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Renaissance man

Alisha Self, Of the Record staff

Each year, it seems that the films selected to screen at the Sundance Film Festival are going increasingly high-tech.

Last year, the festival featured "U23D," the first live-action 3D concert movie, and this year, it showcased "Cane Toads: The Conquest," a 3D documentary that brings viewers up-close-and-personal with an Australian frog species.

One Parkite who can appreciate filmmakers’ efforts to incorporate special effects is Robert Small, who has made a living creating visual effects for films including "Apollo 13," "True Lies" and "Titanic."

Small has seen the world of computer graphics evolve from the first video games being tested at Stanford University (where, as a kid, he would hang out in the student union) to the latest technology, which is displayed in films such as "Avatar" (he worked with James Cameron on the "Terminator 2" 3D ride film, which sparked the desire to make a full-length 3D feature).

Visual effects is a field that has come a long way in a relatively short period of time, and Small has planted himself in the midst of its progression.

At future Sundance Film Festivals, he says, he wouldn’t be surprised to see more visual effects being incorporated into independent films. And with his own company, Murray-Small Visual Effects, based in Park City, he may find himself at the forefront of the movement.

Small’s fascination with technology piqued when he was a kid. He grew up in the heart of Silicon Valley and latched onto both art and computer science at an early age. "I was always inventing things and solving problems," he says.

His earliest memories include borrowing his dad’s 8-millimeter camera to shoot his own James Bond movies and, at age 9, watching the Apollo moon landing. He soon added space adventures to his long list of interests. "When ‘2001: Space Odyssey’ came out in 1968, that just blew my socks off," he says.

Small interned at NASA during high school and worked for Hughes Aircraft Company while studying electrical engineering at the University of Southern California. During a stint at the aerospace company TRW, he convinced his boss at the time to secure funding for a computer graphics lab.

In 1992, he joined Digital Domain, a start-up special effects company founded by a group of film industry professionals including Cameron. As technical director, Small created visual effects for a string of major blockbusters.

He also founded Murray-Small Visual Effects around that time and signed "Dante’s Peak" as its first project.

Meanwhile, he stayed true to his creative roots and continued to nurture his artistic side. "I like to say I’m a Renaissance man, which is a little too cliché," he says, but in his case, it’s true.

Small’s background in and passion for both art and science has led to a career not only as a visual effects guru but as an inventor, a businessman, and an artist. "Having an art background with a science background has actually been a great benefit for me," he says.

Around the time his son was born, Small decided that he was tired of the long hours that come as par for the course in film work. He visited Park City on a consulting job and decided to stay. Soon he was taking calls from his mobile office on the ski slopes of Deer Valley.

When he moved, Small knew that it would be a challenge to work remotely from Utah. He had to turn down a few big-budget films because he wasn’t in California, but he was still able to take on a few projects while also focusing on his other business ventures.

He came up with the concept for Teddy Bear Backpacks, plush backpacks shaped like animals that look like they are hugging the person who wears them. The trend caught on with kids locally and nationally.

He also used his talents to help design a new house for his family, using visual effects software to create a 3D blueprint that he could digitally manipulate. "The architects were working 2D, and I think that was their problem," he says.

Small’s artistic talents are evident not only in his home but around town in his creations for community art projects. The Moose on the Loose and Dogs of Bark City projects invited artists to put their own creative spin on a common theme and the pieces were then auctioned off to benefit local nonprofits. Small’s moose was situated outside The Claimjumper until recently, and his dog is on its way to its new home.

Small is currently balancing several endeavors: working on visual effects for the animated 3D feature "The Legend of Christmas," creating a new product that will be unveiled this spring, and contributing his knowledge to the creation of the James Webb Space Telescope, which touts the latest features in space technology.

As for the future, Small says he is confident that new advancements will allow him to stay in Park City while working on Hollywood films.

He is also excited about the direction of visual effects and heightened opportunities for filmmakers to integrate new types of technology, including 3D. Murray-Small Visual Effects is capable of creating 3D graphics and Small is in the process of patenting a 3D film viewer. "I think that’s a big direction things are going," he says.

In addition, he is always looking for new film projects, and independent inquiries are welcome.

For more information about Murray-Small Visual Effects, call (435) 659-1403 or email robert@murray-small.com.


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