Storytelling with Industrial Light & Magic’s Tim Alexander
Originally posted on May 4, 2017
When the first Star Wars film (Episode IV: A New Hope), hit theaters in 1977, it was an instant hit. With a budget of just $11 million, this simple story of good versus evil brought science fiction into the mainstream with a box office blowout of over $775 million. So, what made this new space epic so popular? Three simple elements: great story, a strong supporting cast, and unbelievable special and visual effects like nobody had seen before.
Forty years, (currently) eight movies, countless television episodes, hundreds of fan conventions, multiple fan sites, and thousands of toys later (we won’t mention the holiday special), George Lucas’ Star Wars has more than stood the test of time. It’s a cultural icon and (ahem) a force to be reckoned with. And now, as Walt Disney Studios builds on Lucas’ original vision with exciting new content, Star Wars is recruiting a whole new generation of hungry fans by continuing to push the envelope in story development and special effects.
But way back in 1999, one young visual effects artist got every fan’s dream opportunity to work on the storied franchise.
Star Wars Movie Magic
Lucas was setting out to tell the origin story of his franchise with Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. And Tim Alexander, an up-and-coming effects artist at Industrial Light & Magic, would soon become part of the team to help bring his vision to the big screen. By the time he got the call to join the team for Episode 1, Tim had already worked on such blockbuster films as The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Contact and Titanic. But, still, he knew the unique opportunity and responsibility he was accepting in helping bring the legendary franchise back to theaters.
To celebrate Star Wars Day, Raising Nerd got a unique chance to sit down with this extremely talented and accomplished visual effects artist to learn how he got his start and how he’s been able to build an amazing film career by pursuing his passion for imagery, math, and science.
Nerd on and May the 4th be with you!
Raising Nerd (RN): OK, you supervise visual effects for arguably the greatest visual effects company in the world. A dream job for any creative Nerd. Tell us a little bit about what it is you actually do.
Tim Alexander (TA): As a visual effects supervisor, I’m generally responsible for the look of the visual effects and making sure the director gets what they want from the visual effects. Production generally flows through three major stages: pre-production, shooting, and post production. As a VFX supervisor I’m often involved in all three stages and the job is a little different in each.
In pre-production, we are generally connecting ideas, doing pre-visualization, and planning for photography. During the shoot, the VFX supervisor is on set to help make decisions that affect the visual effects and to help organize and shoot properly background plates and elements needed for shots. During post production is when the major lifting of the visual effects team happens. This is the stage where most of my time is spent reviewing material with all the artists that work on a movie, and I help to make sure we are hitting our targets both in visual quality and on time.
RN: Tell us how you got here, when did you know you wanted to work in VFX, and do you have to pinch yourself every day when you get to work to be sure you’re not dreaming?
TA: My junior year in college, I went to see a presentation at Computer Graphics Week sponsored by the CG department. I saw a talk on using computers to do visual effects work for Terminator 2 and I realized that the field major of Electrical Engineering I was in applied very well to what they were talking about: image processing. I always had been interested in pictures, but never how they related to movies.
I applied for an internship at various studios and got one with Disney’s VFX house called Buena Vista Visual Effects. They were just starting to do computer graphics at the time, so I got in on the ground floor you could say. I interned for 2 summers with Buena Vista, and they hired me when I got out of college. (In case you’re doing the math, I spent an extra semester at college getting a Master’s degree in Engineering).
I just had my 20th year anniversary here with ILM so you could say I am happy in my job. I have always been very fortunate to be able to work on interesting projects that challenge me and I always feel like I am learning something new.
RN: How did you develop your creativity – is it something that’s always come naturally? What kinds of activities did you enjoy as a kid that helped nurture your creativity? Are there things you do today (besides work) that help boost your imagination and exercise your creative muscles?
TA: I never really considered myself an artist or even especially creative. I think it’s something that comes to me, like when something looks right or it just feels right. Over the years I’ve learned many tools for observation and many technical terms for how things should look if lit properly or are moving correctly, since much of what we do is trying to emulate reality – or at least some version of reality that people would believe.
In high school and college, I did lighting design, which I think pulled me in the direction of photographic/lighting creativity over, say, something like sculpture or painting. I also play a lot of board games and have also always been a video gamer. Not that those are totally associated with what I do on a daily basis, but I find them a great social and stress relief pastime.
RN: Who were your early influences/mentors? How did they encourage you to pursue a technical/creative career?
TA: My high school drama teacher Wayne Kischer and a visual effects supervisor Stefen Fangmeier. Wayne encouraged us technically by giving us the tools needed to build sets, hookup lighting, all kinds of technical theater, and let us try and fail – but also learn – in the process. Stefen taught by example and brought me along to meetings, shoots, and discussions with directors. Through him, I got a lot of exposure to many aspects of visual effects that I wouldn’t have had the chance to experience, otherwise.
RN: Do you remember your first movie project? What was that experience like – were you nervous, scared, or excited?
TA: The first movie I worked on was Cabin Boy (1994). I was an intern at the time, but got the opportunity to try some compositing (the digital version of putting images together to make a single cohesive image). This was back in 1993 I think, so using computers for movies was still a new idea to most companies. I worked with a great bunch of people, so the environment was very encouraging. Everyone was learning about computer graphics at the time, so I remember it being fun and a great learning experience.
RN: I imagine you’re continually trying to out-do your last project, stretch your technical and artistic limits, and find new ways to create movie magic. How, exactly, do you do all that?
TA: I am lucky to work for a company that is recognized for being inventive, taking risks, and producing good quality work. We actively work to find projects that are new and fresh and have visual effects in them that will be innovative. It’s really an attitude throughout the organization, from the top down, to pursue the new and be better with each project.
RN: After so many amazing projects, do you have a favorite one you’ve worked on? Of all the movies ever made, was there one you wish you’d gotten to work on?
TA: Tough question because every project has something different and rewarding about it. One of my favorites was working on ILM’s first and only animated feature so far, Rango. This show was special because we were involved from a very early phase so we got to collaborate in the creation of the film. I saw the film go from storyboards to screen to winning animated feature of the year at the Oscars, all in a two-year period. It was a very exciting and rewarding time. Honestly though, I think the real pursuit is to make the next one better than your last, that way you are learning, growing, changing, and creating.
RN: Can you give us an example of a project that, in retrospect, you thought how you might have done it differently to make it even better?
TA: Every show has some aspect that could have been done differently in hindsight. For example, on Jurassic World, the downtown Main Street set needed either blue screen or green screen to be put up so that in post-production we could put the mountains of Isla Nublar behind the set to make it look like it was shot on-location on an island. I choose to use green screen because there were a lot of blue costumes being used. When we got to set though, the green screen was there, but so were a bunch of green-leaved palm trees, making it impossible to separate the palm trees. So, in post-production, we had to make palm trees and rotoscope the existing palm trees to get them to appear properly.
Now the question is would I do it differently next time? Not sure, actually. I might make the same decision, but now I know and can make a more informed decision next time. It’s rare in visual effects that there is an optimal choice that makes everything go perfectly. Most of the time, we make informed decisions and then modify our approach if it doesn’t work.
RN: In honor of May the 4th, can you tell us how the Star Wars franchise inspired you as a creative artist? Did it have any impact on your career choice?
TA: I didn’t actually know too much about Star Wars when I started in visual effects. I came into the industry because I saw that I was interested in imagery and the math and science behind making images and modifying them. This blended well with what visual effects artists were just starting to do, and it seemed like an exciting career path to me. However, my fourth film at ILM, I worked on Star Wars Episode 1 as compositing supervisor for about half the film. This had a huge impact on my career as it was my first chance to take on such a large body of work. It cemented many friendships and work relationships I still have today, more than 15 years later!
RN: With Star Wars Day in mind, what is it like to work with a legend like George Lucas?
TA: I was lucky to work with George Lucas on a couple of projects in the late 90s. The thing that always struck me was how forward thinking and innovative he is. He predicted and led many of the trends in digital filmmaking, some of which I witnessed, and others before my time. For example, Star Wars Episode 1 was the first film to have digital footage in the movie. George Lucas also predicted nonlinear editing, which lead to well-known programs like Avid Media Composer and Final Cut Pro. I think it’s rare to find a person that has their head around rising trends and is able to act on them proactively.
RN: What advice do you have for future creative Nerds out there that dream of pursuing a career similar to yours? What activities, technical training, or other experiences should they consider?
TA: I definitely work in a technical field, but I think it’s important to differentiate between technical proficiency and computer programming. To work in visual effects, you need to have an affinity for computers. We are working on them all day long, but you don’t need to know how to program. We also are very interested in artists because without some creativity, our images would be boring.
I really encourage young people that want to get into a technical creative field to pursue something outside of computers. It can be most anything: sculpture, photography, painting, dance, music, etc. I did a lot of technical theater in high school and college and have picked up photography as a hobby over the years. The photography has helped me understand how the images we make on a daily basis should look in real life, for example.
RN: You’ve worked in a wide variety of movie genres – action-adventure with Jurassic World, westerns with The Lone Ranger, children’s animation with Rango. Is there a genre or subject that you are dying to work on?
TA: For some reason westerns really resonate with me. From my credits list, you might think I sought out that genre, but I would say Lone Ranger and Rango found me. I didn’t really find them, per se.
Overall, though, I really like sci-fi as well and I’m constantly keeping my eye out for anyone that might be making one of my favorites. A few I hope will be made some day are Snowcrash, Akira, and The Invincible (the last one is kind of random, but it’s a great sci-fi novel by Stanislaw Lem).
RN: What are your hobbies outside of filmmaking and visual arts? Was there ever another career outside of the film industry you had in mind?
TA: Well, my main hobby is board game playing and collecting. Currently, I have more than 800 board games on my shelves at home. I started collecting games back in the early 90s when there were only a handful of notable games coming out per year. Now the industry has exploded, and it’s hard to keep up with the number of games coming out. I still think that if I ever left visual effects, I would want to try to make a career having to do with board games.
RN: If you had the chance to have dinner with two people – past or present – who would they be and why? What would be the topic of conversation?
TA: I would have dinner with T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) and Peter O’Toole (who played Lawrence of Arabia in the movie). Lawrence of Arabia is one of my all-time favorite movies. The cinematography is insane and the story/politics get deeper each time you watch it. There have been so many games (Battlefield 1, for example), books, and movies about Lawrence of Arabia. I consider myself a light war gamer, as well, and have played many historical games relating to Lawrence’s life and times. I would be fascinated to know how accurate the movie portrayal of the character and times really was.