The VFX Files: Nancy St. John of Prime Focus Vancouver
COW Library : TV & Movie Appreciation : Nancy St. John : The VFX Files: Nancy St. John of Prime Focus Vancouver
I lived here in Vancouver 28 years ago, but at the time, the local film industry was very small. Back then, I owned a small film production company that produced documentaries and commercials before receiving an offer to be a producer of a digital production company in Los Angeles -- Digital Productions -- and took it because there was so little opportunity here in those days.
So it's no small irony that I'm back in Vancouver, running Prime Focus Vancouver. The film industry has come to Vancouver and is doing very, very well...so well, we're known as Hollywood North. The TV shows came first, and then the films. There are now more than 15 visual effects companies in the Vancouver. There are so many things going for Vancouver: proximity to Los Angeles, the local talent pool, the tax credits, the lifestyle...that means that all the studios have their eyes on Vancouver.
A lot of people aren't clear on what it means to be a visual effects executive producer. Of course the visual effects supervisor is there to ensure that technically and creatively the job is done at the highest possible level of quality. As producers, we're there to make sure it's produced on schedule and on budget. My job has always been about marshalling the resources towards getting the supervisor all the people and equipment and software he needs to get the job done. A lot of the client's concerns are filtered through me to the team.
The other important thing an executive producer does is to break down the show and budget it with the VFX supervisor, to figure out how long it will take and how much it will cost. There were 54 shots in Terminator 2 and that was considered a huge VFX movie at the time, in 1990. Now you have movies where every shot has visual effects in it.
We just finished doing over 300 VFX shots on Men in Black 3. It gave me the chance to run the team through its paces. We delivered that project on time and on budget with very little overtime. VFX Supervisor Jon Cowley and I are very proud of that. It shows we can be efficient machine and not overextend our team. It also means the budget isn't going to paying overtime. Instead, and to the client's delight, all that money shows up on the screen.
To be competitive, we really have to be organized and efficient and really schedule things properly. That's my job as an executive producer, to ensure that everything we do we do to the best of our abilities and we take advantage of every minute we have our artists working.
My path to becoming a visual effects executive producer runs in parallel with the beginnings of digital visual effects. After moving to Los Angeles to work at Digital Productions, I moved across town to Robert Abel and Associates. There were three pioneering companies back then -- Digital Productions, Robert Abel and Omnibus. All together, there were probably 300 people who worked at one or more of those companies -- we call ourselves the DOAers -- and we have a lot of stories. Every so often at SIGGRAPH, we get together and have a reunion. Our stories really are the history of visual effects in the 1980s.
After spending a large part of my early career with Digital Productions and Bob Abel, I decided to do something totally different. I went to Illinois and helped build a scientific visualization center for the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. There were five such centers in the U.S., and I got to work with Nobel Prize winning scientists. It was an amazing experience. I hired some animators from Hollywood and brought them to the cornfields of Illinois and built this beautiful state-of-the-art lab with Silicon Graphics and Apple machines. By putting animators together with scientists and putting the data sets into computer simulations, the scientists were able to visualize what they'd hypothesized for years.
One of the really cool things that came out of this was introducing Bob Wilhelmson, a world-renown chaser of storms at the center and Stefan Fangmeier, an animator who I had worked with in L.A. Stefan worked with Bob to visualize his data sets from his twister collection of data. Fast forward five years, and Stefan was the VFX Supervisor on Twister at ILM.
I moved back to Northern California and knocked on the door of Carl Rosendahl and worked at Pacific Data Images, which at the time was doing mostly commercials. I helped them get into longer format work, and produced The Jim Henson Hour project. One of the things we did was create Waldo, a 3D real-time CG puppet…and I got to work with Jim Henson.
After that, Warren Franklin, who was running ILM, asked me to come and take over the computer graphics group there. The CG department at that time was a ragtag group of eight guys, including John Nelson, Scott Anderson and Mark Depuy. I was able to grow to 26 with imports Stefan Fangmeier, John Burton, Steven Rosenbaum, and Jimmy Mitchell, to name a few. They're all well-known and award-winning VFX supervisors now.
When I left ILM, I went independent and started working from show to show, starting with Babe. At the time I had been helping Rhythm & Hues break into the film business. I knew the owners, John Hughes and Charlie Gibson, from my Robert Abel days and it was natural to work with them. After Babe, I went to San Francisco and worked on James and Giant Peach, a stop-motion film directed by Henry Selick. It was amazing to work with stop motion animators where every frame is hand crafted.
After James, I was approached by Robin Shenfield, co-owner of The Mill in London, to help build the film division, Mill Film. It was a fun and exciting time for VFX in London. Happily, the facility became a great success and received the Oscar for Director Ridley Scott's Gladiator.
Over the next decade, as an independent VFX producer and consultant, I worked all over the world and with all the major and minor studios in Hollywood on dozens of films including I-Robot, The Life Aquatic, Charlotte's Web and The Spirit, to name a few. I really developed my VFX producer skills during that time and I watched what was once a small community in California in the 1980s grow to now tens of thousands of working professionals worldwide.
The gods on Mount Olympus as seen in the IMMORTALS. © 2011 War of the Gods, LLC. All Rights Reserved. Image courtesy of Relativity Media.
In 2010, Relativity Media was looking for a VFX consultant, so I worked on a number of their movies including Immortals, Limitless, and Season of the Witch. After that, I did some work on Paradise Lost, which was to film in Sydney, Australia. I didn't want to be that far away from California, so I started looking at Vancouver, because I knew that would be the new mecca for VFX, and that's when I got a call from Prime Focus asking if I'd like to go back home.
I guess you could say I rode the VFX wave all the way to the beaches of Vancouver. One of the challenges of this kind of work is going from movie to movie. It's kind of like being in the military and being stationed in a new place every year or 18 months. You are forced into a group of people -- a director, producer, production designer, stunt coordinator and so on -- that you work with for a period of time under great pressure and time restraints and create this incredible thing during an intense shooting period. Then, most of them move on to the next show, and you're there for the next eight to ten months finishing it. The VFX producer and supervisor are often involved in a project from the very beginning -- sometimes even before there is a director -- all the way through post until the last shot is complete. Then you start looking for another film and start the whole process again. You develop great friendships, constantly meet new people and figure out how to work under very strained situations, whether it's in the middle of a desert at 110 degrees or in a big green room for 18 hours a day for months.
A heroic Crusader and his fellow soldier transport a woman accused of being a witch to a remote monastery in SEASON OF THE WITCH. ©2010 Season of the Witch Distributions, LLC. All Rights Reserved. Image courtesy of Relativity Media.
Today, the best way to carve out a path in visual effects is to get yourself inside a facility and work your way up from artist to VFX supervisor or VFX producer. From there you can jump to the production side. On the production side, there will be multiple facilities to oversee and you'll learn how all kinds of companies function. It's good to see how VFX are created from all sides.
The visual effects industry has so much to offer filmmakers. What was once impossible is now possible. Working to create those possibilities is extremely rewarding. I've been one lucky person to have ridden the VFX wave.
Thanks also to Debra Kaufman for coordination and additional editing on this piece.