Beechview special-effects artist brings life (and death) to movies
The warning came from special-effects artist Steve Tolin, 16 hours into an extraordinarily long day. He giggled like a 5-year-old just before triggering his “blood cannon.” Gallons and gallons of his special formula of fake blood splattered throughout the room and onto many of the laughing crew members.
Based in Beechview, where Tolin lives, Tolin FX studio is an award-winning special-effects and specialized design and fabrication unit serving the needs of the film, television and theatrical industries since 1999. That includes locally shot, high-profile films like “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Jack Reacher,” “Warrior” and “Adventureland.”
Tolin is one of the many people who make a living from the growing film industry here in Pittsburgh. His latest project will be unveiled at the Pittsburgh Film Office's “Lights! Glamour! Action!” Oscar-night fundraising gala on Feb. 22 at Heinz Field.
Tolin describes himself as more of a problem-solver than a special-effects guy.
“I find the same joy in solving everyday problems as I do in solving very specific movie-related problems,” he says. “That's why I find myself leaning more toward invention. I'm able to look at the whole world for problems needing solved.”
That quality makes him more marketable, too, he says. “It helps in special effects, an industry that borrows technologies from every other industry to find solutions,” Tolin says.
He embraces the challenge.
“The whole deal is what really excites me,” he says. “I spend 90 percent of my time failing. When the 10 percent finally succeeds at solving the problem, that's what drives the other 90 percent.”
Case in point: Squib FX, a division of Tolin FX, is growing fast, with its safety squibs and special-effects systems selling worldwide. Squibs are small, explosive devices often placed on an actor to create the effect of a bullet strike. Tolin's squibs are air-powered and nonexplosive.
Filmmaker Steve “Stevo” Parys of the South Side, Tolin's friend and collaborator in a string of low-budget horror movies, happily recounts memories of that blood-cannon scene, a video of which he kept on his phone for years to lighten his mood when needed.
“I remember many times stopping and smiling as Steve tore someone's head off, plunged a table leg through someone's heart, pulled their eyeball out, lit someone on fire, caved in their head and on and on and on — all on film, of course,” Parys says.
Considering some of his insanely gruesome make-up effects, Parys says, if you didn't know Tolin, you might be afraid of him.
“But talk to him for even just a few seconds, and the joy he has in what he does, and for life, in general, quickly becomes evident,” Parys says.
“I've worked on films small to massive,” he says, from “The Bread My Sweet” to “Silence of the Lambs.” “The sheer can-do attitude and inventiveness Steve shows, whether he's got a budget of $2 or $20,000, sets him apart from any other person in his field. I don't use this word a lot, but he's a genius — and a good dad.”
Tolin and his wife, Erica Highberg — an adjunct faculty member at Point Park University who teaches voice, speech and acting — have two daughters, Violet, 4, and Amelia, 2.
Body of work
Tolin and former Pittsburgh resident Jeff Waltrowski, now living in San Francisco, formed Clear Conscience Pictures in 2008 and co-produced the science-fiction, action-adventure, creature-comedy, “It Came From Yesterday,” for which Tolin and his team created the creature effects and production design. The entire film was shot on a green screen.
“Steve is the hardest working man I know, a creative genius and a wonderful father and family man,” Waltrowski says. “He thinks outside the box, will accept any challenge and is a born leader. I wouldn't develop a project without having Steve onboard.”
Tolin was selected as a contestant on Season 5 of Syfy's reality show “FaceOff” in 2013.
His special effects on the world premiere of “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” a musical by Stephen King and John Mellencamp produced at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, brought praise and thanks from King.
Tolin FX became the go-to effects studio for multiple productions of Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's black comedy “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” including a 2007 production by Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre. It brought Tolin a Joseph Jefferson theatrical award for his efforts at the Northlight Theatre's Chicago production in 2009.
Tolin's efforts even go beyond the entertainment business. Pittsburgh script supervisor Megan Graham contacted Tolin to see if he and his studio could devise something to help her brother, Jeff Graham, who has ALS. They came up with the ALSuit, a device that keeps Jeff upright when he walks or sits.
In the beginning
Tolin's inquisitiveness and passion for what he does has presented opportunities he never fathomed when he was a boy roaming the woods of Elkins, W.Va., with his field-biologist father, Bill Tolin, an endangered-species specialist for the state. They would tag bears and search for any number of creatures, great and small.
Steve Tolin aspired to be a marine biologist until he was in high school and met a professional artist in Elkins.
“If I ask the 18-year-old Steve where he would be at 35, he would have found where I am surprising,” says Tolin, a 2000 graduate of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. “The things I grew up with lend themselves to the kind of work I do now. Most of the people I grew up with had a strong work ethic; they just worked hard. It was a way of life. I found the world isn't necessarily like that, and it gave me an advantage. ...
“It's easy to get lost in what you are doing and thinking everything is bigger than life and every choice is life and death. When you've spent a lot of time in the woods and natural environment, you feel very grounded, and it helps me keep perspective.”
Special-effects artist Allison Boyle, who recently relocated from Mt. Washington to Nashville, calls Tolin a “fantastic employer and entrepreneur” who really understands the balance of art and business.
“He's able to quickly troubleshoot problems and manage a team of artists to create a cohesive project,” says Boyle.
Tolin says he is bored easily, which is why he likes to keep a lot of projects going at once. Walk into his studio now and you might find him at work on a bid for squib effects rigs for the world premiere of a theatrical adaptation of “World War Z” in London that will tour internationally, or he might be repairing basketball-size snow globes for “Let It Snow,” the film currently shooting in Pittsburgh.
What Tolin really loves about this business, he says, is meeting new people and immediately becoming a creative family, coming together to create a piece of art that no one would have created separately.
He is grateful for the supportive film community he finds in Pittsburgh.
“Just because you do good work, you still have to be supported by people who want to give you that work and believe in you and be the person who pops up in their mind,” Tolin says. “I work really hard to develop that reputation.”
The reviews are glowing for Steve Tolin:
Kevin Hannigan: Dublin, Ireland, native, now based in Los Angeles, special effects coordinator on Tom Cruise's “Jack Reacher,” shot in Pittsburgh: “He's incredibly gifted with a really eclectic skill set and an ability to see a project in its entirety, not just as elements. ...
“For a comedic fight scene in ‘Reacher,' which took place in a tiny tiled bathroom, the joke was that everything was wrecked other than Tom Cruise. We had to make ‘breakaway' wall tiles that didn't have sharp edges. We ended up making about 6,000. Steve set up from scratch, the busiest potter in Pittsburgh!”
Carl Kurlander: President and CEO of the Steeltown Entertainment Project: “He is a great talent and we hope as the film and TV business grow here, Steve will become more and more known for that — in the tradition of the town that brought you George Romero, Tom Savini and Greg Nicotero.”
Doug Henderson: Tolin's mentor and former teacher at Art Institute of Pittsburgh: “Steve was one of those few students that I just connected with. We became friends and have worked together on several projects over the years since. He's not just an all around nice guy, he can do almost anything. He doesn't let the unknown stop him from trying.
“Dan Handley: Producer and owner of Dan Handley Science Media, Pittsburgh, which produces science documentaries and educational video: “He has the vivid imagination and aesthetic sensibility of a great visual artist, but the practical sensibility of a professional engineer as well. That's a rare combination of talents.”
Adrienne Wehr: Of Wilkinsburg, multi-disciplinary artist and creator, producer of and an actor in “The Bread, My Sweet”: “We gave Steve his start in the film industry in 2000 as an art department intern, and have since worked with him on numerous projects. Steve is an outrageously creative and adventuresome artist, consummate professional, true humanitarian and equally blessed with abundant generosity of spirit. He has a truly unique curiosity in respect to creative problem solving. He is a wonderful and gifted soul that I feel privileged and honored to know and work with.”