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A Real Trooper

As president of Grant McCune Design, Katherine McCune runs a company with what is likely one of the most storied pedigrees in the entertainment industry. For one, the miniatures, models and specialty-props business was started in 1992 by McCune’s husband, Grant, the chief model maker for the first “Star Wars” movie. He then went on to do special effects for “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” “Spiderman” and “X2: X-Men United,” among other pictures. For another, the Van Nuys shop is located in a Valjean Avenue building that was the original home of Industrial Light & Magic, the groundbreaking effects firm founded by George Lucas that is now based in San Francisco. But Grant McCune’s death in 2010 and the advent of digitally created effects have put the company on a new path. “We are not saying goodbye to films, props, and models,” McCune said. “It’s just that we need another way to make money on a regular basis.” Those new ways include fabricating high-end exclusive art pieces such as music boxes and, most recently, a globe-shaped table called the Renaissance Bar that contains liquor bottles hidden inside moveable panels. McCune had been a dietitian and nutritionist with a private practice consulting people with diabetes, heart disease and eating orders when her husband passed away from pancreatic cancer. It was a tall task to keep the company going, but she managed to do it with the assistance of her son Cole, the vice president who heads up human resources. “It is a McCune family business,” she said. “We are doing things differently because we have to.” Question: What challenges did you face taking over the company when Grant died? Answer: It is hard to run a business you haven’t run before when you are grief stricken. It was on automatic for a while. Once I made the decision we were going to stay, we were able to have an income and get ready for the following year. It was a slow process, and it was difficult to deal with the unknown. So what did you do? I really had to hire professionals. Some of the ones I had, I needed new ones. I needed someone who was going to be focused on what we needed to do. I hired the best CPA, hired the best banker, best business attorney, best therapist. Was there ever any question of the business closing? There was. Let’s put it this way: I was undecided. I needed to know what would happen in the next year, and wanted to let people know we were still here. That is hard when they know the owner has passed away. I wasn’t making any promises. I had my family to support. I wasn’t going to go in debt. Things, then, worked out? Luckily, not only did we go for another year but by the second year I had us out of debt. In the third year we are on a roll. I’m thinking things are going to be moving for us. We have invested a lot of time and resources and thought on what our new ventures are going to be. How did you go about implementing changes? When I first came in everything stayed the same. We had a CEO and he was really great. But I had to make changes. He had a big salary and I could not afford it. We had to cut back, which we did. It wasn’t easy for me at all. Some of the people I had to let go were dear friends. I knew that to survive we had to be lean. What effects best exemplify the kind of work McCune Design does? We are experts at creating cinematic magic producing scale models to substitute for their full-sized counterparts, as exemplified by work in “Serenity” and “Spiderman 2,” which won an Oscar for best visual effects. How did McCune Design get into doing the exclusive art pieces? We stayed alive in this climate because of an innovative and resourceful way of finding other work to do, which is the creative art. It was 16 years ago when Grant brought (the music boxes) in. It was an aside because we would do two, three movies a year, and 10 commercials. How did it work out? It was great work, real different from what we had ever done. They (the music boxes) have become animatronic and very complex and loaded with everything. I decided that we had to start really investigating it. That is when we started looking at what we do best. You start with your core competences. This work is so detailed. It is a natural progression for us to do this. There is not much left for us in L.A. in movies and commercials. But you still do the film work? We still get asked to do bids. We will continue to do that. That is our roots. By and large, what we are seeing is the budgets are rock bottom. It can take some of my employees a combined 40 hours to do a bid and then the studio decides they are going to pull out that effect, they are going to use CGI or use something from someplace else. You have enough of those and then you realize it is not worth your time to do that. It is always the same story unfortunately. What industries other than entertainment does McCune want to serve? It would be creative, custom art connected with architects, people that want art that is something they can have in their homes. The Renaissance Bar, you could see it in one of Steve Wynn’s hotels in the lobby. We’ve also been told that is something a sheik with a super yacht would probably like. We have plans to put gems all the way around the outside. We can cover the wood existing now with gold leaf. It sounds tacky but it looks really good. We are looking at architecture, fine art, and also perhaps location-based entertainment. That is another natural segue for us. We are just at the beginning of it. We are doing our due diligence and research. What motivates you? I really like the challenge, I like the people. Part of being a president or owner is you have to know how to help people collaborate with one another. I had really little experience in this other than my counseling work. I am learning about it. I love being a business owner. I am glad I’ve had this opportunity. I can tell you Grant would not want me being in the business. Would he understand the decisions you’ve had to make? Oh, yeah. I wasn’t married to the film industry like he was because of his years there. I think there was the belief that it was going to come back. I didn’t have that allegiance to the industry. I needed to make sure the business was solvent. I think he would be very pleased about it. I don’t know if he would have done it. I am glad I was able to do it. How often does it come to mind that you are in a building where the modern day special effects industry was born? Often because I have memories of coming here when all of the guys started the “Star Wars” project and nobody knew what it would become. It was a lot of fun for everybody. Grant was one of those guys who liked to have fun. He liked to work and he worked hard and long. But if they had been working outside in the sun for hours, for instance, and everyone was wilting, he’d cut the crew and tell everybody ‘We’re going to the beach.” Have you ever considered doing anything to promote the legacy of the building? We should do something that shows that this is an historical building. We were talking about that. It would be this building and the one next to us; that technically speaking was the one that was used most often (during the IL&M days). And the parking lot was used a lot. Maybe we’ll start a theme park and have a gift shop and everything. What is your favorite special effect from the original three “Star Wars” movies? I love the land speeder. I love that effect. R2-D2; who doesn’t love R2-D2? We brought him home one night to fix him. I have a picture of R2-D2 going down an asphalt driveway in the middle of Van Nuys. What is your favorite non-“Star Wars” effect that Grant worked on? I think of “Caddyshack.” He did the gopher. There was a bit of Grant in that gopher. I really liked that and he enjoyed doing that a lot. The elevator fall from “Speed” was fabulous. There are a lot of them he could be proud of for sure. Katherine McCune Title: Owner, president Company: Grant McCune Design Inc., Van Nuys Born: San Diego, 1951 Education: B.S., nutrition and dietetics, M.S., educational psychology and certification as a sports dietitian, California State University, Northridge. Career Turning Point: Closing nutrition consulting practice after husband Grant McCune died in 2010 and beginning working at McCune Design. Most Influential People: Godparents, late husband Grant Personal: Widowed after being married 28 years; son Cole, and daughter Lilly Hobbies: Walking and hiking, spending time with family and friends, gardening and cooking. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and space reasons.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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