Hollywood Effects, Made In Pittsfield

Sandbox FX is located in Pittsfield, where founder John Nugent created mystical visual effects for films like "The Matrix" and "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King." (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Did you know the special effects company that conjured miniature castles, mist and creepy characters for films like “The Matrix” and “Lord of the Rings” is located here?

John Nugent is the founder of Sandbox FX, which specializes in 2D animation, rotoscoping, digital paintwork and green-screen shots. Nugent and his designers create fantastic environments — and horrifying creatures.

“Monsters, little water splashes, trolls, dust hits, little things like that. Sometimes it’s just a spark,” Nugent says on a recent morning in his quiet, dark studio space. “We specialize in blending all those components together and making them look real and making them look like they all belong there at one time, instead of maybe being 20 or 30 separate pieces.”

Nugent’s team fused a bunch of shots for the third “Lord of the Rings” film, “Return of the King,” in Pittsfield.

“A big sequence for us was the Rivendell sequence with Arwen and Eldron,” he says, then recalls — somewhat wistfully — the scene.

“Arwen is on her journey with the elves, and she has a vision that she has a son. And she decides to leave this pilgrimage and head back to Rivendell to talk to her father Eldron, and there’s a lot of compositing of miniature photography and castles and waterfalls and mountains and horses and characters in that particular sequence,” he says.

Nugent was on set in New Zealand for director Peter Jackson’s marathon film shoot. After it wrapped, the special effects artist made a bold decision. He would locate his company in Pittsfield.

“As I did the math on all the pros and cons, the Berkshires really are one of the best places in the world to live.”
– John Nugent, founder, Sandbox FX

But why did he choose the Berkshires over, say, Los Angeles?

“Well I’d much rather be here than LA, that’s for sure,” Nugent exclaims with a laugh. “The commute’s a lot quicker.”

Nugent grew up in Pittsfield, but his special effects work has taken him all over the world. He said he came back to his hometown because the numbers added up.

“I did start to realize that, as I did the math on all the pros and cons, that the Berkshires really are one of the best places in the world to live,” he says. “And I was thrilled to finally come to the conclusion that we could do this kind of digital effects work for films remotely. Finally the technology and the high speeds had gotten to that point where we can do this.

“So it was a leap of faith to try it but we’ve been here eight years, and so far, so good.”

Business is steady at Sandbox FX, he says. It costs far less to operate in Pittsfield than it would in New York, LA, San Francisco or Boston. The Massachusetts film tax incentive program helps drum up business, too.

That said, you might think big studio executives would be wary of working with a company that’s so far away from Hollywood, but Nugent says that isn’t the case.

“I think they’re happy to know that we are sort of lost in the woods out here, and there’s certain projects that they’re very particular about security and not wanting the rest of the world to know that there are some story lines that are just out there. And no one really knows were here, ” he adds with a laugh, “so that’s not much of a worry for them.”

Even so, Nugent admitted that since Pittsfield isn’t Hollywood it can make things difficult — especially when it comes to attracting talented, long-term staff, because the film business is unpredictable. Also, he says, there’s the plain fact that there are more opportunities for designers to jump from project to project on the West Coast.

“We can get them to come out for a show, but it’s very difficult to get them to stay without that kind of security of long-term employment,” he says.

Nugent remembers Pittsfield’s salad days in the ’70s and the city’s devastating crash in the ’80s. Today, he says he’s thrilled to see Pittsfield’s transformation — and he’s hopeful it will continue.

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