When moviegoers flock to screenings of “Where the Crawdads Sing” this weekend, they’ll see computer-generated imagery created by visual effects artists in Louisiana.
Visual effects — VFX for short — make the unreal real on movie and TV screens. The Baton Rouge branch of Crafty Apes, an international visual effects company, created 90 percent of the visual effects in “Where the Crawdads Sing.” Produced by actress Reese Witherspoon, the film is based on the record-breaking novel by Delia Owens.
“Where the Crawdads Sing” stars Daisy Edgar-Jones as Kya Clark, a marsh-dwelling young woman who’s accused of murder. Crafty Apes’ Baton Rouge studio created Kya’s 3D bird friends in the marsh and “continuity” fog for a boat chase sequence. The studio also created digital set extensions that dramatically raise a fire tower’s height and executed time-period cleanup for the story’s 1960s, small-town North Carolina look.
Crafty Apes opened at Celtic Studios in January 2020. Sam Claitor, head of production, and Kolby Kember, visual effects supervisor, were the first local hires. The team they assembled has since contributed to the upcoming Disney+ series “National Treasure: Edge of History,” Sean Payton biopic “Home Team,” Disney superhero series “Ultra Violet & Black Scorpion,” Halle Berry’s directorial debut, “Bruised,” and Seasons 2 and 3 of STARZ’s “Hightown.”
“We play make believe for a living,” Claitor said of his 44-person crew.
“Watching the final product on the big screen with the team never gets old,” Kember said.
Despite the fun involved in creating visual effects for a living, it’s not all play and no work.
“People don’t last too long in visual effects if they don’t love it,” Claitor said. “It’s difficult work, long hours, a mix of technical know-how and critical thinking. You’ve got to solve problems on the fly.”
“Where the Crawdads Sing,” like many of the productions Claitor’s team contributes to, was filmed in the aptly watery Louisiana. Locations included Houma, Fairview-Riverside State Park in Madisonville and Plaquemines Parish.
Kember’s behind-the-scenes role as VFX supervisor brought him to the production’s sets, where he worked closely with director Olivia Newman and director of photography Polly Morgan.
“To make sure that we’re getting the shot and look that they want,” he said. “And to be able to properly execute the effects on the postproduction end.”
Kember praised cinematographer Morgan’s framing of the film’s marsh shots, which needed little VFX enhancement.
“The shots are beautiful,” Kember said. “The story takes place in North Carolina, but it’s unmistakably Louisiana. There isn’t a lot of treatment to the swamp to make it look more like the swamp. They went to some of the deepest Louisiana locations I can imagine.”
Visual effects for the marsh scenes include Kya’s swamp creature friends. Beyond the marsh, Kember’s team did time-period cleanup for footage of the block of Houma that portrays the town of Barkley Cove.
“The production design dressed the street really well,” Kember said. “It looks authentic, but we took out modern cars, signs and things that shouldn’t exist in that era.”
Although a handful of VFX artists work in person at Celtic Studios, most of them make their magic remotely from locations including Plaquemine, New Orleans, Metairie and Shreveport.
Disruptive though the coronavirus pandemic was for in-person film and television production, it was a boon for the VFX business.
“The film industry saw a surge of postproduction, because viewership for streaming services surged,” Claitor said. “All the major distributors were pushing hard to complete unfinished projects in post.”
Charter Baton Rouge Crafty Apes staffers Claitor, a former New Orleans resident, and Kember, who’s from Plaquemine, have been working together for nearly a decade. Their pre-Crafty Apes credits include “Captain America,” “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” “Swamp Thing,” “Beautiful Creatures,” “Game of Thrones,” “Star Trek Into Darkness” and “NCIS: New Orleans.”
“We have to overcome huge hurtles regularly,” Claitor said. “But at the end of the day, we always remind ourselves that we’re working on entertaining people.”
“We love it,” Kember said.