One of Lou Pecora’s most vivid movie memories was seeing a triple feature of movies at the Tower Theatre that included the special effects wizardry of Ray Harryhausen. Movies like “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger” featured bizarre creatures brought to life through the tedious process of stop-motion model animation.
“I sat there thinking how did they make that movie,” Pecora says.
Today, he not only knows how those movies were made, but he is responsible for creating his own movie magic. His work as the visual effects supervisor on “X-Men: Days of Future Past” for the production company Digital Domain has earned him an Oscar nomination in the best visual effects category.
“The 87th Academy Awards” airs 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 22, with Neil Patrick Harris as the host.
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The sequences that could earn the 1988 Bullard High School graduate an Oscar include the moving of an entire baseball stadium by Magneto and the feathery transformation sequences by the shape-shifting Mystique.
It took a team of 242 to complete the more than 450 special effects shots.
“I knew the stadium scene would be epic,” Pecora says. “As for Mystique, we were very adamant that the change should be rooted in reality. I looked at the scene like flipping through a deck of cards where one side is one color and the other side another. That gave the changes some degree of physical reality.”
Also nominated in the category are visual effects teams behind “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Interstellar.”
Pecora came to the “X-Men” project having worked on some of the biggest special effects movies of the past 15 years, including “Star Trek,” “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” “Iron Man 3” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.”
Unlike Harryhausen, who had to move his miniature creatures by hand and film them one frame at a time, Pecora creates his visual marvels in a computer. His love of computers goes back to a class he took while at Tenaya Middle School.
The interest he had in computers and video games faded when he reached high school, where he was more interested in social activities and working for his aunt and uncle at Luigi’s Italian Restaurant.
His studies at Fresno State couldn’t have been any further away from his current profession. He’d always been a big reader, so literature seemed a good area of study. Pecora wanted to go back to the start, so he focused on 19th century British literature.
“I think my parents were just glad I went to college,” Pecora says.
It was during his classes that Pecora found his career path. He had a teacher who included a variety of graphics in his handouts. Pecora was so impressed by the visuals that he started working in Photoshop to make his own designs, which led him to a career with a Fresno ad agency.
He began to do more and more visual effects for his advertising job and finally decided to go to Los Angeles for what he calls a career in “movie magic.”
“My parents were so supportive, although I think my dad was worried I would end up a bum and the subject of one of those tragic ‘E! Hollywood Stories,’ ” Pecora says.
That never happened. He’s worked his way up from being “a mole person who sits at a computer 20 hours a day” to being part of an Oscar-nominated team.
He’s worked on other projects that have been nominated for Oscars, but this is the first one where his work as supervisor will allow him to go on stage to help accept the Oscar if the film wins.
Pecora was asleep when the nominations were announced in January. His wife elbowed him when the phone started to ring.
“She found the phone first and started screaming. All I could think of was, “Great, now the kids are awake,’ ” Pecora says.
The magnitude of getting an Oscar nomination didn’t hit him until later in the day when he was at an exhibit for movie costumes through the years. He rounded a corner and came face-to-face with Darth Vader’s costume.
“I remembered seeing ‘Star Wars’ at the Festival Cinema on Blackstone,” Pecora says. “I started getting welled up looking at Vader. That’s when it hit me that I was one of the big boys.”
The second time it hit the 44-year-old Fresno native was when he attended the luncheon for all the Oscar nominees. He calls being in the room with the likes of Clint Eastwood and Robert De Niro a surreal experience.
Win or lose, Pecora’s going to take a some time off before taking on a new project. Not only did he work on “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” but he was involved with the special effects work on “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb.”
There’s a lot of pressure to keep making bigger and better visual effects. As Pecora sees it, the bar has never been higher for those in the special effects business.
“When I was a kid you waited years for the next ‘Star Wars’ movie. Now, there is this flood of 30 movies a year with the kind of big special effects that appeal to kids,” Pecora says. “There are so many films they blend together into a swarm hurled at viewers.”
He’s now waiting to see if his work on “X-Man” rises above the special effects masses to wins this year’s Oscar.