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Hometown hero shines on Oscar night

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By Roger Snodgrass

Steve Preeg climbed every mountain and realized the impossible dream. He said he was not really expecting it, but he took home an Oscar Sunday night.

 

He was the animation supervisor who made possible the reverse aging of Brad Pitt in the fantasy drama, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” The award for special visual effects was one of the three Academy Awards the film won this year.

 

Preeg was a member of the team of video animators at Digital Domain, the video effects company that won its first Academy Award with “Titanic” in 1997.

 

“I was on the verge of quitting many times, thinking they were just going to fail,” he said Tuesday. It was hard to hire people for the show, considering how high a profile it was, for fear it would be a $150-million failure.”

 

According to Box Office Mojo, the film had a worldwide gross as of Monday of $277,313,838.

 

Climbing the mountain was not the hard part. It was crossing the valley.

 

The “uncanny valley” is a term coined by the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori to describe the phenomenon that makes cute teddy bears or robots acceptable to humans, but makes us cringe to see a close resemblance to a human, that doesn’t quite make it.

 

“We are all experts in human faces, if not in dinosaurs.” Preeg said, “We’re very disturbed when something is wrong. It looks creepy.”

 

Crossing that gap is something people have been trying to do for a long time, Preeg said, who also worked with director Peter Jackson on “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and the “King Kong” remake

 

The secret was literally to get inside the skin, recreating the muscle system.

 

“We were able to capture Brad’s skin actually moving, when he was winking or holding a finger to a cheek,” he said.

 

The animation team did 325 “head replacements” tracking Benjamin Button’s journey into youth from his birth as an old man.

 

Preeg’s mother June Wall, who works in a doctor’s office in Los Alamos, said she got a call from her son with a question about anatomy during the production.

 

June and her husband Gary Wall were on their way to Los Angeles Saturday when Preeg called to tell them he had tickets for the awards for them and his brother John. After a mad scramble for tuxes and appropriate dress, they were all on hand for the ceremonies.

 

June Wall said Steve was four-months-old, when the family moved to Los Alamos in 1971.

 

“He always had an artistic flare; he was always very creative,” she said. “He also had an intense curiosity.”

 

Preeg said even though he had not lived in Los Alamos since he graduated from High School in 1989, “It was the foundation of my education, how you’re raised and where you’re raised.”

 

He especially remembered his English teacher Rick Thalman, who taught him that there was a lot more to English than the books.

 

“He was an interesting guy who wanted you to think about more than how to answer questions on a test,” Preeg said. “He tied it to the real world and real people, rather than just where this guy went on page 37.

 

Preeg works with his partner, Janelle Crowshaw, whom he acknowledged during his acceptance remarks. The couple also won two awards at a Visual Effects Society ceremony on Saturday.

 

He said it was a pretty good job and a lot better than some of the things he has done along the way.

 

Before he left Los Alamos, he had a part time job at the police department as a dog agitator, which involved getting dressed in a padded suit and goading the canine corps into attacking him

 

He said he was still processing the whole experience of the award.

 

“We are already working on another project,” he said. “It certainly is beneficial to the company to win an Academy Award.”

 

He was asked what he could do to top that.

 

“I think I’m going for a Grammy next,” he laughed.