The movie "Soul Surfer," which opens Friday, tells the true story of Hawaiian teen surfing star Bethany Hamilton, who lost her arm in a shark attack and overcame huge odds to get back on her surfboard and compete professionally.
Hamilton's inspirational tale provided filmmakers a dramatic focal point for their $18-million movie, which was in large part made possible through the visual wizardry of a small Los Angeles effects company that has also managed to beat the odds amid a tough economy.
The firm, Engine Room, faced the recent challenge of having to convince audiences that actress AnnaSophia Robb, who plays Hamilton, was an amputee.
"The visual effects is what made the film," said the movie's director, Sean McNamara.
With just 10 employees and nearly 30 outside artists, the company did the lion's share of the 750 visual effects shots in the film for less than $1 million.
The work is noteworthy because it comes at a time when many small to medium-size California effects houses have been losing bids to foreign rivals that can do jobs for less because of generous tax credits available in such countries as Canada and Britain, or that can tap low-cost labor in India, China and Singapore.
Half a dozen visual effects companies have shut their doors in the last three years, including three in Los Angeles County, where the postproduction and effects sectors have lost hundreds of jobs in the last decade.
"The trick is to find your work, support your clients and deliver," said Dan Schmit, who founded Engine Room a decade ago. He said the company generates $3 million to $4 million a year in revenue and is profitable.
Part of the key to survival, he said, is keeping overhead costs down. The company, which at one point had 40 employees, relies mainly on freelance digital artists who are paid a flat rate, rather than by the hour. "It's a very labor-intensive business, and it's easy to underestimate the costs of labor," he said. "It's what sinks companies."
Engine Room also recruits globally through an online registry it launched in 2009 that allows digital artists to post samples of their work. For "Soul Surfer" the company enlisted artists from such countries as China, New Zealand and Macedonia, although the bulk of the work was done by freelancers working out of their homes in California, Schmit said.
Being diversified also helps. Engine Room doesn't specialize in one area of visual effects but works across many areas — commercials, feature films and television shows such as the former Disney Channel series "Even Stevens" and "That's So Raven."
In fact, it was through Schmit's work on Disney Channel programs that he developed a relationship with "Soul Surfer" director McNamara.
McNamara shot the movie, which is being released by Sony Pictures' TriStar label, on location mainly in Hawaii, on the islands of Oahu and Kauai. Some surfing scenes were shot in Tahiti because the waves weren't big enough during filming in February and March of last year.
To create the illusion of Robb's missing arm, Schmit relied on a combination of digital and old-fashioned physical effects, borrowing techniques used in the film "Forrest Gump" that allowed Gary Sinise to play the legless Lt. Dan Taylor.
He enlisted the help of makeup artist Mark Garbarino to re-create a stump of Hamilton's arm. They used video and photographs from the Hamilton family, and even consulted with Hamilton's surgeon, to create various sculptures of her torso and molds for the stump and its various stages and positions, from surfing to standing. Each day before filming, Robb had to spend an hour having a new stump, made out of silicon, grafted onto her shoulder, and the actress often had to work with her arm tucked behind her back.
During filming, Robb also wore a green sleeve or had her arm painted green, a technique that makes it easier for digital artists to later "remove" her arm when scenes are composited on a computer screen. Once the green arm is removed, however, it leaves behind an empty space. So McNamara had to shoot additional shots of Robb's torso and of background scenes without her in it to fill in the empty spaces.
There was another complication. Most of the surfing scenes — captured with cameras mounted on jet skis and surfboards — were performed by Hamilton herself, who acted as her own stunt double. "She said there is 'no one better able to play a one-armed surfer than me,' " McNamara said.
That introduced another technical challenge for Schmit and his visual effects producer, Michael Caplan. Their task was to carefully meld Robb's head onto Hamilton's body, all the more tricky given that Robb is about 9 inches shorter than the 5-foot-11 Hamilton. That was achieved through a combination of digital effects and camera tricks.
As far as McNamara is concerned, the digital magic worked seamlessly.
"They brought the magnificence of this movie to life," McNamara said. "And I hope nobody notices what they did."