The staff at FlixFX has created models, specialized vehicles and other mechanical effects that have appeared in feature films, television series and, especially, commercials. The North Hollywood company even made a radio-controlled lawn mower for a Dorito’s spot, and shot 200 pounds of Frito’s out of a back of truck for a corn chip commercial. Car, beer, and credit card companies are among its past clients. In recent years, however, the firm has done fewer commercials, which at one time made up the bulk of FlixFX’s work, said founder and owner Marc Pollack. “The last four years we have noticed a real downturn in commercials,” Pollack, 59, said. What Pollack and other practical special effects artists have learned is that what was once produced by hand using milling machines and lathes can now be done more easily – and faster – on a computer. The digital revolution has upended the entertainment industry in many ways and that includes chipping away at the use of physical, non-computer generated (CGI) effects that for decades were common on movie and television sets. Think models and miniatures, specialized makeup that age or change an actor’s appearance and animatronics – mechanical models with lifelike movement. Staying competitive and relevant in the digital age means these businesses have had to diversify their customer base, stay on top of technology advances such as 3-D printing (see story page 7) and complement what is done digitally. “My job is to do the best I can and come up with something that looks good and people can see and react to,” said Barney Burman, a third-generation special effects artist and owner of B2FX in North Hollywood. Famous franchises But as much as this niche of the entertainment industry is suffering, its travails have largely gone unnoticed in the tide of stories about runaway production and the larger loss of industry jobs. One reason: there isn’t even an accurate count of the firms or their employment, so the losses are hard to document. “Not only does the sector get classified with non-entertainment jobs in the industry codes, but even more than for production, the local employers in visual effects have moved jobs outside the city or the state,” said Kevin Klowden, managing economist at the Milken Institute, a Santa Monica think tank, and one of three authors of a recent report on California’s entertainment industry. Practical effects lend themselves best to genre pictures – war, horror, science fiction, and fantasy. Effects firms with ties to the San Fernando Valley have contributed to some of the biggest and best-known of the genre film franchises. Industrial Light & Magic started in Van Nuys where model makers assembled the spacecraft and vehicles seen in the first “Star Wars” movie. Stan Winston Studio, also in Van Nuys, contributed to the “Alien” and “Terminator” movies before closing after Winston’s death in 2008. Other Valley firms did effects for “Iron Man,” “Spider-Man,” and “Back to the Future.” (See story page 8). Burman won an Oscar for the makeup he created for the “Star Trek” reboot in 2010. And he contributes special effects makeup and creatures to NBC fantasy series “Grimm,” now in its third season. The show nicely blends the practical and digital, he said. One example was for the episode “Volcanalis,” which featured a protagonist who glows and pulsates like red hot lava. “We figured out a way to make a light suit with glowing cord and wrapped up the actor and put a silicone creature suit on top of that,” said Burman, who noted the heat effect was added later by the visual effects team. Practical effects may be old school in a digital age, but they still have their advantages. One benefit is that they are right there on the set with the director, actors and crew, so scenes don’t have to be played out before green screens for CGI effects added layer – helping coax better performances out of actors. Yet, there are types of practical effects that have all but disappeared or are not nearly used as much as in the past. Large puppets, for one, have been replaced by CGI. Indeed, one modern-day classic that would not be filmed the same today as when it was first made is “Jurassic Park.” The 1993 first movie had full-size mechanical dinosaurs that were augmented with early computer graphics, said Don Shay, founder and publisher of Cinefex, a quarterly magazine covering the special effects industry. “Today you would not have a full dinosaur,” he said. “That kind of work is going to be rarer. It is big and un-gamely and more expensive to do than computer graphics.” New customers There is a future for practical effects but likely not from the entertainment industry. Diversifying the client base to include work outside of film, television and commercial production is a direction that more than a few effects houses are following. Take for example FlixFX. Pollack says he lost nearly 80 percent of the business he had been doing for commercials and needed to expand. “At this point the real survivors find things outside of entertainment,” Pollack said. “They are doing museum work, trade shows or themed entertainment.” For Pollack survival meant doing work for live performances. The company made the gold-colored vehicle that Miley Cyrus bumps and grinds on and around in her recent tour. FlixFX also did the Britney Spears masks sported by backup dancers in Cyrus’s stage show, and fabricated some props for an upcoming Korn tour. “With big productions come big props,” he said. Another area the company is getting into is retail and movie-theater lobby displays. FlixFX helped create the 6-foot tall Olaf the Snowman mechanical display that swayed back and forth while playing the ukulele to promote the Walt Disney Co. animated film “Frozen.” The diversification plan of McCune Design in Van Nuys involves fine art for well-heeled buyers. (See interview page 10.) For 16 years, the company has produced limited edition automaton music boxes for a single client but now is offering to make them for others as well. One new piece is the Renaissance Bar shaped like a globe with doors that open to reveal the liquor bottles inside, all while period music plays. The table leaves can accommodate up to eight seats and the brass supports weigh 400 pounds. McCune can make these creative art pieces because they already employee people with the skills to do so. “The engineers who work on the movies work on this, too,” said Monty Shook, project manager consultant.