Movie magic - Johnson City company creates "explosive" special effects

Matthew Lane • Jul 16, 2017 at 2:00 PM

JOHNSON CITY — If you’ve ever watched “The Flash,” “Fear the Walking Dead” or “How to Get Away with Murder,” then you’ve probably seen a fair amount of burning flames, gunshots and explosions. But did you know these and many other special effects were made right here in the Tri-Cities?

They’re all being done by a small company in Johnson City called Action VFX. The crew — all four of them — recently did a live action shoot near the Appalachian Fairgrounds in Gray and invited the media out to see part of the work that goes into creating some of the more explosive special effects you see in TV shows like “Legends of Tomorrow” or “Zoo.”

“I’ve always been into filmmaking. Back in college, I used to freelance a lot, creating my own effects for a video,” said 24-year-old Rodolphe Pierre-Louis, president and CEO of Action VFX. “Then I got the idea that if I can create one effect for my own projects, why not create a package of effects that other filmmakers can buy and use in their own projects?”

Originally from Haiti, Pierre-Louis attended Science Hill High School for his senior year, then went on to Miami-Dade College. Afterward, he chose to start the business, and since it was mostly an online venture, he decided to live in Johnson City.

Pierre-Louis released his first special effects package in 2011. Although the entertainment industry loved it, he said, it wasn’t where the company really wanted to be. Action VFX was founded in 2015 and launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise the necessary funds to push the company to the next level.

The campaign raised more than $59,000 and allowed the company to do two rounds of filming at a studio in Erwin, creating a variety of effects, including large explosions, muzzle flashes, bullet hits, dust waves and ceiling fires.

Visual effects and production studios then purchase these effects and insert them into scenes for a television show or movie. So instead of creating their own explosions or fires from scratch, a company purchases the clips from Action VFX and simply sticks them in. It saves both time and money.

“A lot of stuff they do is on their own, but with the TV industry the deadlines are so short and strict, you really can’t afford to create something from scratch,” said Pierre-Louis. “That’s where a company like ours comes in. They get pre-film, professional looking effects to add in your projects.”

To shoot the effects last week, Action VFX rented a $50,000 Red Weapon camera with an 8K resolution for 35 days. The camera is the same one the professionals use in Hollywood.

Robert Fortner, a pyrotechnics specialist from Mississippi with 20 years’ experience, has worked with Action VFX for about the past two years. His role during the recent shoot was to oversee the various charges and explosions, using — among other things — small black powder charges and gasoline.

“The charge lifts whatever accelerant I’m using into the air and ignites it simultaneously so you get a movie-style fireball,” Fortner said.

Action VFX has a library of more than 1,300 special effects in more than 20 different categories from smoke plumes, fireballs, gunshots, exploding debris and electrical sparks. The company hopes to expand its offering with additional sound effects, blood splatters and water-based effects like splashes, depth charges and underwater explosions.

“Once we started Action VFX, it was to create a website that was the undisputed place for visual stock footage in the world, and that’s been the goal from the start,” said Pierre-Louis. “We just want to keep growing and creating and challenging the industry of what we’re able to capture.”

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