Movie visual-effects artist Joseph Vance has a few sci-fi dolls propped around the tiny front-room office of his Metairie home. A foot-tall doll of Pinhead (with a chalk-white skull bristling with geometrically spaced nails) from the cult-favorite Hellraiser is what one might expect to see at the mention of technologically advanced special effects. But Vance points to a fishbowl for an idea of his work. 'That's a challenge," he says. 'You have to get all the surfaces: the reflections off the glass, the texture of the water, the movement of the fish, the rocks " all of it together in an image."
Science fiction, fantasy and animated films display all sorts of increasingly sophisticated computer-generated or enhanced effects. But all films have visual effects and post-production work, from color correction to adding smoke or fire to a background to removing objects like a boom mic that gets caught in the frame of a scene. Films shot in studio lots often need things added, like outdoor scenes beyond windows or the ever-classic view out of the back window of a moving car.
'It's not just about monsters and lasers," Vance says. 'My job is to be the best liar in the world: to take the director's vision and make you believe it."
Vance hopes to combine fantasy and reality with both his film production company and the FEAR (Film Effects & Animation Revival) festival he's launching this weekend (www.fearinneworleans.com). FEAR combines horror and sci-fi films, computer-graphic demos and workshops, music, costumed events and special guests like porn-legend Ron Jeremy, who's recently retooled his film career for the horror genre.
Vance's company Lucid SFX Development (LSD) has produced everything from ads for churches to scenes in major motion pictures incorporating sophisticated computer-generated special effects. Using state-of-the-art software programs like Houdini, he can take bits of photos and manipulate them to create just about anything. He's particularly skilled with 'particles" or electronically creating fire, water, smoke or even crowd movements. A movie like Troy (2004) used Houdini to replicate soldiers and warships so that on screen it looks like thousands of them are landing on beaches and advancing on the city of Troy. The real art is to keep the images from looking identical. Another common example is the creation of fur for an animal. Too much uniformity would make it look fake, he says.
'The idea behind fractals is the basis of how we make textures. There's a controlled randomness to it. There's a dirtiness to it " or an irregularity " that makes it look real."
LSD's Web site (www.lucidsfx.com) has demos of the types of effects it creates. Adding tears to a face is a good example of a digitally created irregular flow of water achieving a real scene. In another demo, a space robot shoots lasers in front of a glass-and-steel office building. The reflections of the light off all the shiny surfaces and the falling of shadows as the machine moves show the types of detail that top studios require in films. LSD recently created a scene with images of lasers for the film Homeland Security.
With a handful of partners, including his wife Nesrin who does photography, Vance is presiding over a small boutique shop in an industry dominated by giants like Dreamworks (Shrek films), Pixar (Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, Toy Story) and Blue Sky (Ice Age films). After graduating from the Savannah College of Art and Design, a top program in the field, Vance weighed job offers in California where there are more than 150 companies doing visual effects for film and television. He and Nesrin instead chose to move back to New Orleans in early 2006 and soon launched their own company. It's one of the only Louisiana companies doing sophisticated post-production work. Vance wanted more artistic control from the start and knew he could offer more competitive rates by basing his operations here. And it's home for him; Vance studied art at Archbishop Rummel High School and used to render quick sketches in Jackson Square for extra money while in high school.
Vance also believes there's a local niche he can build. With the increase in major productions filming locally, LSD can offer some advantages in proximity. Post-production work is also an area that Vance sees as being underrepresented in local film programs, which focus more on camera work and editing.
To grab more attention for post-production and computer-generated video graphics, LSD partnered with Jerald White (of Bottletree Productions and Ashe Cultural Arts Center) and Zeitgeist Multi-disciplinary Arts Center to create FEAR, a pre-Halloween weekend festival of films, video and computer-graphic demonstrations by the makers of top software programs like Houdini and top video effects artists, plus events, parties and special guests. Ron Jeremy is a guest judge for a film effects contest and will speak on a panel about independent filmmaking. Other special guests include members of the Suicide Girls, the heavily tattooed pinup girls, and Lilith-Bots. Partially because of Halloween and partially because of the rich territory of sci-fi and horror for special effects work, the weekend focuses on those genres from early futuristic films like Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) to camp horror flicks like Frankenhooker (1990), The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) and Night of the Living Dead (1968). Musical guests include local mad-scientist rockers Consortium of Genius and a sensory-overloaded party featuring DJ Monk and VJ Berkeley.
Vance hopes the weekend will generate more interest in the side of the film industry where image really is everything.
'We're celebrating bringing the artists back into it," he says.
- Joseph Vance unleashes his own demons in a short demo film by his visual effects company LSD.