Pixel by pixel, pic by pic, John Knoll is approaching living-legend status.
Knoll’s growing list of accomplishments includes a visual effects Oscar for “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”; credits spanning the “Star Wars,” “Star Trek, “Mission: Impossible” franchises and an Oscar-winning animated feature, “Rango”; and one of the world’s most popular and important software applications, Photoshop, which he invented with his brother Tom.
Directors praise him lavishly. Guillermo del Toro, who directed Knoll’s next pic as vfx supervisor, “Pacific Rim,” calls him flatly “by far my favorite vfx collaborator, because in him you have a superb technician, a great artist and a magnificent human being. He is truly a great partner to have in your project.”
Beyond that, he has recently ascended to chief creative officer of Industrial Light & Magic — certifying that even among ILM’s stellar roster of vfx supes, Knoll holds the title of smartest guy in the room.
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Yet none of it might have happened if not for his penchant for hobbies.
“I’ve gone through a whole series of careers where something started as a hobby of some kind,” Knoll muses. “Almost everything I’ve been paid to do was something that was largely self-taught.”
Indeed, Knoll has had a knack for arriving early at the next big thing. He got hooked on special effects through the films of Ray Harryhausen as a boy and had taken up filmmaking with models and miniatures before “Star Wars” kicked off the era of f/x blockbusters.
Special f/x then became his focus at USC Film School. While still a student there, he became fascinated with motion control camera rigs and built one from scratch. Motion control was cutting-edge tech in those days, and that landed him a job at ILM.
In the months that followed, while working nights as a motion control camera tech at ILM, he took up coding software. That in turn led to the creation of Photoshop. At that point, his unusual combination of skills positioned him perfectly for the CG revolution in f/x.
James Cameron recalls working side-by-side on set with Knoll to create the pseudopod for “The Abyss.” “It was the first time a soft-surfaced CG character was ever used in a motion picture,” says Cameron, “so it was very groundbreaking work. But (Knoll had) this calm and methodical approach, and of course I relate to that well.” Many years later, he reunited with Knoll when ILM helped finish “Avatar.” “I felt we were going to be in good hands, and that proved to be the case.”
Lynwen Brennan, who runs ILM alongside Knoll, has heard such praise before. She calls him “an incredible collaborator with directors. He always puts their vision first. No challenge is impossible for him. He has an almost kid-like enthusiasm for what they bring to him.”
But his first big studio assignment as vfx supervisor, “Hudson Hawk”, proved a dud, and that set him back. “It’s harder to get your second picture than it is to get your first one,” he muses. His friend, helmer Patrick Read Johnson, rescued him from career purgatory and put him on “Baby’s Day Out.” Next he was offered “Star Trek: Generations.” “I said ‘Oh yeah! “Star Trek”! Sign me up!,” says Knoll.
From there his star rose fast. He was supervisor on the first “Mission: Impossible” and “Star Trek: First Contact”. Then followed the “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” — a sink-or-swim experience. “We got thrown all of these unsolved problems that had never really been dealt with in the industry and it was a little terrifying,” he recounts. “But boy, I thought that ‘if I survive ‘Episode I,’ if I can get through this and bring this to a successful conclusion, nothing is ever going to faze me again.’ ” To this day, in fact, Knoll is famous for his calm demeanor. In between the “Star Wars” movies there were the “Pirates pics” and an Academy Award.
Knoll, though, says there are a couple of areas where sharp-eyed auds may spot his creative stamp. “Having been a cameraman, I think about ‘Well, if this was real, how would this be shot?’ I try to inject as much realism as much as possible.
“Also, after growing up in a scientific household, I care about getting the physics right. I think that audiences can see it too, even if they can’t necessarily point to the thing that’s wrong, something just looks wrong about that. You have to do what the story demands, but inside of those constraints I try to inject as much realistic physics as I’m allowed to.”
Still, Brennan observes “(Knoll) has this brain of a rocket scientist and yet he has zero ego. That’s one of the things I find so wonderful.” She’s not alone. Brad Bird, who worked with him most recently on “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol,” says, “You can tell you’re with somebody who’s extraordinarily smart but he’s got a sort of self-effacing, soft tone that makes him easy to hang around with it.”
For Knoll, that’s just a matter of how he sees his role. “I certainly have opinions about things but we’re a service organization. Our job is to try and realize the director’s vision.”
He’ll offer ideas to directors who aren’t sure what they want, “but if the director really has something they’re going for my job is to understand that and make it happen for them.”