Alumnus shapes visual effects for blockbuster movies

Trent Claus
Trent Claus

When the brass at the Academy Award-winning visual effects studio – famed LOLA VFX in Los Angeles – handed Trent Claus his brand-new assignment back in the fall of 2010, the former UNL fine arts major could hardly believe his eyes

The assignment: Find a way to shrink a Hollywood superhero, the iron-jawed and block-shouldered "Captain America," into a scrawny, 90-pound weakling. Amazed, the talented visual effects artist realized that he'd just been presented with a unique challenge. Because the latest cinema blockbuster from Marvel Studios had already been filmed in its entirety, the supremely muscle-bound actor Chris Evans appeared throughout as Steve Rogers (aka "Captain America").

But during the first third of the movie (and before being transformed into a fighting giant by the "super-serum" that had been developed by the U.S. Army), Steve Rogers was supposed to have been nothing more than a skinny little guy from Brooklyn. That meant that Claus – now a supervisor and senior visual effects artist at LOLA – would have to use his computer magic
to morph the freedom-fighter back into the puny, asthmatic, pathetic shrimp he'd been before taking his dose of super-serum.

Could the LOLA movie magician pull it off? Could Trent Claus (B.F.A. Studio Art '06) – armed only with his state-of-the-art Autodesk Flame visual effects software – radically change the appearance of the main character in a movie that had already been shot?

He could. He would! Determined as never before, Claus took a deep breath. Then he sat down at his computer in the busy, humming offices of LOLA VFX, then located just a block from the famous Third Street Promenade in downtown Santa Monica, Calif.

A moment later he hit the switch … and the first frames of "Captain America" (produced by Marvel Studios and later distributed by Paramount) were flashing across his screen. During the next year or so, the UNL-trained FX guru spent hundreds of hours struggling to metamorphose the mighty Captain into the kind of helpless runt who used to get sand kicked in his face during all those Charles Atlas ads of the 1950s.

‘Movies Are Never Finished – They're Just Abandoned!' For the bold-hearted Claus, who'd already faced major visual effects challenges on such recent major Hollywood blockbusters as "Iron Man," "Star Trek" and "The Social Network," the task ahead was uniquely problematic. It would also push the Hastings, Neb., native to the very edge of his endurance.

Somehow, the LOLA visual effects wizard had to find a way to transform a giant into a hollow-chested wimp unfit for military service … at the very height of World War II.
Make no mistake: it would not be easy. Relying entirely on Flame, Claus had to paint over hundreds of individual movie frames (the still pictures which run through the projector at the rate of 24 per second, thus creating the illusion of movement). On every one of those frames where the powerfully built actor appeared as the muscle-deprived Steve Rogers, Claus would have to work his electronic alchemy, by shrinking Evans' mighty build into that of a slump-shouldered, thin-ribbed sad sack who'd been rejected by the U.S. Army as 4-F. One sequence, in particular, presented Claus and his team of visual-effect artists with hugely complex problems.

In that seven-to-eight-second bit of narrative (which occurs during minute 24 of the finished film), the undernourished Steve Rogers sits forlornly on his bunk in an Army barracks. Depressed and disconsolate, he's mourning the fact that his performance in boot camp has so far been utterly inadequate. But then Steve Rogers finally gets a break … when the mysterious Dr. Abraham Erskine (director of the super-soldier project) slips into the barracks and tells him how he's going to be transformed into the all-powerful Captain America.

According to the enigmatic Dr. Erskine, what matters most in a soldier is inner strength – and the scientist is convinced that Steve Rogers has plenty of it. By providing the midget-sized warrior with a massive dose of superserum (along with plenty of super-strength Vita- Rays), the Army will be able to create both the mental and physical strength that will be required to defeat the Nazis and win WWII.

Here's the dialogue that occurs during the seven or eight seconds of that particular scene, on which Claus worked for more than a hundred hours:

DR. ERSKINE (stepping into the barracks and calling out to Rogers)
May I?

(sitting on his bunk in the deserted barracks)

Can't sleep?

Got the jitters, I guess. Can I ask you a question?

Only one?

Why me?

As he reviewed this seven to eight second snippet of "Captain America," Trent Claus realized that he faced some truly humongous visual effects problems, if he were to successfully shrink the muscular actor into the Steve Rogers shrimp.

By using his computer-based Flame program, of course, he could easily downsize the actor's huge shoulders and bulging chest. But as soon as he did that, the actor's head looked too large for the shrunken corpus on which it rested. ("He'd wind up looking like a Bobble-head doll," Claus groaned during a recent interview, while describing some of the huge problems he faced while working on "Captain America.") Okay … so now it was clear that the FX artist had to shrink Rogers' head as well.

But that only meant … more problems. Why? Because now the shadows thrown by Rogers' head and body were out of whack! To get each frame in the scene right, in fact (and there were more than 160 frames in those eight seconds of film), Claus had to dwarf down every one of the shadows, along with the wrinkles in the actor's face, and even his eyebrows and other facial and bodily features. And what about that window against the back wall? What about the two bunks? What about the bottle of Schnapps that Dr. Erskine carries (his toast to Rogers at the end of the brief scene: "Here's to the little guys!")? A special effects nightmare!

Faced with this enormously detailed and incredibly tedious FX assignment, Claus would need the courage of two Captain Americas, if he hoped to make it to the finish line. "There's a famous phrase in Hollywood," he told Nebraska Magazine with a mournful sigh. "Movies are never finished, they're just abandoned!"

But the tireless artist kept plugging away on his shrink assignment … and eventually wound up winning a prestigious award for Outstanding Compositing from his admiring peers in the Visual Effects Society for the terrific job he did on "Captain America."

A Cinematic Scene: Lunch at Trastevere Perched above a steaming bowl of Gnocchi Al Pomodoro at the Trastevere Italian outdoor café in downtown Santa Monica, the 34-year-old Claus recently regaled a reporter with stories – Great Moments in FX! – about some of the film projects ("Star Trek," "Hugo," "The Social Network," "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") on which he has worked during his seven years at LOLA VFX.

It was a warm, blue-sky afternoon in July of 2013, and the veteran "compositor" (his formal title) was explaining "just how tough" things can get during the final stages of producing a major Hollywood epic. The dialogue unfolded like this:
REPORTER: How tough is it to bring a huge project like "Captain America" to completion, when you're responsible for the visual effects?

CLAUS (thoughtful, reflective): It's very tough. The film is yours while you're working on it, as far as the visual effects are concerned … but then there's the visual effects supervisor for LOLA, and then the VFX supervisor from the studio, and then the director – and then the producers, who will sometimes have different opinions than the director. And you have to please all of them. And a lot of times, you're getting opposing notes. You know: "Make him taller; make him shorter." And you have to decide: which one am I gonna do?

So on almost every movie, there's never that moment where you say, "We're done." You keep working until the due date and do the best that you can do with the time that you are given. As artists, we can always find things to improve on our work – and we're always our own worst critics.

REPORTER (amazed, curious): Wow! That does sound pretty stressful. How about the technical side? How hard is it to use all that computer gear effectively, so that you get exactly the special effect you want, every single time?

CLAUS (chuckling, enjoying himself): Well, I'm what they call a compositor, which means that I take all of the elements of what will become the final movie image seen on screen, and I put them together in such a way that makes it look real to the audience. Generally speaking, this means working on the film frame by frame in a manner that's similar to painting – except digitally of course.

So on a project like "Captain America" … you're basically working frame by frame. And on that job, changing his body was only the beginning. Because you're also painting the shadows as you go. You're painting the highlights, making sure the smaller neck would still animate correctly when he would turn his head, or speak or swallow. Making sure that even though he [the Steve Rogers character] no longer has any muscles in his chest, you [the moviegoer] still feel that inhale and exhale.

REPORTER: You won a coveted "Outstanding Compositing" award from the Visual Effects Society for your work, and your studio, LOLA, has contributed to films that won four Academy Awards for Special Effects in recent years. Are you jaded and unimpressed by your accomplishments ... or is winning those kinds of awards still a thrill for you?

CLAUS (smiling, delighted): Well, I love movies and I love being part of making them. You know, I worked on "Star Trek" … and that was a series that I used to enjoy watching with my dad [Terry Claus, a printer and occasional art teacher, now deceased]. In fact, we would often watch "Star Trek" as a family while eating dinner. So getting to take part in the new adventures of Captain Kirk and the Enterprise, knowing how excited my dad would be about that – that was just a great feeling. And then knowing that I contributed to those Academy Awards … that was very exciting. My wife Jamie [UNL graduate Jamie McConnell] and I came out to Los Angeles from Nebraska in 2007, not long after graduation from UNL, and I was very fortunate to get my first job in the industry at LOLA. And for me that was really a dream come true.

I remember, Jamie and I watched the Academy Awards on the night when LOLA was part of the team that won an Oscar for "Benjamin Button," which I had worked on … and there were plenty of hugs, and we celebrated and it was just a great feeling. And then I called home to Lincoln, where I'd grown up starting at the age of six, after we moved there from Hastings … and I talked with my mom [a public elementary school art teacher for nearly 40 years], and she knew I had worked on the film, and she was excited about the Oscar as all moms would be.

REPORTER: That must have been a very thrilling moment. But how difficult is it to keep up with the movie industry? Is it like pro sports, where if you lose half a step, your career may be finished?

CLAUS (meditative, philosophical): Well, you really do have to keep up. I mean, you don't really have time to do on-the-job training with all the new software and things like that … because you have deadlines. That's something you have to do on your own.

REPORTER: So how tough is the pressure? Do you worry that you might fall behind, might lose your magic touch and lose your job as a visual effects specialist in Hollywood?

CLAUS (laughing, but a little uneasy, anxious): Well, I think most artists feel that at any moment they're gonna be caught as a fraud. Somebody's gonna walk in and say, "We're onto you; you don't know what you're doing and you're out of here." But it hasn't happened yet!

Courtesy: Nebraska Alumni Association