When famed practical and miniatures outfit Kerner Optical recently ceased operations, many in the visual effects community lamented the demise of old-school effects work. But now a new company, 32Ten Studios, located on the former site of Kerner Optical and Industrial Light & Magic in San Rafael, has been formed with a mandate to produce not only practical and miniature effects, but also delve into the digital realm. We talk to Scott Smith, heading up 32Ten’s digital operations, about the mix of work planned by the facility.
fxg: A lot of people have been saying they’re disappointed that miniatures were being used less and less, but if you go to some of the films from last year, many of them still use miniatures – like Hugo, Real Steel, Cowboys & Aliens. You would obviously say there’s still a place for miniature and practical work in effects.
Smth: It’s interesting, actually – before I got involved in this I did some research and found there was a bit of a resurgence in practical work. We’re finding that directors and visual effects supervisors who have started their careers on the digital/CG side are discovering the beauty of practical work and model making. If you ask many computer graphics modelers they would say that practical work can still look better than it does in the computer.
fxg: How do you plan to meld some of the practical and CG effects work and backgrounds at the studio?
Smith: Well, my role will be on the computer graphics side – I’ll be working under the chief operating officer who is Greg Maloney, trying to build not only a computer graphics business and technology but also trying to meld the cultures of practical and computer graphics together, which has not really been done in great amounts before. The practical side of our industry are the people from the birth of our industry. They are very physical people and their culture is physical – they’re dealing with power tools and explosives and dangerous chemicals. On the computer side we’re sitting inside and dealing with software and code and all sorts of things with color and imagery.
My past is with ILM where I previously worked with bringing some computer technology to the practical side. Now I know people on both sides of the fence – I’ve been a CG artist myself. I’ve been a construction worker. I’ve been an IT professional as well, so I think I have a good understanding of both cultures. I want to sit some of these guys in front of the computer and say, ‘Here’s what your model looks like once we put it in the computer and here’s what we do to it. Here’s your explosion that we just filmed on the stage.’ And vice versa, I want to get a lot of these CG guys on the stage dealing with physical and practical lighting and shooting greenscreens.
fxg: What facilities will be available at 32Ten, both in terms of filming elements and creating miniature and practical FX, and then digital work?
Smith: 32Ten has an incredibly large and legacy data center, so we have a large capacity for expansion. We have a digital pipeline that’s been used on several films and has been purchased by 32Ten in order to do CG work. We have a very large stage – 81′ wide and 83′ deep. It’s the original Lucasfilm building that was built after Star Wars. We have the original theater that was built for the company but it’s also been used in the past for Academy viewings, film festivals and VES film showings.
fxg: Who will be making up the team at 32Ten?
Smith: Tim Partridge is the CEO, and he came from Dolby Digital originally. He worked at Kerner Co. as president and during the demise of that company he was able to grab a lot of people who were part of the Kerner and ILM model shops and they became part of 32Ten. Marty Rosenberg will be the director of photography, Nick D’Abo is model supervisor and Geoff Heron the practical FX Supervisor. Greg Maloney, the COO, is a 15 year veteran of Lucasfilm and ILM – he was a compositing supervisor for a long time. And I started at ILM in 1999 in the information technology and R&D departments, and facilitated the change of the practical and camera departments to digitize a lot of what they were doing so that there was digital footage, in addition to analogue, so that it was more portable within and outside the facility. I went on in 2005 to become a computer graphics artist until 2008 and then started an animation studio with some ILM colleagues, then went to Reliance Mediaworks in San Francisco as the CTO and acting COO there.
fxg: How do you see the merger of practical and digital effects occurring at the facility, in terms of production work? There are some great examples of using an entirely digital workflow from CAD modeling through to previs and animation and the final practical models being milled and fashioned from those original models.
Smith: Well we’re going to be looking to work on projects that use those approaches but we’re also going to be looking for projects that are just practical or just digital too. There’s an incredible amount of CAD and 3D printing in a lot of the stuff that the model shop will be doing – lots of laser cutting and high-tech approaches have emerged in model shops in the last five to ten years.
fxg: Finally, what is like to be able to work somewhere that has that rich history in visual effects?
Smith: For me, and for someone like Greg, it’s a coming home. We started our careers in this place. We hope the younger people who we hope to mentor will also see it as a holy ground – I mean it’s where ILM really began and the visual effects world, especially digital effects, began there.