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October 15
2020

ISSUE

Fall 2020

J.D. Schwalm: Following His Father’s Playbook to the Moon and Beyond

By TREVOR HOGG

Following in the career footsteps of his father, Jim Schwalm, who received a VES Award nomination for Spider-Man 2, J.D. Schwalm stood on the stage of the Dolby Theater to receive the Oscar for Best Visual Effects for First Man. Along with being a respected artist, he is also an astute businessman who founded Innovation Workshop in Los Angeles and subsequently branched out to Atlanta, where he currently lives with his family.

“At the age of 19, I was working at a high-performance automotive shop filled with race cars,” says Schwalm. “My dad called and asked if I would like to go work on a movie in Hawaii over the summer. I said, ‘yes’ and never looked back.”

Visual effects have increased, rather than diminished, the need for practical elements, notes Schwalm. “The first Spider-Man film is when I first realized that visual effects were actually going to make our job more important,” notes Schwalm. “When doing movies like Hobbs & Shaw, it’s important to embrace the visual effects element because the audience is expecting massive-scale explosions and gags. We try to do everything practically in-camera and then hand it over to the CG guys for enhancement. When you shoot a car into a building or flip a car at high speeds practically, it gives the CG guys a template to follow and allows them to make it bigger, better and, in the end, feel more realistic.”

J.D. Schwalm (Images courtesy of J.D. Schwalm.)

“A strict rule around my crew is, ‘Do not ever let production rush you,’ It is always safer to not do the gag than to risk getting hurt. It’s extremely important to never get too comfortable with what you’ve built and the knowledge that you’ve amassed over the years — that’s how you get bit. To avoid that, we try to ensure that everything that rolls out of our shop door has a CAD file that has been reviewed by an outside engineer. Only then do we go ahead and build. That’s an important message that should be known around the industry.”

—J.D. Schwalm, Special Effects Supervisor

Visual Effects Supervisor Paul Lambert and J.D. Schwalm after their Oscar win for First Man. (Photo: JB Lacroix)

The early pre-production meetings for First Man, helmed by Damien Chazelle, were intimidating. “We had a tight budget and Damien wanted to do everything practically. The team that the producers put together, with [Production Designer] Nathan Crowley and [Visual Effects Supervisor] Paul Lambert, was critical in making that movie work. Nathan could think completely outside of the box, as could Paul. Nathan crafted sets that had a hugeness to them, but he built only what the camera needed to see. There was little to no waste. This, paired with extensive planning by Paul and Damien, allowed for the film to have a blockbuster feel on a modest budget. First Man proved that if everyone studies the shots, an epic special effects movie can be made affordably.”

High-tech equipment has been embraced by Schwalm. “The advancement in technology has given my company the ability to have a full-fledged manufacturing facility right down to fully-automated computerized milling machines, robotic arms, 3D printers and laser cutters. Essentially, when we create a gag, we’re building giant prototypes. It’s a one-off thing that has to be built fast. Technology has enabled us to build with rapid turnaround. For The Right Stuff television series, we had to build a gimbal in two weeks. In the old days, a gimbal like that would have taken eight to 10 weeks to construct. My engineers drew the entire thing from top to bottom in a computer and it took them five or six days. We were sending drawings to an outside engineering company daily to keep them in the loop. This allowed us to have approval on the build at the time design was finished. From there, individual pieces were broken apart in the software and loaded directly into the CNC machines. After pieces were cut, the welders assembled the gimbal as if they were building LEGOs. There is no grinding and trimming here and there. Each piece that goes into these builds is perfectly machine-cut and has a laser-precision fit. This means completing the job quicker, which in turn allows the stunt team and our crew to get on the rig earlier, leaving them more time to work out kinks and to make any necessary changes.”

Special effects can be an extremely dangerous profession and requires proper training. “Every day you run the risk of injuring yourself or the people around you,” observes Schwalm. “It’s an array of talented employees. We have engineers who design in CAD, licensed pyrotechnicians from the mining and fireworks industries, CNC machine operators from the automotive industry, hydraulic technicians from large-scale plant operations. You can’t exactly go to school for special effects. They tried it for a bit in California and it fizzled. I try to look at my job as a contractor putting the properly qualified people in the right places. Typically, it’s difficult to find people who do a little bit of everything. You end up with larger crews where each member has specialized skills and we try to optimize their skillsets.”

Tight production schedules can pose safety concerns. “A strict rule around my crew is, ‘Do not ever let production rush you,’” states Schwalm. “It is always safer to not do the gag than to risk getting hurt. It’s extremely important to never get too comfortable with what you’ve built and the knowledge that you’ve amassed over the years – that’s how you get bit. To avoid that, we try to ensure that everything that rolls out of our shop door has a CAD file that has been reviewed by an outside engineer. Only then do we go ahead and build. That’s an important message that should be known around the industry. When you develop a relationship with a good engineering firm you can work around each other’s schedules. We’ve spent six years working with McLaren Engineering out of upstate New York. We send them three to four drawings a day for them to review, from little to big things.”

At Innovation Workshop.

J.D. Schwalm, Jim Schwalm and Richie Schwalm, J.D.’s younger brother, a special effects coordinator and technician.

In front of an explosion for The Fate of the Furious.

Jim Schwalm, J.D. Schwalm and Richie Schwalm on location for The Fate of the Furious.

“The fun part of the work is figuring out a way to build the desired gag in the time they want it, with the tools and resources that you have,” remarks Schwalm. “R&D is part of the workflow. There is never idle time at the shop. If we’re not working on a gag then we’re developing something. We’re doing a lot of stuff right now with digital control systems. We have made the switch from analog to a 100% digital communication on all of our motion control equipment. In the past, if you had six hydraulic cylinders to move, you had to run multiple wires to each cylinder. We’re developing new systems now that run on a fiber optic network. Currently, we have one fiber cable and breakout box that runs on an Ethernet network. The process of building breakaways has not changed much, it has just been perfected throughout the years. Now, they work better and go faster. A lot of the stuff we do involves old-school systems with a new-wave technique.”

Behind the barrel of a minigun.

With Second Unit Stunt Coordinator Jack Gill and Stunt Coordinator Spiro Razatos discussing an action scene for Fast and Furious 8: Fate of the Furious.

Driving a mini truck with Dyna-Fog fogger.

With an auger on the ice.

Wires are harder to hide with high-resolution productions. “In the old days we could use piano wire because it was essentially invisible to the camera,” notes Schwalm. “Those days are gone. If you’re hanging stuff you might as well use larger, safer lines because the CG guys are going to have to paint it out no matter what. As technology goes, it makes the job more fun. The advancement in our industry has only made it easier for us to connect and tie in with other departments. For example, on First Man, the camera, the gimbal and the video playing on the LED wall were all running through a common network. They were triggering each other and telling each other where they were. The further we advance, the more opportunity we are going to have to work together and sync all of these technologies up.”

Getting an opportunity to work with James Cameron on Avatar 2 was a thrill for Schwalm, as the maverick filmmaker helped to inspire him to pursue a career in special effects. “If I had to name a single movie that drew me into the industry, I would say Terminator 2: Judgment Day. I saw what quality visual and mechanical effects can do together. And still to this day it holds up. When I started on Avatar 2 I expected Jim to be unreachable because of who he was and what he has accomplished, but the opposite was true. There was a lot more collaboration than I expected. Jim likes intelligent ideas. He has surrounded himself with people who contribute and innovate. Avatar 2 was extremely fun and challenging.”

Schwalm is also a fan of Dwayne Johnson. “I feel extremely fortunate to be able to collaborate with Dwayne and his production company on so many projects, from Hobbs & Shaw to Jumanji and Red Notice. All of his movies are action-packed and all have super unique gags. Dwayne’s work ethic and compassion are his characteristics that I look up to most.”

A tremendous respect exists between father and son. “As I got older, I realized how good my dad was at dealing with people,” observes Schwalm. “That coupled with the fact that he is a real-life MacGyver made him a master special effects man. My dad came up in an industry where you had to do everything with your hands. I learned all of my pyro skills from him, I learned how to build from him, I learned how to tinker from him. From a young age, I was given such a good playbook to go by.”

When it comes to his own success, Schwalm notes, “I dream stuff up, budget, organize and try to keep everyone safe. I’m not one of the people who actually builds the gags. I have really good people around me who have allowed me to succeed.”


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