It’s an ironic contrast—that some of the splashiest and most memorable elements in a film are created by artists who operate completely invisible to the viewer. It’s not as if Robert Downey jr. invented his photon blasts mid-scene while filming Iron Man, and Baby Yoda probably had at least a little digital help with doing his own hair and makeup.
One of these unsung behind-the-scenes wizards conjuring digital sorcery is CJ Cole, a VFX Producer with the team at Crafty Apes in Baton Rouge. Crafty Apes is a mad laboratory A-List of VFX artists creating high-end CG, film previsualization, and offering VFX consultation and set supervision. They’ve grown to seven studios in two countries and have recently worked on powerhouse productions ranging from Marvel Studio’s Spiderman: No Way Home to HBO’s Peacemaker. While he might not look like a stereotypical wild-eyed scientist with frizzed-out hair and a steaming beaker, CJ Cole helps lead a team creating some of the most visually striking effects chemistry in film today.
CJ grew up in Kentucky and earned a degree in Psychology at the University of Kentucky. Driven by his love of film, he translated that passion into earning a second degree in Film and Media Studies at the University of Kansas. Naturally, he gravitated to the movie mecca of Los Angeles, and he quickly worked his way up from Production Assistant to VFX Producer for features, episodics, and commercials. He was a VFX Coordinator for three years, working on films like San Andreas and Hardcore Henry. He went on to spend six years with the Hydraulx visual effects house, where he worked on projects like The Conjuring 2, Baywatch, and producing VFX for nine episodes of Stranger Things: Season 2.
Of all the movies he’s helped visually develop, he has one favorite:
“My favorite project that I have worked on was Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special. I am a fan of his films and it was a very positive experience working with him and his team during the visual effects phase. I appreciate his vision and having a film such as Midnight Special as part of my resume.”
In the fall of 2020, as the pandemic surged, CJ found himself diving in boldly to another major life transition: moving back across the country to work as a VFX Producer for Crafty Apes in Baton Rouge. The casual movie fan might instantly think of Hollywood or New York, but CJ spoke about the underrated perception of Baton Rouge as a major industry film hub:
“I didn’t even know there was VFX work being done here. I’ve worked on a lot of shows from Los Angeles that were being shot in Louisiana, but there didn’t seem to be a stronghold of VFX work happening in the state. Crafty Apes has changed that and there’s definitely a recognizable, and growing, presence here now. So much work is happening in the state, and at Celtic (Celtic Media Centre) in Baton Rouge that it just makes sense to increase the visual effects presence.”
CJ Cole has melded in seamlessly with the Crafty Apes team and recently completed working on ten episodes of the Starz series Hightown and the upcoming horror film Oracle starring Heather Graham. He is an individual example of the collectively vibrant Louisiana film scene that continues to grow.
The next time you find yourself casually binging Netflix and are sitting there thinking, “Wow, that Mind Flayer monster in Stranger Things is nightmare fuel”, it’s fair to think that somewhere deep within a digital lab in Baton Rouge, there’s a man behind the monster.