You won't find it on his resume, but Stan Szymanski's first project was a no-budget re-enactment from Alfred Hitchcock's thriller "Psycho."
Wearing a woman's wig and wielding the biggest knife he could find in his family's Lackawanna home, Szymanski said, he hid in a bedroom closet, awaiting the return of an older brother who had teased him because he was too young to see the 1960 movie.
When Szymanski leapt out at his unsuspecting sibling, "I could tell from the look on his face that I really hit pay dirt."
Now senior vice president of digital production for Sony Pictures Imageworks, Szymanski plays a major role in creating visual effects for a new generation of movie fans. He shared his experiences Thursday night during a lecture in Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
Presented by the New Group at the Gallery, a volunteer organization dedicated to attracting new and diverse audiences to the gallery, "Visual Effects & Visual Storytelling" drew a younger crowd -- many of college age as well as several youngsters with their parents. And for Szymanski, a lot of faces were familiar.
"I give a lot of presentations. I have given presentations all over the world," he said. "But this one is tough."
"I have high school teachers here, I have college teachers," Szymanski said. "Aunts, uncles, cousins and friends."
Quickly, however, his passion for motion pictures overtook his anxiety at speaking before the hometown crowd. That passion, he said, grew out of his interest in the films of Hitchcock and Orson Welles.
"My approach toward cinema is really more of a fan's approach," Szymanski said. After earning a bachelor's degree in graphic design from Buffalo State College in 1979, he launched a career inspired by the 1982 movie "Tron."
A montage Szymanski prepared for Thursday's presentation included a clip from that movie. "The effects in it are pretty amazing," he mused.
Before hooking up with Imageworks almost nine years ago, Szymanski said he had to finish a project in which a friend had involved him.
"The script was really terrible," he said. "I didn't want to work on the project," which he described as a "total rip" of "The War of the Worlds."
That project was the Will Smith blockbluster, "Independence Day."
Since then, Imageworks has created the visual effects of such hits as "Spider-Man," "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" and "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."
Szymanski's recently released projects include "The Polar Express," which came out Wednesday, and he said he is working on about a dozen others.
"Our job is to let you, as an audience, suspend your disbelief and go along with the story," he said. "We need you to just buy into it. Our job is to be invisible."