Movie pioneer Trumbull plans sci-fi film to jumpstart western Mass. cluster

By Kyle Alspach
Journal of New England Technology
July 7, 2010

While taking a breather from Hollywood, visual effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull re-located to the Berkshires in 1987 — ultimately begetting a cluster of visual effects companies in the area.

The cluster has seen several core companies depart since the mid-1990s. Now, Trumbull, who remains in the Berkshires, hopes to inspire a new wave of visual effects firms to migrate to the area. His plan to accomplish this? Produce a sci-fi film entirely in Western Massachusetts.

“I’m hearing from a lot of friends that are eager to come back and get going again,” said Trumbull, whose visual effects credits include “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” 

“I would expect there could be some real growth over the next couple of years,” Trumbull said.

Along with Trumbull’s operation in Southfield, several top-tier visual effects companies still work in the Berkshires, including Sandbox F/X in Pittsfield (“Lord of the Rings,” “Chronicles of Narnia”) and Synthespian Studios in Williamstown (“X-Men,” “Fantastic Four”).

The Berkshires have long boasted a culture of creativity and arts, and visual effects professionals say they’ve found the area to be an ideal location for their work. High quality of life and proximity to cultural attractions and to nature are among the major advantages. “A lot of these big visual effects entities are in large cities with all kinds of traffic issues and big, urban environments.

That’s not the case here,” said John Nugent, who founded Sandbox F/X and whose credits include the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. 

“You can go hike on a mountain anytime and think about how to solve a technical problem,” said Diane Pearlman, executive director of the Berkshire Film and Media Commission. 

Technological advances also now make the distance from Hollywood or New York less of an issue for visual-effects companies, Trumbull said. “It’s becoming more credible to be here,” he said.

Trumbull said he had needed to get away from Hollywood after directing his second film, “Brainstorm,” whose star, Natalie Wood, drowned during a break in the production. The resulting tensions drove Trumbull to look at re-locating to New England. Trumbull settled on the Berkshires, and opened a studio in Lenox for non-film visual effects projects, including Universal Studios’ Back to the Future ride and visual effects attractions for the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas. 

Many of those who came to the Berkshires to work on the projects would stay. Pearlman and visual effects supervisor Joel Hynek, who worked on the Luxor project, started a new effects company for Cinergi Pictures Entertainment and took over Trumbull’s studio to house it.

The company, Mass.Illusion, would become the largest visual effects company in the Berkshires in the 1990s, with as many as 200 people working there at times, said Pearlman, who served as general manager.

The location helped to foster innovation in effects, she said, in part “because you didn’t have other people looking over your shoulder like you would in Hollywood or New York.”

The film “What Dreams May Come” — which earned Hynek an Oscar — and the breakthrough visual effects for “The Matrix” were among the credits for Mass.Illusion.

The firm was sold by Cinergi and moved to California in the middle of the making of “The Matrix” in 1998. But some of the movie’s most famous effects were invented in the Berkshires, Pearlman said.

“The ‘bullet-time effect’ was actually developed behind a quonset hut here in Lenox,” she said.

Nugent had worked for Mass.Illusion and went with the company when it moved, but said he yearned to come back to Western Massachusetts. After working on the first two “Lord of the Rings” films in New Zealand, he decided he wanted to raise his children in one place.

Nugent says he struck a deal with director Peter Jackson to do work on the third film from a studio in Pittsfield, leading to the creation of Sandbox F/X.

The Sandbox team ranges from three people up to 13, depending on the project, he said. “Not very many people know we’re here,” Nugent said.

 Trumbull, meanwhile, has been developing new visual effects techniques that he plans to use in his new film — including techniques for shortening the production schedule and reducing the size of the crew.

Trumbull didn’t elaborate on the nature of the film, other than to say it would be a “sci-fi space epic.” Trumbull said he’s written several drafts of the screenplay and may end up directing the film as well.

With luck, the project will inspire new interest in the visual effects cluster in the Berkshires, and perhaps lead a broader film and media industry to take shape in the area, Trumbull said. “People find it so stunningly better than living in New York or LA,” he said. “Once you get someone to come and work, they tend to bring their wives and kids. And they all fall in love with the community and don’t want to leave.” 

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