Special Effects

February 12, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY KAYE: From a sinking ship to Jurassic monsters to alien landings, audiences around the world can’t seem to get enough of entertainment spiked with visual effects. Of the ten highest grossing films of all time eight rely heavily on special effects. This trend has fueled the rapid growth of the computer-generated effects industry in Los Angeles, according to writer Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow at Pepperdine University.

JOEL KOTKIN: Well, what it’s done is it’s taken one of the great strengths of California, high technology, and married it to another great strength of California, which is entertainment and created a whole new industry or series of industries, which are basically high wage, high skilled kinds of jobs. So, it’s an extremely good convergence of two basic California strengths.

JEFFREY KAYE: Manufacturing and technology long anchored Southern California’s defense-dependent economy, but the end of the Cold War led to military cutbacks, sending its economy into a tailspin. Hundreds of thousands of workers lost jobs. In the early 90′s, even as the rest of the country recovered from a recession, California’s economy languished. Today, however, a more diverse economic base, with entertainment at the forefront, is spurring the region’s growth. More than 130,000 Angelenos now work in the burgeoning multimedia business, among them Ray Cruz.

JEFFREY KAYE: So you worked for the U.S. Naval Station in Long Beach?


JEFFREY KAYE: And what happened to that?

RAY CRUZ: Well, I guess the base got selected for a base closure and when they closed the base, I got laid off.

JEFFREY KAYE: Cruz works for Megadrive Systems, which does 40 percent of its business with the growing digital media industry. Alex Bouzari, Megadrive’s president, says the company has found a niche making products that store vast quantities of computer data.

JEFFREY KAYE: So, this is literally the equivalent of a thousand home computers.

ALEX BOUZARI: In essence. Absolutely. This stores the equivalent of a thousand home computers, and at incredibly faster speeds.

JEFFREY KAYE: The systems made by Megadrive allow artists to store and render computer-generated effects. The company has grown with the demand.

ALEX BOUZARI: So, starting three, four years ago, as Hollywood and the entertainment industry started using computer-based tools, we started talking to them and seeing what we could do to help them with these tools, and Megadrive started getting involved in providing the tools which would enable the Hollywood types, the creative people, to do things faster, better, more effectively.

JEFFREY KAYE: With 1997 sales of more than $24 million, Megadrive has doubled its revenue every two years, as the digital entertainment industry has thrived. Megadrive’s products are used by visual effects companies like Digital Domain, one of LA’s most successful. CEO Scott Ross says is industry has become an integral part of film making.

SCOTT ROSS: Just about every film that’s coming out is utilizing the advent of digital effects to be able to create images that you either couldn’t create before, or that were so expensive to create that you wouldn’t create.

JEFFREY KAYE: Digital Domain has a full-time staff of about 200, although it has employed as many as 1,000 during busy periods. To create its special effects the company still uses traditional techniques–models, smoke and mirrors–but most effects are computer enhanced or generated. This Michael Jackson video from Digital Domain features an increasingly common technique in which a performer’s motions are recorded by a computer and later reproduced as animation.

The firm also produces animated commercials. But not all digital effects are as obvious. Increasingly, film makers are using effects in ways so subtle the viewer may not recognize them. The effects Digital Domain made for “Titanic,” the most expensive special effects movie ever made, were designed to blend seamlessly with the movie.

Computer artists added people to crowd scenes and in some shots created the illusion of water. When the makers of Red Corner, a movie set in China, were denied permission to shoot there, they turned to Digital Domain. Artists created a virtual Beijing in Marina Del Rey, a Los Angeles suburb. They worked under the supervision of Kevin Mack.

KEVIN MACK: Well, we have several shots in Tiananmen Square, one of which was some kids playing soccer.


KEVIN MACK: And so we shot this plate in Marina Del Rey, again, in a parking lot, and we matched the camera lens and the camera angle to our painting, which we then put into the background, so that we have matched the perspective and so on.

JEFFREY KAYE: In the fast-evolving digital business, stability is yet another illusion. Some companies have disappeared; others have seen dramatic growth. The most successful have found ways to deal with the fluctuating business cycle. One strategy is to keep small and adaptable. Joel Kotkin calls these companies “cybergnats.”

JOEL KOTKIN: A cybergnat is a company that really does special effects, but on a very small scale, usually with a small staff, as small as two, three people, maybe up to ten, twelve people. The cybergnats are a critical part of this industry. They’re part of the flexibility and the way that you can keep at least some control on costs.

JEFFREY KAYE: One example is Pixel Liberation Front. PLF began with one computer two and a half years ago. Today, PLF has eight employees in LA and New York, it produces effects for commercials, computer games, and films. The computer’s specialty is previsualization, which means it designs the way special effects are shot, as it did for the film, “Starship Troopers.” Colin Green cofounded PLF.

COLIN GREEN: The way that all visual effects production is done is that lots and lots of elements are photographed separately, and then layered together to create the final image. And so we create the blueprint for how all those pieces are intended to fit together and make sure that they fit together in the way that the director approves in advance of producing those elements and then help put it altogether in the end.

JEFFREY KAYE: Green says his company can survive the ups and downs of the production market by using powerful and affordable technology and by staying lean.

COLIN GREEN: We don’t have many, you know, million dollar computers sitting in an air conditioned room. We have just the equipment that we need and just the people that we need. And so, in-between jobs, our overhead is not as high as some of the other companies.

JEFFREY KAYE: But one challenge shared by small and large companies has been finding trained workers. Many technicians have switched from defense to entertainment; however, companies have had trouble finding experts with arts training in a field estimated to be growing at 20 percent a year. To fill the demand, the industry recruited in Europe and Asia.

SCOTT ROSS: Back in 1996 and 1997, as we were hiring like mad, we started to look for men and women that knew how to draw and sculpt and create graphical images. And there came a point in time when we really needed to go off-shore and about 41 percent of our work force: foreign nationals.

JEFFREY KAYE: In an effort to develop homegrown talent, the industry is supporting local training programs in selected vocational centers at high schools. Students study computer graphics, arts, and animation under a federally-funded program arranged with Hollywood’s assistance.

A career in digital arts can reap big rewards; salaries range from fifty to a hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year. And jobs are abundant in a growing field. The demand for sophisticated visual effect is not limited to movies. The growing digital effects industry is a multimedia business. Increasingly, special effects companies are applying their technology to a wide array of entertainment, from computer games to theme parks.

At the Las Vegas Hilton hundreds of tourists a day pack in to see “Star Trek: The Experience.” The $70 million attraction features visual effects created by a Los Angeles-based company. Other companies employing visual effects artists are marrying Southern California’s military and entertainment industries. The owners of Fightertown Entertainment started by supplying flight simulator components to the military.

They’ve converted their military technology to a new business offering simulated jet rides to the public. Creators of such virtual reality say its uses go way beyond entertainment.

SCOTT ROSS: What’s happening in digital technology–and we can call it the digital revolution–is as important to culture and sociopolitical environments and the economic of a global marketplace as let’s say the industrial revolution was so many years ago. And we’re just at the beginning. We’re now rubbing sticks together and seeing fire.

But over the next hundred or so years, I think that will be “the” most significant change in the way in which we entertain ourselves, in the way in which we educate our children, and in the way in which we communicate.

JEFFREY KAYE: Ross says new forms of communication are evolving as the computer, television, and telephone converge into one technology. Their convergence, he predicts, will demand new ways of telling stories and creating images, leading to even greater growth in the digital production industry and the Southern California economy.