Techies go against type

F/x makers seize creative to win control on pix

Among execs on the major studio side of the entertainment industry, there’s a belief — often tacit, but occasionally spoken — that so-called “technical” fields like visual effects are merely service businesses with little or no relationship to the “creative” aspects of moviemaking.

However, a group of upstart artists, writers and execs at indie post and effects facilities have begun challenging that notion by becoming filmmakers themselves, or by providing financial and other support to indie helmers.

These indie world pioneers are indeed bucking established filmmaking trends. At Bouquet Multimedia, with facilities in Pacific Palisades and Oxnard, the professional pedigrees of company founders Therese Myers and Stanton Kaye couldn’t be more different from those of most studio execs.

Myers founded computer software company Quarterdeck in 1982, and served as its CEO and director until 1994. Kaye was a staff writer at Zoetrope Studios and has produced a number of indie films.

Bouquet’s company brochure, in fact, boasts: “We are a strange breed indeed. Award-winning old film pros. PC industry longtimers. Young, talented artists. Internet/computer gurus. Operations experts.”

It takes all those areas of expertise, Myers says, to meet Bouquet’s objectives. “We’re not as much a post facility as a facility that would come up with ideas that could be applied to low- to medium-budget films, but at a high quality. Our resources are targeted to give a young filmmaker all he needs to get his film made, as opposed to targeting commercial renters.”

Kaye and other Bouquet staffers read scripts and view rough cuts, and are choosy about the films they’ll take on. Myers emphasizes that the company looks for projects “with some kind of structure already in place. We’re not looking for over-the-counter submissions.”

Filmmakers with projects at Bouquet include Chanon Beizer, helmer of “The Matchbox Circus Train,” and a group from Wausau, Wis., with a film titled “The Marksman.”

Kaye says Bouquet invests substantial financial resources into a film. In addition to guidance at the script and editing stages, the company takes care of post-production and screenings for potential distributors. Paying clients, which have included HBO, KMEX and videogame company Sanctuary Woods, help cover Bouquet’s operating expenses. But, explains Myers, even the selected filmmakers are charged something for Bouquet’s services, and if Bouquet has a role in shaping the film creatively, the company receives a percentage.

Like Bouquet, many of the new breed of indies who do work for hire and get involved with development and production have experience with computer-generated effects. Dan Chuba, partner at Burbank’s Hammerhead, was head of production at Apogee, a company formerly owned by renowned effects supervisor John Dykstra. One of Chuba’s Hammerhead partners, Jamie Dixon, is a former supervisor at Pacific Data Images, the highly regarded effects shop now partly owned by DreamWorks.

Hammerhead is completing “Shadowbuilder,” a film directed by Dixon and exec produced by Chuba. In addition, the company does effects work for hire and develops software that it sells to outside clients — though Chuba acknowledges the retail channel for the company’s software sales isn’t terribly sophisticated, and the company may sell that division eventually.

Chuba says many of Hammerhead’s outside clients are people with whom the partners already have relationships, including exec producer David Nicksay and director James Cameron; Hammerhead produced shots for their respective films “Flubber” and “Titanic.” Partner Rebecca Marie also is supervising effects on Oliver Stone’s upcoming film, since she has worked with the helmer previously.

Chuba explains, “We began taking the service work to keep our own projects afloat, though there’s less of that element now. We don’t solicit the work anymore; people come to us because they know us.”

Chuba classifies Hammerhead as “a new kind of production company, specifically oriented toward our software tools. Our movies take advantage of our digital effects backgrounds.”

At Venice-based Blur Studio, partner Cat Chapman says the company was formed with the eventual goal of creating original feature films and TV series. The firm gradually has made a name for itself as a PC-based house, as opposed to those that rely heavily on expensive gear from outfits such as Silicon Graphics and Sun Microsystems. Recent f/x clients include vidgame company Activision, Miramax and DreamWorks Interactive.

Like Chuba, Chapman says her company’s staffers hope to capitalize on their digital effects background and interest in computers in general. “We don’t want to do ‘family entertainment.’ We want to do CG projects, aimed at the 18- to 34-year-old male audience. All the animators here are guys, and they want to work on cool stuff blowing up. We think there’s a great market for that.”

Chapman says Blur is putting together a short trailer to show investors what the company is capable of doing with an original production. Her partner, Tim Miller, Blur’s creative director, penned a treatment for a sci-fi actioner called “Seeker #4,” which Blur is putting on the fast track for development.

Just up the street from Blur is Inertia Pictures, where partners Jean Kim and Noriaki Kaneko also are focusing on original material after each working more than 10 years in the field of computer-based 3-D graphics. “About a year and a half ago we got burned out doing computer graphics on a day-to-day basis, and reassessed what we wanted to do,” Kim recalls. “We decided we wanted to use the visual medium to bring characters to life and tell stories.”

Inertia still does production for hire on feature films, vidgames and commercials, but Kim says that department is shrinking. “It funds the development work we do, and helps keep our skills sharp. It also lets us keep our eye on talented animators we want to work with.”

Inertia is working with Blur on a 3-D feature called “Shutdown,” an action-adventure story incorporating Japanese animation techniques. To cut costs, Inertia hopes to use Blur’s Windows NT-based system to produce much of the animation.

So far, Kim says, Inertia has had better luck with overseas investors. “Offshore, CG is a cool thing. But the studios want to know what projects we’ve developed before and who we know — it’s harder to crack that shell.”

At Grand Designs in Santa Monica — another company that works frequently with Blur — partner Kia Jam also believes the principals’ familiarity with digital effects will parlay nicely into the world of original production. Grand Designs is finishing a film called “Allied Forces” for Miramax, directed by one of Jam’s partners, David Douglas. Douglas’ brother Tim is visual effects supervisor, and Grand Designs partner Christopher Salazar is cinematographer.

The company continues to do work for hire, Jam says, “because it’s what we love to do.” On the more practical side, he acknowledges, f/x supervisor Tim Douglas wants work to keep the company busy while original scripts are still in the development stage. “We get contacted quite often by people who know our work. For Tim, it’s a matter of keeping his nails sharp, and the cash flow is good.”

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