By Tom Huddleston Jr.
February 23, 2017 at 02:51 PM EST
Dale Robinette
  • Movie

This article originally appeared on

Few films in 2016 inspired gushing praise like La La Land. The musical romance that notched a record-tying 14 Academy Award nominations opens with one of the year’s most buzzworthy scenes: five minutes of nonstop singing and twirling on a gridlocked Los Angeles freeway.

But what received less attention were the visual effects that made the scene possible. Crafty Apes helped stitch together a succession of cuts — the camera occasionally whipping from dancers on car hoods to cyclists performing ­acrobatics — to make the sequence appear as if it were filmed in one brilliant take.

A typical visual effects shot lasts mere seconds, perhaps 120 frames. La La Land’s opening scene contained more than 8,000, requiring hundreds of computer renderings and terabytes of data. The company erased trucks and film equipment from shots while adding dancers and cars to make the scene look as though it stretched for miles. It even gave some of the dancers a wardrobe change in postproduction by switching the color of their pants.

“Without visual effects, it would be a way different shot,” says Tim LeDoux, cofounder of Crafty Apes, which handled La La Land’s visual effects alongside the in-house effects team at Lionsgate, the film’s distributor.

La La Land isn’t the only critical success displaying Crafty Apes’ digital wizardry. The company worked on 2014 Best Picture Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave, as well as other nominees, including this year’s Hidden Figures, the story of the African-American women mathematicians who worked at NASA in the 1960s. Crafty Apes was also one of several effects companies that played ­supporting roles in two of last year’s biggest Hollywood blockbusters, Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange.

Ben Grossmann, an Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor for 2011’s Hugo, tells Fortune that companies like Crafty Apes are often overshadowed during awards season by larger rivals working on the same big-budget films. Indeed, Doctor Strange was nominated for an ­Academy Award for its visual effects, although the film’s lead effects supervisors got the credit, not Crafty Apes. The film’s production budget was reportedly $165 million; in comparison, La La Land’s was just $30 million.

“The kind of work that they do requires a kind of obsession, almost, with being invisible and letting the story flow,” Grossmann says of Crafty Apes’ focus on smaller-budget films with limited digital effects.

To learn more about audio effects, watch this Fortune video:

Crafty Apes was founded in 2011 by brothers Tim and Chris LeDoux, both experienced visual effects supervisors, and Jason Sanford, the company’s executive producer. Unlike larger effects houses that focus on computer-generated imagery, or CGI, Crafty Apes is a boutique studio that specializes in “2D compositing,” through which it takes images from multiple sources (such as discrete camera shots) and combines them into a single scene. It employs roughly 30 people in Los Angeles and Atlanta. Since it opened, Sanford says, the company has added about five new employees each year and has doubled revenue annually.

Crafty Apes expects to continue its steady growth into 2017. That’s no small achievement in Hollywood, where dozens of traditional effects studios have failed in the past decade. Many of the industry’s biggest companies moved most of their operations from Los Angeles to places like Vancouver and London that offer substantial tax incentives.

Boutique special effects shops like Crafty Apes can benefit from ­continuing to have an L.A. presence, since they’re closer to Hollywood studios. But competition can still be cutthroat, driving down what film studios pay.

Crafty Apes has taken advantage of the growth in film production near Atlanta, the result of Georgia offering significant tax credits to local productions. Hidden Figures director Theodore Melfi says he hired Crafty Apes because it’s the rare effects house that boasts both “brilliant work” and a permanent office in Atlanta, near where Hidden Figures was filmed.

Chris LeDoux led a team in Atlanta working on Hidden Figures’ effects, which included simulating a space launch and space travel. To accomplish it, he incorporated actual footage of earth filmed from the International Space Station and space capsule diagrams from NASA to make the scenes look more authentic.

While Crafty Apes is missing from the Academy Awards’ red carpet this year, the company can still get a financial boost from its connections to Oscar-nominated films. Chris LeDoux says the added street cred that came from working on La La Land and Hidden Figures can help the company pick and choose its gigs, even if producers and filmmakers hadn’t previously heard of the company.

Says LeDoux: “Immediately, you’re associated with a certain type of quality and greatness.”

A version of this article appears in the March 1, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline “This Studio Has a Special Effect on Movies.”

La La Land

  • Movie
release date
  • 08/23/16
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