Hidden effects: Northeastern graduate Ashley Knehans makes movie magic
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Hidden effects: Northeastern graduate Ashley Knehans makes movie magic

Sep 02, 2023

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The 2021 alum powered the middle seats on the university’s Division I rowing team. Like her efforts on the water, the visual effects Knehans designs for major movies are subtle, but they’re vital.

Ashley Knehans, a 2021 Northeastern University graduate, works as a visual effects and computer graphics artist for Zero VFX, a Boston-based company that has worked on a slew of major motion pictures and national TV commercials including “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” “Gran Turismo,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Patriots Day”. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

As any Whitney Houston biopic should, 2022’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” contains a pivotal scene of the late singer’s rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the 1991 Super Bowl. Recreations of key details of that legendary performance — Houston’s white tracksuit and headband; fighter jets streaming red, white and blue contrails buzzing overhead; soldiers crowded around a tiny TV in their barracks — are interspersed with wide crowd shots inside the stadium. On the field, military personnel stand at attention and hold flags; in the stands, fans erupt with emotional cheers.

Or they would, if they were real people.

Many of those “fans,” in fact, are the CGI handiwork of Ashley Knehans. The 2021 Northeastern University graduate works as a visual effects and computer graphics artist for Zero VFX, a Boston-based company that has worked on a slew of major motion pictures and national TV commercials.

The simulated crowd scenes in “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” are among the most intricate Knehans, 24, has worked on so far. CGI crowds are often rendered as faceless masses, but as source material for this one, Zero VFX had access to 3D scans of thousands of extras dressed up in a variety of early-90s-era outfits, for which the visual artists animate simulations of bodies and their movements.

“It was a lot of picking through and figuring out whose faces and outfits worked in which situation,” Knehans says.

Zero VFX’s other credits include Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” (2019), the 2016 “Ghostbusters” remake, “Patriot’s Day” (2016) and the 2020 film adaptation of the classic August Wilson play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” as well as several TV commercials. Most recently, Knehans and Zero VFX contributed visual effects on “Gran Turismo,” released in theaters nationwide on Aug. 25.

Most of what Knehans does at Zero VFX is invisible to the casual filmgoer, yet structurally vital — filling in crowd scenes, adjusting lighting and adding basic textures and set pieces to make the raw footage of a film into a cohesive aesthetic.

“Let’s say a director was filming us having this conversation [on Zoom], and they didn’t like that picture behind you,” Knehans explains. “We could remove that and put in a new picture, or re-create the whole thing in a different place, like one of the Northeastern classrooms. That’s not necessarily the crazy CGI with the green screen, and you’re suddenly on a mountain. It’s more the simple stuff of, oh, somebody’s house didn’t actually look like that.”

For “Gran Turismo,” a racing movie, Zero VFX was tasked with making a track in Hungary where the race sequences were filmed look like a famous Formula One track in Le Mans, France. In Hungary, “the track had a lot of buildings and weird stuff around it,” she says. “We had to hide all of that and put in trees to make it seem like it was actually in France.”

Knehans didn’t know a career in visual effects was possible until well into college. Growing up near St. Louis, “I always liked watching those ‘Behind the Scenes’ movie features, where they would show the people jumping around with foam balls attached to them on a green screen,” she says. “I didn’t know you could do that as a job.” She loves when movies mix practical and computer effects together, often seen in movie monsters like the amphibian man in “The Shape of Water.” “I also really love watching explosions,” she laughs.

A glittering high school rowing career landed her an athletic scholarship at Northeastern, where she initially majored in design. As part of the course requirements, she took an animation basics class taught by David Pietricola. As a student, “Ashley was absolutely unfazed,” Pietricola says. “No challenge seemed to make her panic.”

She fell in love and switched her major to media arts with an animation concentration. “Northeastern’s program focuses a ton on 3D animation and working in programs like Maya,” she says. “That was super vital. If I didn’t know how to do that, I couldn’t work at Zero.”

She interned and eventually did her co-op with Zero VFX, where Pietricola was in charge of the program. The two are now co-workers.

In addition to keeping up with the fast pace and big projects that come with being an animation student, Knehans was getting up at 4:30 most mornings to get out on the water. On Northeastern’s Division I women’s rowing team, she typically occupied the middle seats on the full nine-seater boats. “The middle, it’s the powerhouse,” she says. “That’s where you have the people who are going to go as hard as the team needs to go.”

In 2019, she was named to the Collegiate Rowing Coaches Association (CRCA) “scholar athlete” list, which recognizes rowers who maintain at least a 3.5 GPA and compete in at least 75% of their university team’s races. Northeastern’s women’s rowing head coach Joe Wilhelm has praised her positive attitude and work ethic, calling her a “great teammate, making those around her better.”

After college, she went from doing unseen yet crucial work as a middle seat rower to doing it for the movies. Many people in animation “seem to only be concerned about having their name in lights, or for some kind of glory,” Pietricola says. But Knehans’ calm, unshowy productivity as a rower has transferred well to her professional life. “I certainly could use a fraction of what Ashley brings to the table,” Pietricola says.

As a general computer graphics artist at Zero VFX, Knehans is a utility team player. “I do a variety of things,” she says. “Rigging, which is like putting bones into a [computer-animated] character so they can move around; putting basic textures onto objects; or lighting.”

She also does 3D tracking: recreating live footage into a 3D space, so that artists can know exactly where to put CGI objects so they fit seamlessly into the original footage, and “no one can tell what’s real and what’s not.” In “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” for example, she created set pieces that could be moved around in the edited film. “I would build a 3D barrel that matched a barrel that they had had on set, and then texture it to look exactly like how a barrel would look in real life,” she explains.

Those technological tweaks are becoming more accessible to lower-budget movies as the technology improves, she says. Most of the films Zero VFX works on aren’t what most people would think of as reliant on CGI. Until recently, if smaller films used any CGI at all, “you knew that was CGI and they didn’t put in a ton of money towards them,” Knehans says. But now more lower budget movies will be able to have more higher-end effects, without having to pay as much as the Marvel Studios do.”

Her long-term career goal is to be a visual effects supervisor at a studio, “chatting with the clients and artists and directors, making sure that everything is going well and having a little bit more creative input into what’s going on.”

And she wants to work on more movies with big audiences and iconic scenes where she can easily point out her contributions. Maybe even an explosion or two.

Schuyler Velasco is a Northeastern Global News Magazine senior writer. Email her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @Schuyler_V.