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Doggone Invisible: VFX of 'Lords of Dogtown'

Bruce Shutan looks at how Gray Matter FX relies on the art of subtlety to bring Lords of Dogtown to life.

The ability to recreate Santa Monicas legendary POP cheaply was the key to getting Lords of Dogtown made. Gray Matters digital work allowed the movie to be made within budget. All images © Tristar Pictures. Courtesy of Gray Ma

Seasoned visual effects supervisor Gray Marshall and co-founder of Gray Matter FX in Venice, California, is elated when moviegoers cant tell the difference between his subtle touches and whats shot in-camera. In fact, he was heartened to learn that this reporter mistakenly assumed the stylish close-ups of urethane skateboard wheels in motion and handcrafted surfboards tossed from a roof for violent shattering onto the street below were manipulated images on Lords of Dogtown.

The film, directed by Catherine Hardwicke, which opens nationwide on June 3, traces the true story of a scrappy surfing and skateboarding trio with daredevil aspirations. They included Tony Alva, Jay Adams and Stacy Peralta, each a member of the famous Zephyr Shop-sponsored team. Their story is based on Peraltas 2002 award-winning documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys.

Its no wonder that Gray Matters approach to vfx has often been called invisible. We like working on films where our effects support the story, directors vision and acting just as the costuming, set design and cinematography, Marshall explains. No one is going to come away from this movie thinking, Those were great visual effects. Theyre not going to even question it, and thats the compliment were going for.

Dangerous Playground

The lions share of Gray Matters Lords of Dogtown workload involved a harrowing opening sequence meant to show how the defunct Pacific Ocean Park in the Venice Beach section of Los Angeles served as a dangerous playground for surfers. The tough street kids from broken homes who were later credited with pioneering the extreme-sports movement had sought solace and a physical challenge in dodging wooden pylons, twisted metal and floating debris after the dilapidated attraction closed to the public.

Known to locals simply as the POP, it burned to the ground and was demolished in the winter of 1973-74. Its demise forced these surfers to seek their fun elsewhere, later spawning a serious skateboarding revival that would last to this day.

Marshall and his team were able to expertly dissect video camera footage shot in pre-production by Hardwicke, whose directorial debut was on the critically acclaimed Thirteen. The approach enabled him to suggest which effects shots would be costly and how many of them were feasible under her budget.

Director David Fincher, who was initially attached to the project, wanted to spend $18 million to re-create the pier. Ultimately, Marshall says, his vision of what the movie should be and the cost wasnt in alignment with the studio, whose budget was about $25 million, along with overages, and the effects budget was an appropriate portion of that amount.

Visual effects supervisor Gray Marshall believes the seamless approach can serve as a great democratizing force on the indie side of the film business.

Hitting the Books

The Gray Matter team immersed itself in homework and drew inspiration from the local environment. As far as the research goes, my entire team got very involved and did a tremendous amount of work on their own, Marshall reports. For example, compositor Stuart Cripps played an instrumental role in the design work early on, while 3D supervisor Tom Lynnes rented movies that featured the POP.

We had a truly brilliant team of talented and committed people on this project, Cripps crows. He singles out Lynnes, a longtime Venice Beach resident, for adeptly using Maya software to digitally recreate in unbelievable detail the POP pier and credits the work of digital effects producer Diana Giorgiutti and Messrob Torikian, whom he describes as our tracking king.

We collected a lot of research material and had the distinct advantage of working in Venice, so it was all on our doorstep when we made numerous trips to the Santa Monica Library to collect old photos, books and Super 8 film, Cripps reports. It soon became clear how it all used to look and what we needed to do.

His next step was to compile a sketchbook of the shots that had to be made and determine which ones would involve a 3D approach vs. matte paintings and straight composites. I graded the plate of the opening shot of the POP to a dawn sunrise and it had to have a gritty, edgy feel, he recalls. So it wasnt a beautiful, yellow-orange sunrise. It was more of a grungy and overcast empty coastline. The pier sequence, shot over the course of a week, included a variety of weather from sun to fog, as well as morning and afternoon light.

From a compositing point of view, Cripps says everything had to look real and the effects had to blend into this environment with the help of a fluid teamwork process. We worked incredible detail right down to the barnacles on the wooden posts of the pier, he adds.

Gray Matter FX did their research on the beachfront area in the library and by stepping outside their office door onto the real thing.


Marshall jokes that being on set proved to be a duck-and-cover exercise. During the first week of production, shooting took place at Imperial Beach, whose long and narrow pier about two miles north of the Mexican border captured the look and feel of the POP. Locations manager Bradley Bemis favored the area because its tide wasnt too extreme and the waves broke somewhat close to the way they did at the famed amusement park thats often compared to New Yorks Coney Island.

A section of what the films hard-bitten surfers used to call the Cove was erected for tight shots that expressed the areas funky flavor, with the Gray Matter crew surveying Imperial Beach for pier dimensions as well as wood and barnacle textures. We wanted to give an impression of what environment these kids grew up in rather than an exactly accurate re-creation of the pier, according to Marshall. In a movie like this, its important to pick your battles.

Since Imperial Beachs pier is thoroughly modern, one task was to strategically place plenty of broken cross bracings and jutting wood pylons into the Cove to nail the decrepit factor with a combination of software tweaking and hand work.

While he hoped to put transmitters on the cameras to help determine what zoom lenses were doing at any given point in time, Marshalls grand plan was scaled back leaving him to watch from the shore a few cameramen bobbing in the water with hand-held, 16mm lenses with waterproof cases zooming at will. He likened his teams role to that of firemen: sitting around in hopes that a fire didnt break out. We tried to collect the data to get done everything we wanted to do but were invisible and tried to stay out of the way, he says.

From a compositing point of view, Gray Matter FX wanted everything to look real and for the effects to blend into the environment with the help of a fluid teamwork process.

Facing Replacement

Another technical and creative challenge was to do digital facial replacements for close-ups on surfers and skaters wherever necessary. Most were done for the so-called Dogbowl, an empty suburban swimming pool nicknamed after the neighborhood dogs whose wet snouts would happily explore the beveled edges around which the three principle skaters would execute impressive skateboarding maneuvers toward the end of the film. The process was done with live greenscreen elements rather than CGI re-creations, though Gray Matter digitized all the actors in case the latter strategy was needed. This is when the visual effects crew role moved from on-set observers to hands-on soundstage artists.

Crew collaboration proved to be a key to success. The Gray Matter team worked closely with director of photography Elliot Davis as well as production designer Chris Gorak to help achieve their vision all the way through the project.

Marshall, whose companys recent credits include Spanglish, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Italian Job, is perfectly content to also play a supporting role in blockbuster features, remarking how ships and skeletons resonated most on Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl rather than the subtlety Gray Matter employed on about 50 shots of explosions, bullet tracing and talking parrots.

Z-Boys Stacy, Tony and Jay surf off Venice's burnt out Pacific Ocean Pier in the films opening. The pier, Ferris wheel and beachfront buildings were created by Gray Matter FX.

Place in History

His belief is that the seamless approach can serve as a great democratizing force on the indie side of the film business. I really enjoy this level of work and think the digital effects, as theyve become known as during the past 10 years or so, have made it more possible for smaller films to enhance their production, he says.

Lords of Dogtown has been compared to American Graffiti and Fast Times at Ridgemont High two seminal movies about youth culture. It surely will resonate with a generation through whom skateboarding entered the mainstream of society.

But Marshall is careful about placing its potential impact in the proper context. This is a story more about the films characters than it is about skateboarding, he opines. Whats interesting to me about this movie is that it chronicles a time when kids were just being kids and doing what they wanted to do instead of becoming stars and professional skateboarders who earned more money than their parents.

And while many of todays teens may well have become more advanced skateboarders than the films protagonists, Marshall believes this audience will be drawn in by the perfect storm of opportunity a Southern California drought forcing a group of skateboard pioneers to get creative about loafing (i.e., sneak into empty backyard swimming pools) at a time when advertisers started to embrace youth culture.

They were there at the right place at the right time, he concludes.

Bruce Shutan, a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, has written for several entertainment publications and websites, including Daily Variety, Weekly Variety, emmy, the 55th Annual Emmy Awards program, Below the Line News, Film Score Monthly, DRUM! and Shutan also specializes in writing for the human resources and employee benefits trade press.