TyRuben Ellingson has worked as a concept designer and visual effects artist for the Hollywood film industry for over 20 years. His work can be seen in blockbuster movies like “Avatar,” “Jurassic Park,” “Hellboy,” “Men in Black,” “Star Wars,” “Pacific Rim” and “Elysium.” The Minnesota native said he has always had an interest in teaching. He joined VCU’s Communication Arts department this summer as a full-time professor.
The CT sat down with Ellingson for a one-on-one interview about his stint in Hollywood, his future as a professor and what kind of homework his students can expect.
The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.
CT: How did you get into concept design?
TE: So my father was a printmaker, so I grew up with a studio in the house that not only had drawing capabilities, but he actually had working presses so he could do lithography in the basement, but I never was that interested in printmaking, so I didn’t gravitate towards it … I just went to school like everyone does and I started to have a real interest in drawing … I was very inspired by the Star Wars trilogy and I kept thinking those guys who do the effects do a lot of the same things I do to draw and make models and so forth, so I was thinking ‘Wow, I don’t know that much about film but maybe I can find my way through visual effects’ … After I got my M.F.A. I decided, ‘Man, I got to take a shot a Hollywood’ so I networked my way through until I found people who could possibly bring my portfolio into Industrial Light Magical and in 1989 I was able to convince them to interview me and then I flew out there and had a good interview and then I just moved, so that was my beginning in film.
CT: Throughout your career, you’ve worked on quite a few Hollywood productions … What was your experience working in productions with the likes of James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas?
TE: The thing that’s interesting about me is that when I arrived at Industrial Light Magic, they were just transitioning from the methodology of special effects creation that had really been, kind of, not changed much since the “Star Wars” and some of the camera systems that they had first designed and built for doing the “Star Wars” films were still being used and most of the visual effects were being created with models that were plastic, like real physical models, and glass paintings, which are map paintings on pieces of glass …. It was all being done in a very mechanical universe, almost like real nuts and bolts stuff.
So “Jurassic Park,” when it came out, and regardless of when anyone has seen the film, it transcended visual effects …. They (people) just were blown away by it and it was palatable. It was like literally out of nowhere, this movie showed up with these giant dinosaurs, realized with such believability that people just didn’t know what to think …. “Jurassic Park” was made by about 45 people, as far as the digital stuff goes, that’s a pretty small group, so to have hands on experience with that kind of small, really one of a kind facility, it gave me a very informed understanding of digital visual effects … I did “Jurassic Park,” then “The Flintstones,” then a movie called “Disclosure” that has Michael Douglas that was directed by Barry Levinson …. And then I went on to do the re-release of “Star Wars,” so that was when George went back and added stuff and I did the designs, so in a number of cases because of the role I played, which was visual effects and art director, I was sort of involved in the very smallest group of doing the visual effects inside of ILM, so I did get to meet with directors like Steven (Spielberg) who I met on “The Flintstones” because he was executive producing it, George (Lucas) I had met earlier in my career and he of course was doing the “Star Wars” films…
I was always looking out for new projects and ways to introduce myself, I met James (Cameron) when he was working on “Terminator 2,” at the end of that film I actually got a chance to work with him on a television commercial, so over the years between the time that I left ILM and the time when I began to work on “Avatar,” I’d occasionally bump into James either in professional circles or actually on a plane a couple of times and I’d always say ‘I’m ready to go on your next project, don’t forget to give me a call’. He actually called me in 2002 about a project that is still in development other than “Avatar” that’s called “Battle Angel” … so when he was getting ready to do “Avatar” he reached out to me and that’s how I got started.
With “Avatar,” I was brought in specifically to do the vehicles … I was the only vehicle designer, so with the exception of two spacecrafts, all the mining equipment, all the ground vehicles, all the air vehicles and the amp suit were all designed by myself and James … I just think that the technology of “Avatar,” most people are not totally able to appreciate how groundbreaking it is. As big as “Jurassic” was in my mind, technically “Avatar” is ten-fold, a hundred-fold if not, and I just loved having so much of my works appear on screen and I love the story.
CT: How did you get started teaching?
TE: Like I mentioned, my father was great role model for me and he was a university professor and taught printmaking and taught in the fine arts department … I loved the university … and I loved to learn. When I was looking at job opportunities for the future I really thought teaching might be great for me, so I actually did a little bit of teaching when I was doing my undergraduate work … but once I got out to California I did try to speak after “Jurassic.” I realized how much I felt that the more I learned I could actually assist some people that are students or younger and want to get into the entertainment industry …
It took a while for me to wrap my hands around the opportunity but then around the first part of the year in January I really focused on it and I’ve kind of seen it as the next evolution of myself, the next chapter of my story … It sounds corny sometimes, but I’m really here to give to the students and hopefully provide them with some resources to evolve into the future, especially with all this fast-paced technological change that’s on the horizon. I feel like I witnessed that in visual effects, I was there in the beginning from the tools that really relied on this whole sphere of physicality, from models to miniatures and cameras and things now in the digital realm. It’s called a seamless integrated universe and I saw that happen in about 15 years and I think that’s where all of our lives are headed, so I feel I have a pretty good voice that I’m excited to share.
CT: What can students who take your Concept Design class expect to learn?
TE: Well what I’m trying to do is, the class as it stands right now is called Concept Drawing but I’m trying to reposition it as Concept Design. Concept Design, to me, is a form of design that serves a larger universe … Design is informed by the outside looking in, it’s not a manifestation of your own fancy or your own creative longings, so it has a specific niche. And what I’m trying to do is position the conversation around these fundamental ideas of what conceptual design is. So the students, right now, who are in my class this first semester are spending are pretty good deal of time talking about what is the nature of conceptual design, how do we define it, how do we think about it … I have come up with this idea I call the buoyancy tool set, so what I have in me is a buoyant tool set, it floats on the top of change, like a bobber in the water, it has buoyancy, and the tool set is something that is flexible enough so that my problem-solving skills move with me through time and space as I go from place to place. I’ve defined that buoyant tool set as being about four different components … and that’s the foundation of my classes, just to try to talk about and then find the nature of the buoyant tool set and what it is the students are hoping to do in the future …. The buoyant tool set boils down to these four things; number one the acquisition of skills … the second one is the most important, the illumination fortification in the advancement of interior methods … the next one is very simple, it’s the amplification of confidence … and the last is the incubation of opportunity … My primary foundational concepts, or my own personal buoyancy, is to bring the idea of the buoyancy tool set to others, to help them figure out what it is and how to keep it moving.
CT: Do you plan to work on any films in the future or do you plan on just teaching or both?
TE: Well, VCU is really a research school, which was another attractive aspect of the university, is that they put a lot of emphasis on personal research so I’m going to make a very robust effort to stay active in the film community. I think with the ability to work remotely I’ll be able to continue to do design work on films from here, if there’s a project that demands me being in Los Angeles, I’ve already talk to the chair and as long as we can look ahead at the schedule and maybe if it’ll time out right I think there’s an opportunity for me to do some work in the summer for sure, or maybe between semesters or maybe in the future even to take a leave of absence or something if the project warrants it. But what that being said, my commitment that this point in time is to really dive in head first into the education of students and to really put that as my number one priority.