While growing up in the East Bay area of San Francisco in the 1980s, Clark Schaffer didn't idolize the usual boyhood icons like Van Halen or Larry Bird. He looked up to people like Phil Tippett, Ray Harryhausen and Grant McCune.
Who, you ask?
Schaffer's role models were some of Hollywood's top special-effects wizards, who dazzled him with their cinematic sleight-of-hand in movies such as the "Star Wars" trilogy and "Jason and the Argonauts." "It was just that magic of moviemaking that I really loved," he said.
Now, Schaffer, 42, runs his own special-effects studio in Salt Lake City, living the dream he embraced as a boy. His latest work will show up on the big screen today in summer's most anticipated movie, "Iron Man 2," as he built a version of one of Iron Man's suits.
A modelmaker who has worked on films such as "Batman and Robin," "Dante's Peak," "Daylight" and "Star Trek Generations," Schaffer has expanded his visual-effects repertoire to include digital effects, makeup, mechanical effects and stop-motion animation.
For "Iron Man 2," he designed and helped build the interior of Tony Stark's (Robert Downey Jr.) Mark II version of the famous metallic suit, complete with chrome steel-and-rod "guts." The silvery suit, originally seen in the first "Iron Man," is shown again in the new movie in an "autopsy" scene in which the government begins tearing it apart to see how it works.
"[The filmmakers] wanted it to look like what you see under the skin of a jet," said Schaffer, who, along with friend and modeler Randy Cooper, worked on the suit in Los Angeles for six weeks. "There's an aesthetic to it. I try to make it look as functional and practical as possible but also something that has beauty to it. That was my baby. I just had a blast doing these interiors because it's an original, and I can call it my own."
The two assembled the suit using plastic, fiberglass and metal bits. Schaffer also helped paint the "War Machine" powered suit worn by Don Cheadle's character.
"They liked what we did so much they expanded the scene and tried to use as much of it as possible," Cooper said. "[Director] Jon Favreau liked it a lot."
Schaffer, who lives in Spanish Fork with his wife and three children, proudly claims he's a geek at heart. A tour of his 2,500-square-foot west downtown Salt Lake City studio is like a walk through Wonderland for any genre-movie nerd. From the outside, the studio looks like an abandoned warehouse, and Schaffer doesn't announce the address to keep the fanboys out.
Stuffed away in boxes in the back of the building are odds and ends for a film he's working on, including a bust of Yoda, a model of an X-Wing fighter (made from an original mold) and a matte painting of a "Star Wars" hangar deck.
Covering every wall space are conceptual drawings of elves and other assorted creatures from current projects. Detailed miniature sets rest in various rooms, including one that's so large, you can stand in the middle of it. A few modelmakers in the shop were busy carving resin figures.
Inside Schaffer's cluttered office is more memorabilia, most notably autographed pictures from people he's worked for: Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Jim Henson and Frank Oz. There are also autographs from creative types he admires, including Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee and Adam West and Burt Ward of the original "Batman" fame. In addition, there's a photo of "Gilligan's Island" star Bob Denver. Schaffer explains he's friends with Denver's son.
He's such a fan of the visual-effects industry, Schaffer once tracked down the location of the top-secret building for George Lucas' special-effects firm, Industrial Light & Magic, in Marin County, Calif. He recalls walking up to the signless building he thought might be ILM's offices and peering into one of the partially covered windows.
"Right below the window, I could see the little bicycle model from 'E.T.,' " he said. "My knees buckled. I was walking on God's land. I was in Utopia."
Later in his 12-year Hollywood stint, Schaffer would work on a project for ILM, helping produce the effects for Sylvester Stallone's action movie "Daylight."
He moved to Utah in 2001 to raise his family. "I get to do what I love and live here with the mountains," he said. "And I'm only a 10-hour drive to Los Angeles."
Currently, Schaffer's making a super-sized model of a wristwatch for the upcoming movie "127 Hours," about hiker Aron Ralston's true-life experience trapped in a slot canyon in Canyonlands National Park.
He and his crew are also working on two locally produced science-fiction films -- one feature length, the other a short -- and are seeking financing for a new movie, "The Legend of Santa Claus," which will use a unique hybrid of computer animation and model miniatures for the backgrounds.
As the only full-featured visual-effects house in Salt Lake County, Schaffer has been the cinematic magician to go to for local productions, a part of his business he hopes will improve as Utah seeks to grow up into a mini-movie mecca.
"We have the talent and the experience in this state in all aspects of filmmaking," he said. "We have to be given the opportunity to show what we can do."