The last temptation in the movie business is to stay small.
But the founders of Look Effects Inc., a six-year-old Hollywood special effects shop, are content for now to handle smaller films or to take just a slice of big-budget pictures at the expense of a mega-payday.
"At the bigger (effects) companies, a smaller film would be relegated to the B team," said Mark Driscoll, who founded the house in 1998 with Henrik Fett, Max Ivins and Danny Kim. "You just can't have the A-list talent working on all the projects."
So in an intensely competitive market, which include giants like Digital Domain and Industrial Light and Magic, Look's partners have been careful to understand their limitations. "You wouldn't go to us for a movie like 'I, Robot,'" Driscoll said. "If you need $100 million worth of visual effects, we couldn't handle that kind of infrastructure."
It's a strategy that has helped the firm grow rapidly within the bounds it has set for itself.
Driscoll said Look would probably generate $2.25 million this year, up from $1.4 million in 2003. To keep up with the work, it has hired six people, including a visual effects supervisor and a visual effects producer and several computer artists.
Besides handling lower-budget material, Look has worked as a subcontractor to the bigger shops. Such was the case with last year's "The Passion of the Christ," the controversial Mel Gibson epic that generated more than $370 million in domestic box office.
Look Effects created a computer-generated maggot that crawls out of one of Satan's nostrils, and it touched up some wounds in the extended flogging scene.
Though the controversy has started to die down, Driscoll said his contract with Captive Audience Productions Inc., the shop that was the lead special effects developer, precluded him from discussing the project.
"We called the company to do a couple of shots on the tail end of production," said Keith Vanderlaan, a special makeup effects designer and producer at Captive Audience. "It's no calling card for them. They weren't there for any of the controversy."
Nearly all of Look's work involves adding computer-generated imagery and animation to live action. The company digitizes live-action portions of a film and overlays pieces of computer-generated imagery to enhance or alter the reality. That could include anything from inserting a floating ghost to modifying a scene's colors and shadows.
The four founders, who had run across each other in earlier jobs, came together with a shared desire to start a boutique effects house.
The firm's first small jobs were done out of Driscoll's rented Topanga Canyon home, using the partners' personal computer equipment and the animation software licenses each had accumulated. They pitched in $9,000 to purchase used servers and hard drives, and moved into an 1,800-square-foot space in Hollywood in 1999.
"We all pared down and lived frugally," said Ivins who had been a lawyer before moving into digital visual effects. "We got a bunch of little jobs to begin with on really low-budget movies you've never heard of. They were looking for an alternative that was low cost, and you do higher-level effects for a lot less money if you do it with low overhead, no administration and do everything yourself."
In 2000, Look landed its first significant job a contract to do the visual effects for the Warner Television pilot, and subsequent series, "Witchblade," which aired on TNT.
Look landed the contract after Fett spent three weeks working on spec to build a computer-animated steel glove that transformed the protagonist into a superhero. The job generated enough revenue for the partners to invest $300,000 in a software and hardware package an upgrade needed to compete with medium-sized shops that were better equipped.
Since then they have worked on "Frida," the 2002 film about the life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. They were paid $50,000 for three months of work creating animated sequences such as one that had Diego Rivera perched on a skyscraper. Look also worked on 2004's "Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed," which provided a calling card because it demonstrated the company's ability to handle complex visual imagery.
Look usually works on four or five jobs at once, but is currently busy with 10 projects. By keeping its overhead low and the staff lean, it could underbid larger competitors and, like many small shops, land jobs that bigger shops with more people and resources sometimes can't take on profitably, said Mar Elepano, a professor of animation and digital arts at USC's School of Cinema-Television.
"It's very expensive to have somebody like Industrial Light & Magic or Digital Domain," Elepano said.
Smaller operations like Look also benefit when larger shops are unable to make the difficult shots on time, and the studio producers decide to farm out bits and pieces of the visual effects work.
"We've gotten stuff thrown over the fence," said Driscoll, who studied mechanical engineering and architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and came from Digital Domain. "Rhythm & Hues gave us a whole movie once, 'Zapata,' (written and directed) by Alfonso Arau. They were too busy and couldn't take it on. It was a lower-budget film, and it would've been hard for them to make a profit on."
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