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On the Job

Creating visual effects that disappear

“If we do our job right, viewers never even know that we’ve been there,” Zero VFX special effects worker Don Libby said.
John Blanding/Globe staff
“If we do our job right, viewers never even know that we’ve been there,” Zero VFX special effects worker Don Libby said.

If it’s on a reel, chances are it’s not real. Moviedom has nearly perfected the art of computer-generated effects, whether it’s a simple background adjustment or jaw-dropping visuals. Don Libby of the Boston-based digital effects company Zero VFX has played a supporting role in enhancing recent films such as “Black Mass,” “American Hustle,” and “Southpaw.” Libby spoke about the cinematic illusions created with imagery tools such as NUKE, Maya, and Photoshop.

“We recently finished adding digital destruction and mayhem to a wild highway chase in ‘Hardcore Henry,’ a movie shot almost entirely with a GoPro. Director Ilya Naishuller and his crew delivered dozens of [pieces of] footage that had to be stitched together into one seamless sequence. There was a lot of environmental work, too, painting out skies and trees and covering them up with elements, and then layering all the explosions on top. The van in one scene was completely unharmed but is actually supposed to flip over and explode, so we needed to create a CGI [Computer Generated Imagery] version of the vehicle. This required modeling a 3-D representation of the van and then demolishing it. This is the typical sort of pyrotechnics that can be created, some for cool car, shoe, juice, or restaurant commercials as well. Where are all these mirages created? In an innocuous-looking brownstone office that looks more like an ad agency, except for the giant animatronic fish lying on the floor and other miscellaneous props. With Massachusetts having a good tax credit, there’s a lot of movie production going on here now, as well as advertising work. Studios like a local team like ours, and we call ourselves Zero VFX because if we do our job right, viewers never even know that we’ve been there. One of my first special effects heroes was director James Cameron, who made the thriller ‘The Abyss.’ When I first saw it, I couldn’t wrap my mind around how the effects were done. That’s when fell in love with this industry but never really thought I would be able to get a foothold in it. My career started at a production company out west and I slowly but surely gained more experience. Now, when I see a movie, I know how difficult it is to create a special effect: It takes hours and hours with lots of manpower. So I am not a critic — if anything, I am more forgiving if it misses the mark.”

Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at cindy.atoji@gmail.com.