If you’re an avid movie-watcher, you may have seen some of Russ Doyle’s work. He hopes you didn’t notice.
Doyle and his wife, Bronwyn, own Icon Green Sets, which does visual effects for movies filmed in Louisiana.
From Academy Award winners such as “Twelve Years a Slave” and “Green Book” to TV miniseries such as “Roots,” Doyle has created landscapes that make studio sets seem real and on-location shots look more authentic.
“That’s what’s most important to me, that if you’re watching a movie I worked on, that you can’t tell that I did anything,” said Doyle, 45, who lives in Baton Rouge. “I may have done a lot, but you can’t tell that anything is unusual.”
What’s unusual is how Doyle came to this line of work.
A massage therapist, Doyle preferred to be outdoors and exercise his artistic side. Some of his massage clients hired him to work in their yards. One was Rickey Heroman, who hired Doyle to work in his landscaping business.
After about 10 years, though, Doyle said he was bored: Many customers wanted the same plants, the same designs.
His wife’s uncle, Oley Sassone, is a New Orleans cinematographer and director. He suggested Doyle would be good in movie art departments.
“I basically quit my job running the landscape business to sweep floors in the movie industry just to get my foot in the door,” Doyle said.
That paid off in 2012 when he was hired as a greensman — the person responsible for obtaining and taking care of anything "green" or natural, from plants to gravel, used in the film production — for “Ender’s Game,” a sci-fi film starring Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley that was filmed at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. He helped create a backyard in the studio for a portion of the film that took place on Earth, and he built a hydroponic garden for a spaceship.
“It was a big-budget feature, so I was blown away,” Doyle said. “There was so much artistic work that goes into every little aspect of a movie, so I was in heaven. I would come home and say, ‘You won’t believe we were building this and doing that and sculpting and painting.’”
With more experience came more responsibilities.
As head greensman for “The Highwaymen,” which starred Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson, Doyle helped re-create the scene where lawmen gunned down notorious bank robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in 1934.
Director John Lee Hancock insisted on filming the scene at the spot where the couple died along what is now La. 154 in Bienville Parish.
“Well, it doesn’t look anything like it did back then,” Doyle said. “So, I had to do, like, 1,500 feet of this highway and I had to make it look exactly like it did going by … the detective pictures that were taken where Bonnie and Clyde were killed. It was very specific. He wanted it just like it looked.”
Doyle brought in 30-foot pine trees to bring the forest closer to the road, as it was in 1934. The highway itself, however, was the big project. Paved now, it was a dirt road then.
Rather than trucking in a tremendous amount of dirt — which would have been difficult to remove quickly, so the road could reopen to traffic on schedule — Doyle built mats that were painted the color of the soil, sprinkling a little bit of dirt on them to create the right visual effect.
“When the car came up, they wanted to see dust fly off the wheels of the car, so I had to make sure the director got that view as well,” Doyle said.
Doyle uses mostly live plant material and keeps some of it in his backyard. Icon Green Sets also rents plants and other materials he creates to film projects in Louisiana. A lot of the plants have appeared in multiple projects.
“They go through everything from getting drowned to blown up, and I bring them home and they’re beaten and battered and you would think they are garbage, and I enjoy bringing them back to life,” Doyle said. “It might be two years before I can use them again, but it’s enjoyable to bring it back.”
Bronwyn Doyle, who teaches nursing at Franciscan University, handles the business end of Icon Green Sets. When she watches the films he’s worked on, they’re looking at it differently.
“He says, ‘Honestly, you shouldn’t notice what I’ve done,’ which is true,” she said. “It should be so natural and make so much sense in the scope of the scene that people really shouldn’t notice the greens.”