MUKILTEO — Look through the end credits of any Marvel superhero flick and you’ll see hundreds of names listed as visual effects artists. It’s a lot of work to create every computer-generated monster, space ship and explosion in a feature-length film.
A24’s new movie “Everything Everywhere All at Once” also has its fair share of VFX shots, about 500 to be exact. But unlike Marvel, the majority weren’t done by a team of five hundred people, but just five. And leading them was a Kamiak High School graduate.
Zak Stoltz, 33, works as a director and visual effects supervisor in Los Angeles. He grew up in Mukilteo and is the son of two-term Mukilteo City Council member Kevin Stoltz.
A 2011 Mukilteo Beacon profile called Stoltz “one of the city’s up-and-coming digital artists and filmmakers.” On his personal website, Stoltz simply describes himself as a guy who “likes spreadsheets and disc golf and does his best to be excellent.”
Stoltz worked on “Everything Everywhere All at Once” over the course of a year and a half. Directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheiner, aka “the Daniels,” tasked Stoltz with bringing to life their comedy-drama about a Chinese-American laundromat owner who travels to parallel realities to save the multiverse. The film’s premise is as absurd as its ending is wholesome.
Stoltz’s team did about 80% of the film’s VFX shots. And he edited about 100 of those shots himself. The feat garnered the attention of media industry outlets like Wired, The Wrap, IndieWire and Below the Line.
“It was a process,” Stoltz said of the project. “We figured out how to do it on the relatively cheap, but still make sure everyone got paid well, and didn’t burn out too hard.”
In high school, Stoltz would never have imagined finding this kind of success in film, let alone working in any sort of creative field. Back then Stoltz was all about two things: math and science. The teen wanted to be a biomedical engineer.
Life had other plans.
His first choice for college was Stanford University. Applied. Wait-listed.
His second choice was Harvey Mudd College. Also applied. Also wait-listed.
Stoltz said his grades were good, but looking back, he feels his lack of extracurricular activities held him back. He was the kid on the tennis team who spent his free time playing video games. Not really something the top-tier engineering schools were looking for, he said. The rejection stung.
“At the time, I was a little bit bitter about it,” he said. “But that paved the way for me to follow the things that I care about.”
One of those things was film.
Stoltz made short videos for school projects and for fun. He said most were a “juvenile-like, sketch-comedy sort of thing, where it was just whatever we thought would be funny.”
He and his friends dressed up as ninjas and shot fight scenes. One of their shorts, called “Chad and Mickey,” starred Stoltz and a friend as two awkward dorks who wore their pants too high and went on adventures.
Stoltz graduated from Kamiak in 2006, then enrolled in the university he thought would be the most enjoyable: Occidental College, a small liberal arts school in Los Angeles.
The campus was beautiful. The classes were diverse and interesting. And it wasn’t a “party school.” So Stoltz was in. He studied film, continued to make shorts. Eventually he set out to become a professional director.
On reflection, Stoltz can point to two decisions that shaped his career. The first: attending the Seattle Film Festival his junior year of college. After the screenings, Stoltz reached out to one of the directors, who had announced plans to turn a short into a feature-length film. Stoltz offered to help.
As luck would have it, the director had attended Occidental College and gave Stoltz a chance to spend the summer working as a production assistant on a project for the Seattle Public Library.
The job led to Stoltz’s name getting passed around. That got him a few film gigs out of college. A big one was creating the motion graphics for a Blackberry TV commercial.
The second life-changing decision: introducing himself to the two Daniels. Stoltz came to admire the director duo and wanted to work with them. The plan? Run into the Daniels at their film screening and say hello.
“I was really shy, but I was going to introduce myself to these guys,” he said.
Stoltz encountered the two in the concession line. He handed out his business card and offered to help with special effects on one of their projects.
“And I never heard from them,” he said. But Stoltz was undeterred.
Six months later he sent the Daniels a short film he made. They called back a few days later. Turns out they needed help finishing a short they were struggling to complete before deadline.
So in 2012, Stoltz went over to one of their houses, picked up a hard drive and got to work. After that, they asked him to help with another video. Then another one.
This time it was a music video for rock comedy-duo Tenacious D. It was during this project Stoltz said he really bonded with Kwan and Scheiner.
“We would hang out in Dan Kwan’s bedroom. I’d bring my computer over. We sleep under our desks and go get breakfast in the morning and just really work super hard in this very DIY manner,” Stoltz said. “And then we’ve just been friends ever since.”
The Daniels also passed Stoltz’s name around, which led to a production company signing him on as a music video director. Years later, the Daniels recruited him for “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” This was the largest project Stoltz would work on to date.
Stoltz said the Daniels worked with a large visual effects company on their last film and felt it was too impersonal. So they brought Stoltz on to manage a small team to edit the VFX shots.
“They ended up coming to me and saying, ‘Hey, we want to go back to our roots in a way and do this like we would do a music video, except just a lot bigger.’ And so my job was to figure out how to pull that off.”
Stoltz said they were able to create the film’s blockbuster-level effects with just a handful of people, due to their expertise.
“Everyone who did visual effects on this movie was also an accomplished director,” Stoltz said. “So it ended up creating this environment where we could really easily trust a small number of people to really handle their shots from start to finish.”
The hardest part, Stoltz said, was editing shots while also managing the team. Part way through the production, he was informed he would also receive a producer credit for his work.
“And I was like, ‘Wait a minute, there’s supposed to be another person who’s doing this thing?’”
So that’s how he learned he wasn’t just doing the work of two people, but three. Somehow he managed to juggle everything and the film went on to be a huge success.
Life hasn’t changed much for Stoltz since the film’s release. At the moment he’s preparing for an amateur disc golf tournament and keeping in touch with his team to potentially work on future projects together.
Reflecting on his journey though the film industry, Stoltz said it was a mixture of hard work and chance that got him where he is today.
“It was a lot of luck,” Stoltz said. “But I had to put myself out there to make it happen.”
“Everything Everywhere All at Once” is in Snohomish County theaters and is to be released for digital streaming later this year.