Matt Kutcher is standing in the parking lot of the Harahan complex of G Street Films, where his special effects company Spectrum FX is located. His office occupies one-third of a trailer covered in posters for the movies for which he's created visual effects. We're about to enter one of his warehouses, when its massive sliding door starts to close.
"I think we're going to blow up a car window right now," he says.
We go up a ramp and see a crew getting ready to film a new gray Mercedes sedan with its front seat piled with explosive charges. It's not for a movie scene; it's just a test to show the director.
"They want to blow out the windshield so it'll look like a guy with a shotgun is shooting it out," Kutcher says. "The director wants a specific hole so the camera can go into the car. ... Nothing is random anymore. [Directors] want very specific stuff. We have to comply."
The detonation is loud, and it blows more than a dozen doubloon-sized holes in the center of the windshield. But they'll need to make a stronger blast to get a single large hole for the camera to shoot through.
The complex is full of specialized equipment. There's a fleet of police vehicles used in NCIS: New Orleans. One room looks like a gymnastics center, with padding, scaffolds and rigging to create the illusion of flight or people blown back by explosions (Spectrum did Blades of Glory, in which the studio did not allow Will Ferrell and Jon Heder actually to ice skate.). A storage area is stacked with heavy equipment from explosions in battle scenes of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It also holds pods mounted on top of the cars Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey used in True Detective. The actors didn't really drive in the show. A stunt man controlled the car from the rooftop pod while the actors focused on the scene.
After more than 25 years in the special effects business, Kutcher rarely sees a day without an explosion, car crash or technical illusion crafted by his company. But he's in the middle of another exciting spree of events. On Feb. 4, his team won the Visual Effects Society award for "Outstanding Visual Effects in a Visual Effects-Driven Photoreal/Live Action Feature" for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, much of which was shot in the New Orleans area. The team was up for the International Press Academy's visual effect Satellite Award Feb. 15, and Apes is nominated for the visual effects Academy Award (to be announced on Feb. 22).
For Apes, Kutcher's team's more traditional stunts and effect work was fused with digital effects from New Zealand-based visual effects company Weta.
"People ask me how many monkeys we had on set," Kutcher says. "We had none. We did have plenty of guys in black suits with tracking balls."
Because the apes were digitally created, the studio wanted everything else in the scenes to be realistic, Kutcher says.
Some of the scenes of the movie's human enclave were filmed in downtown New Orleans at the intersection of Tulane Avenue and S. Rampart Street. Scenes featuring a tank battle with gunfire and explosions were filmed there, and then Weta turned human figures into apes.
"The tank transport and the gunfire is real so the environment looks real," Kutcher says. "The apes are interacting in a real space."
Whether Apes wins an Oscar or not, Kutcher expects that he'll be working on another Apes film.
Kutcher moved his company to Louisiana six years ago, partially because of film tax credits and partially because he grew to love the area. He first worked in New Orleans 20 years ago on the set of Interview With a Vampire.
"I wasn't a big fan [of New Orleans] at the time," Kutcher says. "I don't drink. I don't party. It wasn't my thing."
But as he returned to work on more movie sets, from New Orleans to Shreveport, Louisiana grew on the Encino, California native.
"[Moving here] was a huge leap of faith," he says. "But it's paid off. It's a whole better way of life. The people are kinder. It's a different pace."
Kutcher thought he'd spend the rest of his career flying to Los Angeles for meetings, but the opposite became true. Studio executives traveling to New Orleans to inspect sites and hotels for crews often want to see his studios and set up meetings with him, he says.
Kutcher often travels to remote filming sites from Mexico to Morocco, but much can still be done locally. Spectrum created the motion base for the lifeboats used in Captain Phillips. The moving base allows crews on dry land (like a Harahan parking lot) to film a boat that appears to be rocking on ocean waves. But scenes originally meant to be filmed in Louisiana and Alabama were shot in Tangier, using motion-simulating bases fabricated at Spectrum and shipped abroad.
While Spectrum has six full-time employees, including one of Kutcher's sons, it assembles and manages crews of anywhere from 10 to 80 for film and TV projects (the crews are technically employed by the film studio). Kutcher says that the amount of filming being done in the area has attracted or developed deep talent pools so he can build crews locally, without bringing in people from the West Coast.
Kutcher isn't going to Los Angeles for the Oscars. Instead, Spectrum is preparing for work on the next season of American Horror Story, its spinoff Scream Queens and upcoming film projects.