Gunfire from a dying war echoed in the distance as Ergin Kuke, who didn't know it at the time but was destined for Hollywood, hustled through a mountain night. Tanks clattered. Paramilitaries roamed. Kuke had spent days translating for journalists. He had escaped death at least once, and now, with a bump of cash in his pocket, he hailed a battered cab at the Kosovo border and headed south.
He arrived in Tirana, Albania, hours later, stepping into the house of his father, a well-known director. Although he spoke six languages, Kuke had been aimless before the war. He partied too much and drifted through the cafes of Europe's poorest country. But upon his return from Kosovo in 1999, he spent long hours in his father's studio and grew fascinated by the art of special effects.
"You had to teach yourself. There was no Internet, no way to learn it," said Kuke, a child of communism who embraced an emerging democracy by shaving question marks in his hair and binge-reading Jack Kerouac. "Whoever went abroad brought a book back on technology."
Kuke today is creative director and special-effects supervisor at Mind Over Eye studio in El Segundo. He was part of a team nominated last year for an Emmy for the documentary "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey." He has worked on big-budget films, including "The Polar Express" and "Superman Returns," commercials for Jaguar and Chrysler, and music videos for Britney Spears and Beyoncé, whom Kuke described as "her own perfectionist."
Countless roads lead to Hollywood. Many are straight shots down interstates, some squiggle through the heartland, and others are curious odysseys spanning cultures and nations. Few arrive at fame, but livelihoods are built, passions sated. Kuke landed here 14 years ago with the promise of a green card and acceptance into Gnomon School of Visual Effects not far from Paramount Pictures. He moved in with his best friend from back home, Dorian Ahmeti, a poet and film student.
Hollywood parses success in uneven degrees. Actors and celebrities can become global brands, but most of its workers, like Kuke, make their names in smaller, specialized worlds. They are the unseen forces behind the spectacle: artists, designers, writers, programmers, gaffers and armies of others whose ingenuity propels ideas, scripts, music — and often whole franchises — into the mass consciousness.
"This business is like any other. It has its dirty laundry, but if you work hard you can make it," said Kuke, 39, who is skilled in live-action and animation. "I'm not a special-effects director racking up Oscars. I'm respected in my profession for what I do, and I think I'm good."
"He's a phenomenal hybrid," Jennifer Chavarria, head of production at Mind Over Eye, said of Kuke. "He's a great artist and can visually conceptualize. He's extremely passionate and driven. There's a certain honesty in his passion that is rare in this industry."
Road to L.A.
Kuke's journey has had its dark parts and ragged stretches. Years ago, he told a reporter he was traveling with in Kosovo that one day they'd meet in L.A. Several months ago they did. Kuke smiled and said, "Man, it's been a while. A lot's happened." The two sat in a downtown tavern and talked. It was a warm night and Kuke's sleeve was rolled up, revealing a tattoo on his forearm written in his mother tongue: "We are getting ready for the new crusades. We are captains of starships."
Kuke is lean, speaks in whispers, moves like candlelight; he has combed-back hair, an on-again, off-again beard and the sly charm of a Balkan cardsharp. He has taken to L.A., flitting through traffic on a Kawasaki motorcycle, a satchel slung over his shoulder. He looks to his homeland with a vagabond's nostalgia.
Albania is a land of clans and mountain myths. Kuke grew up in the capital, Tirana, a city of drizzle and fascist-inspired architecture that drew in communists, gangsters and provincial men with outsized ambitions. Albania was Europe's most hermetic nation, led for decades by Enver Hoxha, an invasion-fearing former partisan who built hundreds of thousands of army bunkers that rose like gray blisters across the land. Hoxha died in office in 1985 and the ensuing years were marked by a shift from state control to capitalism that culminated in a series of pyramid schemes that bankrupted peasants and professionals and sparked an uprising.
Kuke's father, Pali, who accepted a loan from a tribal baron to buy studio equipment imported from Germany, was known for documentaries and television shows. "It took us five years to pay back the loan," said Kuke. His mother, Zerina, was a TV variety host and a book editor. "There were always books around." he said. "I wrote poetry in high school and published an underground newspaper. I was also into sci-fi and fantasy."
He eventually won a scholarship to the American University in Bulgaria in the unsettled era that followed the end of the Cold War.
"Angst, that was our lives," he said. "Generation X-type bull. No money. My room was a library of stolen books. We were out every night. I started using heroin and by my third year in college ended up failing four out of five classes. I lost my scholarship and returned to Tirana."
He worked for his father, designing computer graphics and conjuring "spinning globes" on TV shows. Kuke had known film and television since he was a child. When he was 10, he auditioned and won the lead in a "communist family movie" but didn't take to acting. His favorite boyhood scent, he said, was not the spotlight but the "dust burning off the back of overworked tape decks and studio racks."
Kuke was 24 when war broke out in neighboring Kosovo, another in a string of unresolved territorial disputes from the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia. Journalists streamed into Tirana to pick up supplies, fixers and translators before heading north into the mountains. It was good money for the locals, especially multilinguists like Kuke. He hired on with two U.S. journalists, following tanks into villages, stepping past mass graves, watching tracers streak the night. The images have bothered him ever since.
"I've tried to block that out," he said. "But it's like a film in the back of my memory."
Upon his return from Kosovo, Kuke stayed busy with studio work. Despite his lack of training in anatomy and color theory, he was accepted as a part-time student at the Gnomon school. He received his visa on Sept. 10, 2001. "The next day my dad woke me up," he said. "He told me, 'You won't believe what's happened.'" Two weeks later, Kuke was on a plane to Los Angeles, where for a century foreign artists and filmmakers had been welcomed by Hollywood. He moved in with his friend in Valencia.
"Ergin was a scrawny guy who smoked like a chimney," said Yas Koyama, a fellow student at Gnomon who later started a special-effects company with Kuke. "He's artistic and has a great eye. He always had a knack for visual effects, color correction and finalizing shots."
School tuition and other expenses rose to $40,000. Gnomon couldn't grant Kuke an extended student visa because he wasn't enrolled full time, so even though he spoke perfect English, he signed up for a Korean-English language school to get one.
After graduation from Gnomon, he worked at Sony for two years, most of it spent on the special-effects team for "The Polar Express." He was hired by Rhythm & Hues Studios in 2005 and spent six months of 12-hour days to perfect special effects on five shots that amounted to about 15 seconds of screen time for "Superman Returns." Kuke grew restless. "I was a prisoner of the visa," he said. "Whoever I worked for held my visa. But I wanted to be out on my own."
Retracing the past was like pulling out a long ago map of blurred lines and indelible symbols. Kuke paused. His eyes wandered and came back. He had stopped using heroin before he left Albania, a promise to his father. But the drug stayed part of his life in unexpected, tragic ways, the kind of ways people find difficult to fit into the narrative of who they've become.
"The only option for a green card was a fake wedding," he said. "I met a girl online. We had been dating for about two months. She agreed to marry me so I could get a green card. We were wed in a strip mall in the city of Industry. We had fake flowers and lollipop rings. She was a photographer and ex-junkie. She was a tortured soul.... I went with her to police stations and rehabs. But I couldn't take it anymore. We divorced."
Kuke also lost his best friend, Ahmeti, the countryman he shared an apartment with. "He didn't make it in L.A. and he returned to Albania's gloom and doom," said Kuke. "He went back to the bad ways. He became self-destructive, and he died. He was a mad poet. He was epic. Something in him gave up."
Kuke pushed his hair back and looked ahead.
In 2006, he and Koyama started Angst Vfx, a visual-effects company. Angst was a play on words; shorthand for "angstrom," a unit to measure wavelengths, that also described the anxiousness around a venture founded in Kuke's bedroom with two computers and a few USB sticks. Their first big job was for McDonald's, followed by music videos.
The company moved to an office in Venice, but the recession hurt business and Angst folded in 2009. Kuke said he was free of obligations. He decided to take a trip across his adopted land. He and the woman he had fallen in love with, Allie Nelson, packed up a motorcycle and drove 16,000 miles in 41 days, traveling the four corners of the U.S., from the glacier region of Montana to the Florida Keys.
"What is America?" he said. "It's good people doing their thing. It's massive. You go from pockets of civilization to [he smiles] Texas."
The couple returned and Kuke signed on with Mind Over Eye, a multiplatform media company where surfboards and guitars hang on the walls and the staff works with drones and 3-D augmented reality and things that blip and buzz in a long building that has the blue-glow aura of the inside of a submarine. Kuke has lately been concentrating on "anthem films" — three- to four-minute clips for car companies that feature sleek men and women, shiny automobiles, cityscapes and mountain vistas.
He and Nelson married and live in the Miracle Mile. They have a daughter and another child on the way. He occasionally thinks of returning to Europe. "But it will always be there," he said, sitting in his office. "There's no rush." He looked toward his bookcase. Behind science fiction paperbacks stood a framed photograph of a cup of espresso next to a snifter of brandy. He smiled.
It reminded him of Tirana and of all the stories, songs and poetry that slipped across countless cafe tables and carried him and his friends — the frustrated, restless children of a new era — through long evenings as rain fell and plans were made for escape.