Interview with TyRuben Ellingson

by TheFan

TyRuben Ellingson, an ex-ILM art director, recently took some time and spoke with me about his part in the Gang of Four, what will happen to ILM when George Lucas dies, and what Mark Dippé's middle initials really stand for.


The Interview

TyRuben Ellingson, an ex-ILM art director who worked on such films as Jurassic Park, The Flintstones, and Star Wars: Special Edition, recently took some time and spoke with me about his part in the "Gang of Four", what will happen to ILM when George Lucas dies, and what Mark Dippé's middle initials (A.Z.) really stand for. An eclectic list of topics. Don't worry, I threw in some normal questions too.

Steve: How did you get started at ILM?*

TyRuben: I started off with the traditional fine arts background, and was always an ILM fan. I saw Star Wars when it came out and I was just out of High School, a big film buff, a huge Stanley Kubrick fan, but after Star Wars I said, "this is really what I want to do". It took me from the age of seventeen to the age of thirty, to maneuver my way out here. And I still can't believe I work in this business.

Steve: What exactly is a Visual Effects Art Director?

TyRuben: Pre-Digital effects era, there was a triad of people involved in every production that came into the facility; the Visual Effects Supervisor, the Visual Effects Producer, and the Visual Effects Art Director. And those three positions I liken to a miniature version of the main three film positions; the Director, the Producer, and the Director of Photography. The role of the Art Director is to keep his eye on the aesthetic of the shot. Sometimes that means I might not work on art that actually appears in the film, but I'm always there to keep an eye on the work and say, "maybe we can approach this in a new way", or "those shadows should be darker". And sometimes (and these are the best times) I get to do some design work. For example in The Flintstones I designed Bedrock. Once the digital era began, around T2, there was a fourth position added, the Digital Effects Supervisor, but the Art Director position has stayed roughly the same.

Steve: What movies really amazed you at ILM?

TyRuben: The Pseudo Pod in the Abyss blew my mind.

Steve: I loved The Abyss.

TyRuben: Yeah, I was there, watching the dailies, and just...amazed. I said, "This is it." And then came Jurassic. And we used to drink coffee during the dailies and bet each other how far the envelope could be pushed. You have to remember, the digital effects in Jurassic, were never meant to be as big as it was. It was going to be animals WAY in the distance. And we kept saying, "We can move the camera closer, we can get even closer". Then Twister came, and I was just saying "WOW!" The particle systems stuff was really outrageous. And that technology, I believe, has yet to be fully exploited.

Steve: I always loved Twister. Yeah the acting and story sucked, but with a movie like that, you go for the excitement.

TyRuben: I can tell we have the same tastes in movies. There are all kinds of movies. There are movies about investigating the human condition, then there are movies about...ah, exercising the human condition (laughs). They are not all the same, I don't know why people always want to jumble them together. Twister was a full-on action picture! You don't make excuses for it. There are still great movies being made; Tarantino. Look at Sling Blade, one million dollars out. I just get tired of having to justify what I do. I bump into people at parties, and they try to make me justify what I do, and I won't do it. If you don't want to see action movies or big visual effects films then don't buy the ticket.

Steve: A lot of people were upset with the visual effects added to Star Wars: The Special Edition. Did you feel like the new footage added to the movie?

TyRuben: I did have some reservations about it. I didn't really know what was to be gained by mucking around with the original. But when I spoke with George about it, his insight was so specific, that I do believe that these were things that he legitimately wanted changed. I think the changes made were fairly legitimate. A couple of them, as a viewer, as a fan, I might have an issue with, but 20 years from now, the person that watches this is going to have a better experience.

Steve: So this wasn't something just to cash in, and make some more money.

TyRuben: No, no way.

Steve: Is part of your job balancing your artist "Look-and-feel" with the limitations of visual effects that can be accomplished?

TyRuben: That's a good question. As an Art Director, you are paid to "NOT" limit yourself.

Steve: And it's someone else's job to fulfill the director's vision.

TyRuben: Yeah, Joe Letteri or Alex Seiden, they're the ones that have to say, "This isn't plausible". I probably know more about the technology then I should. Because it's not my job to know what's feasible, but rather contribute on an aesthetic level. Take the "Nessies" in the opening sequence of the Flintstones. They were in the water, and they where supposed to be swimming, and I kept saying, can we get some foam on the water, or spirals in the water, and the technical people would keep saying, "...uh...no, that's not doable." But that's my job. If it doesn't work out fine, but I'm looking out for the bigger picture.

Steve: Doesn't that come back to haunt you? I can picture a scenario where you sell the director on some incredible undoable shot, and your technical guys decide to hunt you down.

TyRuben: You gear your...aggression, on the director. On Disclosure, for example, I literally designed that scene at Barry's house one night, and I knew that the team; Ellen Poon, who is the most exceptional computer graphics talent, could handle it. On the Flintstones, when I met Steven (Spielberg), you have got to be more cautious, because he will hold you to it. And you definitely don't want to make commitments for ILM the company. I don't remember a time that I committed something that couldn't be delivered, but then, that is the beauty of ILM...they deliver.

Steve: Are you still working at ILM?

TyRuben: My position at ILM is what they call "Casual Status". I still have an phone there, but what it really boils down to is I'm a free agent. ILM can call me in at any time, which they most recently did on Chuck Russells new movie This Present Darkness.

Steve: So what about the "Gang of Four"?

TyRuben: Did I tell you about the "Gang of Four"?

Steve: No, but you did mention it.

TyRuben: The Gang of 4 was Steve Williams, myself, Wes Takahashi, and Mark Dippé (Du-pay).

Steve: I've never known how to pronounce his last name?

TyRuben: Dippé, yeah it reads like dip-pee.

Steve: And sometimes he uses these two middles initials A.Z.

TyRuben: Yeah (laughs) That's made up. AZ is "from A to Z", he goes "from A to Z". Anyway, and I hope this doesn't sound boastful or anything, but we were kind of considered the "new wave". Wes, was there, but Steve, Mark and I were all hired at about the same time, right during the beginning of the transition to digital effects. And hopefully we were known as "new wave" because we were more progressive. But we were referred to as the "Gang of 4". I don't know if it was necessarily the healthiest thing, because we also caused a lot of havoc, like the Jurassic illegal test.

Steve: Illegal? Are you referring to the CGI test shown to Steven Spielberg that caused him to switch many of the Jurassic Park effects to CGI?

TyRuben: Yeah, well Steve's (Williams) first initial bones test, was really the one that caught the attention of Spielberg's eye, but the next full on, test, Mark (Dippé), Stefen Fangmeier, and I all worked on.

Steve: You called it Illegal. ILM didn't know you were working on it?

TyRuben: Yeah, we were doing it completely off-hours. We started talking about how we could push this CGI T-Rex idea through. We created enough confusion, and then what we'd do is, kick around some beers after work, and bootlegged the whole thing through the facility. And at the end we had it completed and nobody new we had even done it. It was all very covert (laugh).

Steve: So most of the Gang of Four is gone now, aren't they?

TyRuben: Yeah. Wes Takahashi went on to New Zealand and helped develop an effects group for that movie The Frighteners.

Steve: I loved that movie, I wish it would have done better.

TyRuben: Yeah well Wes set up all of those effects, at least as far as digital effects are concerned. Mark (Dippé), is working with me and my new thing, Combustion Studios, and he is also working on another project, a kind of Cyber punk genre thing. Steve (Williams) is looking to direct. He was talking about Mr. Limpett, a remake of that Don Knott's movie.

Steve: What?

TyRuben: You don't know The Amazing Mr. Limpett**? It's a Don Knott's movie from the early seventies, maybe the late sixties. It's sort of a strange animated film like...

Steve: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?

TyRuben: Yeah...yeah. And he (Steve) is also, as I understand, in negotiations for The Mask 2.

Steve: So the "Gang of Four" is no more then?

TyRuben: (Laugh) Yes, the "Gang of Four" is no more. We all left within 6 months of each other.

Steve: What are you doing now?

TyRuben: I've recently joined forces with another Lucasfilm peer, D.J. Marini. He and I have started a production company called "Combustion Studios". We're working on several film projects, as well as working with a number of Japanese attractions.

Steve: Boss and Warner Digital have recently gone under, yet everyday there seems to be yet another Digital Effects company opening. How do you see the digital effects industry settling in the next 10 years?

TyRuben: The fact of the matter is, the truly talented people, the exceptional artists out there, don't really need the infrastructure of a Boss, Digital Domain, or a ILM. I have a friend named Craig Mullins, He's a matte painter, who lives in LA. Extremely, extremely talented guy. He can do full finished shots...out of his house! Those people will continue to prosper.

What he cannot offer is reliability, or quantity. He may be able to do 14 matte shots, but not sixty. So I think what you're going to see is a polarization. Some leaders, like ILM, and at the same time a lot of very talented smaller shops. But make this clear, ILM will control this industry.

Steve: Even without George Lucas at the helm? I mean, what happens when he dies, will ILM be able to continue without him?

TyRuben: Definitely. I mean, yeah, George will die someday, and that will definitely change the ideology of ILM, but he has always run ILM as a separate, sustainable company.

Steve: I didn't mean to be morbid. They reason I asked is because ILM has become such a large company, and over the last 10 years, the competition in the industry has gained on them. They are catching up.

TyRuben: Yes. But if you are a Amblin, or Martin Scorcese, or whomever, and you have millions and hundreds of millions of dollars in a picture. That's a big gamble. And directors understand that it's often the visual effect shots that either make or break the film. In that situation, it only makes sense that the studios gravitate to ILM. Because they deliver.

Steve: ILM and SGI have agreements, I would only be speculating on there content, but rumors have, forever, been spreading that ILM cannot mention the Apple Macintosh.

TyRuben: I was never told, during my tenure at ILM, not to talk about the Macintosh. I was at ILM in the later part of '95, when we were developing PhotoShop for the SGI. Previously to that, they only way you could run PhotoShop was on the Mac. So publicly or not, it had to been done on the Mac. By the way, they have a group at ILM called the "Rebel Macs", which is a group of Macintosh based effects artists. And if I'm going to get in trouble for ANYTHING, this is probably it (laugh), but you might as well have it all. The "Rebel Macs", are a group of ILM employees who are devoted to using the Macintosh platform to deliver "full on", cinematic quality visual effects. And that group, and the Macintosh platform were used on all three Star Wars special edition films.

Steve: Last two questions, I promise. Everyone wanted me to ask you this. How can I get a job at ILM?

TyRuben: Let me start by saying that ILM does have an internship program, you can get your portfolio in. It comes back to the basics, do the best you can do. And take your dreams for real, don't just say "I want to work for ILM", do it! Read Cinefex, read websites like yours***, read about Phil Tippet...and go for it.

Steve: Last question, what can you tell us about the new Star Wars Trilogy?

TyRuben: I was really skeptical. I was afraid George was going to go out and do something for the profit, or do something the fans wouldn't be happy with.

Steve: I'm worried too.

TyRuben: Yeah it's a tough time, I mean what are the chances the magic can happen again?

Steve: Exactly! I loved Star Wars. I think The Empire Strikes Back was even better...

TyRuben: The Empire Strikes Back was the best!

Steve: ...but I really feel like George sold out on Return of the Jedi, I gagged on the cute teddy bears, and felt like he added them just to sell the action figures at McDonald's.

TyRuben: Jedi...yeah, it didn't live up to the first two.

Steve: Okay. My last question, what about the new trilogy, we want some good dirt.

TyRuben: Listen, I can't really talk about the story line of the next trilogy, for obvious reason, but if you want to quote me, I can say this, it is going to be a monumental film, on par with what Star Wars was for it's day. George is pulling out all of the stops. It's on a level that no one has even gotten close to.

Footnotes:

* See. I told you I'd ask some normal questions.
** Incredible Mr. Limpet, The (1964), Milquetoast Henry Limpet experiences his fondest wish and is transformed into a fish. As a talking fish he assists the US Navy in hunting German submarines during World War II. For more information, check the Internet Movie Database: at this URL
*** Thanks for the endorsement Ty!