Washington County's laser wizards sparkle in 'Oblivion'

| Thursday, April 18, 2013, 11:50 p.m.

A combat drone bathes Tom Cruise's face with bluish laser light inside a post-apocalyptic New York City Public Library in “Oblivion,” a Universal Pictures science fiction film officially released on Friday.

Behind the movie's laser special effects is Lightwave International, a Washington County company recognized as one of the world's best at what it does.

“What is unique about this movie is that we are using real lasers to create the effects that you see on the screen,” said company president and CEO George Dodworth, 38. “When you see the drones attacking, probing and scanning, that's us.”

Dodworth started Lightwave about two decades ago while still a student at Penn State University. The company today has about 20 employees with operations based in Eighty Four and offices in Los Angeles, Boston, New York, Las Vegas and London.

“Oblivion” marks Lightwave's third major motion picture. The company also provided laser special effects for 2011's “Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon” and “Cowboys & Aliens.” Much of Lightwave's work focuses on concerts and festivals, music videos and, increasingly, television commercials.

Its lasers are featured in a new L'Oreal commercial with Glee actress Lea Michele and were used at the recent SXSW music festival in Austin, Texas, for a show with Public Enemy, Ice Cube and LL Cool J. The company worked on an episode of “X-Factor” and “Global Rainbow, After the Storm,” a laser-light display in New York following last year's Hurricane Sandy, which shot lasers from Manhattan, across Brooklyn and past Long Island.

In 2012, Lightwave won eight awards from the International Laser Display Association.

“It just floored me that there is this amazing group of talented people based here,” said Gary Gardiner, manager of entertainment and education initiatives with the Idea Foundry, an Oakland nonprofit that invests in area tech startups. “They've got great expansion opportunities. Already the demand for their work is through the roof.”

Locally, Lightwave provided laser effects for the Penguins 2013 home opener and the University of Pittsburgh's 2012 homecoming event at the Cathedral of Learning. The company's lasers also illuminated the bat signal on Fifth Avenue Place, Downtown, for the cast arrival in 2011 to film “The Dark Knight Rises,” the latest Batman film by director Christopher Nolan.

It was important for “Oblivion” director Joseph Kosinski to have real lasers in the film instead of computer-generated effects added later, Dodworth said.

“It's in the take,” he said. “There's something organic about it.”

Lightwave laser artist Mike Dunn and laser technician Derek Abbott spent months last year working on the film outside of New Orleans, with Dodworth joining as a second laser technician.

Lightwave is one of about 100 entertainment technology companies in Western Pennsylvania, said Dawn Keezer, president of the Pittsburgh Film Office.

“They've been really successful, and it's nice to see,” Keezer said. “We're really fortunate that they are located here.”

Dodworth said his company could be located anywhere, but it is important to him to stay in his native Western Pennsylvania.

“We want to do more. We want to do bigger and better,” he said. “And we want people to be proud it's a local company.”

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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