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Pair find monstrous direction in life

The Strause brothers started creating visual effects in grade school. In 'Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem,' they show off what they've learned.

December 31, 2007|Ron Magid | Special to The Times

Call it the return of the monster mash-up. The iconic extraterrestrials of Ridley Scott's horror masterpiece "Alien" and John McTiernan's science-fiction thriller "Predator" have returned for a cinematic sequel. The phallic-looking killing machine and the dreadlocked hunter of the galaxy's most dangerous game first dueled in comics, novels and video games before sparring in 2004's "Alien vs. Predator." Now in "Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem," they again fall to Earth and duke it out with plenty of human collateral damage.

At the reins of this sci-fi nightmare are first-time feature directors Colin Strause, 31, and his brother, Greg Strause, 32, who made their bones directing music videos and commercials, and creating visual effects through their boutique company, Hydraulx. The "Brothers Strause" (as they bill themselves) are not the first FX mavens to cross over into directing features: James Cameron started that way as did Steven Norrington ("Blade"). What sets the brothers apart, however, is their energy, youth and their willingness to take on the effects duties while directing their debut film.

The Strauses -- wearing identical-looking cargo pants in the cavernous concrete-and-metal Santa Monica facility that they call "The Office" -- described the presentation that landed them the "Requiem" gig, while computer servers hummed behind glassed-in rooms, cogitating digital data into cutting-edge imagery seen in the films they've worked on -- "Fantastic Four," "300" and now "AVP:R."

Colin, the more effusive of the two, said they convinced executives at 20th Century Fox to hire them with 40 pages of notes, location references and concept art work as well as a back-to-basics approach that would return the franchise to its R-rated horror origins and remind audiences just how scary these monsters can be. As 2004's "Alien vs. Predator" was rated PG-13, many fans felt it pulled its punch. "It was real important for us to set this movie apart from the last one," said Greg.

But to ensure that the only clashes on set were between guys in the rubber suits, they had to develop a unified dynamic for directing. "We hashed everything out ahead of time," said Greg. But "often Colin would do a take and then I'd have a different idea, so I'd shoot my variation."

It's very much a process honed over a lifetime of joint collaborations that began in the early '80s in Chicago, where their father worked at IBM. "We always had a computer," said Colin, who augmented his sixth-grade book reports with color graphics created on his PC.

When their dad bought them a Super-8 camera at a garage sale, the brothers, then ages 10 and 11, started making movies -- effects movies.

"He showed us how to do stop-frame animation," Greg said. Soon their G.I. Joes were fighting one another. Meanwhile, Colin was getting heavily into gore makeup. "We tried to freak our mom out by making her think a bloody latex wound I made was real," he said. "After that, she said we should do stuff on the computer instead."

By the time they hit high school, Colin was already a sketch artist and Greg was excelling at painting and photography. And always, they dabbled on the computer, experimenting with new visual language composed of equal parts pixels and digital pixie dust. Their peers thought the brothers were neither nerdy or cool but "a bit of both," Greg said. "We were definitely labeled geeks for knowing so much about effects."

Seeing films such as Cameron's "Terminator 2" and Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park" fueled the brothers' ambitions. In 1994, they decided to make a career out of their passion, committing to creating visual effects full time in Chicago, spending their college tuition on the same computer hardware and software used by the world's biggest effects house, Industrial Light & Magic. "When I look back now, it's kind of shocking," Colin said. "Most parents would be like, 'What? Not going to college?' "

Their parents remained supportive, canceling family vacations to help buy expensive video equipment. "We started cold-calling video production companies and doing product demonstration animation and flying logos," Greg said. "Our names started getting around."

They began building a demo reel with commercials as well as spec work re-creating favorite scenes from then-current movies such as "The Mask," animating computer-generated eyeballs popping out of heads.

In 1995, Greg moved to Los Angeles, but Colin remained in Chicago. They landed jobs creating special effects for John Landis' "The Stupids," "The X Files" TV show and "The Nutty Professor," sending digital files back and forth to each other. Colin finally came west, and by the time they tackled effects for "Volcano" and "The X Files" film, the brothers had found an investor to bankroll their first FX studio, Pixel Envy, which they set up in a Pacific Palisades apartment. "Our employees started moving into the building. We had five or six apartments," Greg said.

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