Engineering The Magic of Movies
The road to cinematic masterpiece often presents special effects challenges – and Elia Popov is always up for the impossible.
In the wide, open space of his warehouse-slash-shop in Santa Clarita, Elia Popov is pacing, head bowed and a cellphone pressed to his ear. It’s business as usual. He’s discussing details of a shoot that’s taking place tonight, and listening to him is akin to eavesdropping on someone speaking a foreign language (read: lots of jargon) sandwiched between some English words.
“Welcome,” he says as he hangs up. “This is my man cave.”
And a huge one at that. Its beginnings can be traced back to a small shack Elia ran since 1995 in Commerce. Now located in Santa Clarita, and soon expanding to Atlanta, JEM FX is a massive warehouse Elia’s owned for the past seven years. Here, Elia and his team work to design and fabricate all the special effects systems and custom props that go into making movie magic happen.
It starts the same way. Directors approach him with their vision, and Elia’s mind begins computing. He listens closely, watches the way they tell the story with their eyes. He tries to think on his feet, coming up with ways to meet their request with equipment he already owns. Sometimes, he pulls resources from other companies in the business. He’ll spend months whipping something up for a project. No matter how complicated it sounds, Elia always says: “Oh yeah, we’ll pull it off.” And one way or another, they do.
Elia walks past a gutted vehicle and giant machinery to the office nestled in the back of the shop. He pulls out a chair and sits, feet crossed and elevated on a desk. “My favorite thing to do is actually innovate,” he says, occasionally cupping his beard, a salt-and-pepper chin puff that grows just past the dip between his collarbones.
“We’ve innovated so much equipment and so many pieces of technology for our industry. When I’m given the opportunity to go with my think tank team to my engineers and develop something no one’s ever done … You know, that whole thing we always hear in production meetings is: ‘We want something that’s never been done before.’ That’s really what’s awesome.”
Take Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, for example. The high-speed bike chase scene in which Ethan Hunt drives down a highway in Morocco, zig-zagging past cars and trucks and then maneuvering hairpin turns up a mountain road? That was not a camera trick. In fact, it was one of the most elaborate and difficult gags JEM FX has ever tackled, one about a year in the making, but ultimately elevated the motorcycle stunt game in the film industry.
“We basically innovated a mechanical hydraulic piece of equipment that allows you to put talent on a bike, go up to 150 miles an hour and control the pitch and roll so they could shoot that,” he says, adding that while working on the movie, his team also innovated the camera arm. “If you’ve ever seen any big commercial, any big movie, they’ve got these Porsche Cayennes and these Mercedes driving around with this big electric arm on top with a camera on it. Well, we were the first ones to develop a successful way to telescope in and out while you’re moving, which sounds simple until you realize the dynamic loads of counterweight. Before you go out, your counterweight has to be a couple of feet back there because there is this whole algorithm to make sure you get the right match, otherwise the head will hit the ground.”
He’s also quick to share JEM FX’s collaboration with The Mill, a London-based VFX and creative content studio, on The Blackbird, a car rig with an adjustable chassis and a customizable electric motor. When CGI is added, The Blackbird can shapeshift into any car — which would come in handy if said vehicle hasn’t even been made yet, or is too costly to shoot on location or too rare to find. It took two and a half to three years to complete the project, but now, as Elia mentions, it revolutionized the way auto commercials are done.
“People always look at this place and look at everything, and they start understanding my whole world and what we built. They always say: ‘How did you do it?’ Well, it’s not me. Some of these guys have been with me my whole career,” he says. “This wasn’t created or maintained by anything close to a one-man operation. At the end of the day, there is one man responsible for all the tax forms, and the liabilities; however, it still takes an incredible team — from the office staff upstairs to even our accountants and our attorneys.”
In hearing him talk about his company and his team, what they do and how far they’ve come, it’s immediately obvious why Elia’s man cave also happens to be his place of business. With an average work day of about 12 hours, Elia and his team sometimes end up spending more time at work than at home. Case in point: Whenever Elia’s mind is brewing with ideas for a project, he’ll sometimes hunker down in the shop in the middle of the night. He has turned his upstairs office into somewhat of an entertainment room — furnished with a pool table, a couch and a big screen —and in doing so, his crew has a place to relax, or a “home away from home,” if you will.
“We have non-work work,” he points out as he walks back outside and glances around. “This place turns into a boys club on the weekends, with all the hot rods and stuff like that. We have a good time. That’s part of what we do here.”