U.Va. Drama Grad Shares Passion for the Magic of Special Effects

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Lauren Melody Shell, who will receive a Master of Fine Arts degree in drama from the University of Virginia on May 18, has loved theatrical production since she played the pivotal role of “Sheep No. 1” in a Christmas nativity scene at her church as a young child.

While an undergraduate student majoring in theater at Anderson University in South Carolina, Shell worked in all aspects of theatrical production as an actor, stage manager, lighting designer, programmer and carpenter.

“I decided that I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed into just one area of theater, and genuinely enjoyed every aspect of each theatrical job I would perform,” she said.

Actor Vs. Techie

In 2009, Shell received her first Master of Fine Arts degree from Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, in partnership with the American Shakespeare Center, with a focus on Shakespeare and Renaissance literature in acting and performance. She performed in major roles in numerous Shakespeare plays at the Blackfriars Playhouse (examples of her work can be found here).

But she never forgot her love of all things technical. After spending time teaching in China, Shell returned to graduate school at U.Va. three years ago to study the technical side of theater in more detail.

“Over the years, I’ve found that most people are either actors or techies,” Shell said. “There are very few people who are comfortable moving from onstage to behind the scenes. Each group of people has their own language and ways of interacting with each other. So it’s been my goal to gain a well-rounded education and advance my skills in all areas related to theatrical production.”

When Giant Moving Creatures Invaded U.Va.

Shell participated extensively in last year’s two-semester interdisciplinary course “Art of the Creature I and II,” which culminated in the April 2013 U.Va. Stan Winston Arts Festival of the Moving Creature. It proved to be a pivotal career-building experience.

Unlocked and freed from the minds of U.Va. studio art, drama and architecture students, giant moving creatures – researched, designed and built by students – took over the Grounds for an afternoon as part of a spring event that celebrated the interdisciplinary course. (Photos of the results can be found here.)

Matt Winston, co-founder of the Stan Winston School of Character Arts and son of famed Hollywood monster-maker Stan Winston, came to U.Va. and brought guest artists who built special effects for movies such as “Jurassic Park” and “Iron Man.” Working alongside Hollywood veterans gave Shell a tantalizing inside look into what it means to make movie magic.

“I learned an amazing new set of skills and also gained a career path,” she said. “I met professional artists, and they encouraged me to pursue my love of visual effects.”

Thanks to her experience with the moving creatures, Shell landed an internship to go to Los Angeles for six weeks in the fall and work alongside professionals. She volunteered on numerous film projects and was even hired by New Deal Studios to work for a week as a model maker, shaping and casting pieces for miniature visual effects.

While in California, she also worked for Knightsbridge Theatre Films as a visual effects intern, as well as with Ted Haines, a fellow creator in the Stan Winston School who had come to U.Va. during the creature class. Shell worked on three films while in L.A. (her effects work can be found here).

“I learned how visual effects make up the majority of movies today and how visual effect shops run and operate on a small scale, such as for low-budget horror flicks, to large scale multi-million-dollar blockbusters,” she said.

Puppetry and the Circus

This semester, Shell practiced her new skills to create puppets of various sizes for the production of “The Forgetting River,” a play devised by a drama department ensemble that was performed in the Helms Theatre in early April.

The play retold the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice from Eurydice’s point of view, focusing on women’s issues. As the production’s puppet designer and fabricator, Shell created a dwarf boatman (Charon on the River Styx), a giant three-headed dog (Cerberus, the guard dog at the Gates of Hell) and the 11-foot-long snake that kills Eurydice. (View her work, which recently received a Certificate of Merit in puppet design from the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, here.)

During the 2013 Thanksgiving break, Shell and fellow MFA “techies” – accompanied by technical director Steve Warner and LaVahn Hoh, a drama professor and a noted American circus historian – traveled to Las Vegas to visit Cirque du Soleil.

Granted behind-the-scenes access, Shell met rigging specialists, properties masters, costumers, performers and other professionals, helping her to build relationships with the staff at Cirque du Soleil, the largest theatrical producer in the world.

Technical Direction as a Career

Over the course of her three years, Shell has worked for the drama department in a variety of paid assistantships. She has served as master carpenter, assistant technical director, technical director and properties master during set-building for all the department’s shows.

Most recently the shop foreman, she helped maintain the drama shop’s machinery and kept the place organized. She communicated with technical directors for each show to maintain a constant build schedule and assigned tasks to student workers.

One of the most practical work skills she gained while at U.Va., she said, was learning the art of metal inert gas welding, taught to her by Warner and a fellow grad student, Mark Gartzman. Her welding skills helped to secure her a position for summer work at Peninsula Players in Fish Creek, Wisconsin, as their master carpenter.

Shell has also honed her creative skills at Signature Science – an Austin, Texas-based consulting firm with a location in Charlottesville that focuses on government programs pertaining to national and homeland security – by applying specialized theater makeup to soldier-actors so that doctors can have practice diagnosing trauma in the field.

“Over the past three years, during Lauren’s time in our graduate technical theater program, I have seen many examples of her talent and growth,” Hoh said. “She would always tackle problems with enthusiasm and unending energy.” 

In June, Shell will move to Los Angeles to work with New Deal Studios again, this time as a full-time model-maker. She hopes to move around to different Hollywood and independent studios and learn from a wide range of artists. Her future goal is to obtain work on movie sets or television programs as a properties master or production designer.

“It wouldn’t surprise me a bit to see Lauren’s name in movie or television credits in the near future for her work in the area of special effects makeup,” Hoh said.

Media Contact

Robert Hull

Media Relations Associate Office of University Communications