Mr. Smith’s corporate illusion

Gordon Smith is a film special-effect virtuoso who gets rave reviews from filmmakers like Oliver Stone. He’s a great artist. He’s just not so sure he wants to be a businessman.

National post Business Magazine, September, 2000   

When the movie of the cult comic book X-Men pulled an opening weekend North American box office gross of $54.5 million in early July, the celebrations weren’t confined to the Los Angeles, Calif, offices of the distributor, 20th Century Fox. Cheers also went up in a small two-story studio in northwest Toronto occupied by FXSmith Inc., the special effects company that gave the mutant film heroes their verisimilitude. Founder and owner Gordon Smith was excited, but not because his company had beaten out giant Hollywood special effects companies to gain a credit on a box office winner. He was elated because Sabretooth’s feral face and Mystique’s blue scales didn’t have to be glued on or refabricated repeatedly; the silicone gel appliances supplied by FXSmith were used and reused in multiple takes, always looking just as good as the day they were first peeled out of the mold. “It brought a tear to my eye,” the 49-year-old Smith says. “We still have to glue the edge of the prosthetic where it meets the skin, but virtually everywhere else, the prosthetics are self-sticking; they’re reusable. They’re permanently colored — all things that all other technologies are not.”


Smith’s reaction helps explain why his company, in the best tradition of special effects, is something other than it appears to be. FXSmith, which opened its doors in 1986 and has won praise for movie magic ranging from sculpting John Kennedy’s corpse to transforming Anthony Hopkins into Richard Nixon, should be a financial as well as an artistic success. But Smith’s devotion to technical breakthroughs — particularly in the use of silicone gel rather than foam latex to build more lifelike prostheses for actors — and insistence on quality lead him to turn down at least as many projects as he takes on. That prevents his company from making the big scores that so many others have made in Hollywood. In 1999, its best year, FXSmith earned $200,000 on revenues of $1.7 million. In 1998, a slow year when revenues dipped to $400,000, FXSmith only managed earnings of $150,000. “Every year, what we take home remains relatively the same. Less work just means we hire fewer subcontractors and do more in-house work to cut down on expenses,” says Smith.


Smith’s art-for-art’s-sake approach seems all the more extraordinary given the wave of money that’s about to crash over the North American F/X business. The entertainment industry bible Variety is already referring to next year as “2001: An F/X Odyssey,” citing the hundreds of millions earmarked for major film projects including Disney’s Pearl Harbor, Warner Brothers’ Harry Potter and Fox’s Star Wars: Episode II. Naturally, large chunks of the work will go to F/X powerhouses like George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic or the Disney’s Secret Lab. But many in the industry also cite the growing globalization in F/X — computer work for Harry Potter will be done in Britain, for example — that can work in favor of small shops with special expertise. In the case of X-Men, work was spread amongst seven F/X studios.


Certainly Smith has powerful friends in Hollywood. He has worked, for example, on six Oliver Stone pictures, from Salvador in 1986 to Nixon in 1995. Stone calls Smith “one of the best sculptors I have ever worked with,” citing his “special ability to understand the look and meaning of death.” That ability “levitated movies such as Platoon and JFK to a grandeur that would never have been” without him, Stone says.


 Smith also has the respect of his peers. Michael Key, editor of trade journal Make Up Artist Magazine, says Smith’s initial demonstration of silicone gel techniques at the magazine’s first annual convention in Los Angeles in 1997 was a clear hit. “Gordon completely captivated that audience for three hours. He was able to do that because he’s one of maybe 15 people who could do makeup like that.”


 Smith’s devotion to the art and science of movie illusion should also give his company a competitive edge. He says he’s trying to find better, cheaper ways to create believable illusions ahead of bigger Hollywood effects houses that are increasingly reliant on advances in digital special effects. FXSmith continues to refine its silicone-gel-filled appliances, even serving as an off-premises think-tank and testing facility for Polytek Development Corporation, a Pennsylvania company that makes silicone compounds and liquid rubbers. “The chemistry already existed,” says Polytek president David Salisbury. “It was a matter of applying it in a particular way. Gordon’s making it simple.” Adds Smith: “The newer materials take as much as two-thirds of the work time out of a project. That means more time for creating, less spent waiting for latex to set up and stabilize. I’ve come up with materials now that you can mix 50/50 by eye  — any idiot can make them work.”


Except that so far, they’re not really working much for FXSmith. Smith concedes that advances in silicone gel makeup are a drain on the company, inasmuch as FXSmith has spent more than $1 million in the past eight years on research and development.


It would help if FXSmith had projects similar to X-Men coming down the pipe, but Smith admits he isn’t seeking another movie for his silicone gel appliances just now and has spent much of the summer at his cottage.


 In fact, Smith says he seldom looks for work because that would send the wrong message. He adds that his Los Angeles agent, Ron Singer, works as hard turning down requests for FXSmith as he does negotiating acceptances. “If I look for work, all it says is that I’m not working,” Smith explains. “My agent will send stuff around. But it always boils down to somebody specifically asking for me; they’ve worked with me already or it’s based on the last job. Because we’re here in Canada, we’re really out of the loop. Everything we get is based on previous work, and how people talk about the previous work. It’s better to get a job by your previous work than your personality — or lack thereof.”


Singer disputes this, arguing that Smith has a personality that draws talent. “He doesn’t know it, but he’s a schmoozer,” Singer says. If that’s true, Smith schmoozes best with the sculptors and makeup artists who are drawn to his studio like painters to an atelier. When the work is there, FXSmith collaborates with as many as 25 subcontractors. In quiet times, it’s just him and his wife, Gionilda Stolee.


Ironically, Smith says he was first drawn to movie work because of the dollars involved. The Toronto native initially worked in theatre after earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the University of Windsor in 1975. The work was rewarding artistically, but couldn’t match the financial windfall of the movies, he says. “The difference was digital — two extra digits on the paycheque.”


With 20 years’ experience in movies, Smith now sees financial considerations in a more artistic light. “The chances of the production company being wrong [on project costs] are about 90%. My salary — what this company makes — is the buffer. That destroys your ability to make money on a project. Snow Falling On Cedars is a perfect example. We did a lot of analysis and made educated decisions. All wrong. I worked for eight months and never made a dime. And you can’t go back to the production company and say, ‘I blew it; this is going to cost you another hundred thousand dollars.’”


Nor does it help that Smith will only work on one project at a time, unlike competitors such as Hollywood’s Stan Winston Studios or Rick Baker, who may work on three movies at once. While working on X-Men, Smith was approached for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s The Sixth Day. “I knew the producers. It was in the bag. Greed on my part; two films and two salaries from two companies. But after doing the designs, drawings, looking at the technical problems of building the illusions, I called them and said, ‘I can’t do it.’”


Smith credits Oliver Stone with helping him maintain the courage of his aesthetic convictions. “I used to be rather subservient. But Oliver said, ‘If they fire you, that’s probably the best thing that can happen; that project will hang you, because your work is going to be compromised.’ That has served me well over the years.”


And Smith is confident in the knowledge that his specialty has a future in the F/X world. In the late 1980s, Smith hit a dry spell when digital special effects and computer graphics first came into their own. But the hype that accompanied the first digital-heavy films such as Jurassic Park faded as movie producers realized that computers had their limitations and were extremely costly. “It turns out that everything that I can do well, they can’t,” Smith says. “Everything that is really difficult for me to do is really easy for them to do. So for me, it’s a gift from God.”


If Smith could just get over his ambivalence. In one breath, he can talk like a business development zealot, seeing a future in which celebrities use his silicone gel appliances to disguise themselves when they go to the mall and mingle with regular folks. In another, he can contemplate throwing it all away. “My greatest accomplishment in this industry is to still be here. I could almost stop doing what I’m doing and be very happy that I’ve accomplished more than I ever dreamed that I could accomplish in this business.”