Godzilla vs. the Green Screen

Does the industry need both?

A crew member preps his monstrous model for yet another bloddy clash
A crew member preps his monstrous model for yet another bloddy clash

Georges Melies never saw the Apollo astronauts tee off on the moon, but the pioneering French filmmaker did Buzz Aldrin one better, shooting a rocket of his own design clear into the squinting eye of the original man in the moon way back in 1914. That pioneering hole-in-one, from Melies' silent masterpiece "A Trip to the Moon," firmly set the tone for everything we love about the movies, from the whimsical lunacy of science fiction to the visceral joy of watching some poor sap take one right in the peeper. Melies' ancient in-camera edits and flickering semispecial effects seem exquisitely antediluvian when compared to even the most cash-and-talent-strapped of current cinematic special-effects-laden outings. But surprisingly, and somehow comfortingly, as well, even in this highest of high tech cinema savvy cities, where virtually every other person you pass on Congress Avenue works for either a video-gaming company or is shooting, writing, or editing a film, the old school has yet to adjourn, and the new school? It took the lessons of the past to heart in ways Hollywood never quite managed.

Special effects were and are the magical mucilage that holds our shared cinematic dreams together, forever. Lon Chaney, the original Man of a Thousand Faces, is as dead as a doornail, but his bag of theatrical trickery – the one that turned him into the skull-visaged Phantom of the Opera and permanently warped his back as he buckled under 75 pounds of costume and make-up as Quasimodo – is still very much in use by his direct descendants, the special effects artists of today.

Like a lot of kids who grew up on late issues of Forest J. Ackerman's seminal black-and-white mag Famous Monsters of Filmland before graduating to the rivers of Tom Savini's red and Rob Bottin's angular, howling werewolves in the pages of Fangoria magazine, I gave a gleeful yelp when Rick Baker won the very first Academy Award for Special Make-Up Effects in 1982 for his astonishing work on John Landis' An American Werewolf in London.

I've been smitten by the creative prowess of the men and women who make the movies' phantoms and fangsters ever since, with a few sidebar affairs, once upon a time, into John Ford and Sergio Leone's mythic West, itself still the planet's most monumentally miraculous matte painting. And come to think of it, while we're on the topic of hideous ocular injuries and once-upon-a-timeless cinematic tomfoolery, the best two things about local Hi-Def troublemaker Robert Rodriguez's Once Upon a Time in Mexico were Johnny Depp's left and right eyeballs, or the lack thereof, bloody black holes that'd give Tippi Hedren herself the heebie-jeebies. Ah, l'gore!

Speaking of which, have you seen Sin City yet? Yeah? Have you heard that it will screen in competion at Cannes this year? Rodriguez and graphic novelist-cum-co-director Frank Miller's va-va-va-violent ode to all things noir is, with an able assist from honorary Austinite Quentin Tarantino, a thing of brutal beauty, at once as patently false as Fred MacMurray sidestepping from Double Indemnity into his three sons and as ramrod real as Veronica Lake's résumé: This Gun for Hire, All Women Have Secrets, Bring on the Girls, Isn't It Romantic?, Footsteps in the Snow, and, finally, Flesh Feast.

Striking plot similarities to Lake's career aside, Sin City is profoundly more than just a collection of testosterone-fueled cinematic homages. Created almost entirely on a single 20-foot-by-30-foot green-screened set situated within the confines of the director's own playground, Troublemaker Studios, the movie's never-before-seen visual imagery reverentially reproduces the stark, blaring expressionism of Miller's black-and-white, pen-and-ink artwork. The film is buoyed by the author's crisp dialogue and some knockout performances, but so was Chinatown, and look where that got Robert and Roman: Tequila Sunrise and on the lam from Uncle Sam, respectively.

Rodriguez's genius – after telling the Directors Guild of America to go hang themselves and hiring Miller to co-direct, that is – is part and parcel with the film's cutting-edge special effects, both visual effects and special make-up effects. The new school and the old, meeting nice on the playground and having a ball at Hollywood's expense. Take that, you bloodsuckers. And it's not just Robert Rodriguez's party, either. His nine-man crew of visual effects masterminds, aka Troublemaker Digital, is the gee-whiz brains and the fastest pens in the West behind the director's ceaseless creative savvy.

Over at Troublemaker Studios, there's smoke, fire, flame, and toxic combustion, a veritable inferno of imaginatively indiscreet geeks having the time of their lives redefining with software what Melies and Chaney and Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen and Dick Smith and Stan Winston and all the other stop-motion and foam-latex legends – whose giant shoulders they proudly stand astride – first envisioned, then invented, then lodged in kidhood heads where Jason and his Argonauts battle skeletons still.

But more on those wise guys later.

Is CGI Killing the Video Scar?

Austin is a movie town, and we've got the CGI special effects and post-production facilities to prove it: from George O'Dwyer's highly regarded 501 Post, with their brand-spanking-new Quantel HD eQ RGB editing suite purchased with an eye toward enticing Rodriguez in to utilize its HD-friendly digital color timing and correction abilities (the scheme worked), to Match Frame, Granite House, Milkshake, Action Figure, and more, always more, the city has enough creative terabytes to make George Lucas, well, maybe not jealous, but probably pretty impressed. (For a comprehensive list, we recommend you pick up a free copy of the Texas Film Commission's 2005 Texas Production Manual – all 348 pages of it.)

Which makes sense, because so much of what passes for special effects in movies these days is crafted entirely by ex-art-school techies and former Origin employees poised before their whirring workstations, compositing, rendering, making things go boom minus the oily stink of cordite and with only keyboard taps and iPod whispers for background sound design. And that's totally cool. Computers are the most useful cinematic special effects tool since a teenage Rick Baker discovered you could use a Trojan as a prosthetic air-bladder for on-the-fly werewolf effects.

Austin's Troublemaker Studios uses green-screen technology to create a scene in <i>Sin City</i>
Austin's Troublemaker Studios uses green-screen technology to create a scene in Sin City

Computer-driven effects are great, but when you really want your metaphorical numbers crunched, you can't beat an abacus. And Chaney's greasepaint and tooth-black liquid latex – the abaci of the special make-up effects world – are still with us.

"As a kid, I was scared shitless of all the monster movies that I saw, especially John Carpenter's The Thing – that just scared the shit out of me. That film rocked my world. It made me want to be the Bogeyman, you know? And I've been striving to become the Bogeyman ever since."

Meet Marvin Day, local gorehound and special make-up effect artist, who along with his friend and sometime partner Doug Field, makes up a good part of Austin's small non-CGI effects set. Despite the fact that this is the town that birthed all manner of Texas chain saws and the resulting geysers of stage blood, more and more these days it seems that if you want to make a living perfecting the art of special make-up effects – vampires, werewolves, or whatever else the script calls for – Los Angeles is the place to be.

Day, who cut his teeth on one of local filmmaker Bob Ray's early shorts ("Wrecked"), lit out to Toronto in 1999 to attend the Complexions International School of Makeup, which despite the awkward name is still a reputable institution for learning the finer points of manufacturing foam rubber bullet hits. Once back in Austin, Day picked up his first union gig on the much maligned The Alamo before heading up to Dallas to create gore effects for a trio of Jon Keeyes films: Suburban Nightmare, Hallow's End, and Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know.

"On Hallow's End, I did a full-body prosthetic witch, vampire, pirate, ghoul – on the busiest day we had something like 18 zombie extras wandering around covered in latex. Oh, and for Suburban Nightmare, I filleted a hooker."

The 26-year-old and extremely enthusiastic Field met Day while working props on The Alamo, and the pair bonded over their mutual love of effects, although Field's admission that he "first got into it when I saw that film F/X with that Australian guy, um ..."

Bryan Brown?

"Right. Him. Until then I didn't realize there was such a job description as special make-up effects artist."

After a stint at ITT Tech, Field, uninspired by a future that at that point appeared to consist of little but soldering an endless stream of motherboards, discovered the Texas Film Production Hotline – by which filmmakers shooting in the state put out the call for crew and extras – "which then led me to call up, write, and e-mail every single film production in the state of Texas and just literally beg them to let me work for free, just for the experience."

Amazingly, it worked.

"I just lucked out while doing odd PA work on this film called Heathens – they needed someone to do a bullet hit with a squib. After that, I just became more and more interested in make-up effects and started to self-educate myself, do research, and play around, just generally spending all my free time and my money buying equipment, chemicals, and the tools of the trade until I felt like I knew what I was doing.

"After that, my first big union show was Tim McCanlies' Secondhand Lions, then The Alamo, Man of the House, the pilot for the TV show Jack and Bobby, the new, untitled Mike Judge film, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada with Tommy Lee Jones again, and Glen Stephens' Hoboken Hollow, which is shooting out in Menard right now with Dennis Hopper, Tom Sizemore, and C. Thomas Howell."

A Trip to the Moon
"A Trip to the Moon"

Not to mention slicing Alamo Drafthouse Cinema owner Tim League's throat (and eviscerating him with a wad of genuine Texas pig intestines) in the short film "Blind," which can be seen, if you're into that sort of thing, on iFilm.com.

All this prompts the question: In a town overrun with talented CGI artists, are there enough old-school effects gigs to make a go of it? Or should we wire L.A. and tell them to expect you?

Day: "If you're single and you don't mind cutting corners occasionally, you can make a go of it here. Barely. I remember trying to get onto the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre only to find out that they were flying all of their effects people in from Los Angeles. It was the same with The Alamo. I make a pretty good living off of doing independent productions here in town, but as far as the more profitable union stuff it's pretty hit and miss."

Field, who wrangled a tech position with longtime Rodriguez effects outfit KNB EFX on the aforementioned Sin City, says much the same thing (but smiles more – Day gives you the feeling he's wondering if you'd look more interesting with latex tentacles or, possibly, a foam rubber chest wound and dangly entrails).

"The thing that I've noticed around Austin is that local productions don't seem to realize that they could do a big, effects-laden sci-fi or horror film here. In so many Austin indie films, it always seems to be two people talking in an apartment about their lives or whatever. The way Austin is right now, the grips, the crews, and the effects people like me and Marvin, we all depend on L.A. sending work over here."

"But that shouldn't have to be the case," he continues. "What the Austin film community needs more than anything, almost, is our own professional effects house that could cater to incoming studio productions. There's no reason why we couldn't have a KNB or a Stan Winston effects shop of our own that could facilitate the big guns that end up having to balloon their budget to fly their L.A. effects guys out here. That means more jobs for Austinites, too."

Good point, but then again, with so many CGI artists in town, is there enough work for these Universal Horror torch-bearers? Or would there be? To put it bluntly, is CGI killing the video scar?

"There's a lot of CG bullet hits in films these days," Day notes, "because using squibs – there's no way to get around it – are expensive to do. And you have to have a license to work with them since there's an explosive charge involved. So a lot of filmmakers are embracing digital effects in situations like that, which then translates to a little less work for us effects guys."

"That's kind of the sad thing about special effects make-up," Field adds. "It's viewed as kind of a dinosaur. I'm not worried that CGI will ever completely replace the craft of the special make-up effects artist, because there will always be traditionalists in the industry. There's always going to be people shooting on film no matter how much ground HD gains – Guillermo del Toro's a great example of that with Hellboy, which did a fantastic job of merging these two disparate special effects styles into a seamless whole.

"What a lot of people, producers, in the industry don't always realize is that there's ways to do special make-up effects that are cheaper and more efficient than CGI, which can get very costly. And I guess that's my goal in the long run, not only to do old-school special make-up and creature effects that rival anything done on a computer, but to keep the cost – and therefore the overall cost of the production – as low as possible.

"But, you know, we're still toying with the idea of heading out to L.A."

Walker, TexFX Indevator

It may not be raining riches in the land of latex – it may not even be raining blood, Slayer fans or no Slayer fans – but over at the comfortably cramped offices of TexFX, conveniently located a Frisbee's throw away from sun-drenched and all-too-invitin' Pease Park, there's no sign of dismay, much less thoughts of hitting the road to L.A. After all, TexFX founder and head visual FX supervisor/digital compositor Gary Walker has already put in his time in the City of Angels, and skipped town with the sterling résumé to prove it: Apollo 13, Waterworld, Cast Away, and What Lies Beneath are just a few of the major studio productions he's handled visual effects for, along with stints at industry heavyweights Digital Domain, Pacific Date Images, and Sony Pictures Imageworks.

Rodney Brunet at Troublemaker Studios
Rodney Brunet at Troublemaker Studios (Photo By John Anderson)

After returning to Texan soil in 2000, the Houston native (in a cinematic twist of fate, Walker's father had worked at NASA during the real-life Apollo 13 mission) took in the booming film scene and realized he was better off plying his skills with visual compositing in Austin. In 2003, he incorporated TexFX and found a niche that apparently no one else in his field had yet exploited: He calls it "indevation."

Okay, people, you're forgiven for momentarily thinking it's got something to do with L. Ron Hubbard, but you're way off the mark. Indevation, Walker explains, is a word he coined to describe "independent innovation."

"TexFX honors and supports filmmakers who create entertainment that is innovative and uplifts truth and spirit around the human condition," reads the application form for Walker's self-created "Indevation Honors Program," which offers filmmakers an opportunity to apply for a 25% reduced rate on TexFX's normal rates if they can show innovation in their work, social awareness, and financial need.

Walker's young company – a two-man operation – is exactly the sort of cinematic good Samaritan Austin tends to breed. Since incorporating, he's worked on – surprise! – Rodriguez's Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over and a host of other productions, always with an eye toward "attracting more feature work to Texas from California and [infamous production poachers] British Columbia." And if that doesn't get him a gold star from the Austin Film Community, Walker's determination to keep working with small, local, indie film surely will. This guy's so nice, he was probably run out of L.A. on a rail.

"Yes, but what exactly does a high-end digital compositor do?" I hear you ask.

"Compositing," explains Walker, "is bringing images that were originally created in different scenarios – on a computer, or maybe you shot some photography on a stage, or models, green screens, on-location background footage – and digitizing them in a computer and then using software to bring them together to either make them look real or not, depending on what the call is.

"The trick is to make all these elements seamless and make them interact. They don't inherently come with shadows and reflections and interactive lighting. so you kind of have to create all that on the computer."

There are job offers galore for Walker's professional talents in L.A., but the city, the pace, and the fact that he'd been away from Texas and his family for a decade spurred him to return and, eventually, form TexFX.

"I was at a point in my career," he explains, "where I wanted to do this on my own, my way. At the same time, Austin was coming on the scene as a burgeoning film center, and I thought with what I know about digital effects, and what I know about growing film industries – because I had been in Vancouver while working on Stephen King's Kingdom Hospital, and their film scene was doing the same thing Austin's doing right now – now's the time to make that jump, come back home, start building relationships, share the wealth, share the knowledge, and get involved with the community.

"And, really, at that time, my interest was more in working on an independent level, because I felt like I had more to offer independent filmmakers. At the same time there was the convergence of technology becoming more and more affordable. So, I jumped from the high tech tools that were expensive to the high tech tools that were not as expensive, while offering these same high tech tools and philosophies to the independent-level filmmaker."

Yes, Virginia Mayo, there is a Santa Claus, and his name is Gary Walker.

His move to Austin, however, did not immediately result in a horde of hungry filmmakers lunging at his professional skills like a pack of John Waterses pursuing a stray Medved brother.

Marvin Day takes a smoke break between filleting hookers and building full-body prosthetics
Marvin Day takes a smoke break between filleting hookers and building full-body prosthetics (Photo By John Anderson)

"I had a fantasy that people would automatically know what I did and what my value was to them, but it was actually very challenging. You can't really just come into Austin, snap your fingers, and say, 'Hey, here I am.' It doesn't work that way – you've got to build those bridges. So that's what I did, eventually approaching Robert Rodriguez's post-production supervisor when Spy Kids 3-D was coming up and mentioned that I'd already done similar work for them on Spy Kids 2 while I was at Janimation up in Dallas. And now we're in our fifth year here. People are finally getting what we do, I think.

"As a business owner, it's great to have done what I set out to do with TexFX, but even better is being able to do it in Austin, which, as they say, is the spiritual home of Texas. And on top of that we've got a fair number of projects we're working on now. Things are happening."

If You See Too Much, You Start Disbelieving

Gary Walker's TexFX, micropowerhouse though it surely is, feels above and beyond the street scuffle going on between lo-fi special make-up effects artists like Day and Field and their hi-def digital counterparts. Is there really a reason to be concerned that the digital revolution could quash these heartfelt artisans of arterial spray, these Frankensteinian craftsmen who take a rubber torso here, a latex arm here, toss in some armatures and servomotors and – presto! – suddenly the dead walk?!

"No way," says Greg Nicotero of KNB EFX in Los Angeles. Nicotero's been animating lifeless bits of wood, rubber, foam, and fur for 20 years now and has been Rodriguez's prime special make-up effects mover since the vampires 'n' gangsters opus From Dusk Till Dawn. I figure if anyone can give me a Hitchcockian bird's-eye-view on the whole FX vs. digital situation, he can.

"But, saying that, it's been a very interesting transition. There was a time in the mid to late Nineties where there was an explosion of CGI stuff. After Jurassic Park came out in '94, all of these other effects films were being green-lit based on the 'Wow, look what can be done now!' factor. All of the sudden it doesn't have to be a puppet, it doesn't have to be stop-motion, it doesn't have to be a miniature, and, instead, it can all be done via the computer.

"So, then we got films like Men in Black and Spawn and stuff like that, which required not only CGI-heavy stuff, but also animatronic puppet stuff. Here at KNB, we were actually getting more work because of these films that required puppet stuff, even if it was just a pair of hands, or a head, or different insert pieces of different creatures. We really got hit with a lot more work than I would have thought.

"This whole CGI vs. old-school make-up effects thing is an interesting misconception, if you think about it. It's sort of the flavor-of-the-month syndrome. In the late Seventies and early Eighties, it was all about change-o heads and make-up effects and Tom Savini and Rick Baker and Stan Winston and Rob Bottin. And then all of the sudden along comes The Abyss and you see the CGI water-tentacle and from there it just exploded."

And what about Robert Rodriguez and Troublemaker? You've been working with him for longer than almost anyone on his team.

"Yeah, well, with Robert, his first big effects movie was From Dusk Till Dawn, and he hated having to slow down to shoot effects, where we had to go off to a green screen and shoot three different stages of Salma Hayek's make-up so that they could morph them together for her transformation. And Robert is so accustomed to shooting fast that he didn't like that at all. So, he literally went out and redefined effects for himself so that he could be able to shoot them the way he wanted to shoot them."

Was Sin City a different style of work for you? I mean, nearly all of the film is CGI work – I'm assuming some of the make-up effects are yours, like Mickey Rourke's Marv face ...

"We did a lot of stuff, actually. Some of the blood was done in CGI, and I can tell you that from a production standpoint, CGI blood gags are great, because blood gags are inherently dodgy to begin with: You have to rely on the clothing tearing correctly, you have to rely on the actor not blocking it, you have to rely on the blood coming out at just the right moment – there's so many factors that you have to deal with. It's much easier to have Robert say he'll put the blood in later. That, literally, saves so much time on set, because it allows you to control the amount of blood, you don't have to clean up the set, and you don't have to re-dress the actor for take two.

"Stuff like that? That makes sense to me because you're using the computer as a tool. And if it's the correct tool and it's used in the right amount, it works great, but if you see too much of it, then you start disbelieving it. There has to be sort of a balance between practical effects, puppet stuff, and CGI stuff. With CGI available, if you have a flying creature in your script there's no reason why I would ever bid out to build a flying creature puppet, because it doesn't make practical sense. But in terms of when that creature hits the ground and starts tearing somebody apart and you need interaction with the actor, then we can add an insert claw and a head that snaps at the camera."

Marta McGonagle with Doug Field during the production of Kristoffer A. Morgan's <i>Blind</i><br>Photo courtesy of Chris Weidner
Marta McGonagle with Doug Field during the production of Kristoffer A. Morgan's Blind
Photo courtesy of Chris Weidner

So, coming from an old-school sort of special make-up effects background, you're not particularly threatened by the influx of CGI effects in the industry?

"No, not at all. CGI is a great tool. The trick is that it has to be used by knowledgeable filmmakers, too. I've been with Robert for 10 years, so I've watched him grow as a filmmaker and watched his knowledge of effects grow to the point where he literally redefined what visual effects are to be based on the needs for his projects. Which I think is amazing."

The Tech Nine

The complex of soundstages, editing suites, and assorted other buildings that complete Troublemaker Studios sits on part of what used to be Robert Mueller International Airport, right down the way from the Austin Film Society and Austin Studios. From the outside, it could be anything. A warehouse complex, a UPS depot, a storage facility for spent nuclear fuel rods. Anything. But then you get inside, and you see all the framed Japanese one-sheets from Rodriguez's back catalog, the props that dominate every available inch of shelf and display space, and the sheer Robert-ness of it all. It's, like, so very him.

And that's the coolest thing of all: Rodriguez, who cut his teeth on Super 8 comedies starring his younger siblings, who made super-lo-fi DIY filmmaking respectable – finally! – with his debut feature (you know the one), whose guerilla filmmaking tactics were and are so down and dirty and inexpensive and absolutely riveting that all Hollywood sat up and took notice: This guy has his own goddamn movie studio. In Austin, no less. What could be better than that?

His team, that's what. Troublemaker Digital. The men behind the man who made Frank Miller giggle with barely contained glee. Those guys over there, the quiet ones with that weird, highly sought-after artist/techno edge to them. They're ... superbadass.

Chris Olivia, Rodney Brunet, Eric Pham, Sean Dunn, Kris Bushover, Jeff Acord, Alex Toader, John Ford, and Kurt Volk are Troublemaker Digital, and this is what it's like to do what they do:

Volk: Working for Robert is not like working for other people. It's kind of an organized chaos situation here. Robert likes everyone to be their own boss, and he likes all of his team to be comprised of rebels. He likes that non-team-player, rebellious attitude, which can make for some very chaotic situations but also for some pretty exciting and creative ones.

We're primarily a previsualization house, which means we have a storyboard artist, and what we'll do is take Robert's ideas – and Sin City was a different thing, because it was already storyboarded – but for a movie like Spy Kids or The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3-D, we'll take his ideas and turn them into animatics. We'll finish about 100 visual effects shots for a show, in-house, and the rest of the shots we send out to a company called Hybride in Montreal and various other visual effects houses like the Orphanage, Cafe FX, ILM, Riot – there's a lot of visual effects companies working on our upcoming film, Shark Boy.

Olivia: Robert's moving things toward the methodology of having a small, in-house team to kind of work close to the director. In the future, I think we'll be laying out the whole film in animatic form and then just shipping it out to Asia to finish it off. He wants to be able to do the creative work here and then have it finished out wherever it's most cost-effective.

Alex: Robert's kind of under the Hollywood radar. I don't think many people know how he operates, and he likes keeping it that way.

Eric: For sure. Coppola's jealous.

Chris: You have to learn to work with Robert. At his speed. And you have to understand that where we are, what we're doing, it's completely different from the normal Hollywood system. But once you get into that flow and don't worry about things too much or let yourself get stressed out it's great. It's the most creative collaborative relationship I've ever had.

I had a fantasy that people would automatically know what I did and what my value was to them, but it was actually very challenging. You can't really just come into Austin, snap your fingers, and say, 'Hey, here I am.' – Gary Walker, TexFx
"I had a fantasy that people would automatically know what I did and what my value was to them, but it was actually very challenging. You can't really just come into Austin, snap your fingers, and say, 'Hey, here I am.'" – Gary Walker, TexFx (Photo By John Anderson)

The Earthquake Is Coming

"Those guys," says Rodriguez, pausing midthought. "Those guys are the best."

We're talking on the phone while he works on cutting The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3-D. It's after midnight. I'm tired, but Rodriguez, who by now I've realized is apparently some sort of futuristic, unstoppable killing machine reprogrammed for the good of all moviegoing mankind, is audibly wide awake and raring to go, speed racer, go.

"When we first started out on Spy Kids," he continues, "I would give them drawings, and then they'd turn them into little, blocked-out animatics, sort of a moving version of the storyboard that I could use in editing and time out the edits, and then we could show it to the crew to help them figure out how to rig a stunt. It's just a great way to previsualize the movie. And it wasn't going to cost a lot if I had my own company, whereas if you were to go to a company for the same thing it'd cost you an arm and a leg. This way it's inexpensive and I knew I could keep them employed full time just on my own movies, because I have a lot of effects and it was obviously growing further in that department.

"If need be, we can go all the way to a finished effect, but I kind of look at it like in traditional animation where they moved out of the States to Korea, but The Simpsons still has a core group in L.A. that does the design and the layout and then they ship it off to finish the effects off. And that's the way to do it. I don't really want a big effects company where we have to do everything. I'd much rather just have a few guys and do all the fun stuff, like come up with the models, design the look, maybe do a few effects. As long as it's fun for us. And then we just oversee other people doing all the busywork finishing things off."

I can hear him typing in the background. Even after midnight on a weekday, talking to a writer on the phone, he never lets up.

When did you decide you needed your own studio? Just woke up one day and said, hey, you know what would be cool?

"Pretty much, yeah. Right around the time of Four Rooms and also during From Dusk Till Dawn I was having trouble finding a decent effects house to work with – they were all like one or two guys, very inefficient, and I thought, geez, there's got to be a better way to do this – I should just build my own place in Texas.

"And so when Digital Anvil was sold, I just took the best guys and started my own place. I could tell that the amount of effects work in my films was growing exponentially, with Spy Kids and the sequels especially. Even a movie like Once Upon a Time in Mexico – there's something like 400 effects shots in that, which was insane for just a regular action movie. But you always find stuff to add, bullet hits, car chase stuff. Founding Troublemaker just seemed like a wise move to help keep costs down and remain flexible and able to do whatever I wanted."

You're living the dream. But the coolest thing of all is your career arc: From super lo-fi to super HD hi-fi with your lo-fi, DIY sensibility intact. That's pretty much unheard of.

"It's funny, isn't it? But if you look at [his 1989 video short] 'Austin Stories,' even that was cutting edge because at that point, in '89, everybody was still shooting on film and cutting on a flatbed editor. So I thought, hey, what I can do is just shoot on a video camera and then take two VCRs, hook 'em together, and edit the tape that way. And, you know, they wouldn't even allow that film in any festivals because they didn't consider it to be a real film. So I was kind of ahead of myself there. It was my digital age before the digital age!"

Sin City's a major milestone, though, don't you think? There are some things that are going to maybe change a little after the suits in Hollywood see what you've accomplished on your tight budget ...

"I think Sin City was a real wake-up call to the industry. I mean, here's this guy from Texas blowing by them in his Ferrari, and they're still in a cart and buggy.

"I remember a big studio head came up to me in L.A. and he said, 'I saw the trailer, I've seen the materials. ... The earthquake is coming.' ... Technology always pushes the art form forward. Artists are usually the very last to adapt to new technologies. They're traditionalists. But if you look at history, the ones that turn out to be the biggest pioneers – the Jim Camerons, the George Lucases, the John Lasseters – all they are is artists who take the technology and use it creatively. And those are the ones that just seem so far ahead."

Old school? New school? For Rodriguez and his Troublemaker team, they're interchangeable, interdependent, and interdisciplinary. And with Sin City's pop culture cachet, one way or the other, Hollywood's lesson plan is already drawn and quartered. end story

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