As computer-generated monsters and digital effects take over Hollywood, some may fear that old-school props and bloody gore are going out of fashion. But Austin-based Hawgfly Productions is defying the trend towards CGI and is carving a name for itself in the Austin film community.
Hawgfly Productions, founded in 2004 by former freelance make-up artists Meredith Johns and Carolyn O’Hara, is devoted to the art of practical effects. Their latex and silicone prosthetics and makeup have provided the pizzazz for Texas films without the help of computers. The studio has since grown to be the biggest practical effects shops in Texas.
O’Hara and Johns said they love designing the props that go into a movie because they lend a visceral quality to the film that no computer could match.
“Practical sells better, visually,” O’Hara said. “Your brain always knows the difference.”
Both artists love to create props that can exist in the same room as their actors and not just in front of a green screen. But Johns and O’Hara said they also recognize that there needs to be a partnership between practical and visual effects. Whether it’s defying the laws of physics or making blood look authentic, every medium has its limitations.
“There’s a weird dysfunctional marriage between the two, but we couldn’t do without them and they couldn’t do without us,” Johns said. “There are so many things that are impractical in either world.”
Johns and O’Hara said there’s a lot of white noise that comes with new technology, which is why practical effects are sometimes seen as obsolete. Behind the scenes, practical and digital effects have actually been spliced together to create a whole new beast. This blend of special effects enhances the audience’s experience and makes them question what is really on-screen.
“We work together to give you a full visual experience,” Johns said. “We’ll do a creature and put it on green screen and shoot it practically and then they’ll go back and add the VFX and put it back into the scene. So it became a hybrid now.”
Johns and O’Hara said teamwork is essential to completing a film and outside help is sometimes needed. Doug Field, owner of Bloody Field Special Efects, is a past collaborator with Hawgfly Productions who has created props for movies like “Machete” and “Machete Kills.” Though he‘s passionate about practical effects, Field said he also greatly appreciates visual effects.
“Growing up watching movies, I liked to see a monster — a real monster,” Field said. “I know that the way stuff gets shot, you can’t always get a full puppet. That’s why I think the integration of CG comes into making a puppet look really good with good CG is super valuable.”
Field said there was a period where practical effects were overshadowed by movies like Avatar and 300. But with films like Star Wars returning to form using real sets and props, filmmakers are beginning to experiment with the medium once more and create something real.
“It’s always fun to speculate, see the future, and see where VFX are going to go, but I think there’s always going to be some point where you have to have something to physically interact with,” Field said.
Despite practical effects being constantly overshadowed by digital wizardry, Johns and O’Hara hope to continue innovating their craft and complementing the visual effects of today.
“We’re just excited to see where the technology in our world and VFX goes and how we can enhance each other,” Johns said. “Everybody’s gotta grow together.”