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Geza Kassai: email@example.com
Website: Graphixx Design, Inc.
Transcript of Biz Chat Ohio’s podcast 2.9: Geza Kassai
Hello, everyone. Welcome to this Biz Chat Ohio, the podcast bringing you big ideas for small businesses, and the best of small business news and industry trends from Ohio’s thought leaders. This podcast is made possible by Lakeland Community College and the Ohio Small Business Development Center. I’m your host, Cathy Walsh, Director of the Small Business Development Center, and I’m joined by my co-host, Gretchen Skok-DiSanto, Director of the Lakeland Community College Entrepreneurship Center and business advisor for the Ohio Small Business Development Center.
So hello, everyone. We are now in our second season of Biz Chat Ohio, and this is officially our 20th podcast. And in celebration, we’d like to take a different direction today. And rather than focus on legal issues with businesses or marketing challenges or financing challenges that we’ve covered in our other 19 podcasts, today we want to focus on the importance of pursuing your dreams and passions, even if it means doing a 180-degree turn in your career.
Now I’m thinking about my own career. I originally started as an economic developer 25 years ago. And then seven years ago I decided to make a big change and I followed my passion for teaching, and I took a position at Lakeland in the Business Management Department. And I know, too, that my co-host, Cathy, started her career in banking, and then she changed directions to working in nonprofit organizations focused on providing resources to small businesses.
So we’re really excited today about our guest. He has an incredible story that took him from jewelry designing to establishing his own architecture firm and eventually to working on Hollywood films with some incredibly famous people. So now we’re going to turn over everything over to Cathy to introduce our special guest today.
Yeah, thanks, Gretchen. Today we are talking to Cleveland-based Geza Kassai. After receiving his bachelor of science in architecture from the Ohio State University, Geza accepted a position with an architecture firm, and after several years of working for others, he opened up his own firm, Graphics Design, Inc. And that was in 2007.
Since then, Geza has also transitioned into the film and television industry as art director and set designer. And that transition is what we want to discuss today. So welcome, Geza.
Thank you. It’s good to be here.
Hi. I’d just like to start with you giving us– telling us a little bit about your early career in either jewelry design and/or architecture and what got you interested in those fields to begin with.
Sure so as far back as I can remember, my mom told me about one of our relatives– I don’t even know who anymore– was an architect. Maybe it was her father. I never met them. Anyways, they mentioned that maybe that’s something I should look at. So pretty much from the age of eight, I knew I wanted to do architecture.
And my dad was a jeweler. So at 12 years old, I started working in his shop. And I did that throughout high school. So when all my friends worked at McDonald’s, I was working at fancy jewelry stores. Not just for my dad anymore, I moved on to other stores. Then I ended up completing college to get my architecture degree. Somehow I just always knew that I needed to do design, whether it was designing things people wear or things people see or buildings people walk in.
So how often did you go from being an architect to a Hollywood art director? That’s quite a change.
It is. So there was actually two things that drove it. One was when I was just out of college, I specialized in 3D animation. So there was an independent film in Cleveland that needed somebody. So I worked on that for free and quit before the end of it because it was insane schedules and the amount of work I was doing was just too much for free. And so I was never interested in working in film then because it just didn’t appeal to me.
And then approximately, I don’t know, 15, 16 years later, a friend of mine that stayed at the firm that I had left got laid off and his sister said, oh, maybe you should pursue set design. Well, none of us knew anything about it. So he worked for about two or three years driving trucks for free at first and then PAing– secretary type work for the movies. And then he got hired on his first film as a set designer, and before he even started, he mentioned that they might need more set designers. So would I be interested?
And I said, sure, I’ll give it a try. So I was doing both my architecture office work and work for my own business, and then working during the day for the movies.
Do you still have your own– do you still have Graphics Design, Inc., then, the company that was doing the architecture? So you’re doing both right now? I do, but a lot of my clients know that I work on film, so I kind of slow down or completely stop a lot of projects. The type of work I do is years-long type thing, so none of it is super pressing most of the time. I try to do just one, but sometimes on the weekends I’ll work doing the film stuff as well– I mean not the film, the– my own business stuff.
Tell us a little bit about your role in the movie and TV industry. What exactly is the art director? What do they do? What is it about this that hooked you? Because you said you didn’t like it the first time you tried it, so obviously something happened since then that hooked you into this industry.
So originally when I was doing 3D animation stuff– I love doing animation, that’s what started my career and everything, doing design. But I ended up doing set design where everybody just tells you what to draw and you draw it so that the construction groups can build it and everybody else can paint it and all that stuff. So I’m basically given the idea of what they want and I actually got to design a lot of stuff then.
Then I transitioned up pretty quickly to an assistant art director and then now an art director. So my position now– I only have two bosses, basically, above me. That’s the director, and my direct boss is the production designer. So on a film or a show, they meet, they discuss what they want to see visually and what the spaces are like that they’re going to go into. And they describe it to me.
And either I design a bunch of it with working with them, or if it’s a lot of designs going on at once, I have set designers that I work with them telling them what to draw, what to design, changing, tweaking. And then once that all that’s approved on paper or in 3D models or images, whatever we do, then we hand it off to construction and the paint department and the set dressers and make it finished project for– like a different set, whether it’s a set on a stage or set and the location, it’s a wide variety.
So the thing that keeps me interested in this and that really piqued my interest was that we built– like the show I’m on now for example, I can’t imagine we have less than a hundred sets. They’re all varied, all different from each other. And it turns out that I don’t like to work on the same thing very long. So the movies and TV stuff works perfect for my attention span.
That’s great. I totally understand that. In teaching, it’s kind of like, it’s a new class every semester. This is great.
I get to work with totally different people on each film as well. So there’s some people that move along with a certain group a lot of times, but I’m fortunate enough that I get called all over the place and different people on different projects.
So I’m wondering, too, like with different peopled so say you have different directors that you work with, you have to get used to somebody else’s vision, then, right? And do give you better instruction on what they’re looking for and some rely more on your imagination and what you’re bringing to it? Or do they usually have a pretty set idea of what they’re looking for when you begin the project?
Well, a lot of times they do actually have set directions that they want to do, but because that’s all they’ve been thinking about, it’s very easy for me to bring a new design into it and they’ll be like, oh my gosh, I didn’t think of that, that’s much better. So I do get to have a lot of input as to what the design is.
And I was actually thinking about this recently, too, that they give me their idea, but they don’t know what it looks like. So even their idea, I just take it and I make it– I have to make it into something so it’s still, in essence, not my idea, but my design.
So it sounds like there was actually a strong connection between what you were doing in architectural– as an architectural designer and what you do as an art director. Is that true? I mean, you pretty much had really transferable skills, right?
So yes. Actually, the crossover was pretty easy for me, because in architecture, I was designing buildings and houses and stores and selling construction how to build it, and I would go there and make sure it was getting done correctly. Exact same thing in the movies. I design it and then I help get it built. And the nice thing about this one is it comes apart and doesn’t stay there forever.
So did you find–
I got to actually learn how to design sets and forget that it’s not real so that it doesn’t need to support buildings– or people and it doesn’t need to stand for a hundred years and things like that. So that was the only hard transition for me.
OK, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I never even considered that Yeah, you’re not building it for the test of time.
Well, I can see some similarities in the different jobs you’ve done or businesses you’ve owned, whether it was designing jewelry, doing the architecture or 3D graphics, and then going into this. There’s an art element behind all of that. So there’s I can see a connection, and you’re trying to bring somebody else’s vision to life in each of these jobs that we talked about that you were doing.
And so there was maybe a little bit more of a natural path, but still, it had to be a little bit some anxiousness about jumping from architecture where you knew what you were doing and jumping into something else where you didn’t know. And you were bound to make a few mistakes here and there or not say the right word or whatever, who knows? Make some mistakes because you’re in a different industry.
But what advice would you give to someone who wants to follow their passion? And it may be a complete 180 from what they’re doing, or it may be something that’s just an easy transition from what they’re doing now. But what would you tell somebody who’s thinking, I don’t want to do what I’m doing now for the rest of my life, how do you make that change?
So it’s interesting that you point that out, because that’s exactly what happened to my friend that got me into the industry. So he decided he was sick of architecture, didn’t want anything to do with it anymore. But you don’t spend 20 years of your career doing architecture and just walking away from it. So there’s an easy transition for both him and I to switch to something along the lines of what we were doing before even though it’s a completely different career and field.
So I always tell everybody, make up your mind what you want to do whatever age you decide to do it. If you don’t like it, change your mind. Nobody’s going to penalize you for doing that. There’s no shame in walking away from something you’re bored with. But if you want to– if you have any interest in doing something other than what you’re doing, don’t feel guilty about it. Worst case scenario, if this movie business didn’t work out for me and even my business failed, I could still go work in an architecture firm. You can always go back to what you were doing before.
It’s the same thing I tell people about moving to different parts of the country. If you don’t like it, live there for a year and move back, nobody’s going to shame you for that. And if they do, they’re not the people you need to talk to you.
Yeah, so in your position now, you must be moving a lot. I understand you’re based in Cleveland, but are you traveling to locations all over the US?
I’m starting to. For a long time we’ve had a lot of films shooting in Cleveland, so I haven’t had to go anywhere. And then I would move down to Cincinnati for a quick job, in Columbus a little bit. But recently last year I was in Chicago most of the year, down in New Orleans. I’ve been asked to stay down here as well for more shows, but nobody wants to be in Louisiana in the summer.
So yeah, I’m moving around the country, different places. I’ve had chances to go to Hawaii to work on a film. What I’m really trying to do is get onto a job where I can go to Budapest, Hungary where my family is and I can work on stuff there, and it works out for them because I’m actually a resident of Hungary. So I speak the language and can help put together things even easier than people they just have to ship all over. So yeah, I move around a lot.
So we wanted to ask you today about some challenges that may have come your way during your career that you were able to overcome. That eventually got you to where you’re sitting right now, that immense amount of expertise. So is there any challenges.
I’ll be honest, there weren’t that many, but I didn’t get to where I was by not working at it. So the main thing that I remember was– I went to a Catholic high school, and when I graduated, my tuition wasn’t paid in full. So they would not transfer my transcripts to Ohio State where I was accepted right away, but they would transfer to a community college.
So it wasn’t my plan to go there, but I ended up getting two degrees at the community college in the same quarter because I just took so many classes until I could transfer back and get into the architecture program at Ohio State. I finished that program in three and a half years, which is typically a five-year program. So none of it was for lost working through college and going to community college.
And then outside of that, I’ve been really fortunate in getting– just being at the right place at the right time a lot, it seems, because I wouldn’t say I was a world-class designer in architecture, but I was definitely– there’s two schools of architecture, basically. One is where you become a designer and the other where you work on the technical aspects, worrying about stairs and bathrooms and structure for buildings and things like that.
All of which I’ve done, but I’m more of a designer. And I’ve just fallen into the right places at the right time to have been fortunate enough to work on amazing designs for both buildings and movies.
Well, I think, too, people sometimes say, oh, I was lucky I was at the right place at the right time, but I think, too, hopefully you were doing things that put yourself in a position where you can be found. And when the opportunity was right, you were ready to jump in and try it. So some of it took some faith, too, because you could have been jumping into something, taking your concentration away from your other business, which running, too, at the same time, we’re not all Elon Musk, I guess, who can run a bunch of big programs at the same time. But sometimes it could be detrimental to your first business when you’re going off looking at something else.
So making sure you have an eye on both of them at the same time can be challenging. So I’m sure there was some management skill involved in that, especially when you weren’t even here. Like if you were traveling, that had to have been really challenging.
Yeah, it’s– well, modern technology helps a lot with that, because almost everything I do is on computers and we could use computers anywhere. And as far as you mentioning the right place at the right time, again, it was a lot of effort put in by me because my friend that got me into the business I’ve moved beyond his level already quite a while back.
So we always joked that in the beginning, he was my agent getting me jobs, because they would call him and not me because I wasn’t pursuing it. I ended up being at a higher level than he has even. And obviously if I didn’t put in the work, that wouldn’t be the case.
So you must have some really good stories. Is there any quick story you could tell us about something that had to do with your career that was fun or exciting or kind of thrilling that you’d like to share?
Well, I guess along the lines of– people always ask me, do I meet the actors and what are they like? And so I do. I do get to meet most of the actors. I’m usually not on set myself too often because it’s very boring. Most people will never know how boring it is to be on the set. I feel bad for actors, because they just stand around for hours.
And I don’t have hours to stand around, so I just– but I watch a lot of this stuff. But anyways, yeah, I’ve gotten to go bowling with Matthew McConaughey when we were working on White Boy Rick, which was filmed in Cleveland. I always tell people one of the nicest actors and people I’ve ever met in my life was Martin Sheen. He was in the movie Judas and the Black Messiah, and just unbelievably nice. I just– I’m still taken aback by how nice somebody can be when you don’t–
He’s an Ohio boy, right? He’s from Dayton, I believe.
I think he was. Yeah, I think so. And then the bigger thing which a lot of people never really think about are the people that help make these movies. So the simplest example is the show I’m on right now, it’s going to be called– so far it’s going to be called I’m a Virgo. And we have a lot of special effects guys working on this one. Not to be mistaken with visual effects. Visual effects are stuff that’s added to the screen after. Special effects to the guys that make things happen on the stage, like something’s falling over or an actor has to fly through the air, stuff like that.
And the lead guy on my show, John McCloud, has been in the industry since– I don’t know how many years. 40 years, maybe? He actually worked on Star Wars. He was dressed up as Darth Vader in some of the scenes. He also played Boba Fett in some of the scenes and a stormtrooper. I have pictures of him working on Indiana Jones, making the heads melt and things like that in the first one.
Oh, wow, way cool.
Yeah, yeah. I like talking to them a lot more than I like talking to most of the actors just because–
–they don’t– nobody really brags about their conquests in this industry, but it’s interesting to hear people be like, oh, I worked on Transformers. Oh, and I worked on Spider-Man and Captain America. And then you get people that talk about the old ones, the classics that made everything really– it’s Hollywood.
It’s very, very cool to talk to those people. And then I’m working with them on films, and I’m the one that tells them what I need them to do.
So Geza, where can people reach out to find more about you or ask you a question if they have a question? Are you open to that? And how would they be able to get a hold of you?
Yeah. If anybody wants to drop me an email at hangtimex– that’s H-A-N-G-T-I-M-E-X– @gmail.com, depending on what your questions are, I’m happy to talk to anybody that’s interested in trying to pursue a career in architecture or 3D graphics animation stills, which leads over to video games a lot for people. And then if anybody’s interested in seeing how they can break into film. I’m not saying I could get you a job, but I can point you in the direction that might help you get there someday.
Oh, I really appreciate that. Thank you, that’s very generous.
Yeah, Geza, thanks so much for being– thanks so much for being with us today. We hope that your story provides some inspiration to others who are considering making a big change in their lives and taking their skill sets and applying them in a very different industry.
Yeah, I certainly hope I can help somebody make a decision on what they want to do, or try it out for a little while at least.
Thank you, Geza.
Thanks for listening. Look for Biz Chat Ohio on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or Spotify, and subscribe to receive our latest episodes and business blogs at bizchatohio.com. If you would like to learn more about the Ohio Small Business Development Center at Lakeland, please visit our website at www.lakelandcc.edu/spdc.