Since 2011, Andrew Burke has been having a blast creating photo mashups of iconic Nova Scotia scenery with a scifi twist. Burke is the creator of the locally popular ‘Star Ships Start Here’. An independent web developer by trade, Burke caught up with us to talk about his process, Nova Scotian roots and the importance of proof reading your merch.
So in a nutshell, what is Star Ships Start Here?
Well, it started as a dumb joke.
Back in 2011, my friends and I were joking about the Ships Start Here campaign. It was everywhere: posters, buses were wrapped in the ads, etc. We were riffing on the tagline: ‘Shit Starts Here’, ‘Ships Stop Here’, etc . I came up with ‘Star Ships Start Here (SSSH)’. It got me thinking about my interest in internet parodies.
One I remembered seeing was for San Francisco’s annual ‘Fleet Week’ where the navy base is celebrated. The town is full of sailors and they have giant-ass aircraft carriers floating downtown: it’s a big thing. Some effects artists in 2006 did an ‘Imperial Fleet week’ video version. It was very impressive: the Death Star floating across the San Fran bay, Union Square was full of storm troopers, etc. So I jokingly said we could do something similar in Halifax as well.
Then one night I was on Twitter and I had discovered that somebody had registered ‘Shit Starts Here’ and I was like ‘Oh. It’s starting. If I really want to do ‘starshipsstarthere.ca‘, I need to do it right now’. I do web stuff for a living, so I registered the domain, built a really simple one page site and I spent the rest of that night until 2am making cheesy photo shopped pictures (actually, I use Pixelmator). I ended up with a space shuttle launching where the big hole was for the new convention center is currently being built.
I was born in Halifax, but grew up in the Ottawa/Toronto areas. I moved back here in 2009 for when my wife went to teach at Dal. In a way, SSSH has been my way to identify and re-imagine Nova Scotia, like a sort of record to build my own signifiers of this place.
Why is it important to you that you are trying to discover those identifiers of Nova Scotia?
Well, they were new to me. In Toronto, very few people are from there. You don’t usually think about ‘Ottawa heritage’ or your ‘roots’ in Toronto. Here, there’s Peggy’s Cove, the Citadel, and Grand Pre where famous poems have been written about. There’s a lot more history here, basically. People are ‘from here’ and that left an impression.
So how did you keep the momentum of SSSH?
I knew SSSH needed to be a thing: as in have a website, and email address, a Twitter account *laughs*. The year prior, I had launched my first app called Remembary which gave me some insight on how to make a ‘product’ start to finish. You can do that so fast and I’ve always been a big fan of ‘just do it: just get it out there’.
So from when it started in Aug 2011 as one photo on the blog that I then shared on social media, it got a great response. Mostly local web traffic, but also hits from Alberta, Toronto, etc. I took a few days to build a real functioning photoblog site. From Sep 2011 through to March 2012, I had a picture posted to the site about every work day; half were my own and the other half submissions from other people.
Which brings me to the question of copyright: this project is images from movies and your own photos but stems from a local marketing campaign. How did you deal with that?
I knew people who work for National, the firm responsible for the Ships Start Here campaign. They contacted me after I did the site and said they thought it was awesome: they liked it. I didn’t do a dark satire and I specifically linked to their campaign on my page. I was riffing on, not pissing on. In fact, National have used my photos in presentations to show ‘look, we did something that was so culturally significant, people made jokes about it’.
The location photos are mine, unless I’m using a reference from the Nova Scotia Archives. In that case, I link back to them. I try to be about all of Nova Scotia but obviously since I use my own source images, its mostly going to be around my day to day life in the city.
I’m in software where no one contacts you unless it’s to complain… The compliments on SSSH have been worth it. To get affirmation on something I love doing feels great.
Was there any sense of imposter syndrome making these visual things and selling alongside sci-fi artists at conventions even though you are a software developer?
Not really. Because this started as a joke, if the colour isn’t right or the border is off, that’s ok because it’s about the idea. If people think it’s funny and they share it, then it has succeeded to me. And the fandom crowd is very open here in Halifax; they found items funny so it was accepted.
When I got into posters and printed items, I was surprised that people would want to put my weird-ass photos up on their walls. Then I tried a calendar which has turned out to be a hit. People come back each year to get the next version. That’s when I realized ‘Ok, this started as a joke but people are actually paying decent money for my stuff.’ Which I guess makes it ‘art’ by one definition *laughs*.
Did you come across any kinks along the way of turning this joke into physical, sellable items?
The first year I did calendars, I used Vistaprint – a print on demand service online. They were a success, so I made a new 2013 version. I hit the ‘make copy’ button online, swapped out the new images and had 50 shipped down to me. A $700 investment. I had a big launch event planned with boozy Romulain Ale, giveaways, etc. Three days before the event a friend looked at my new calendars and said ‘these are really nice, but are you going to make ones for next year?’ I realized I had only swapped out the photos, not the new calendar year.
Holy. What did you did?
I ran down to the Printing House who I was printing posters with, and they were able to reprint in that short time. With the old calendars I cut them up and sold the individual pages as $1 prints. That mistake put me a year behind breaking even. So pay attention before you hit ‘print’!
Did you have any surprise hit photos?
The Halifax Walkers concept is from a group that did walks around downtown. I wanted to promote their event so at lunch I took a photo of the clock tower, went back to my office and found some really well-cropped image of ATST Walkers. When I put it up, it was an instant hit. I think it’s one of the best ways to visually describe SSSH. It’s a show stopper with two highly iconic images. And yet, including walking to snap the photo, it took a total of 30 minutes to make. Others have taken me hours, only to end up being too obscure or awkward looking.
It’s obvious that those looking at your work know it comes from a place of love and enthusiasm.
I’ve always been the weird space kid. Even before Star Wars I was into rockets, the Apollo missions, etc. I was always drawing spaceships in my notebooks.
I’ve found the sweet spot for sure. It’s just begun to make a little bit of money four years later. Having random people buy my work, and telling me how much they enjoy them feels great. I’m in software where no one contacts you unless it’s to complain. They don’t compliment you on your work. If runs as expected, they ignore it. The compliments on SSSH have been worth it all on their own. To get affirmation on something I love doing feels great.