When Thilo Kuther goes to bed in Los Angeles, he rests soundly knowing his associates halfway around the world are detonating explosions on his behalf. But unlike the handiwork of drone engineers or high-tech terrorists, Kuther's blasts are deployed for our entertainment: He makes things blow up in movies and on TV. And his secret weapon is the novel structure of his company, Pixomondo.
With the proliferation of movies, sequels, and prequels based on comic books and toys, the demand for sophisticated visual-effects work is greater than ever, and specialist houses have sprouted like weeds. Many have faltered. Large ones have a hard time staying afloat between big-ticket projects, while small operations don't have the resources to contribute more than a few scenes here and there.
Pixomondo has solved this problem, says Kuther, by thinking locally and acting globally. Kuther founded the company 12 years ago in Frankfurt. Most of the movie work is managed out of its office in Santa Monica, California, now its headquarters, where 190 employees toil in a kind of high-tech sweatshop. The lights are dim and high-powered fans blow in a nearly futile effort to counter the heat generated by the massive computers in the next room. But instead of relying on this single shop to do any project, Pixomondo has spread itself around the world, with 12 offices of various sizes in cities including Beijing, Munich, London, Toronto, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with Sao Paulo coming soon. Most of the time the satellites do small-scale local jobs. But when a major project comes along, they all work together like a parallel processor array, with dynamite as the medium instead of silicon.
The big gig that best exemplifies the Pixomondo system was its assignment to craft 800 shots for Martin Scorsese's 3-D film Hugo, including the one at right of a out-of-control train. Pixomondo divvied up the work among its satellites depending on their specialties. "I say, this shot is so much about blowing shit up that I'm going to give it to the office that blows shit up best: Berlin," says Ben Grossmann, Pixomondo's visual-effects supervisor. The Berlin office, in turn, called on other offices for support—say, Shanghai for building models and London for backgrounds.
David Crockett, Hugo's executive producer, liked that Pixomondo could save money by moving some of the work to Asia yet still do the job in its own shop—"and not," says Crockett, "some random visual-effects house in India that we have no connection to." On these large projects, each office keeps 60% of the work it originates and shares the rest with other satellites, preventing any office from growing beyond a sustainable level once a big job ends.
In 2011, Pixomondo's work on Hugo earned the company its first Oscar. Last year, it won its first VFX Emmy for Game of Thrones. Next up: a Die Hard sequel (A Good Day to Die Hard), a Tom Cruise actioner (Oblivion), and a summer blockbuster Pixomondo can't talk about, except to say that it has a lot of explosions.