ROTONDA — At 17, Adam Howard never dreamed of working with blockbuster movie directors, or tricking out music videos for Michael Jackson.
Or earning four special effects Emmys.
Or changing the film industry as “Mr. Face Replacement,” for developing the technique for seamlessly swapping stars’ faces onto the bodies of stunt doubles.
Now at 57, the Rotonda West resident has done all those things.
Howard’s 40-year career began shortly after his 11th grade art teacher Rick Rowton showed up at his home in his native Australia. The teacher told Howard’s parents their son would flunk out of the academic boy’s school.
“He said I was going to crash and burn and he wasn’t going to let that happen,” Howard said. “He told my mum and dad he wanted to make sure I lived up to my potential — and to send me to technical college for my senior year.”
Through the tech school, Howard got the opportunity to intern at the Australian Broadcasting Station.
“I was 17. I was still doing my graphic design course in school and got my first job at a television station,” he said. “Three months later, the art director called me into his office. I thought ‘oh great, I’m going to lose my job.’”
The man pointed to a large box, a $2 million graphic digital paint box computer. Howard’s assignment: figure out how to operate it, otherwise they were sending it back.
“The pen was solid steel. The box was so loud, it sounded like a jet engine taking off, but I turned it on and got it working the first day,” he said. “Somehow my brain just clicked on it. It just spoke to me as a tool.”
Howard convinced the boss the digital box was the next major industrial evolution for television production.
“I said we are all going to be dinosaurs if we don’t do this now,” said Howard. “The art director just looked at me and said, ‘Oh my God this is going to change everything.’”
And it did.
“I worked 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on that machine,” he said. Howard was one of only 10 people in the world working with the technology. “Every time we put pen to tablet, we were making a new rule and setting the groundwork for the new industry.”
After that, anytime Howard had a suggestion, his boss would say, “That’s a brilliant idea, you do it.”
He figured out how to get the machine to make animation and used it for titles.
Howard worked there for four years and left for a post-production company. He went on to do visual effects for movies, including “Mission Impossible.” He processed the film and uploaded it to the studio in Los Angeles.
“There was a producer from Paramount who I befriended,” he said. “In the back of my mind, I had always wanted to work on ‘Star Trek the Next Generation’ and ‘MacGyver.’ It was a pipe dream. I figured, I could work on ‘Star Wars’ movies, too.”
In 1989, a friend promised Howard a job in Hollywood, so he and his wife at the time quickly moved there from Australia. There was no job.
Howard found work with ABC television, which sponsored Howard’s green card.
“It wasn’t my dream job, but I was working in Hollywood and it was great,” he said.
One of his dream jobs got a little closer, when Howard got a call from Paramount Studios to talk to Rich Thone, the producer of “Star Trek the Next Generation.” Going to work at Paramount didn’t pan out, but months later Howard found himself working on the hit series as an assistant to the animation director.
“’Star Trek’ was the holy grail of television,” Howard said.
Not long after, his boss left, soon after completing the show’s third season cliff-hanger episode, “Best of Both Worlds,” where Capt. Picard is captured and assimilated by the alien race, The Borg. It’s a storyline heavy with special effects. Howard was in charge of exactly matching the effects of the second part of the story with the first.
“I was the new lead animator on ‘Star Trek,’ which was great, but I hadn’t had the proper time to work with Steve (Price) to learn how he did he animation,” Howard said. I spent spent time redesigning everything on ‘Star Trek the Next Generation.’
“Star Trek” won Emmys that year. For Howard, who watched the Emmys growing up, now he was on stage accepting one. As he walked off stage with his Emmy, another of the five episodes nominated was named the winner of another Emmy. Others came for “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” “Star Trek: Voyager,” and “Star Trek: Enterprise.”
He made music videos with Michael Jackson, became lead animator on “MacGyver,” and worked on films including “River Wild” and “Coneheads” using new 2K resolution equipment.
Howard was approached with a digital problem by director James Cameron’s “Titanic” crew. The director wanted his main characters Jack and Rose to run toward the camera with the lights hitting their faces while a wall of water chased them. Two animation companies said Cameron’s vision couldn’t be done.
“I told them, ‘It’s only time and money,’” Howard said. “’If you’ve got the money, I’ve got the time.’ James said I was the man for this job.”
The slow motion 10-second scene took two and a half months of working 17-hour days, 7 days a week to complete. Using real water and stunt people, Howard’s job was to replace the heads of the stunt doubles with the faces of actors Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio.
“There was no 3D technology at the time,” he said. “Anything up-close didn’t sell. We shot them running down a dry hallway. I cut the heads and faces of the stunt doubles and made a clean background. Then I made sample pieces of their heads and painted the rest of them. It was an incredibly challenging shot to do, but one I’m very proud of.”
Howard’s new innovation on “Titanic” earned him the nickname of “Mr. Face Replacement.”
He went on to do composite work for Michael Bay on “Armageddon, “Apollo 13,” “Birdman” “The Social Network,” “Rush Hour 3,” “Tales from the Crypt,” “Mission Impossible 3” and the last two Harry Potter films.
He later started his own company when he was called to work on “Seabiscuit.” “It was one of my favorite films,” he said.
Then he was called to work with his idol Peter Weir, an Australian film director. They did 17 movies in five years.
“One happened to be ‘Star Wars,’” he said. Another dream job.
Ten years ago, Howard was freelancing in California when he was hired to supervise the new Harry Potter-themed ride in Orlando. All work was done in California and then it was installed in Florida.
Howard moved to the East Coast. He and his wife divorced. Then he moved to Florida and freelanced for Universal Studios.
COVID-19 AND THE MOVIES
Howard moved to Rotonda West. He has volunteered with the film commission in Sarasota. He was looking for more work when COVID-19 hit.
“It was disastrous, the film work dried up,” he said. “I’ve done two feature films, one was a short in Tampa. I’ve kept my foot in the door while waiting for the film industry to bounce back. I started working at Walmart and doing portraits. I’m working on an inspiration series featuring lots of people in the film industry. I want to do one of my art teacher. If it weren’t for him, I would have never gotten into the industry.”
While he’s ready for his next challenge, he’s proud of his life’s work.
One of the greatest compliments he received was from a young student who learned Howard worked on “The Simpsons.”
“The student said, you created my childhood,” he said. “I burst into tears. That’s one of the sweetest things anyone has ever said to me.”