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On Location: Death in the Valley

November 16, 2010 |  4:40 pm

Death In a warehouse in Van Nuys, Jason Collins is proudly showing off body parts.

Strewn on a table are two bloody hearts with chords sticking out them, an open chest cavity, a hand with a severed finger nearby, a necrotic liver and bag stuffed with what looks like skin tissue. At another table, a man is sopping the blood from a stomach with a gash in it.Valley

No, this isn’t the lair of a psychopath serial killer in the Valley. It’s the workshop of Autonomous F/X Inc., a company that specializes in “forensic effects” — creating synthetic body parts and corpses for the medical dramas and police shows that each year seem to amp up the gory details of human anatomy.

As for the silicon stomach with the gash, it’s hooked up to an air compressor that ejects a stew of blood and guts that was made for a recent episode of Spike TV’s “1,000 Ways to Die” (a show that dramatizes some of the more bizarre ways people meet death).

“It makes a big mess,’’ says Collins, co-owner of Autonomous F/X, says of the splatter of which the stomach contraption is capable. “I always feel sorry for the camera crew.”

In an era of digital effects and green-screen technology, many physical effects houses have struggled to stay alive. But Collins and his partner Elvis Jones have carved out a profitable niche, thanks to a demand for ever-more realistic forensic effects.

The company works on various low-budget horror movies, but its sinews and bones are locally produced television dramas, such as the recently canceled “Undercovers,” “Law & Order: Los Angeles” and “Rizzoli & Isles.”

Collins, 35, a film school grad and self-taught makeup effects artist, first developed a fascination for fake corpses and body parts as a kid when his father took him to see “An American Werewolf in London.”

“I was terrified of the werewolf,” Collins said. “I wanted to understand how they made it, like shining a light on the darkness.”

Collins spent several years at effects companies KNB EFX Group and Almost Human Inc, where he worked with Jones on the TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,”  before the pair decided to launch out on their own in 2005.

One of their first clients was “House,”  now in its seventh season. Prop master Tyler Patton said the company’s props, from tape worms to human hearts, are so realistic that even the actors sometimes react to them as if they’ve just arrived fresh from the city morgue.

“Their beating heart was a big hit because it looked so real," said Patton. “The effects are so graphic it's sometimes shocking. We’re pretty used to it, but the actors sometimes get a little queasy.”

The parts are made out of foam or silicon from molds that are cast on actors faces or limbs. The molds are made out of a spongy, seaweed-based material called “alginate,” the same stuff that dentists use for teeth impressions, and wrapped mummy-like with bandages around the face or body of the actors. Drying takes 10 to 15 minutes.

“It’s a bit like a car dealership," says Jones, sitting in an office next to a head bust of a man in the horror film “Timber Falls” whose jaw has been blown off by a shotgun blast. “We pretty much have a mold for every body part.”

To depict accurately stages of decomposition, Collins and Jones consult medical textbooks and study photos of actual murder victims supplied by homicide detectives. They mix their own blood from a corn-syrup recipe that is a “house secret.”

Autonomous F/X will generate about $700,000 in revenues this year, up from $500,000 last year, Collins said. Still, that’s down from 2008, before many service companies were hammered by the writers strike, a recession that caused studios to cutback the number of movies they are making, and the ongoing exodus of production out of Southern California.

Collins said he lost one job he was counting on, an independent feature film, when the producers decided to move the production to Louisiana, which offers steep tax incentives. To drum up business there, he is planning to open a satellite office in the state.

Still, there is plenty of work to keep him busy in Los Angeles, especially from shows like “1000 Ways to Die.” One recent episode involved creating a model of an obese man who can’t afford a liposuction and tries a home remedy — with the help of some friends, a box cutter and industrial vacuum.

“We have two or three deaths a week,” Collins said. “It’s always a challenge to see what they come up with.”

— Richard Verrier

Photo: Dead heads in the Van Nuys workshop of forensic effects artists Jason Collins and Elvis Jones. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times.