Barnstorm is a special effects company founded by Cory Jamieson and Lawson Deming who created Nazi America in Amazon’s Man in the High Castle, brought to life Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, and made time-travel possible in Outlander.
FX studios aren’t generally household names, but they should be. The upcoming Avengers: Endgame boasts 3000 effects shots. That’s a 20 percent increase over Infinity War. To complete these great feats of effects, many studios work on the same project. It’s insane coordination, and the industry doesn’t receive enough recognition for their work.
For Barnstorm, they’re a more boutique effects house which focuses on quality over quantity, even though there is plenty of quantity as they work for dozens of clients on an increasing number of projects as the streaming services continue to unleash new content.
PopAxiom spoke with Barnstorm Co-Founder Lawson Deming about his work making imagination a reality, the great debate of practical versus digital, and bringing the Third Reich to America.
Lawson’s love for filmmaking got off to a fast start “Very early on I realized that movies were a job that I could have. My grandfather was an actor, and my father worked in television, in the news mostly but also some narrative. So it was not weird to me that movies were something that people made.
Growing up with movies gave Lawson a vivid imagination but also made him a harsh critic of his own work “I always liked make-believe as a kid, but I always felt it was not good enough. That’s what movie-making is, a bunch of adults working really hard to make believable make-believe. That’s what I wanted to do.”
Growing up in the 80s meant technology was making it easier to be creative “I have videos of things that I made when I was 10 or 12 years old. I got into computers early on and made these animations using Mario Paint.”
Lawson points to a few names that inspired the future FX designer to make better make-believe “The person who had the most impact on me growing up was Stan Winston. Also, Denis Muren was a VFX supervisor on some groundbreaking stuff.”
Lawson elaborates on what inspired him growing up “One of the shows I grew up watching was Star Trek: The Next Generation … they were on the cusp of digital filmmaking. The FX supervisor was Dan Curry who is now the VFX Supervisor on The Gifted.”
From Oregon to Los Angeles
Lawson’s road to founding a premiere visual effects studio was a winding path “I self-taught myself computer graphics when I was young. I really wanted to get into visual effects. I’d watch behind-the-scenes and try to do things my own way. I used computers for visual effects from a very early age. That was around the time that computers were starting to supplement effects.”
Hollywood’s love for CG proliferated and “… in the late 90s there was a glut of CG heavy movies before CG was ready for that amount of work.”
In high school, Lawson was a bit jaded by the rise of CG and “… shifted my interest into photography. I started learning more about the filmmaking process. I got really into photography and stop-motion animation …”
Stop-motion was the key phrase from the paragraph above “I grew up near LAIKA [makers of Coraline and more] and was able to take classes with them and interned there.”
Whether it was FX, cinematography, stop-motion, or lighting, Lawson loved being part of the filmmaking process “I ended up going to film school at USC with the idea of focusing on cinematography. I shot some films during that time for friends.”
After school, Lawson “… worked on a lot of low-budget features. About that time, a friend of mine was opening a post-production company. He knew I had a background in visual effects. I found that there was much more demand for FX than there was for photography.”
Work as a freelance VFX designer “… just took off.”
The work kept coming for Lawson “… and then I met my now business partner Cory on Ugly Betty.”
Lawson and Cory started Barnstorm in 2011 and since then “The growth has been really meteoric.”
About Man in the High Castle
Fans of Man in the High Castle would likely be surprised by the amount of CG in the show. The simple answer for the prevalence of CG “It streamlines and reduces the cost. It increases the speed of almost every aspect of filmmaking. Everything has visual effects now.”
Of course, the Statue of Liberty giving the Nazi salute (see header image) is beautifully detailed CG work. But what are some of the pitfalls of digital “There are so many things that can throw it off. A lot of the work we do is compete against those things that can distract viewers.”
For Lawson, and many cinephiles the world over “The invisible stuff is very impressive.” And Man in the High Castle, while full of dazzling stuff that’s clearly the work of digital artists, it’s also chockfull of the invisible stuff and watching a behind-the-scenes is as captivating as the show itself.
Making Movie Magic
Barnstorm takes great care in creating its seamless and richly detailed FX, but Lawson elaborates on what can go wrong “Shooting something under the wrong lighting. You may have a plate or a background that’s shot with light coming from a different direction.
The coordination of any film or television project is key “There’s only so much we can do when things are not shot properly. But often people react to that mishmash of the layers. ”
Visual effects pose a common problem for those creating it, and that’s the viewpoint of the audience. While there is clearly some lousy FX out there, a lot of is excellent, much of it invisible, and some of it isn’t an effect at all “The client said, ‘That building looks fake,’ but the building is real. We didn’t do anything to it. It’s actually there.” And that’s the power of perception.
The upcoming Avengers movie from Disney features more than 3000 VFX shots throughout a three-hour run time. That’s a lot of work for digital artists to create, so the Mouse House often has a dozen studios around the world working on a film. Is there a breaking point where the work needed exceeds the capabilities of the talent at hand? “In a way, we’ve already reached that breaking point.” Lawson points to Exhibit A “… a handful of high profile FX studio bankruptcies.”
The FX maestro explains a bit more of the problem “Deadlines are constantly getting shorter and as fast as we can advance the technology we have to take time to retrain everyone on how to use it.”
Lawson explains what doing FX work is like in the age of non-stop content “Doing visual effects work is like being a painter and you’re painting on a canvass, but it gets faster and faster and now five painters are working on the same canvass. Every single shot is being worked on by more people and faster. It’s incredibly difficult.”
I know many don’t like to hear it, but the golden age of practical effects is long behind us “Often practical versions of effects are unfeasible. One of the reasons for the rise of digital effects, and it’s a blessing and a curse, is that it allows people to change their minds.”
We discuss a scene from James Cameron’s Aliens where a combination of a miniature and camera tricks makes it look like the Space Marines are walking into a large, otherworldly cavern “What you can’t do at all is that you can’t move the camera. That shot only works the way it was done. The advantage with digital is that you can shoot things a lot of ways and decide later how you want it.”
Of course, Lawson doesn’t want to make it sound that easy either “The best thing you can do with visual effects is to plan ahead. Don’t lean on the fact that you can change things. Things that are planned ahead always turn out better.”
Thanks to Lawson Deming and Impact24 PR for making this interview possible.