, along with his appealing personality and generosity.
“I speak for the entire team when I say we love working with Shin,” says Jordan Doucette, executive creative director and general manager, Telus account with Taxi Canada.
“The whole process from research to shooting is smooth and flawless. His experience, knowledge of photography and lighting shines brightly through his work and personality. He is the consummate professional.”
Shin has been involved from the very beginning of the Telus campaigns featuring the clean and simple nature and animal motifs. “On Telus, we were very collaborative,” adds Rose Sauquillo, creative director with Taxi Canada, who worked with Shin for 10 years on the Telus account. “We’d meet regularly to brainstorm ideas for new critters, because he was an integral part of framing the brand’s traits from the start.”
“Shin may appear to be quiet and serious, but he can be very playful at times,” notes Doucette. “You may catch him emulating a critter…it’s almost as if he thinks the critters are listening to his direction—who knows…maybe they are?”
There is an aura about the man. “He’s mystical,” suggests Robbins. “He’s got that accent and a way of doing things that is different.”
“I’ve never really considered him a “supplier” but rather a guy I trust who has a gracious heart,” says Sauquillo.
She recalls her first experience with Shin. “We were on my first shoot away from home and I showed up to the outdoor set wearing a flimsy jacket on a cold and rainy day in Vancouver. He looked at me and said, ‘That’s all you brought?’
“So when we hit a break in shooting, he drove me to an outdoor supply store and helped me buy a raincoat. I still have the raincoat, and I will never forget how he went out of his way to help a newbie art director who just didn’t know any better.”