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Innovation economy

Special effects firm turns back cinematic clock

Boston-based Zero VFX’s digital transformation of contemporary footage such as this street scene in Worcester (at top, before, and at bottom, after) to a bygone era helped it land work on the film “American Hustle.”

IMAGES FROM ZERO VFX

Boston-based Zero VFX’s digital transformation of contemporary footage such as this street scene in Worcester (at top, before, and at bottom, after) to a bygone era helped it land work on the film “American Hustle.”

Last March, Sean Devereaux drove out to Worcester, to audition for a part in the movie “American Hustle.”

He landed the role, but you won’t see him on screen. He also won’t be sashaying down the red carpet at next month’s Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood, where the film is up for 10 Oscars.

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Devereaux led the Boston-based special effects crew at Zero VFX that back-dated footage shot in present-day Worcester, Boston, and Manhattan to make all three locations look like New York in late 1970s. They added buildings, removed Apple Stores, and inserted period taxis and low-slung sedans. They also did something to the actors’ outlandish 1970s hairstyles that they are contractually forbidden from discussing.

Even though Devereaux and cofounder Brian Drewes don’t show up in “American Hustle” until the closing credits, their role in the movie could be a career-maker for their 43-person firm, which is just four-years old. (The film is about a fictitious bribery scheme loosely based on the FBI’s ABSCAM sting operation.) Even though it’s small, Zero VFX is already the biggest special effects studio in town.

The “zero” in the company’s name references the kind of subtle special effects they specialize in. Did you notice their work in “The Way, Way Back,” a coming-of-age story that featured Concord native Steve Carell? That’s exactly the idea.

But they can also crank out the kind of explosions, fantastic vistas, fake crowds, and realistic-looking creatures that big-budget blockbusters require. Their big-screen debut entailed designing a vast new exhibit for Franklin Park Zoo, at the end of the 2011 Kevin James comedy “Zookeeper.”

They’ve also worked on TV commercials for Ocean Spray beverages, McDonald’s, and Major League Baseball.

Devereaux and Drewes both previously worked for another special effects firm in Boston, Brickyard Filmworks, as did a third founder of Zero who has since moved on. When the trio left to start Zero, Brickyard filed a lawsuit alleging that they took clients with them, including the “Zookeeper” project. (That suit was eventually settled.)

Zero began in the basement of Devereaux’s Newton home. He had moved back to Boston after several years working at big special effects studios such as Industrial Light & Magic and Digital Domain in California, founded by directors George Lucas and James Cameron, respectively.

The initial goal for Zero was to spend about half the time working on TV commercials — that business springs from the ad agencies in Boston — and half on films.

“My daughter was 6 months old when we were starting the company, and we were taking no pay for months and months the first year,” says Devereaux. “There was literally some looking through the couch cushions to buy milk.”

But Drewes and Devereaux worked any connection they could think of to find work, eventually landing films such as “Here Comes the Boom.” For that movie, about mixed-martial arts fighting, they made the Tsongas Center in Lowell look larger and added audience members. For a Bruno Mars music video, they created a digital gorilla running down a dark alley. They added hundreds of soccer balls to a Subway ad starring Pelé.

Instead of just selling their artists’ time, the firm has also experimented with creating products it can sell. The first is called Zync. It is a tool for allowing other special effects studios to do rendering work — essentially, outputting the finished movie frames they’ve been designing — using Amazon.com's on-demand computing services.

That lets them access lots of image-processing power during crunch times, without having to buy their own expensive machines.

Landing high-profile movie work, especially from a Boston base, involves a lot of lunches, pitch meetings, and flights to LAX. (Drewes says he has made three round-trips in a single week.) When Drewes heard that a producer of “American Hustle” was in town early last year, he persuaded him to visit Zero’s offices — and do lunch. Devereaux then took a trip to Worcester with some colleagues, snapping photos of locations. The team then turned back the clock, using software to insert 1970s-era phone booths and neon, and removing a Nissan SUV and Honeydew Donuts sign. They got the job, which occupied most of the late summer and early fall. “American Hustle” came out in December.

Last week, when I visited Zero, the team was immersed in work on a new Denzel Washington film, “The Equalizer,” due out in September. Like most of the films Zero has worked on, it was shot in Massachusetts. And there’s a reason for that: Studios get a 25 percent tax credit on any production expenses they incur in the state.

The jobs Zero is creating feel more stable and more full-time than most in the local film industry, but they also seem dependent on the credit — and film work not shifting to states that offer even more appealing incentives.

And despite the glamour of hanging around movie sets with the likes of Christian Bale and Denzel Washington, Zero’s business isn’t immune from globalization. Effects work can be done more cheaply in Canada, China, and India, says Jeff Kleiser, cofounder of Synthespian Studios in North Adams and a veteran of the industry since the 1980s.

“Studios don’t really care where the work is done,” he says. “They just want it done as cheaply as possible. In India, you might pay $100 a week for the same guy I pay $1,500 a week. It’s a difficult situation.”

But two Sundays from today, when the Oscars are awarded, Drewes will be pulling for “American Hustle” from his home in Brookline, and Devereaux will be out in Los Angeles for meetings.

However many awards the film takes home, the ceremony offers a chance for their small company’s work to be seen around the world.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.
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