|t’s a long way from a goat farm near Burra Creek outside |
Queanbeyan outside Canberra in the Capital Territory of
Australia, to San Francisco, California USA.
But, it’s an even bigger stretch to imagine that Ben Snow, a young movie fan growing up in this remote location, could wind up as visual effects supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) for the blockbuster film Iron Man.
In grade 11, the aspiring moviemaker read an article in “American Cinematographer” by Dennis Muren about his work as the effects director of photography for “Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back.” “I decided, ‘OK, I want to be a miniatures DP,’” Snow said. “But, I couldn’t see how I could get from Canberra, Australia to ILM.”
He took the long road, traveling first to London, then back to Australia. But, he made it. Some twenty years after he had read the article about “Episode V,” Dennis Muren himself mentored Snow into his first credit as a visual effects supervisor.
The film? “Star Wars: Episode II – The Attack of the Clones,” for which Snow received his second Oscar nomination.
|Snow’s parents provided the vehicle for his journey by suggesting he study computing at the University of Canberra, “I knew that ILM had used computers for motion control in Star Wars, and Francis Ford Coppola was using computer controlled lighting, for 'One from the Heart',” he says. “So, I thought maybe they had a point. In fact, it became my entré into the visual effects world.” |
He also majored in film in college, though, and inspired by a photograph from the 1933 King Kong of the giant gorilla fighting a T-rex while Fay Wray looks on, added effects created using miniatures to his films. “I photographed King Kong out of a book for a photography test in one of my classes, blew it up, and put it on the wall,” he says. “I looked at that photograph every day when I woke up in the morning.”
For all that, though, his first job out of college was programming pharmacy systems. So, when he had saved enough money, he left, and took the Trans-Mongolian railway from Hong Kong to London – and met his wife-to-be on the way. Once in London, a programming job at a bank refilled his coffers and gave him enough money to travel through Europe. But, this time, rather than hitting the road, he decided to hit the streets.“I knew that if I wanted to realize my dream of getting into film, this would be a good place to try,” he says. “So I knocked on doors.” That footwork led to a job not as a programmer, but as a gofer for a studio that needed someone to deliver parcels.
“I was getting paid out of petty cash,” Snow says. The animators at the studio helped him learn the 3D software package Wavefront, and when the studio closed, they recommended Snow to the Moving Picture Company (MPC). He was on his way.
At MPC, although he started on the systems and programming side, Snow learned Alias’ 3D software and manipulated images on a Mirage. He also watched as ILM recruited Geoff Campbell, one of his friends at MPC, to work on “Terminator 2.” A year later, Snow moved back to Australia where he helped set up a 3D pipeline for Conja, a computer graphics and production studio in Sydney.
“Initially, I was the only guy in the department, so I was a jack of all trades,” Snow says. “So, although I came in from programming, I did modeling, animation and lighting. We mostly worked on commercials and elaborate title sequences for ‘Beyond 2000,’ a science and technology show. It was a tremendous learning experience.” One thing he learned was that he didn’t want to work in animation. “I animated little soccer players using roto-animation,” he says. “I did a terrible job.”
In 1994, Conja sent Snow to SIGGRAPH and he talked his way into ILM’s party at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California. “It was an incredible party, with carnival dancers,” he said. “I rang my wife and said, ‘I’m in Hollywood.’” At the party, he ran into Campbell, who encouraged him to send a copy of his reel to ILM. Campbell warned, though, that there weren’t many opportunities for animators.
|“I said, ‘You mean I don’t have to model or animate? ‘My god. That’s perfect,’” Snow says. A week later, he was on the phone from Sydney with a committee of people from ILM that included Jon Berton, Doug Smythe, Joe Letteri, and others. “There were like about 12 people,” he remembers. “They’d ask, ‘On this bit, how did you achieve this effect. How did you do that effect?’” Over the next few years, he’d work closely with these ILM’ers and others – with Berton on “The Mummy,: with Letteri on “King Kong” at Weta during an ILM sabbatical, and, most recently, back at ILM with Smythe on “Iron Man”. |
His first week at ILM, though, he read Steve Upstill’s “The RenderMan Companion” and watched training videos of classes given a few months earlier. Doug Smythe taught a class on a color-balancing tool, and, because ILM expected the technical directors to composite shots, Snow studied compositing. “Everything I learned was new at that point,” he says.
The training and his experience lead to his first job: Look development for the digital replica of the Enterprise-B in “Star Trek: Generations.” “It was a dream come true,” he says. “I was on the ILM stage talking with the visual effects supervisor about lighting the ship so I could match it.” A few weeks later, that supervisor, John Knoll, told him about the invention of Photoshop.
“How embarrassing,” Snow says. “I didn’t realize John Knoll had such a rich CG background. But he was a real support. He gave me confidence in my lighting and my eye. The mentoring that goes on at ILM from some of the best people in the business is great.”
The artistic mentoring continued through Snow’s next series of shows, during which he exercised his technical muscle and began moving into a supervisory role.
For Casper, he and his supervisor Henry Preston convinced vfx supervisor Dennis Muren to give them the hardest shots of the friendly ghost’s smoke trails. For vfx supervisor Stefen Fangmeier, he developed the watery tornadoes with clouds above them at the beginning of “Twister,” and the destruction of the drive-in screen showing “The Shining.”
“I begged to work on that sequence,” he says. “I was doing heavy R&D, and had to get a lot done in a short time, so it was stressful. But, it was a great opportunity.” It also made him a star back home in Australia, where he flew with actor Bill Paxton to the Brisbane premiere.
“They had a sign that said, ‘Welcome Bill Paxton and Ben Snow’ in lights,” he laughs. “It was just ridiculous. I was R&D on the film, not even a supervisor. But, my mother-in-law saw it.”
|On “Mars Attacks,” Snow exploded Martian brains for vfx supervisor Jim Mitchell and then moved onto “Jurassic Park: The Lost World,” where he wrote scripts to integrate creature animation with particle effects.|
He also supervised some T-rex chase sequences. “It was a great experience creatively,” he says. “I got to work with Dennis [Muren] more closely.
In Sydney, I had been the lead guy. I learned about film and television, but I didn’t have anyone teaching me. I liked being in an environment where I could learn from the huge legacy at the studio.”
From “Lost World,” he moved into the role of CG supervisor on “Deep Impact,” where he worked on CG water and comet effects, and which he cites as one of his toughest shows.
And then, he followed vfx supervisor Jon Berton onto “The Mummy,” which led to an associate vfx supervisor role for “Galaxy Quest,” and to, “Pearl Harbor,” for which he received his first visual effects Oscar nomination.
On “Pearl Harbor,” Snow led the R&D side of ILM’s post production. “Michael Bay was skeptical about our ability to do a photoreal plane,” Snow says. “It’s funny, but we still run into that – we did again on “Iron Man.” For both films, ILM’s computer graphics masterminds found state-of-the-art solutions.