J&M Special Effects has to be one of the most fascinating businesses on the shores of the Gowanus Canal. Housed in a 11,000 square foot industrial building at 524 Sackett Street, the fully-licensed company designs and creates special effects for theatre, opera and dance companies, television and film productions, still photography, as well as large scale special events.
Some of their notable special effect credits include Cirque Du Soleil's 'Wintuk' and 'Ka' , Broadway's Les Miserables, Phantom Of The Opera, Miss Saigon and Angels in America.
J&M even supplied cryojets (fog machines) and confetti for three consecutive 'Time Square Rockin' New Years Celebrations'.
Recently, Gregory Meeh, J&M's President and Head Designer , graciously took the time to talk to me about his unique business and about the path that led him to this line of work. He obviously loves what he does and still finds the work challenging.
Meeh first became fascinated with theater and special effects as a child. He began working in technical theatre while in college. He started his professional career as a lighting designer at a small theater in Boston, but it was while he worked at the Opera Company of Boston under Sarah Caldwell, its famed artistic director, that he started to design special effects on a larger scale. His first major pyrotechnic feat was to 'burn' Moscow for the Opera's production of Prokofiev's War And Peace.
Meeh moved to New York and co-founded J&M in the early 1980's. The company's first home was a basement in Soho, Manhattan. Soon after, J&M re-located to Bridge Street in Dumbo, Brooklyn, During the twenty years that the company spent in Dumbo, the neighborhood changed dramatically, from a desolate area to one of the City's most desirable. Seven years ago, the company moved to its present location in Gowanus.
To find a suitable location for such a highly regulated business as his is not easy here in New York City, Meeh explains. There are certain limitations. The business needs to be in a self contained, free standing space, with high ceilings and lots of ventilation. It also needs to be close to the performing arts community it serves.
"Proximity to the city and space like this is crucial to our existence," Meeh tells me.
"What if the Gowanus Canal area is rezoned and becomes more residential, forcing businesses like yours out?" I ask him.
"I would have to relocate further out of the city and rely on a satellite office in the city." But clearly, that would create a real hardship. "If there is a problem during a Broadway performance, we need to be able to be close by to provide assistance or to replace parts. Also, we often fill last minute requests from the film industry."
According to the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting, production is currently at record levels throughout New York City, with 188 films and more than 140 TV shows having been filmed here in 2011 alone, contributing approximately $5 billion to the City’s economy each year. (Theaters and other performing arts institutions contribute more to the coffers and attract tourism.) Yet, ironically, businesses that support the arts have had an ever harder time staying in the City.
"If those businesses can't be in the city, it will make productions more expensive," Meeh explains.
Of all of Meeh's many accomplishments, he seems to be especially proud of the fact that his business is training a new generation of special effects specialists. Currently, his creative team includes 8 to 10 full-time employees and a number of freelancers.
It certainly seems like challenging and exciting work that requires inventive thinking, expertise and stringent safety guidelines. But most importantly, as Meeh points out with a big smile, "we are licensed to blow things up."
How cool is that?