When you earn your keep in the film industry’s visual-effects (VFX) trenches—digitally crafting anything from huge explosions to painterly, period-specific “invisible effects”—and you’re really good at what you do, sooner or later you get the itch to go out on your own.
Often, that timing is dictated by a threshold of potential clientele—or maybe it coincides with technical advancements in the field that streamline workflow or make tools less expensive. For Chris LeDoux, co-founder of boutique VFX company Crafty Apes, the epiphany came while employed at Scanline, working 16-hour days for four months straight as the compositing supervisor on the massive train-crash sequence for J.J. Abrams’ Super 8. Though he’s quick to call Scanline the best company he’s ever worked for, the math wasn’t adding up.
“I’m thinking, ‘All right, if I’m going to be away from my family and missing valuable bar time, then there has to be a reason,’” says LeDoux, who jokes that sales were beginning to slow at his two favorite local watering holes. “I also realized that I wasn’t going to be able to make the networking connections with producers and studios if I was spending all my time at a computer facility. I wanted to learn the process of filmmaking, not just the visual effects aspects of it.”
Originally from Alaska, LeDoux shoots from the hip and comes across more like a teamster you’d want to share Super Bowl Sunday with than someone who wants to talk your ear off about the latest advancements in cloud computing over long romantic walks to the server room. In addition to his compositing work for Scanline, Café FX, Uncharted Territory, and the Orphanage, he’s also worked on music videos via Pusher Media for bands such as Audioslave, U2, and Paramore, and he was a supervisor at R!OT. But life outside the box was calling.
“It’s hard to articulate, but there’s an inspiration that comes from working for yourself,” says LeDoux. “When you’re working for someone else you know your paycheck is going to arrive at a certain time, but there’s very little excitement in that arena. You’re one of the guys laying the blocks on the pyramid, but you’re not designing the pyramid.”
In 2011, LeDoux formed Crafty Apes with fellow industry veteran Jason Sanford and younger brother Tim LeDoux, who was motivated to leave his full-ride scholarship within UC Santa Barbara’s PhD program in chemistry to start a career in VFX. The company’s focus and expertise lies in 2D compositing; think subtle green-screening and matte shots, as opposed to the hard-edged rendering in the “VFX porn” you’d find in any of the recent Superman movies.
Launching a new company with no demo reel and going from work on monsters and spaceships to, as LeDoux puts it, “two people talking in a room,” was challenging, but the dividends slowly started to pay off. The team began doing one-off “911 work” for films, including 12 Years A Slave, which let them showcase their skills in a way that working for a larger company couldn’t. And when the films you 911 go on to win three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, people take notice.
After wrapping the movie Fist Fight (starring Ice Cube and Charlie Day), LeDoux got word of a new project helmed by a producer he had worked with in the past. The film was called Hidden Figures. Set in the early 1960s, Hidden Figures was shot on 35mm film and had a Kodachrome-like feel to it, which added an era-specific look, but also posed unique challenges. 35mm is softer and its graininess hides a lot, which is good for epic compositing shots like the one featuring John Glenn walking out to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, which was shot in a warehouse. But getting rocket takeoffs and space orbiting sequences to have the same period feel was extremely difficult and time-consuming.
Chris and his team researched old stock film as well as footage taken from the International Space Station. Programs like Phoenix FD, NUKE, and FumeFX were used heavily, as well as Autodesk Maya, which LeDoux loves for its ease of use, flexibility, universality, and the “shit ton of plug-ins” available. Whether producing interstellar hero shots of fiery capsules reentering the earth’s atmosphere or invisible effects like matte paintings and exterior shots at NASA HQ in Langley, the key for LeDoux is staying simple and authentic.
“VFX are used best as a pillar to uphold the story,” he explains. “When VFX are the story, you’ve lost the plot; you’re basically making an expensive stock footage reel at that point. I always use my mom as the litmus test. She watches it, and she’s engaged in the story. Too many effects cause cognitive dissonance. We still have caveman brains and we don’t do well with too many choices.”
LeDoux and the Crafty Apes team also worked on La La Land, which was also shot on 35mm and, like Hidden Figures, had a very singular look and feel. The film’s epic opening sequence contained over 8,000 frames packed into five minutes; camera equipment had to be edited out, cars and people had to be edited or removed, wardrobe was re-colored. It was a monumental undertaking that required not only massive amounts of VFX work, but also a new approach to Crafty Apes’ data-storage infrastructure (via Qumulo’s QC24 hybrid storage appliance) to accommodate the terabytes of data.
More recently, Crafty Apes wrapped work on SpikeTV’s new series The Mist (based off Stephen King’s story), and is currently involved in about 14 major projects, including a remake of Jacob’s Ladder (for LD Entertainment), and a film called Fast Color, directed by Julia Hart and produced by La La Land’s Jordan Horowitz.
“Fast Color has some unique work that I’ve never seen in cinema before, and Jacob’s Ladder has some great moody work to enhance the tone of the film, but that’s about all I can say.
“This is a unique business,” he continues. “There’s a lot of do-it-yourself and times you just have to figure it out. There are shots in Hidden Figures where there are crowds of people looking into the sky and half of them are VFX guys here at the office. We do that all the time. The wheel is being reinvented every day, and I just embrace the chaos. We were firing off roman candles in the parking lot the other day and people came out like, ‘What the hell are you doing?!’ We’re like, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’re just making movies.’”