A couple of weeks ago, moviegoers put "The Avengers" into the record books with a $207 million opening weekend, the biggest ever. Worldwide, the Marvel superhero blockbuster is well on its way to raking in a billion dollars.
For Chattanooga native Joel Gerlach and his family, staying to watch the credits for "The Avengers" on opening weekend was just as exciting as watching all the explosive action and whiz-bang special effects that unfurled in the movie itself.
Gerlach helped create some of those special effects, and his name is listed in the credits of a movie that is entertaining millions every day.
Two years ago, at age 20, Gerlach moved from the Tennessee Valley to Los Angeles, where he now does special-effects work for some of the industry's biggest films at the post-production company Luma Pictures.
It all began with a dream he had as a child.
"When he was little, he used to say 'Just watch, one day my name is going to be in the credits of a movie,'" his mother, Jeni Gerlach, said.
Gerlach's creativity was unrestrained as a boy, his family said. It started when he would construct things out of Legos that, he said, now litter his desk at Luma Pictures.
Interest in the digital-media field also came early for Gerlach, his family said. It was fueled by having lots of hands-on experience: helping his family edit wedding videos for clients, interning for a former Web production company at 12 years old and going to work with his father, David Gerlach, a news photographer and satellite truck operator. The tradition continued when the family moved to Chattanooga and David took a job at WTVC-TV.
"His fascination with all things technical was the attraction," David Gerlach said. "He was never interested in news, but he loved going in the satellite truck and seeing all the buttons."
Joel was home-schooled, and sometimes finished his studies as early as 10 a.m., he said.
That was when he developed a knack for a 3-D animation system called Blender, allowing him to play around and make small 3-D animation.
"It gave me an edge on what I knew going into school," he said.
At 16, Gerlach enrolled in Chattanooga State Community College's Middle College High School program, which allowed him to earn both his high school diploma and an associate's degree at 18. At 20, Gerlach graduated with his Bachelor's degree in digital media from East Tennessee State University.
"All throughout my schooling, all the visual-effects films I'd see kept spurring me on," Gerlach said. "I was enamored with the thought of being able to work with them."
While at Chattanooga State, Gerlach was a leader and good student, his former mass communications professor Will McDonald said. Gerlach's experience with Blender even allowed him to help teach occasionally, McDonald said.
"He was about the highest standards, and would go above and beyond the call," he said. "Joel exceeded expectations on every assignment, and that's a teacher's dream."
A foot in the door
After finishing school in December 2010, Gerlach spruced up a demo reel and submitted it to prospective employers.
"This industry is wrapped around demo reels," he said. "You could have a master's degree, but if your demo reel [is no good], it doesn't matter."
While at a New Year's celebration in California, Gerlach received a callback from Luma Pictures, a visual-effects post-production house in Santa Monica, Calif. Luma Pictures arranged an interview with him while he was in the area, then offered him a job.
From there, Gerlach only had a few days to get back to Tennessee and uproot his life and replant it in California.
Life of an artist
Gerlach's first assignment for Luma Pictures was doing rotoscoping for last year's superhero film "Thor." roto work is the process of manually altering the footage one frame at a time.
After main actor Chris Hemsworth's costume began to break from wear-and-tear, Gerlach used equipment to "paint" over it in post-production, giving the demigod's costume a sleeker appearance.
"Even though I was just a novice in the industry, I felt like I totally made it," Gerlach said. "It was magic."
Back in Chattanooga, Gerlach's group of friends and family -- a "fan club," Jeni Gerlach called it -- watched to the very end of "Thor" when it was in theaters.
"I saw the credits, and I cried," Jeni Gerlach said. "This has been a dream of his. He dreamed big, and it came to fruition."
In addition to "The Avengers" and "Thor," Gerlach has done roto work, painting and compositing CGI scenes on the upcoming "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" and "Prometheus," as well as recent fare "The Dictator," "Underworld: Awakening," "In Time," "Fright Night," "Captain America" and "X-Men: First Class."
"I was still working on 'X-Men: First Class' about a week before it was in theaters," Gerlach said. "Sometimes that's how close it runs to the edge."
Gerlach, now 22, is back in Los Angeles after a brief visit in Chattanooga for his best friend's wedding. It was a chance for him to see "The Avengers" with his family and point out some of the scenes he helped composite.
Gerlach said he's enjoying doing what he's always wanted to do and hopes to one day write and direct his own Hollywood-budgeted film.
"It's really the people that push through that end up doing amazing things," he said.