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Future Builders

Trans FX: cutting-edge creative fabrication on the Oxnard Plain

By Mark Storer

Trans FX designed and built this electric vehicle with sliding doors for Spielberg’s film A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

This version of the Batmobile, with a V-8 racing engine and beautifully sculpted body, used an injected oxidizer to produce a flame that shot out like a rocket engine.

It’s always the small, nondescript places that house the most interesting things. At Burbank Airport, under everyone’s noses in the 1960s, Lockheed Skunk Works was busy building ultra-fast and highflying aircraft to help win the Cold War. In Cheshire, England, BAC built the Mono Car, a street legal single occupant speed demon sure to rattle your brains and bleed you of your common sense—and your bank account. But on Eastman Avenue in Oxnard, there’s a 25,000-square-foot building where they’re doing something totally different.

Nondescript is probably the best way to put it, for Allen Pike’s company, Trans FX, is really quite difficult to describe. They don’t do CGI and they don’t build mock-ups. They do build Hollywood dream vehicles and otherworldly spacecraft, and they even design buildings, or portions of them, not to mention the odd aircraft part. But TFX isn’t a group of nerds who’ve made good… well, okay, yes it is. But it’s more than that, too.

“I have a hard time describing what we do,” said Pike. “Our customers come to us with an idea that exists in a different way and we build the real thing.”

With a client list that includes Disney and Pixar, among many others, Pike and his core of artists and artisans produce items as diverse as life-sized representations of animated movie characters and even the Batmobile.

“I started as an automotive designer with GM,” said Pike. “But I was more interested in what happens after the sketch than doing the sketches. I went to work for GM right out of school at a really high level … I got a good opportunity to be a part of process that was rapidly changing.”

Pike worked in California in a design studio where he said he and his colleagues were able to experiment with technologies that were just emerging in the ‘80s, like computer aided design, which could accelerate the process of designing cars. GM was already falling behind and was looking for faster ways to get from the sketchpad to the test track.

“I learned a tremendous amount about what it takes to design something and build it. We were given complete freedom in those days. We were told to design a car, build it, and get it ready for the press and the public in something like an auto show,” Pike said.

In those days, GM was purchasing Silicon Graphics computers that were the size of a full desk. “Those things were processing data that your laptop can do now. And back then, if they got too hot they’d catch on fire.”

Times have changed. Pike said that while he has great appreciation for what GM has accomplished over the years, he fell victim to the sclerosis of the company’s upper management decisions in those days. GM wasn’t keeping them busy. “Some of the other guys and I started building cars for film after hours using some of the processes that we had learned from GM that no one else had access to,” Pike said. “We got hired to work on a TV series, a pilot called Fast Lane. The show never went anywhere, but a production designer from Warner Brothers noticed Pike and his team.

That recognition got Pike and his partners a job building a life-sized Batmobile for Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever. “We built a really great car for that film, and at that point we lost our jobs at GM, so we made a choice—that’s how we started TFX.”

Another Batman movie, Batman and Robin, came out of Pike’s first efforts. “It wasn’t a great movie,” he recalled, “but we got to build the car, and those are working, high-performance vehicles.”

TFX was born out of the crucible of building specialized projects, mostly for movies. “We now have about 25 employees and can scale up when we have to. The movie business is pretty nomadic, so technicians and craftsmen can move from job to job, but our core group is about that big.”

Gearheads, computer nerds, technicians, artists—Pike and his team have backgrounds that cover every young person’s dreams. They began using digital tools around the time such things were born: “We bought software in the early days that cost $116,000; a couple years later you could buy that software for 25 bucks. We were still making payments on it when it became mass marketed.” Pike said that the cost is the downside of being on the cutting edge, but the upside is that he and the TFX team get to use some pretty special equipment.

“These are really talented, technical, and creative people,” said Pike. “I love cars. But I also like architecture and art, and we get to do all of that here.”

TFX is relatively secretive about particulars of projects, even of personnel who do the work, but recent years have seen them go into aircraft material science and processes. “That has occupied a lot of our time and we like doing it” Pike explained. “Our clients send us sophisticated computer files of exactly what they want to build. The challenge is using their materials, like carbon fiber and exotic core, to build whatever they need.”

TFX also works with Volvo’s design group, which is based in Camarillo, to produce concepts that the company then takes back to Sweden to build into future cars. They had a hand in the Acura NSX used in The Avengers. They work with Toyota, Pod, Mini, and others. They’ve built machines and vehicles for a host of major films—and they work with the Department of Defense. Enough said.

And they do it all here in high tax, high unemployment, business-unfriendly California. But as Pike explains, “California is a global hub of creativity. This is where the theme park and animation industry started. It’s got huge, advanced aerospace thinking and it’s currently making its mark in terms of architecture.”

Pike recently spoke to a group of kids in Ventura who were considering college options. “What they hear a lot is that art school is for losers, that there’s no money to be made. I tell them I think that’s crazy. I grew up in the Midwest, and if I moved back there I could never do what I do here. There’s so much diversity and creativity here. This is the place to be.”

Making magic inside the 25,000-square-foot Trans FX shop in Oxnard.

Tow Mater, a character in the animated Pixar film Cars 2, was recreated as a full-size electric remote control vehicle to promote the film worldwide.

Founder Allen Pike with his wife, Annie, in the lobby of the Trans FX building.

01-01-14

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