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Hagerstown man worked on 'Titanic' special effects

December 18, 1997

By LAURA ERNDE

Staff Writer

When the credits roll on the movie "Titanic," look for John Heller's name.

The Hagerstown native helped to create special effects for the $200 million movie about the 1912 sinking of the British liner.

Heller, 28, put computer-generated stars in the movie's arctic sky.

Because the climactic scene in which the ship sinks was filmed in the warm waters of Mexico, Heller had to simulate cold weather by adding misty breath.

"It's all done in the computer," said Heller, who works for Blue Sky VIFX in Los Angeles, a division of 20th Century Fox.

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Heller uses a $2 million computer loaded with a software program called Inferno.

Three seconds on the big screen can take six months to complete, he said.

After a shot is put together, Heller reviews it on a computer screen. But the true test comes when it goes to film.

"That's where the mistakes come out," he said.

It is rewarding to work on a major motion picture, he said.

"Going to the theater and seeing my name go up in lights is nice," he said.

Heller also has worked on "Jingle All the Way," "Volcano" and "Face/Off."

Coincidentally, the lava he created in "Volcano" appeared to destroy his real-life apartment in West L.A. near the La Brea Tar Pits.

Now, he's working on "X-Files: The Movie," which is due out next year.

Heller is one of the few people in the United States who saw the three-hour movie at its premiere last Saturday. It opens nationwide today.

"It's fantastic. It's pretty powerful," he said.

The stories about the attention to detail sought by Director James Cameron are not exaggerations, Heller said.

When Heller was plotting the stars, Cameron had him use a map of what the sky looked like on the night of April 14-15, 1912, when the Titanic, on her maiden voyage, struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic south of Newfoundland.

The Titanic, thought to be unsinkable, went down and more than 1,500 of the 2,200 people aboard lost their lives.

Heller said he has heard from a reliable source that Cameron went to the original makers of the Titanic's carpet, draperies and chandeliers to create an authentic recreation of the luxury liner.

Heller said he got into the business by persistence. His background is in photography and music recording engineering.

Some people might remember him as the bass player for the local band Sabotage.

He moved to Los Angeles in 1989 and pursued music before he approached a friend who worked at Blue Sky VIFX.

"I just kept bugging him. I just put my foot in the door and said, 'Give me a chance,'" he said.

Heller's mother, June Gibble of Hagerstown, is proud of him.

"He went out there and has done it on his own. It's not gone to his head," she said.

Gibble, 47, said she admires her son's ability to live in such a fast-paced world.

Heller, a 1987 graduate of North Hagerstown High School, admits that sometimes he longs for the tranquility of Hagerstown.

In May, he and his fiancee, Amy Plume, are coming back to Hagerstown to get married.

The two were sweethearts back when they were students at Northern Middle School.

They are hoping to buy a house in the L.A. suburb of Pasadena, Calif., he said.

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