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Meet Keiko Moreno and Marcus LaMontagne of Cryptic Industries in East Los Angeles

Today we’d like to introduce you to Keiko Moreno and Marcus LaMontagne.

Keiko and Marcus, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
Keiko: When I was in between high school and college, I remember my mom describing a friend that had found their perfect career path as “finding their water”. I didn’t want to admit it, but I doubted I even had water to find. However, what I believed then to be very disparate interests were actually specific interests that would build with experiences and education to become my water. It wasn’t going to be the traditional linear path that my friends were on.

Fine art and theater were always a big part of my life thanks to my mother. If I showed even the slightest interest in anything, she made sure to nurture it. I am extremely lucky to have someone so supportive and enthusiastic in my corner. In high school, I joined a fine art conservatory and began getting technical training. I also volunteered with California Youth Theater at Paramount Studios. I was interested in the technical aspects of creating a show and began getting trained in lighting, sound, and stage management. It didn’t take long before I was thrown into running shows, I loved it. After high school, I was accepted to Otis College of Art and design but decided to defer. I stared at the loan papers, not feeling ready to make that commitment. I wasn’t sure what kind of artist I wanted to be. When I looked at the fine artists around me they seemed to have a plan and had something to say. I felt like I didn’t know what to say with my work so I decided to continue working in theater until I was ready.

After a few years bouncing from gig to gig, I was tired of the inconsistent lifestyle of financial instability. Every artist I knew had multiple jobs. Theater was what they did after they finished their nine to fives. I decided it was time to go back to school; I thought I wanted consistency and that consistency equated to success. After one sociology class the professor asked what my major was and I said theater and fine art, she said I think you’re a sociologist. She asked that I take a few more classes, and she was right. For the first time, I felt like I fit into the academic world, everything made sense. It gave me the language and theories in which to interpret and define my worldview. My love for analysis and people watching finally had a place, and that place had a path, with a job at the end of that path. Because I was already working in theater, I thought I didn’t need a degree in it, so I changed majors and got my BA in Sociology.

After college, I worked in research for a short time at a firm that investigated discrimination in large corporations. The work was interesting, but apparently, I don’t thrive in a nine to five office lifestyle. I kept thinking I would eventually go back to the arts and that this nine to five would pay the bills. But at the end of the day, I was just too exhausted. Then, suddenly, a friend of mine passed away at the age of 28. While I cleaned out his apartment, I found all the movies he made. Some of them were pretty bad, but he made them anyway. I deeply admired him for this because he didn’t waste time worrying about what people thought or if they were the best films ever made; he simply did what he loved everyday.

During this mourning for my friend, I realized I was wasting time, living a life that didn’t exactly fit. So I decided I was going to jerk the wheel and start doing the things I was afraid to do. One of the things was living abroad. I applied to almost 300 companies abroad and finally got a contract to work with an international group doing research in Paris, France. For the first few weeks, I never felt more alone and I found myself naturally filling my free time creating; I wrote stories about the people I’d see in parks or cafes, I took pictures, I started drawing again, and I explored every neighborhood and small village I could find. I met people from around the world leading lives that didn’t follow a traditional career path. I needed to see that. I needed to know that people were able to blend the analytical with the creative and still have a career without having to sacrifice one for the other. It seems silly now because I see examples of this all the time, but back then it was a complete mystery. In Paris, I realized my next step would be going to graduate school. My contract ended, I came home and got an MFA from California Institute of the Arts in writing/critical studies.

After graduation, I found myself running back to the theater because I didn’t think writing was where I ultimately wanted to land. The theater was always a comforting and inspiring place to go when I needed to figure out my next step. The artistic director at a small theater in North Hollywood asked if I could design his next set. I went home and googled how to set design and I was hooked. This is when I met Marcus. He was hired to build my first set design. He started teaching me to build and we built my set together in this small theater with no money. The process helped me realize the importance of knowing how to build what you design. It opens up creativity and efficiently moves the process along. After that, we worked together off and on for a few years before realizing we were a great team. Our skill sets perfectly complimented and balanced each other out. He figures out how to make something work and I make it look the way it needs to.

I realized this was where all my experience, education, and skills combined perfectly. My years studying fine art helped with composition, color, and design. My experience with technical theater gave me insight into how lighting and sound worked with color and space. Sociology and research gave me insight into society, subcultures, ethnicity, and history which are part of any narrative. My degree in writing taught me how to read a script and be true to the author’s intent. All these things inform my ability to take a script and create a visual story with details that feel authentic to the characters, time period, and culture of the piece.

I spent the next few years freelance set designing in Los Angeles and working with Marcus. I interned with the talented artists at Creature Effects for a short time and learned about casting and molding, puppetry, and creating objects or costumes with all kinds of materials. I also freelanced as a production designer, prop assistant, prop master, and set dresser for film and commercials building a clientele. I didn’t enjoy being onset, but I really enjoyed making anything in a shop whether it was an entire set, a costume, an effect, or a single prop. In 2016, Marcus and I were awarded the set dressing, props, and specialty hand-held props for The Walking Dead attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood. Marcus and I combined our resources, got incorporated, and Cryptic Industries was officially in business! I still can’t believe how lucky I am to get to spend my days with my best friend, transforming spaces into worlds where stories are told and people get to play and be entertained. Finding where you belong and making a living at it is now my only metric of success. I have never felt this kind of happiness and fulfillment. This is my water. I found it.

Marcus: I grew up in Kissimmee, Florida, twenty minutes from both Disney and Universal Studios. In addition to the major theme parks, living in that area meant being surrounded constantly by themed entertainment; pirate or jungle themed mini golf, medieval or Arabian dinner shows, themed restaurants, hotels, resorts and shops. It was everywhere there back in the 80’s, admittedly with varying degrees of quality. I think I realized early on that it was a job for someone to design and build these places and I started trying to replicate the things I was experiencing back in my room with the materials I had available to me. I was very lucky to have had supportive parents that helped feed my creative desire as best they could with what they had. Gifts of Lego, K’nex, model trains, and other building-type toys set the foundation for a career of making things.

My brother and I spent most of our time playing outside, which naturally meant treehouses and forts made from whatever we could find. When I was five years old, I wanted to build a multi-level tree house after watching the Swiss Family Robinson movie and seeing the attraction at Disneyworld. This desire to build was with me at an early age. In middle school, I was finally able to build my massive Swiss Family Robinson-inspired treehouse. We made it from construction trash that we salvaged from illegal dumpsites and it consisted of three 12’ diameter enclosed platforms and went 15’ up a massive pine tree.

I also met a life-long friend in middle school, Drew Silvers, whose family had a multi-acre property with a proper workshop. With access to real tools and materials and free reign to make whatever we wanted, we started to develop real-world skills that would lead both of us to careers in fabrication. Over the next six years, we experimented with practical effects (air cannons, fire and water effects), worked on and modified motorized vehicles (large and small) and a variety of other things that would all end up being relevant to my current career. We even made a 12’ tall trebuchet (a type of catapult) that could throw things across the property.

In high school, we were lucky enough to have one of the last functioning auto shop programs in the area and I was in it all four years I was in school. This gave me access to a welding machine, the tools to cut and shape metal, and provided a technical education on motors, electrical systems, gears and linkages, precision measurement, and diagnostic procedures. I also supplemented my high school education with four years of electrical engineering classes, which gave me the equivalent of a trade certificate when I graduated.

College is where I shifted focus to the art side of things. Special effects in film is often said to be the marriage of art and science/engineering. Finished elements in a theme park are similar, needing to be well-engineered and mechanically sound, but also look a very specific way at the same time.

I had intended to go to Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) for their industrial design and film programs. I took the tour and was wowed by the facilities, but ultimately decided it wasn’t worth the $200k in debt. Instead, I went to the state school right next door, Armstrong Atlantic State. It wasn’t known for its art program, but it did have a bachelor’s program. This meant I could get an education I could afford while working on SCAD’s students’ films to gain experience fabricating props and effects.

I knew I wanted more out of my time in college than what a traditional art program would allow. I was extremely lucky to have met a mentor there, Professor John Jensen. We sat down on my first day and I explained where I wanted to go with a career in film and themed entertainment. I told him that I needed to get experience with a variety of materials and processes that were not part of a regular art program, including mold making and casting, fiberglass, plaster, foam carving, metalwork, woodworking/carpentry, model making, and integrating electronics into art.

Job/skill diversity has been an underlying theme for me, I felt that understanding the entire process of making something helps make the end product better and more cohesive but also it would make me a better candidate for employment having a diverse set of skills that would allow me to take a project from start to finish and fill any role in between that is needed.

Instead of the established curriculum, we designed a self-study program around different sets of skills and materials. I not only got hands-on experience with skills and materials that I would be using once I left school but also built a portfolio that would ultimately help me find work immediately after leaving school. In 2004, there wasn’t a ton of information on these sorts of things readily available. YouTube hadn’t arrived yet and the internet as we know it was still coming along. Weta Workshop in New Zealand and those multi-DVD box sets of the Lord of the Rings extended editions played a big part in helping me figure out different methods and materials to explore. I would pour over the bonus content on how things for the films were made. They might briefly mention or explain a material or process then I would find those materials and experiment with them in my self-directed classes.

I graduated with a Bachelor’s of Fine Art degree and had a very strong and diverse portfolio coming out of school. At that time, the film industry had not yet officially come to Georgia though I worked on a few films in Savannah before deciding to go out to Los Angeles. I thought Los Angeles would provide me with job diversity in the sense that it has an established film/tv/commercial industry, major theme parks, large museums, proximity to national conventions, trade shows and Las Vegas, large and small theaters, and a thriving artist community. I sent out my portfolio to every special effects and artistic fabrication shop I could find and ultimately got a 2-week trial offer from one business. I packed up all of my possessions (mostly tools at this point) into my tiny Honda Civic, bottoming out the suspension. I cannonballed it from Georgia to Los Angeles in 36 hours straight, breaking down two times in the desert. I showed up Monday morning to the place that offered me the 2-week trial only to be given a tour and then told that they don’t actually have any work right now and to check back in a few weeks.

I immediately got a local 818 phone number and started scouring Craigslist and EntertainmentCareers.net for work. My first job in LA was a music video for RATT (in 2010). I was hired as a general production assistant. I think my first assignment was to get coffee for the producers. I told them I was on it but proceeded to find the art director and told him that I was assigned to be his assistant instead. I spent the rest of the time helping and networking with the art department. Presumably, the producers sorted out their own coffee.

After a couple of months doing music videos, commercials, and theater set builds (which is actually where I met Keiko), I found a really cryptic employment ad on Craigslist. I don’t remember the exact wording, but it was something like, “Do you have experience in plumbing, pneumatics, electronics, mechanics, and carpentry?” That was it. Well, it turned out to be a position at a local special effects shop that did physical effects for film, television, and commercials. I credit them with giving me my first real opportunity in Los Angeles. I learned a lot there and established a network that would open doors for future work. I was with them for about a year when I transitioned to Universal Studios Hollywood. There, I made custom props, scenic elements, and special effects for their Halloween event and also some general park decor. After Universal, I worked on a season of a TV show as a propmaker. I also worked as a rigger and metal fabricator with Cirque Du Soleil on their show IRIS at the Dolby/Kodak Theater, which lasted about a year and a half before it closed in early 2013. When the show closed, I went back to freelancing and working seasonally at Universal Studios Hollywood again, making props and special effects.

At the same time, Keiko and I had started working together on more projects building a joint client base. In 2016, we won a bid to work on the Walking Dead attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood. The scope of work included all props, set dressing, and specialty hand-held props. In a few short weeks, we got incorporated, rented our first shop space and ramped up production. After that job, we used our client base from freelancing to grow the company and ultimately move into a bigger space where we currently are located in East LA.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Keiko: Yes and no. While I was looking for this career the road was filled with bumps, self-doubt, exhaustion, fear, dumb jobs, dead-ends, and disappointment. Looking back though, it was also filled with adventures, growth, stories, creativity, and meaningful moments with people. Without those experiences, I would not have found this path. Do you remember those small rubber balls you could get from the gumball machines in the grocery store for a quarter? Okay, well my story is like throwing one as hard as you can into a room and every seemingly random bounce on the wall, ceiling, and floor were needed just so it could land in the tiny cup in the corner. It wasn’t until my mid-30s that I looked back and saw how it fit together and continues to inform what I do today.

Marcus: It has been mostly smooth, and I would love to say it was all down to having a clear path from a young age and trying to only make decisions that constantly pushed me to where we are presently. But in truth, like most things in life, it’s been about discipline, hard work, learning from others, being on time and dependable, networking, and being in the right place at the right time. The 2008 crash happened while I was fairly insulated in college and by 2010 the entertainment industry seemed like it was starting to rebound, so it was an excellent time to be entering the workforce, at least in this field. The biggest struggle has been knowing and valuing one’s worth as an artist. Especially starting out, it’s easy to get into the mindset that art does not have value with the huge amount of low/no pay jobs out there for artists. After you’ve spent the time learning the skills and investing in education, charging for your time and expertise is absolutely reasonable. What artists create is just as valuable for society as any other field.

We’d love to hear more about your business.
We primarily fabricate for the entertainment industry, including film, television, commercials, theme parks, museums, trade shows, theaters, experiential groups, and immersive events. Our company tagline simplifies it: We Make Things.

We make props, scenic elements, costumes, special effects, electronics, models, custom vehicles- really a bit of everything.

Diversity is our specialty and we pride ourselves in the ability to offer complete project services from start to finish under a single roof. Design, fabrication, and incorporation of mechanical and electronic elements, artistic finishing, final documentation, installation, and continued maintenance.

Our name, Cryptic Industries, was derived from an instance where a client was trying to depict what he wanted with a very crude napkin sketch and a loose description. I made a comment that this was extremely cryptic and that oftentimes we had to decipher what our clients are looking for with explanations that are not fully realized. It’s our job to help them get those cryptic ideas out of their head, off the page, and into physical reality.

So, what’s next? Any big plans?
If you asked us four months ago, we would have a different answer, but at this moment we are three months into the COVID-19 shutdown and businesses have just started phase 2 of opening up. We are still evolving to accommodate this new territory because about half of our clients come from theme parks, experiential agencies, immersive advertising, and interactive theater.

For the themed entertainment industry, we are looking to the future to adapt and develop creative solutions to keep performers and audiences safe. Traditionally, they relied on close proximity to performers and guest interaction that often involves touching or the manipulation of objects. Actors will need to perform at a distance, which could involve using puppets, more animated figures, or other motion, proximity, or gesture-based solutions. We are planning an immersive event in the near future to showcase our new developments.

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