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Movie Magic

Daniel Acon ’80 built a lasting career in special effects — and got his start at Seton Hall.

The son of a U.S. diplomat, Daniel Acon ’80 met famous people growing up, including George H.W. Bush and Henry Kissinger. “It trained me to be at ease around anyone,” he says.

This has served him well in a film career that has involved working with top directors such as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese and developing special effects for films starring Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts.

Acon’s father was stationed in Italy, which was becoming a prime movie location at the end of the 1980s just as Daniel looked to enter the world of film production. With dual citizenship and exposure to both Italian and American culture, Acon became an important resource for many special-effects projects involving multinational crews.

But it started with props.

“I was offered the chance to be an onset prop man on, of all things, The Godfather III,” Acon says. “Coppola has a lot to teach, but the most important thing is detail. Everything he puts in his scripts, on his sets, everything has a meaning.”

Acon’s next assignment brought him to the world of special effects with Cliffhanger, a 1993 action film starring Sylvester Stallone. “We shot it pretty much all out in mountaintops. We’d take helicopters out in the morning, and the only way back down was with a chopper at night,” he says. “Mechanical special effects, snowstorms, wind, anything with a mechanical effect, we did it. I got exposed to so much. A perfect place to learn.”

Acon has been a special-effects coordinator or supervisor on more than a dozen films and was part of two teams nominated for Emmys. A large portion of his work centers on providing ideas about how an effect should unfold, dealing with mechanical engineers and other highly trained personnel.

One of the most celebrated special effects he was involved in took place during Mission Impossible III. “The one brought up to me most is probably blowing up the orange Lamborghini near Naples,” Acon laughs. “They sent us an empty shell of the car and a real one — worth more than $200,000. We blew it up, and, what can I say — it was quite fun! We were shooting at a 16th-century courtyard, so we had to be under a certain amount of decibels because the windows are from hundreds of years ago.”

Special effects don’t always pose such serious potential consequences, although strict concentration was required to properly pour hundreds of pounds of prune juice onto Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson in Zoolander 2. “We had the mechanical challenge of a soup-like jar that we needed for landing all that juice on them on a moving catwalk,” he says. “The actors couldn’t get enough of it.”

Acon has been a special-effects coordinator
or supervisor on more than a dozen films and was
part of two teams nominated for Emmys.

His job brings one surprise after another and it’s why he was drawn to it to begin with. “I love the variety,” he says. “Every shoot is different and I’m always asking myself: Can we give the director more than they expect?”

Acon credits Seton Hall as having a major impact on him and other students interested in the entertainment business, encouraging them to shoot stories. As a communications major, Acon directed quite a few. He had special- effects opportunities in Seton Hall theater productions, including on Oedipus Rex. “Our teachers were ahead of their time in that they were willing to trust you to do your own thing,” he says. “If we weren’t shooting in New York City, it was in Hoboken or somewhere else. They really expanded the idea of where the classroom could be.”

Acon looks back at more than a quarter century in special effects as an incredible ride, and continues to be spurred on by the thrills it brings others. “It’s the excitement, the way it takes you away to another world,” he says. “Movies are an escape we all need at times—and I’m lucky to get a front row seat for it.”

Eric Butterman has written for more than 50 publications, including Glamour and Men’s Journal.

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