Alum Talks About Life Creating Visual Effects

One of the things I like most about MIT is finding out about the varying career paths that alums take. Mark Driscoll '92 is one who took the path less traveled. Mr. Driscoll started the Hollywood based Look Effects, a visual effects company that has worked on films including "Apocalypto," "Blood Diamond," "The Fountain," and the upcoming "Next" and "Gone Baby Gone." I talked with Mr. Driscoll a few weeks ago about what he actually does and how he went from MIT to making movies.

The Tech: What year did you graduate from MIT and what was your course?

Mark Driscoll: I graduated in 1992, and I was a course 2A major and a concentration in architecture — a little bit of architecture/industrial design/product design, which is what my thesis was.

TT: Why did you go into visual effects and not special effects, which would seem to fit more with your background?

MD: Well it's actually probably un-MIT related (which is rather unfortunate) but I had been doing lighting design and stage work for proper theatre for many years through high school and college. I came out to LA on a whim and started working on what we call PAing, or production assisting, which is kind of a whatever needs to be done type of job on feature film or television. I ended up actually hooking up with an independent feature that happened to be doing a fairly large amount of computer graphics and visual effects at a company called Digital Domain, which is about the largest visual effects company in town … I went from there to a company called ZI Effects, which did a lot of major feature films like "Armageddon" and "Volcano" … When I started to look with a handful of friends, we found that there definitely was a niche missing in the independent film scene. Independent film is basically defined as really low budget movies that are not necessarily funded by the studios … We built this company around doing visual effects for that industry, which is a great place to start. However, you find out if you dig into it more, financially it's the most lucrative way to do things.

TT: A press release mentioned that you did the special effects for "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest."

MD: Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), which is [George] Lucas's company, did all of them. ILM farmed out some overflow work to us, and we did some work for them. But, no, I can't say that we did it, but we enjoyed helping them out on the work.

TT: I know you worked on "Little Miss Sunshine" and I didn't even know that "Little Miss Sunshine" had visual effects.

MD: You actually hint at a really interesting trend in the industry, and that goes as well for film — large and small — and television. What you're finding these days — we did about 30 shots in "Little Miss Sunshine" such that none of which you'll ever notice, and that's the whole idea. You don't notice them because they were designed around what we call location-based visual effects. So you're shooting your locations in or around some grungy street in Cambridge, but you want to get the feeling that you're in Chicago. So instead of flying the crew to Chicago, you may come to a company like ours and say "Hey look, you know, I have this view down some side street in Cambridge, can you stick out in the sky the Sears Tower for me?" You fake it. You put in the Sears Tower, you shoot all the foregrounds in Boston and you have that kind of shot that goes by that no one notices, but subconsciously you say "Oh, that's Chicago" because you have the Sears Tower, or some other recognizable architectural element. We do a lot of this stuff, especially in television.

TT: Do you ever do any of the more "glamorous" visual effects?

MD: [laughs] Like eye-popping stuff that we all talk about? Yeah, I shouldn't downplay what we do. There's actually a movie coming out next month called "Next" … and we did this huge sequence of [Nicholas Cage] running down this hill with all this debris that falls around him: rocks, boulders, a huge old steam engine, big old barrels of dice, huge log piles that all tumble down the hill around him, over him, next to him, and all of it is built in the computer, none of it is real. That was done that way so they could get their first unit actor at the location, in camera, doing the stunt, running down the hill, and then we created all the chaos around him to give the illusion that he is in and around all this debris.

TT: Does it make it harder to watch movies knowing the secrets behind them?

MD: It makes it very difficult because … being in this industry, you just notice this stuff. It's really hard to separate yourself from that work that's done by other people in town …You find that you get really, really excited by really good work, and the bad work, you scratch your head wonder why the hell that was ever done.

If you would like to know more about what Mr. Driscoll does, you may contact him at