Since 2006, Bern-born Raffael Dickreuter has been riding the rollercoaster that is life in Los Angeles as a special effects artist for Hollywood’s 3D super productions. He tells swissinfo.ch how he made his dream come true.
Feted and fired, at times within the blink of an eye, Dickreuter displays none of the arrogant self-confidence that is often de rigueur in the world he began making his own seven years ago.
“Here, tomorrow is another day, you cannot be too confident. Stability is fragile; you’re left to your own devices much more than in Switzerland. I’ve learned that you have to be modest and keep your feet on the ground,” confides Dickreuter with a calm smile. “Today, my view of life is more short term; I take things step by step.”
Self-taught in special effects and pre-visualisation – “which is about preparing the scenes that are the most difficult to shoot” – the 32-year-old looks to the future with enthusiasm but without any other certainty than those his values impose. Happy expatriate, passionate, blooming, curious and satisfied – Dickreuter is living his Hollywood dream.
And yet he was roundly snubbed by the Hollywood elite before it allowed him entry into its VIP circles.
“Speaking to you now, it brings back things that I had almost forgotten,” says the man whose prestigious CV includes work on eight blockbusters including Hulk, Iron Man and Terminator Salvation.
“Los Angeles – it’s a teenage dream born from watching films with special effects. I would have done anything to get here! Although at the beginning I only wanted to be a cameraman. When I was 19, I wanted to go to the United States to study but it was too expensive and I couldn’t afford it. Nobody really believed in my plan, and I felt that people around me were sceptical. It wasn’t easy.”
‘Like riding a surfboard’
The following year, and in need of an internship to gain a place at Zurich University of Arts, Dickreuter tried in vain to land something in the US before settling for a post with a web design company.
“It was during this time that I taught myself special effects. I learned by myself in front of my computer, without help from anyone,” he recalls.
Alone, he founded the social network XSIBase.com, “a community platform for the exchange of ideas and dialogue for artists in special effects and computer graphics” – a forum which quickly changed his life.
“I worked on the site seven days a week. It was my trampoline, my surfboard. When it started to grow, I started doing interviews with the industry big cheeses and I, too, was interviewed by journalists. The site’s users also used it to post ads and respond to job offers.”
The impact of XSIBase.com, which had become a global reference, hit Dickreuter in 2003 when he attended Siggraph, an annual conference for web designers in San Diego, California.
“Everyone knew me. People came up to me saying, ‘ah, it’s you Raffael!’ But even then, I was still just a student and a long way from Hollywood,” he says.
Finally, a few months later and after some 50 rejections, he was accepted as an intern by the special effects studio Pixel Liberation Front and left for Los Angeles.
Highs to lows
“For eight months, I tasted the Hollywood dream and the fascinating and motley life of this city. Every day was an event. I lived in a flat-share at Venice Beach and I had the chance to work on Superman Returns. It was incredible. When I had to go back [to Switzerland] in 2005, I didn’t know whether I’d ever be able to return.”
Before obtaining his degree, he contacted Pixel Liberation Front to see whether they would take him on again. They did. “In 2006, I got a visa and went back. This time for good.”
“As a child, I had three dreams: work on a large production, work on a shoot for Terminator and work with either Steven Spielberg or James Cameron. I’ve realised them all,” he says.
Today, Dickreuter is a freelancer and part-time photographer. For the past ten months he has been free to use his time as he chooses following an unexpected job loss.
“After Man of Steel, I was working on a Spielberg film which for me was an enormous accomplishment. I said to myself, ‘right, now you’ve made it’. But after a few months the shoot was cancelled and a few days later I was given 30 minutes to clean out my office.”
Holder of a green card for two years, Dickreuter has since created his own photo agency. Former Miss Switzerland Nadine Vinzens has passed in front of his lens for an advertising campaign for a beauty cream.
When he is not working on 3D pre-visualisation, he is creating digital programs for touch screens.
“I would like to work more with Switzerland, to come and go more regularly,” he says, because if his life is in LA, his heart remains in Switzerland.
Switzerland and the Swiss
Living in Los Angeles you realise just how great a country Switzerland is, with such a fantastic quality of life. Unfortunately, the Swiss don’t see it. They don’t appreciate it enough. Me, I went from a well-balanced country where everything works perfectly, with social security, to a country of extremes, where the vast differences between rich and poor can make you uncomfortable.
February 23, 1981: born in Bern
2002: Founds XSIBase.com
2005: Works on Superman Returns
2006: Settles permanently in Los Angeles working for Pixel Liberation Front
2010: Creates Virtual Camera System Demo, used in Man of Steel and Green Lantern
2013: Goes freelance and opens a photo agency
(Translated from French by Sophie Douez), swissinfo.ch