Big effects, little coin for UFO pix

Indie is one of H'wood's best-kept secrets

“The road’s not marked and it’s easy to get lost,” warns production manager Melanie J. Elin, directing a journalist to the back-country Saugus location of “Interceptors,” UFO’s fifth special-effects feature in the past three years. And, as the car bumps noisily down the hidden fire road to meet Phil Roth, UFO’s co-founder and director of four of the company’s five films, it makes sense that Elin’s shoot should be so hard to find: Even in the world of cash-poor, publicity-challenged indies, UFO (Unified Film Organization) is a big secret.

Yet, for the cost of what James Cameron likely spent on “Titanic’s” rowboats, this Burbank-based outfit has, since its formation in 1995, quietly built a resume of theatrical-quality, CGI-filled adventure films that would make any studio bean-counter proud.

For instance, UFO spent just $1.5 million on its “Storm,” which features a hurricane knocking out the Santa Monica Pier. And that’s its most ambitious film to date.

“Storm,” starring Martin Sheen and Luke Perry, only edged into seven figures because of the name acting talent involved, not because UFO’s computer costs increased. In fact, the company Roth co-founded with actor Ken Olandt had made three CGI actioners prior to “Storm,” all of which hovered around the $1 million mark. And, that’s including more than 380 f/x shots on last year’s caper-in-space shoot “Velocity Trap.”

“I suppose we are a secret in our own back yard,” Roth says, between takes, in his location trailer (yes, the company provides trailers, safety coordinators, craft services and on-set security guards, just like a “regular budget” film). “Mostly because no one believes we can make studio-quality f/x films at such an insanely low price. Sometimes, I don’t even believe it,” the jovial Roth howls.

“But, as far back as 1993, the technology has been available to do sophisticated CGI rendering from PC-based workstations. Once we added our own film recorders (which shoot all the computer composites to a 35mm negative) and software applications for the PC like Lightwave and Adobe After Effects, I knew almost anything was possible.”

UFO’s digs are, not surprisingly, hard to find, set back on a dead-end street in an industrial section of Burbank, far from the major studios.

Partner Jeff Beach, a veteran of genre-film foreign sales, lauds UFO’s digital artists, who are thrilled to blow up a C-123 weather plane in mid-air, or knock out a chunk of the Santa Monica Pier with the press of a computer key if the story requires.

“The competition to find animators and designers is really intense,” Beach says. “And, even the bigger houses, like ILM or Digital Domain, where everyone wants to work, don’t pay huge amounts. We go all over the country looking for new designers, and usually get them at a rate very close to what the big boys will pay.” Beach notes UFO’s 35-plus workstations, high-end rendering machines and steady workload of features, rather than commercials or musicvideos, as an attractive environment for digital animators.

He credits Roth as UFO’s driving force. “Phil has had a clear vision ever since his Portland days,” Beach explains; and Roth concurs.

“I shared offices with Gus Van Sant in Portland when we were both starting out,” Roth recalls. “Gus’ first film was ‘Mala Noche,’ which he couldn’t get distributed. And mine was this goofy action picture called ‘Bad Trip,’ which made me a profit!

“I admired Gus very much, but I thought he was crazy to make an art film, when he could have played it safe with a genre piece like me,” Roth chuckles good-naturedly.

“Years later,” he continues, “the roles have switched. Gus is making these big studio dramas, while I’m at UFO making these super-low-budget pictures completely inhouse. But I’ve always felt that just because you’re an independent and work outside mainstream Hollywood, doesn’t mean you have to make art films. Thanks to the revolution in film technology, I can blow up most of Los Angeles, just like the studios do, minus all the huge salaries they pay for their stars, of course.”