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Small Hollywood Studio Creates Special Effects

One of the growing sectors of the entertainment business involves the creation of special effects. Computer-generated art provides fanciful creatures for science fiction movies, throngs of background players for fantasy films, and floods and hurricanes for disaster pictures. The effects are often created in small studios by young creative artists who rely on imagination as much as technology.

Companies like this often have quirky names. This one is Defaultmind studios, meant to suggest that creative thinking is the standard here.

Surfboards are mounted in the hallway, so the two avid surfers on the staff can head to the nearby beach when they need a break. The rest of the time, they sit in front of computer screens, working at the junction of high tech and entertainment.

Iranian-born Foad Afshari is the company's president. Just 23 years old, he started this business working out of his home, and later moved to an office in a converted warehouse. It was done on a shoestring budget.

"A lot of it is my own money that I've saved up, or called on friends and family. A lot of it is us and just work that comes in and funds the studio," he said.

With four full-time workers, who are as much partners as employees, this small production studio expands as work comes in, using outside contractors when they are needed. A fifth staff member, a veteran Hollywood composer, will soon come on board.

Mr. Afshari shows a visitor a room full of computers, which is the heart of this virtual world. It also expands and contracts, based on the needs of the client, and provides the digital muscle for the high-tech enterprise.

"We go anywhere from having 12 computers to 50 or 100 computers, depending on what projects we're working on and what they need us to accomplish in a certain timeframe," he said.

The company works on films, television shows and commercials. Recent corporate clients have included the sporting goods company Nike and the hair-care firm Vidal Sassoon.

Artist Aristomenis Tsirbas, known to his friends as Meni, shows a whimsical production that he made to demonstrate his company's skills to clients. The short animated film called The Freak tracks the adventures of a small creature in a futuristic city. The video shows potential clients what the company can do, and has won a number of awards at international video festivals, including the Sundance Festival in Park City, Utah.

"It was a chance for me to do whatever I wanted, so I just put my heart in it and decided to do something a little personal," he said.

A full-length animated feature is now in production.

Small companies like this rely on word-of-mouth advertising to build a network of contacts in the entertainment industry. A producer may need just a few seconds of animation, and if the results are good, he'll ask for more on a future project.

Foad Afshari says each job brings a new challenge.

"One of the projects we're about to start is just adding a hot-air balloon to three commercials, and it's about 90 seconds worth of animation. We'll get reference material as far as what this real hot-air balloon looks like, and we'll take that and create a 3-D model of that," he said.

He says the 90-second production could take a few days, or weeks, to finish.

High-profile companies like Pixar are known for their special effects and computer animation. But Foad Afshari says small firms like Defaultmind do much of the special effects work for the major studios, and many provide products for a related industry that is seeing tremendous growth: computer games.