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From Lincoln to 'Captain America' and back — visual effects artist Trent Claus makes movie magic

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In “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” Brad Pitt de-ages, changing from an old man to a young boy across the course of the film.

That's the work of Trent Claus.

In “Captain America: The First Avenger,” Steve Rogers transforms from a guy too skinny and weak to be inducted into the Army into a muscle-bound super-soldier.

That’s also a change created by the Lincoln visual effects artist, who has worked on more than 120 films and television productions, including 22 Marvel movies.

“Human effects. Making people look different, whether that be older, younger or thinner, or fatter, or taller, or shorter, or blue, that’s our niche in the market,” Claus said. “'I’ve become very closely associated with aging and de-aging in my career. I've probably done more of it than just about anybody on the planet.”

Claus, who recently moved back to Lincoln to open a satellite office of his company Lola VFX, got into the visual effects business after graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a studio art degree.

“I just really wanted to use my art degree in some way,” Claus said. “So I applied for positions with Disney and for toy companies and for trading card companies and some graphic design gigs and you know, just all over the country for various jobs. I hit up my friend who already worked in VFX and said, 'Hey, if anything else opens up, let me know.' And not too long thereafter, a matte painting position was going to be available. So I applied for that. And that's the one that I eventually got.”

Matte painting is literally, Claus said, painting on glass or computer an environment, scene or element in a scene that can't be assembled on a movie set, or for budget reasons, won't be assembled on site. “So it's creating a painting to fool the audience into thinking that that painting was there,” he said.

Embracing that role, Claus started to work his way up in the VFX world to become a compositor.

The last artist who touches the footage before it goes to the audience, the compositor takes all the elements in a film – matte paintings, live-action footage, blue screen footage and computer-generated effects, like spaceships and dinosaurs – and puts them together in a way that “makes it look like they were always from the same place and time.”

He made that jump by self-educating on Autodesk Flame, then the state-of-the-art composition software.

That was 15 years ago, a time when the software cost about $500,000, which made it impossible for most people to afford.

"It wasn't something that you could get at home and teach yourself on," Claus said. "So I would stick around after hours and when everybody had gone home, I trained myself on that.”

The composition software is no longer so pricy. And the technological changes have made it possible for VFX work to be done from almost anywhere as long as the work can be secured and produced on time.

That enabled Claus — who grew up in Lincoln, went to Southeast High and Southeast Community College before enrolling at UNL — his wife Jaime, who he met when both worked at the Journal Star, and their twin sons to move back to Lincoln, where he’s opened a Lola satellite office.

“We’re doing that with the hopes of doing everything we've done for the last 15 years, but from here in the Midwest,” he said, adding that the company plans to recruit students from UNL’s film, art and media arts schools to get their starts in the business without leaving the city.

Claus is now a visual effects supervisor, overseeing all the artists on a project, like “Black Widow,” the 2021 Marvel movie starring Scarlett Johansson, providing on-set input to directors about how effects will work in scenes and making sure that all the production elements come together on time.

That can be a good trick.

“We have to hit the all-important release date, the studio never wants to move the release date,” he said. “So however much production runs over and post-production gets shrunk, we still have to finish on time. It can really affect our home life for a couple of months.”

Claus still does some composition and matte painting. That allows him to do the aging-and-de-aging work for which he has won awards and let him fulfill a lifelong dream born in a Lincoln movie theater decades ago.

“On the ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’ that's out right now (on Disney+), I got to do a lightsaber fight, a big battle between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin. Talk about childhood wish fulfillment. I was a ‘Star Wars' kid. Getting to play with lightsabers and Obi-Wan Kenobi, that's really exciting.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7244 or kwolgamott@journalstar.com. On Twitter @KentWolgamott  

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Entertainment reporter/columnist

L. Kent Wolgamott, the recipient of the 2018 Mayor’s Arts Award, has written about arts and entertainment for Lincoln newspapers since 1985, reviewing thousands of movies and concerts and hundreds of art exhibitions.

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