Former vfx supervisors take charge of tentpoles

Producers hand mega pic reins to techies

Hands-on experience in taking spectacular imagery from page to screen has propelled a group of visual effects supervisors from behind the computer screen right into the director’s chair.

Gore Verbinski (“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”), Andrew Adamson (“Shrek” and “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”) and Stefen Fangmeier (“Eragon”) all arrived as helmers with effects backgrounds. Soon, visual effects supervisors John Dykstra and Eric Brevig will join them with their own films.

Dykstra, who has twin Oscars for his visual effects work on “Spider-Man 2” and his legendary innovations on “Star Wars,” believes his experience helped develop some essential skills.

“Visual effects supervisors have experience moving large teams of creative artists toward one vision and taking an idea from a page into the physical world,” says Dykstra, who’s now directing “Tortoise and Hippo.” “So if you’ve done that, you already have an understanding of how it works and how to solve some of the problems that can come up.”

Producers agree visual effects knowledge gives directors an edge, especially on larger films involving lots of digital work.

“You can’t pull anything over on them,” says producer Jerry Bruckheimer. “They know what it takes to get the shot they want, and if something isn’t quite there yet, they know how to get it where it needs to be.”

Bruckheimer is now at work on “G-Force” with another former visual effects supervisor, Hoyt Yeatman, set to direct.

“They get the process right away, and they understand the costs involved,” says Chrissie England, president, Industrial Light & Magic. “When we were working with Gore on ‘Pirates,’ there wasn’t a ramp-up time because he understood the language of effects already.”

Some believe the biggest advantage is simply the company they kept while on the job. “I had a front-row seat to the problem-solving,” says Brevig, who is currently directing “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” “I was able to work with the best directors in the world and watch and see how they work and talk to them. I worked with everybody from James Cameron to Barry Sonnenfeld to Michael Bay. I was able to see how all those styles and techniques are used to make a great film.”

But there are adjustments to make when taking on the helmer’s title. “Basically, I went from the top of one smaller mountain to the valley of a much larger mountain,” Fangmeier says. “I made about one-quarter of what I made in visual effects, and it’s a tremendous pay cut, but it’s not about the money — it’s about the chance to really tell a story the way you see it.”

Still, Bruckheimer wouldn’t seek out a director just for their effects experience. “I had no idea Gore had an effects background,” says Bruckheimer. (Verbinski had worked as a digital compositor.) “We wanted him for ‘Pirates’ because he’s a great storyteller with a great visual style.”

Adamson agrees and says his success hinged on developing storytelling skills as he moved into directing. “The danger is to lean into the visual mastery you already have, but what you need are story and characters to make a great movie,” says Adamson, who is in pre-production on “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” and also a producer on Dykstra’s project. “It’s kind of a cliche that it’s about storytelling and characters, but it’s a cliche for a reason: It’s a cliche because it’s true.”

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