Company Producing Special Effects Rises to Demand

by ekramer on June 12, 2008

Special effects are widespread in all kinds of entertainment, including the theater. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer takes a peek behind the curtain to find out why special effects are on the rise.

At a rehearsal on the Iroquois Amphitheater stage, Stu Cox is showing two cast members of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” how to fly. Cox works for ZFX. The company equips and trains cast and crew members of productions around the world.

Cox is outfitting Connor Holloway and Eddie Lewis with harnesses. They play Charlie and Grandpa Jo. They have hinges affixed to their hips and attached to cables that are attached to a hoisting system above the stage.

“So, we’re going to lift up just a little bit off the ground,” he tells Lewis. “First I want to just see if it feels right to him, feels like it’s in the right spot.”

Cox instructs the two actors to do handstands and flips. The moves are in a scene where Charlie and Grandpa Jo drink a brew that allows them to fly. At the same time, these actors are trying to sing with the orchestra.

Flying as spectacle is a ZFX specialty, not only on this stage, but on others around the world. It oversees the flying equipment and training for all the productions of “Wicked,” including one that opens next month in Australia, and for productions at community and regional theaters.

ZFX, founded in California in 1994, moved to Louisville in 2006, in part to grow in a place where land is cheaper and to reduce freight costs to East Coast productions.

The staff has nearly quadrupled to meet demand. That growth parallels that of other companies providing the needed technologies for theatrical special effects, says David Barbour. Barbour is editor-in-chief at Lighting and Sound America, a publication that covers the technology behind the entertainment industry.

“There is certainly a trend,” Barbour says, “particularly in the shows that are aimed at younger people to have a lot of special effects — flying and transformations and scenic effects of that sort. They tend to be fantasy shows.”

Barbour credits shows produced by Disney with harnessing modern technology and raising audiences’ expectations for special effects. He says technology has completely transformed theater over the past 20 years by incorporating automated lighting, where lights can be preprogrammed to pan, tilt and change color quickly, and digital audio which provides a sense of immediacy to the action. Most recently, projection technology has allowed theater designers to saturate stages with realistic and even improbable scenes.

Barbour says companies like ZFX are thriving because many producers want to create a unique experience and because entertainment now infuses everything in our culture — from corporate to religious life.

ZFX’s productivity is evident in its burgeoning complex of buildings just south of downtown Louisville. Here employees weld equipment for rigging systems. And there are costume shops and a nearly 5000-square foot studio where ZFX works with performers.

Co-owner Terri Kirsch says 50 percent of the company’s business comes from regional theaters, while the rest is split between major long-running musicals and performances mounted by cruise lines, churches and, increasingly, major corporations like BMW and Cisco Systems. Kirsh says there is potential for more growth there.

“A lot of the marketing we’re doing right now is in the corporate industry,” Kirsch says. “You have a CEO of a company that wants to make an impact or a reveal of a new product they have. So, at their sales conference, they fly in and they reveal their new product and the sales team or the sales people go crazy because that’s a big hype. They want to hype up the sales people.”

 Still, ZFX continues to bank on projects destined for Broadway. The latest is “Angels,” a musical loosely-based on Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” For that show, ZFX created computer programs that use joy sticks to support five people in the air at once. They filmed a scene for the producers.

“That particular project encompasses the entire gamut of what we do,” Kirsch says. “You push a button and everybody flies. All the cues are already set.”

The video helped the producers secure $17 million from investors. And that kind of investment trickles down — to ZFX which is expected to exceed $10 million in sales by 2012, and to the regional economy.

While Barbour says businesses serving the entertainment industry don’t usually have high profit margins, he doesn’t see any decline in the demand for live entertainment with special effects, especially if those businesses continue to invent new ways to dazzle us.

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