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HIGH-TECH HOLLYWOOD

THE ALTERIAN APPROACH

Sometimes you have to get away to gain a new perspective on a familiar situation. That’s exactly what happened to Tony Gardner, creature effects artist and owner of Alterian Studios, a Monrovia company which is completing animatronics work on MGM/UA’s “Warriors of Virtue,” slated for a May 2 release.

Gardner spent the first half of 1996 in China, working on shots for the film and creating seven animatronic characters. “When I came back, I realized the problem of ‘disappearing’ like that for a long time: People in the industry tend to forget who you are. But in talking to people, to remind them what we did, I thought: There’s no reason we couldn’t do all a film’s visual effects work under one roof.”

Alterian opened its digital effects studio earlier this year. By keeping the staff small, Gardner said, and by keeping down equipment costs, Alterian can price its effects services to compete with bigger houses.

Gardner has brought in Elliot Worman, former head of digital effects at Encore Video, to run the new department. Worman’s recent credits include building virtual sets for the upcoming “Casper II — The Beginning” and the Borg spaceship for “Star Trek: First Contact.” The “Star Trek” project was done using personal computers from Digital Equipment Corp. The same line of Alpha computers are being used at Alterian. Worman and Gardner emphasize the DEC gear’s role in holding costs down. If the studio were to purchase a pricey line of Silicon Graphics equipment, said Worman, Alterian wouldn’t be able to crank out high-end visuals any faster.

Gardner made a name for himself doing animatronics, makeup and miniatures for features, including “Darkman,” “The Doors,” “Forrest Gump,” “The Addams Family,” “Speed,” “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls,” “The Rock” and others.

In addition to the DEC computers, the studio is outfitted with several other desktop systems, a Pentium file server and a Pentium Render server. The company’s primary software is Ligthwave 3D.

Gardner said the move to open a digital studio “seemed like the next step in our evolution. We’d been doing digital tests on our own, then passing the tests off to another house, who would do the work. After a while, we decided to make the investment and handle the digital work ourselves.”

The process seems to be working so far. Clients who approach Alterian about more traditional effects work are also bringing their digital compositing jobs to the company. That’s what happened with the upcoming “Mortal Kombat 2.” The producers came to Alterian with miniatures work. After seeing the new digital capabilities, they will now use Alterian to composite the miniatures with backgrounds.

Even though bigger effects houses have had difficulty making money on digital effects work, Gardner is confident he can sidestep the problems of his predecessors.

“A bigger company has trouble making money with digital because they don’t control their overhead,” he contended. “They may have 50,000 square feet of space, and 50 people in the digital department. We have 14 workstations, and if we need to expand, we won’t purchase $3 million worth of equipment. We’ll rent the equipment and bring people in as we need them.

“That’s how I’ve worked in the makeup arena for so long,” he added. “When I started Alterian, I had 300 square feet and one full-time employee. My goal continues to be: remain organized and not take on more than I can handle.”

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