Inside a squat, nondescript industrial building fronted by mirrored windows in San Fernando, CA, a team of artists, designers, programmers and craftsman toil away on making the unreal seem utterly believable and captivating.
The crew at Legacy Effects, which may on a given day include from 27 to 100 artisans and technicians, are responsible to a large measure for some of your most beloved movie and television moments.
If you're more of a movie devotee, how about this lineup: Avatar, Iron Man 2, Avengers, Iron Man 3, Robocop, Pacific Rim, and X-Men: Days Of Future Past.
If you're more of a television maven, the company has contributed their outrageous creations to more than 900 commercials. Among their commercial output are The Aflac Duck, Maxwell the Geico Pig, The KIA Hamsters, and the star of the Jack Links Beef Jerky Sasquatch campaigns, Sasquatch himself.
After spending more than 20 years supervising projects for the legendary effects master, Stan Winston, Legacy Effects founding partners Lindsay Macgowan, Shane Mahan, John Rosengrant, and Alan Scott continued on their own to carry on after Winston's death in 2008.
Jason Lopes, the Lead Systems Engineer at Legacy Effects, is also the 3D printing guru in rapid prototyping and design for costume and special effects at Legacy. Lopes has been involved in some serious blockbuster films and his credits include work on Avatar, The Twilight Saga, Iron Man, Terminator, Alien and The Muppets. Lopes knows exactly what it takes to design and create high end, mega impact super hero suits, and it's his experience that no better tool exists to smooth the process than 3D printing.
"What I'd really like is more material selection," Lopes said. "But as it is, 3D printing allows us to get out many versions. Speeding up the process and allowing more time in testing and design allows us to constantly move and create."
And according to Lopes, everything his team does now is directly descended from the work of Winston.
Winston, the winner of four Oscars , was revered as one of the true Hollywood originals. How critical was his work to the movie industry as we know it today? Well, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron spoke at his funeral, and that should give you a clue to how integral Winston was to the look of modern movies.
"Stan was the most awesome guy," Lopes said. "With Stan, it was always about figuring out how to deliver the character, the script and the story first."
It's that dedication to the craft of special-effects through filmmaking that Lopes and the Legacy Effects team are carrying on in Winston's memory. Rosengrant began working with Winston during filming of "The Terminator" in 1984. For a short time, the company was actually known as Winston Effects Group, but as the current ownership group considered their contribution to Winston Studio (and with the blessing of the founder's widow) Rosengrant said the name change made sense as "he really turned over a lot of the duties at that point to the people here. He was passing the torch to us. He was very supportive of people finding their own successes here and, really, he will always be part of anything we do."
Much of that current success can be attributed to the Legacy Effects group's use of 3D printing to speed their work process and realize the creative vision of a wide range of talents.
According to Lopes, it's not all about high-tech. He says that to a large extent the amazing visual poetry Legacy Effects is known for comes from the work of sculptors, artists and painters "and guys who didn't just push a button. It's all about the mix of artists working to create beautiful parts."
But there's no denying the level to which Legacy Effects relies on 3D printing and 3D design to realize the creative vision of the directors they work with, guys like James Cameron and Jon Favreau.
Lopes said each of the intricate suits used in the Iron Man movies took between 2 and 3 months of constant design, printing and testing to create, and added that lots of that work never even made the final film.
"Some of the coolest stuff just doesn't work in the flow of the story," Lopes said. "But I do like the fact that we sort of get to be the only ones to enjoy some very cool stuff that no one else gets to see. We look at everything as a solution or a challenge. Even failures are an education."
To overcome those challenges, Lopes said his array of six Stratsys printers are constantly humming and churning out parts, and even with that armada of bleeding edge technology at his disposal, Legacy Effects still pushes some work to service bureaus in the Midwest and East to keep up with the demands of the studio's workflow.
So what's it like to meet movie stars and Hollywood legends on a near daily basis?
For Lopes, it's just sort of all in a day's work.
"Actors are here all the time for fitting and testing, and for some of the difficult designs, things just don't translate easily," Lopes said. "It requires a lot of patience, but it's pretty much universal that everyone who visits here is just amazed by the place. I am, every day."