Local Firm “Creature Effects” Brings Fantasy to Life
One of the most popular commercials that aired during this year’s Super Bowl was an Volkswagen ad that featured an adorable dog who needed to lose a few pounds:
Bolt, the animal actor in the commercial (which filmed entirely in California), did not have an actual weight problem. Like many actors before him, Bolt was able to “bolt on” a few prosthetic pounds. That’s right, Bolt had to wear a fat suit. And, thanks to the Hollywood magic made possible by the people at Creature Effects, audiences had no idea that: 1) Bolt was wearing a fat suit or; 2) the fur on the pet fat suit was synthetic. Bolt, after all, does not want his fellow animals to be harmed for a commercial and neither does Mark Rappaport, the special effects wizard who runs Creature Effects. “We are a PETA-approved business”, said Rappaport. Indeed, during a recent interview with Film Works, Rappaport’s own dog made friends with campaign staffers.
Much of Creature Effects’ work involves the creation of lifelike animals, and, in some cases, insidious monsters that are the stuff of nightmares. From the the fearsome wolf slayed by King Leonidus in 300, to the German Shepherd Will Smith was heart-breakingly forced to put down in I Am Legend, to the creation of horses for the forthcoming The Lone Ranger, Creature Effects’ body of work is intimidating in more ways than one. The creation of amazing life-like horses is something of a specialty at Creature Effects, and it’s taken the company “to the next level”, said Rappaport.
After cutting his teeth working for the prolific B-movie horror filmmaker Charles Band in the 1980′s, Rappaport started looking for a new workshop space to start growing the company so it could go after major studio blockbusters.
As fate would have it, the landlord of Creature Effects’ present home near Universal Studios told Rappaport he had some leads with Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai, which was then in early pre-production. Cruise and the producers enlisted Rappaport to construct an animatronic horse for Cruise during a major action sequence. Naturally, Cruise wanted to give his full focus to acting, not riding — so that required Creature Effects build a mechanical horse that could also act. It was a very tall order, but Rappaport was up for the challenge. It turned out to be the big break he had been waiting for.
After countless hours work that absorbed Rappaport’s life for months, the final product was a breathtaking robotic horse that fooled audiences around the world into thinking it was real:
To create such an incredible machine, Rappaport invested a lot of personal funds and ended up taking a financial loss on the construction. When all was said and done, the horse cost a staggering $1.25 million to build. It proved a wise investment, however, because building the horse sent Creature Effects’ reputation into orbit.
Rappaport told Film Works that because Creature Effects serves such a specific niche, and because the work the company does requires expertise not found anywhere in the U.S., save California, the company has been somewhat insulated from the ravages of runaway production.
But not 100% insulated.
“The only reason we were able to do the work for 300, which filmed in Canada, was because Zach Snyder [the director] fought to keep using us instead of Canadian labor eligible for their film incentive”, said Rappaport.
And despite Creature Effects’ expertise for creating horses, Steven Spielberg’s War Horse employed a firm in England to qualify for film incentives overseas. “Anything that leaves the country makes it very hard for us to get the work,” observed Rappaport, “because foreign film incentives don’t cover U.S. firms and labor.”
Locally, Rappaport said commercial producers have been keeping Creature Effects busy with an average of 2-3 projects per month. Television shows based in L.A. like Criminal Minds, Grey’s Anatomy, Lab Rats, Kickin It and Pair of Kings also keep Creature Effects busy.
Creature Effects employs a minimum of four workers and up to 15 on busy weeks. On average, Rappaport says, the Creature Effects workshop needs a crew of seven. The work is labor intensive, highly specialized and deadlines can be extreme. For a recent commercial project that required animatronic trout for a shoot in Brazil, the shop invested more than 40 hours’ work in less than two calendar days to rush ship the order to South America.
So what does the future look like for outfits like Creature Effects? Rappaport said computer-generated visual effects (CGI) is “the big gorilla in the room” right now.
“When I first came to L.A. in the 1980′s, things were so busy that there weren’t enough people to do all of the work”, said Rappaport. With advances in CGI each year, combined with runaway production and the development of film infrastructure in other states and nations, shops like Creature Effects are poised to feel a triple pinch.
Here’s to hoping there’ll always be a place for shops like Creature Effects, and further that we’ll keep them here in California.